On a wet and windy Monday morning following the 2019 Japanese Grand Prix, I was sitting in the Williams Conference Centre at Grove waiting to meet Sir Frank Williams and his son Jonathan who heads up the Williams Heritage division.
Whilst I was quietly admiring the arrangement of ABK brewed, 50th Anniversary Frank Williams beer behind the Alan Jones Bar, somewhat ironic for someone who is tea total, Jonathan breezed in with a welcoming smile and handshake, breaking the ice with a joke about the bar being named after an Aussie.
Jonathan enquired where my affinity with Williams came from. I explained that my earliest memory of Formula One was from television, my Dad watching Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson racing in the black and gold Lotus during 1978, and him carefully assembling and painting Tamiya models of the Lotus 79 and Tyrrell P34.
My Dad worked for Mobil, a long-time sponsor of Williams, and towards the end of 1981, he brought home some marketing literature on the Saudia Leyland Grand Prix Team. I still have the slightly yellowed fliers to this day, with their photographs of Alan Jones, Carlos Reutemann and the FW07C.
This awareness of Williams and their link to Mobil occurred at the same time as we had our first video recorder. This meant that, as a 10-year-old school kid, I was able to record the BBC Grand Prix highlights programme that was traditionally shown far too late on a Sunday night for me to watch.
Thus, as the 1982 season kicked off, I began to watch Formula One properly and from the very first race I was hooked. With the family link with Mobil, Williams seemed the natural team to follow despite my Dad’s previous loyalty to Lotus (it didn’t take too much effort for me to get him to change his allegiance – something we always used to joke about).
Watching Keke Rosberg manhandle the Williams FW08 around the tracks on the way to his 1982 World Championship was mesmerising and he remains my hero to this day. I clearly remember Keke scoring his maiden victory at Dijon, on what was my 11th birthday. I still have the original VHS recording of BBC Grand Prix, together with Juan Carlos Ferrigno’s excellent print of the event which hangs pride of place on my study wall.
Jonathan appeared to love the fact that I held on to so much memorabilia from that period. I told him of all the Williams/Mobil items I had collected, including all the original race reports that were telexed (Younger readers will need to Google this) by Frank to Mobil after each race.
At this point Jonathan looked up out of the window over my shoulder, I turned to see Frank dashing from his office in the rain with two carers holding umbrellas above him. As Jonathan went to greet Frank at the entrance, I glanced down at my watch – my heartrate was 104 and rising…
Moments later Jonathan escorted Frank in, after a brief introduction I found myself seated around a small glass table with Jonathan to my right and Frank opposite. I apologised to Frank for bringing him out in such poor weather; he and Jonathan laughed that somewhere there would be an engineer wondering if the weather was too wet to get away with slicks!
Sat on the table were a couple of old photographs I had brought along. The first was of Frank and Keke together in the pits at the 1985 Monaco Grand Prix.
We began by trying to guess what they had been chatting about from the expression on their faces. It turned out that Nigel Mansell’s qualifying lap at that race had been set on nearly full tanks after a miscommunication in the pits had led to extra fuel being added rather than being removed from the car – yet Nigel still outqualified Keke by nearly a second.
At a time when most drivers wore standard black, blue or white race suits, I remarked that only Keke could get away with bright yellow overalls. Jonathan asked Frank what he thought of Keke’s choice of racewear to which he replied with a smile – “Ah, it landed us a long-term sponsor in ICI”.
