1996: Hill hits the summit
Prost’s fourth title, Senna’s death at Imola in ’94, stoic Damon Hill stepping up to the plate, then Michael Schumacher nerfing him out of an Adelaide title decider… Williams was central to a dramatic, and at times traumatic, F1 narrative for most of the 1990s. But when Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari in ’96, Hill’s path was clear to deliver relatively untroubled titles for himself and the team – only for Damon to find out towards the end of the summer that he was losing his drive. Typical Williams.
In Frank’s defence, Hill didn’t play it too cleverly by driving poorly in 1995 and handling new-deal negotiations badly. He sent in his manager rather than handling it himself, and it backfired when Frank decided to hire Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his place for 1997. The 1996 season finale brought a lump to our throats – and Murray Walker’s – but for the third time in the decade, a Williams world champion would not defend his crown. Nothing was ever straightforward with this team.
The final titles followed in 1997, as Jacques Villeneuve made the most of Newey’s last Williams. Thereafter, the team moved on to BMW power in the new millennium, but the relationship had wilted and died by end the end of 2005. Ever since, the team has been a proud ‘indie’ operation, relying on customer engines and too often pay drivers to see it through. The team that once flew so high now has much in common with Tyrrell, Lotus and Brabham. The Williams name remains for now, but it won’t be the same without Frank – and as a private investment firm enters stage left, with no obvious connection to motor sport, you can’t help wondering how long it will be before another great name is left as nothing but a memory.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.