Williams keeps eye on future

Frank Williams is adamant that he is not in the nostalgia business. "What matters is today or tomorrow,'' says the man and founding principal behind the Williams Grand Prix team.

SARAH EDWORTHY

Frank Williams, the BMW-Williams F-1 team chief, sits next to one of his Formula One cars, with the new NiQuitin sponsorship on the car's bonnet, during the unveiling of the sponsorship by the GlaxoSmithKline in London. — Pic. AP-

Frank Williams is adamant that he is not in the nostalgia business. "What matters is today or tomorrow,'' says the man and founding principal behind the Williams Grand Prix team. "The dictum that one is only as good as one's last race is uniquely true in Formula One. It's been a number of years since we won the championship — I know the number but it's too painful to mention — and every year that goes by the gap inexorably widens.''

Be that as it may, the Team Williams celebrate their silver jubilee this season — and have reason to revel in the memories of their seven drivers' championships (won by Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve), 108 Grand Prix victories and nine constructors' championships.

Williams flew off to Brazil "looking forward to the fight,'' and to seeing his charismatic charges, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, strive to build on the promise shown so far by the new car in the sort of exciting race habitually conjured by the Interlagos circuit and its long "man-size'' straight.

"We've made quite a lot of improvements, we believe, to our cars since the last race, a little bit here, a little bit there, it all adds up to a useful amount. I can't predict how much, but we will be more competitive than in the first two races,'' Williams said.

If Montoya's fate in Malaysia was frustrating, given his loss of the rear wing in the chaotic opening lap, you would think Schumacher Jr's admission that he is struggling with the new format of single-lap qualifying must furrow the Williams brow.

"I'm not sure that is the case or not. Ralf's got this nonsense in one of the German scandal papers about being gay and his wife going off with other blokes. I don't think there's any truth in it at all, but it's on his mind. He says it's not, but he'd say that anyway. If I said, `Is there something on your mind?,' he was not about to break down in tears, wait for me to put my arm around his shoulder and say, `Come come, talk to Frankie boy.' It's a man's world.''

It certainly is. In the book published to coincide with team's milestone, Twenty-five Years of Williams F1: The Authorised Photographic Biography, a caption reveals that Williams's partner, Patrick Head, once admitted that the experience of working with Alan Jones, the tough and ambitious Australian driver who signed for the team at the start of the 1978 season, effectively shaped his attitude towards Formula One in the future.

"Alan was a man's man and I can understand why he appealed to Patrick, as he did to me — he was very straightforward, determined, and he had a ruthless streak in him when it came to his competitors,'' Williams said.

"He had the necessary skills to make him a world champion. I'm not saying he was the very best driver that we ever had, but his character was very complete as a racing driver. He had no important weakness in the complexion you need to be a racing driver.''

A "Williams driver'' has now become part of paddock vernacular, referring not necessarily to a driver under contract to the team but one who has the aforementioned characteristics — which Frank is happy to elaborate on. "They are characters that are strong internally and externally, get in, get on with the programme and deliver. And don't make a fuss while doing it.''

The commemorative book tells the 25-year story with fulsome captions brimming with fascinating detail: a picture of Williams running with Jones comes with the fact that, before the accident in 1986 that put him in a wheelchair, Frank would run six-minute miles over great distances. There is Ken Tyrrell, in a Goodyear cap, who had left his own team's pit at Silverstone to join in the wild salute to Williams's first race victory delivered by Clay Regazzoni. And Rosberg in fluorescent yellow branded overalls "regarded at the time as terribly extrovert and offensive to the sensibilities of F-1 traditionalists.''

The collage offers little glimpses of another era — Williams sitting on the pitlane wall in a picnic chair; Rosberg chain-smoking all the way on to the grid. To read this team history is to realise how very British the Williams team are, and how for many fans the recent history of Formula One is generally interpreted through the events surrounding the Williams team. Mansell's reputation was probably exaggerated thanks to his acrimonious partnership with Piquet ("They had no time for each other whatsoever. In fact there was pretty intense dislike on either side I think . . . it was not anticipated and maybe I wasn't tough enough about it at the time, but they couldn't help themselves.'')

Ditto Michael Schumacher's ambition after that controversial championship-winning incident with Hill in Adelaide. There were the dramatically won laurels for Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, both imbued in the romance of racing through their fathers' achievements. The horrendous tragedy that befell Ayrton Senna in only his third race in his long-dreamt of Williams drive. The chirpy debut season of Jenson Button, followed by the arrival of Montoya, the so-called "Colombian firecracker'' at whose very mention the team principal thrills. "He's a great character, a great character,'' Williams repeats with admiration.

"We've had our trials and tribulations with one or two of these individuals along the way, but a man who wins a world championship, let's take Alain Prost, you might say not explicitly a Williams driver, but he was a wonderfully skilled driver, highly intelligent with his racing and self-preparation. He won that championship (1993) masterfully. He won it at the lowest possible speed he could get away with and at the least possible risk to himself. It was frustrating once or twice at races, but the bottom line is he just handsomely won the title, which is why we asked him to get in the car in the first place.''

You never stop learning, from putting assets in your experience bank. That is the only way Williams cares to look to the past. Surely he feels some sort of collective pride in what he and his dedicated workforce have achieved. "Not really, because I think that would be self-indulgent,'' he answers bluntly.

Was there a moment when he suddenly realised the team he and Head had created had become one of leading players in the sport? "You sort of realise it, but you equally realise how precarious the whole thing is. It is, like any international sport, very competitive and everyone else in it is trying to pull you down. And, once they have you, they try to trample you into the ground. That's the nature of competition.''

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003