Jonathan went on to recount a story of Keke in Monaco with long time Williams stalwart Charlie Crichton-Stuart. In the mid 1990’s, Charlie had gone to Monaco to visit Keke. They were in Keke’s apartment chatting about road cars when Keke asked Charlie about his favourite road cars. Charlie responded by saying that he had just seen some beautiful magazine press shots of the new Ferrari 355. Keke replied “I’ve got one, it’s downstairs in the garage under the apartments”. They go down to the garage and there’s a bright yellow Ferrari 355 and Keke suggests getting a coffee. They spend the next twenty minutes tearing around Monaco sideways with wheels spinning. After a while the next caffeine and nicotine fix was needed and Keke was like “Where do we park?”. He spotted a parking space down a street, but it was one-way – against him… No matter, he drove about 20 yards the wrong way down this one-way street and slammed the 355 into a parking space. Keke got out wearing his cowboy boots, Levi’s, baseball jacket, mirrored aviators and lit up a cigarette. As he was doing so, a policeman came up and said “Mr Rosberg, we do appreciate our famous residents but we do ask that you tone it down” To which Keke turned to Charlie and said “I hate it when people recognise me”. A shocked Charlie replied “what the hell do you mean, you hate it when people recognise you? Yellow 355, just look at you, like extra out of top gun!”
The three of us had a fantastic long chat about Keke and his time at Williams. Including the time he was conducting Honda engine testing with the FW09 at Brands Hatch in 1984 alongside Stefan Johansson in the Spirit. After a difficult season, Keke was trying to get out of his Williams contract to join Ferrari but Frank was having none of it. News filtered back to Frank that Keke had been circulating around 2 seconds off Johansson and 4 seconds off his usual pace. Frank dispatched team manager Peter Collins to Brands Hatch PDQ to tell Keke that he knew what he was up to…
Both Williams and Lord March have tried several times to get Keke to appear at Goodwood but have never been successful. It was Bernie Ecclestone who got Keke to do the 2010 F1 60th anniversary champions parade in Bahrain and Nico who persuaded him to do the Monaco 2018 demonstration run alongside him.
Prior to Nico Rosberg’s first test with Williams in 2002, a photoshoot was arranged with Nico and his Dad’s championship winning FW08 in the reception at Grove. Upon seeing the lack of safety protection particularly around the footwell, Nico concluded his Dad must have been mad to drive it and needed balls of steel.
Discussing Monaco, I lamented that despite long periods of domination, notably in partnership with Honda and Renault, Williams had only been victorious on 3 occasions. I always regarded Monte Carlo as a bit of a jinx or bogy circuit. They both agreed, with Jonathan recalling the number of occasions that Williams should have won: Jones in 81, Mansell in 87 and 92, Prost in 93, Hill in 96, Villeneuve and Frentzen in 97. I reminded them that Williams were one of the many teams that could have one the crazy Monaco GP in 1982 with Derek Daly – Jonathan recalled James Hunt’s legendary commentary: “Well, we’ve got this ridiculous situation where we’re all sitting by the start-finish line waiting for a winner to come past and we don’t seem to be getting one!”.
The eventual winner of that race, Riccardo Patrese, went on to race for Williams from 1987 until 1992, and he always impressed me as someone who never bad mouthed the team in public and was happy to endure endless days of testing to perfect the car. I always thought Patrese was under rated, to which Frank agreed, saying that Riccardo was a genuinely lovely guy. Jonathan recalled that Riccardo outqualified Nigel Mansell in the first seven races of 1991 – Nigel even swapped chassis with Riccardo to see if there was an issue with his FW14. Apparently, Riccardo had excellent throttle control, but this was negated in 1992 when traction control was introduced on FW14B.
Jonathan told me about watching Riccardo winning the 1992 Japanese GP alongside Patrick Head. While Frank was away with the team in Japan, Patrick had chosen to remain at the factory. At that time, many of the races were only shown live in the UK on Eurosport and the only TV with a satellite receiver was in Frank’s bedroom. That night Patrick had stayed over, and the alarm clocks set for the start of the race. However, that was also the weekend of the clocks going back and as a result everyone in the Williams household missed the first hour of the race. I chastised Jonathan for making such a schoolboy error and he told me that they just switched on in time to see Nigel Mansell suffer engine failure on lap 44. Needless to say, Patrick was not amused with the DNF but he was pleased to see Patrese take the win as he said it would be “a good boost for everyone at the factory as they all love Riccardo”.
We chatted about the 1989 race in Canada and Thierry Boutsen taking the first victory for Williams-Renault after a winless 1988. It was a victory that was remembered at Williams due to the very changeable weather conditions and Patrese staying out on wet tyres to hold onto second place.
