Almost 40 years to the day since the unveiling of the car that marked a new beginning for Williams, a feature in last Saturday’s Financial Times showed that the team has inevitably moved on and yet, in some ways, nothing has changed at all.
On 14 December 1977, a group of us gathered in a former carpet warehouse on a non-descript industrial estate in Oxfordshire. The small workshop with its white-painted walls was immaculate. As was the proprietor as a dapper Frank Williams beamed his winning smile, darted about the place and fussed over the FW06.
The simple but efficient car represented the work of Patrick Head, Frank’s new partner in an enterprise that was about to move Williams from debtor and dodger to one of the most consistent and revered F1 winners of the next two decades.
To do that, however, Frank needed cash. Which was why he became anxious as a helicopter clattered overhead and landed on a nearby football pitch. The arrival of top brass from Saudia Airlines marked the next and arguably most important stage of a courtship that had seen Williams work assiduously to break new sponsorship ground in the Middle East.
The location and unveiling may have been modest and delightfully informal but it helped achieve the desired effect all round. Saudia Williams would win races and championships within three years.
Given this original link with Saudia and Sir Frank’s continuing passion for aircraft, there has been an appropriate juxtaposition of news this week. On Monday, Williams Advanced Engineering and Airbus signed a Memorandum of Understanding to unite F1 technology and aerospace. It’s an impressive sign of the sophisticated expansion from the days of one machine tool and a couple of lathes in that Williams workshop in Didcot.
But the ultimate aim to fund the team’s racing remains exactly as it was; more so now that the current financial plan is one thousand times greater than the sum of Frank’s ambition 40 years ago. The problem, as the Financial Times explains, is exacerbated by Williams actually needing twice as much as this year’s £125 million (US$167 million) budget if they wish to get on terms with Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. Or, looking at it another way, the introduction of cost control as a means of reducing the fiscal arms race.
While that may be commendable in theory, Claire Williams, the deputy team principal at Williams F1, pursues the concept by stating that all teams do not “start from an equal balance sheet”.
This seems curious because her father ought to be the first to confirm that such a perfect world has never existed, particularly when recalling his anxious days in December 1977. And I doubt if he would have wanted it any other way, battling through adversity having made the subsequent championships – 12 in total – seem all the sweeter.
There’s a final contradiction relative to both today and 40 years ago. The newspaper article concludes with a reality check as Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe confirms that a team can’t win without a decent driver. “The best drivers still tend to win, so driving remains very important to success,” says Lowe.
The pushing back of the Williams 2018 driver announcement until January would appear to indicate the financial package has become more important than talent for Williams in its current state. It’s a topic that has generated considerable social comment, much of it reluctantly negative when summing up the position of a team that continues to attract a devoted and loyal following.
Back in 1977, the gamble seemed simpler. Williams may not have been able to afford an established star but, in Alan Jones, they recognised a winner (the Australian having recently scored an opportunist victory in the unfancied Shadow-Ford during a wet Austrian Grand Prix). He was of the same age and mind-set as Frank and Patrick. Both sides needed each other; the bond quickly became powerful and productive.
Today, the Williams/driver relationship seems more like a marriage of convenience rather than a union with an exciting future driven by raging ambition. Times do change, but not necessarily for the better.
A sad similarity between now and 1977 is that Williams is not highly rated going into a new season. But the hope for a turnaround burns as strongly as before, both inside and outside a team with such substantial history.