GRR

Williams at 40, part 2: Frank’s champions of choice

18th June 2017
Maurice Hammilton

Of the 17 different winners of the World Championship since 1980, 10 of them have raced for Williams. No other team in the same period comes close.

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That says two things: Williams is a team you want to drive for but, when the moment has passed, you move on. Or, in some cases, you get moved on.

Sentiment has never ranked high in the Williams way of doing things. That is not a criticism; more a reflection of the sense of realism that pervades a team totally intent on winning. Yes, there is a great deal of mutual affection – but it mustn’t interfere with the Williams raison d’être clearly signposted by seven drivers’ World Titles and nine Constructors’ Championships.

The Williams team started out 40 years ago as they meant to continue, the choice of their first driver forming a no-nonsense profile for most of the selections that followed. In 1977, Frank Williams wanted a driver who was skilled and hungry, one who would blend with a small team free from ego and determined to grow big. Alan Jones fitted the bill perfectly.

Jones had struggled to make his way through the junior formulae, grabbing opportunities when they arose and wringing them dry. When Shadow, a middle-of-the-grid team, urgently needed a substitute following a fatal accident to Welshman Tom Pryce early in the 1977 season, they chose Jones. The Australian rewarded Shadow with an unexpected victory later that year by making the most of changing conditions during a wet Austrian Grand Prix. 

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In the same race, Frank had entered a March, pending the arrival of the first proper Williams car in 1978. This interim machine, driven by Patrick Neve, had come home ninth, one lap down in one of the young Belgian driver’s few finishes that year.

It was hardly surprising when some of the established stars did not even return Frank’s calls enquiring about their services for the following season. Almost as an afterthought, Williams invited Jones to visit the workshop and take a look at the team’s plans for 1978. Both sides instantly liked what they saw.

“Jonesy was perfect for us,” recalls Frank. “He had massive self-confidence; aggressive as they come. We were all roughly the same age, and with the same ambition. He and Patrick [Head, Frank’s partner and technical director] got on well; they understood each other.”

That understanding would extract the most from the workmanlike cars, Jones taking his first win for Frank in 1979 to start a sequence of victories that had the combination nicely poised for their first world championship the following year.

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The partnership sailed into 1981 but Frank was not impressed in September when Jones suddenly announced his intention to quit at the end of the season. It was a hard-nosed lesson in relationships that Frank would carry with him during subsequent negotiations with drivers.

In the meantime, the urgent aim was to find a replacement for Jones. Once again, Frank looked towards the back of the grid for a driver whose desire and promise had not been matched by the machinery at his disposal. He chose Keke Rosberg, a cocky little Finn who, thinking F1 was passing him by, jumped at the chance – and delivered. The 1982 season may have been utterly bizarre, underscored by Rosberg winning just one race, but it was enough to give Williams their second title.

Rosberg would stay for three more years and was joined by Nigel Mansell, a driver whose reputation at the time was scarcely flattering. Once again, however, Frank’s sharp intuition was proved correct as the Englishman now had the equipment to match his aggressive skill, Mansell and his Brazilian team-mate, Nelson Piquet, both coming within a whisker of winning the title in 1986.

Piquet pulled it off the following year but there would be a lull in competitiveness until Mansell’s return from a sojourn with Ferrari coincided with another gem of engineering from the Williams workshop. When he finally won the title in 1992, Mansell suddenly received a Williams reality check as Frank refused to meet his driver’s demands. 

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Nigel left to race in North America, his place being taken by Alain Prost, a former champion who unobtrusively went on to win the 1993 title and depart as quietly as he had arrived. Prost left on good terms because he knew what – or, to be precise, who – was coming next.

Frank’s unvarnished admiration of Ayrton Senna knew no bounds when it came to persuading the great Brazilian to join the team after six seasons with McLaren. It is to Frank’s eternal regret that the prized partnership never even came close to fruition thanks to Senna’s fatal accident during the third race of the 1994 season at Imola in Italy.

Despite this shocking setback, the team rallied round in the Williams tradition of quiet resolve, Damon Hill stepping up to the plate and almost winning the championship that year with brave performances that helped hold Williams together. 

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After a struggle in 1995, Hill and Williams carried all before them to win another championship – only for Damon to experience the now traditional handshake as he faced the alternative of either leaving or accepting less than his expected terms for 1997. Frank continued undaunted following Hill’s departure, Jacques Villeneuve stepping forward from the role of Number 2 to claim a seventh Driver’s Championship for the team.

It would be the last to date. But that is not to say that the Williams name has been absent from headlines and victories. Juan Pablo Montoya (challenging strongly for the championship in 2003) added his name to a roster of distinguished drivers including Clay Regazzoni, Carlos Reutemann, Riccardo Patrese, Thierry Boutsen, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Pastor Maldonado as contributors to 114 victories for Williams.

Sir Frank Williams may say he has no favourites but, as one former driver cheerfully mused: “You couldn’t help but feel that Frank and Patrick never quite forgave you for not being Alan Jones!”

Photography courtesy of LAT Images

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