This year Frank and Jonathan went on a fabulous road trip to Spa which, despite getting held up on the M25, they hope to repeat again next year. They are also looking to add Zandvoort to the list, which Jonathan recalled was the first place he witnessed a trackside victory when Alan Jones took the chequered flag for Williams in August 1979. Recalling the first race I saw was Mansell’s first win at Brands Hatch in October 1985, Jonathan remembered Frank going up onto the podium after that race to collect the winning constructor’s trophy.
Frank’s eyes were drawn to the Williams word map on the front of my t-shirt and we began picking out driver’s names. I told Frank that I had a plan to name all my children after Williams winning drivers – I wanted to call my first son Clay, then Alan, Carlos etc., but sadly my wife would have none of it and my son ended up being called Luke. Jonathan dismissed the rumour that his little brother Jamie’s young son was named after Ralf Schmacher, noting that he had spelt it the English way – Ralph.
The previous day Juan Pablo Montoya had secured the IMSA title at Petit Lemans and Williams had sent him a celebratory text message. It was Jonathan who introduced his Dad to Juan Pablo for the very first time and apparently, they both hit it off immediately. We agreed it was such a shame that Montoya missed out on the 2003 F1 title. I reminded them of the in-season change forced upon the design of the Michelin tyres by the Bridgestone runners, pushed by Ferrari.
I asked Frank if there were any drivers that he would have loved to get into a Williams. He explained that he would have loved to have Jochen Rindt drive for him. Frank’s face lit up when talking about Jochen and it was obvious how highly he regarded the Austrian’s abilities. I explained my regret at not seeing Jim Clark race. We spent time comparing the styles of Clark and Rindt with those of Prost and Senna. Smooth and effortless verses aggressive and attacking; one looks slow, the other on the edge, both equal on the stopwatch. We agreed that today’s fastest pairing would be Verstappen and Leclerc.
We discussed the split with Honda at the end of 1987, over them wanting Satoru Nakajima to partner Piquet at Williams for 1988 in place of Mansell.
Anyone who is aware of my passion for Formula One knows, I have a little(ish) sore point regarding Carlos Reutemann and his performance in Las Vegas in 1981, when the title slipped from his grasp despite qualifying on pole position – The one that got away!
Carlos suffered from severe tyre vibrations during the race which, exacerbated by the very stiffly sprung ground effect car, hampered the performance of his FW07C. Frank’s view of it was that Alan Jones should have wrapped up that championship long before Vegas.
Jonathan said that Peter Windsor had recently commented that it was a Williams problem because they had brought two spare cars that weekend instead of the usual one “Carlos had been bedding-in brake pads on race morning rather than sorting tyre diameters”. Frank quickly quipped that he didn’t want Peter welcomed to Grove again!
Carlos left Williams shortly into the 1982 season. His place at Long Beach was taken by the legendary Mario Andretti. When Mario arrived, he wanted to setup FW07D from scratch even though Williams had been running the car for 4 years and had scored a 1-2 the year before with AJ and Carlos. The short relationship wasn’t as harmonious as maybe it could have been.
We spoke about the aborted deal with Jean Alesi at the end of 1990, when Alesi signed contracts for both Williams and Ferrari. Eventually Jean chose to go to Ferrari and Frank received a 641 as part of the settlement.
Jean’s choice, based upon Ferrari’s performance in 1990, looked to be good but from 1991 onwards, Williams showed its superiority over the Maranello machinery and sadly Jean never had the equipment to challenge for a title. It was the same situation with Pastor Maldonado switching from Williams to Lotus, when Williams was on the accent and the performance of the Lotus dropped off,
The second photograph I brought along was a picture of various team principles sitting in a press conference. From those present in the photograph we concluded that it was probably taken following a FOCA meeting in 1980. It was amusing to see how young Max Mosely looked back then and the fact that Bernie Ecclestone still had dark hair. Frank’s face lit up when we spoke about Bernie, it was obvious that they have a great relationship, Frank commenting that over the years Bernie always looked after his friends.
I asked Frank which of the other team principles he most feared as a competitor. Of course, the answer was none, but he said that he had a great deal of respect for Ken Tyrrell and held him in high regard.
Teams have changed significantly since the turn of the century and Frank is the last remaining Owner/Team Principle. Ron Dennis has left McLaren and is now building a mega basement garage under his Wentworth home to house his collection of supercars, and teams like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are headed up by paid representatives of their respective organisations.
What makes Williams so special I asked. Apart from the successful history and the fact that Sir Frank is now the team principle who has overseen the most races, surpassing Enzo Ferrari, Williams is a family team who are in Formula One purely for the racing.
I suggested that Williams was an iconic British team, but was quickly corrected to the fact that the team was English. Jonathan said that he too had made the same error in front of Frank many years earlier and also received a reprimand.
Speaking of national identity, BMW had been at Grove that morning to collect the 1999 Le Mans winning V12 car that was designed and built by Williams and had be on display in the Williams Collection at Grove. Apparently, BMW were not keen on the car getting stuck outside the EU after Brexit.
We discussed the fantastic display of Williams cars in the collection and the challenges of adding new models each year to the finite space. Jonathan explained that they were now looking to remove some of the similar or duplicate cars to make more room for the newer models. I was going to suggest that I had a similar problem with my display of 1:43 models at home but decided better of it.
I noticed that the 1997 FW19 was no longer hanging from the ceiling in the entrance to the Conference Centre. I always hoped that it would be replaced by a newer Williams championship winning car. Jonathan explained that although it was liveried up as a Villeneuve car, it was in fact one of Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s.
I lamented a couple of unusual cars that are no longer on show. The FW11C Judd engine test mule was sold as part of the Reserve Collection auctioned by Bonham’s in 2005. The CVT version of the FW15C, although still owned by Williams, is on display in the DAF museum in Eindhoven.
The performance of the team this year was not discussed. We were all aware that Williams is not in the position that anyone wants it to be in and that every effort is being made to improve that situation. I did mention that I was a very small shareholder in Williams Grand Prix Holdings and that my investment had taken a little bit of a dive of late. I received an apology together with a promise that they were doing everything possible for me to recoup my investment and hopefully turn a profit.
We spoke about the revenue generated by Williams Heritage and their work with customer cars. LRS Formula in France run several Williams F1 cars as part of their driving experience programme. I explained that I had worked with LRS Formula as part of my Infiniti Ultimate Test Drive experience in Dubai 2015. On that occasion, I was driving an Infiniti liveried Prost AP04 chassis from 2001.
I asked Jonathan if he had ever had the chance to have a run in one of the cars. His only experience was a passenger ride in one of the Minardi two seaters with Mark Webber at the wheel.
While reminiscing about the old factory under the cooling towers at Didcot, I asked Frank what attracted him to the former pharmaceutical site that is now home to Williams. Frank said that he frequently drove through Grove when taking the long route to work and always remarked that it would make and ideal site for a Formula Once base. The move from Didcot back in 1996 was a complex operation, particularly relocating the giant wind tunnel which involved an overnight closure of the A34 and dismantling of the central reservation.
The last time I was at Grove was during a 150-mile charity walk (A Walk in the Fast Lane) from McLaren in Woking to Silverstone via each of the UK based Formula One teams. On that occasion, I was a little worse for wear. Frank was surprised how far we walked, even though he was an accomplished road runner himself. I mentioned that current Williams CIO, Graeme Hackland, was an active Park Runner and Frank suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that Jonathan might like to join him. From his reply, I’m not expecting Jonathan’s name to pop up on the finishing sheets any time soon.
Our brief get-together was only supposed to last twenty minutes but by this time we had been chatting for nearly an hour and Frank and Jonathan had to be elsewhere. After the obligatory photo together, we said our goodbyes and Frank made his way out of the Conference Centre. My final view of Frank was of him grinning widely as he was pushed back to his office at high speed through the rain sans umbrella – Still loving the speed.