Williams: A Comedy of Manners
by Natasha Kholiavko

Frank Williams... The face, just visible above a row of monitors, eyes firmly fixed staring ahead, never smiling, never showing any emotion. This is the picture millions of people see on their TV screens sixteen times a year. This is the picture that lead to believe Frank Williams is a hard, dispassionate person. But one thing is certain, - he is passionate about Formula One racing, he is passionate about creating a winning F1 car and a winning F1 team and he has been guiding his team, - Williams Grand Prix Engineering, - to many World Championships and Grand Prix wins. Splendid team, splendid car and a whole line of splendid drivers - Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost... Each of them had brought the World title to Williams. But none of them had had a happy chance to remain in the team for the next season after the victory. Now it seems to becomes a regular phenomenon, - if Damon Hill who is expected to win the title this year does it October 13, he will be the fourth Williams' World Champion which leaves the team right off the podium, carrying away his Champion crown and the coveted "#1"...

"It was a shock,"- in this manner Damon has commented the news he is not signed on for next year. - "I feel like I've been to Mars and back in the last ten days, there has been so much to-ing and fro-ing".

Just one little remark: I am not intending to defend one side or accuse the other. As to speculation as to whether Damon Hill deserves to drive in a winning car or not, - this is not the right time and place to talk about all this. Nevertheless, faithfully respecting Damon and sympathizing with his feelings, I would dare to doubt the sincerity of his surprise with the very fact that he is ditched by Williams. Cut the comedy, Damon.

The world is ever full of rumours and hearsay. And usually there is some grain of truth in every rumour, - there is no smoke without fire. The Formula One world is not exception.

One thing surely deserves to be named as "The Number One Rule of Formula One": if any F1 influential official person makes every effort in refuting and denying some circulating rumour, it usually would be accepted for certain that this very rumour is the truth pure and simple. It has become a peculiar signal, almost an omen.

One may remember, that Ron Dennis in his time was very persuasive in demonstrating that McLaren is by no means going to break off their contract with Peugeot... Last autumn Luca di Montezemolo looked absolutely "surprised" at propagated rumours about negotiations with Michael Schumacher... The outcome of these "rumours" are well known, therefore the Frank Williams' words said in the middle of July: "Damon is proving to be a truly great driver, and I want him to stay with us" (16.07.96, Daily Mirror) appeared to be the next omen. This speech caused all, more or less, penetrating minds related to Formula One, to put two and two together and take a suspicious and alert position looking at Damon's near future. Obviously, Damon himself must have been the first among them to do so. But Damon thought his fate over in his own manner: "I always thought the reward for winning races should be the opportunity to drive the best equipment. I thought winning the championship would put me in a good negotiating position for the end of the season". Is that so? Probably. But in reality once more a rumour has been successfully embodied, - Jacques Villeneuve will be partnered with Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Williams in 1997, while Damon Hill- "I've an opportunity now to explore other teams." The current World Championship leader showed a mixture of bitter humour and vivid disappointment that he made no effort to hide.

So why does Frank Williams have his World Champions (I dare to run in advance counting Damon Hill will become one of them) swept out of the house so straightforwardly? The Williams team boss is not a good subject for interviewing, appearing amazingly skillful to evade slippery questions. He did not want to say why Damon Hill is not signed on for next year, but Iron Frank has found himself able to touch strings of any soul by his public speech which would sound perfectly in place at, - forgive me the comparison! - a funeral: "Damon has contributed greatly to the team.(...) He will be missed by everyone at our Grove factory and we all wish him the best of luck for the remainder of this year, as well as the future". (Do you feel a lump in your throat?) Needless to say, never would you find more refined cynicism than in a manner of the far-famed Patron bidding his farewell to the driver who for years did his damnedest demonstrating advantages of an unbeatable Williams car, dealing with technical matters almost better than all the rest of the drivers and collected dozens of precious championship' points for the team. Now Damon is provided with the last sacramental words for the future, which does not actually look awfully bright, - with no wide-opened doors at the top teams.

What is done cannot be undone.

Frank Williams undoubtedly has a strong motive that determined such a decision and he is unlikely to regret it. The same way he never regretted losing Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. Another man's mind is a closed book, - we cannot read it. However, we can build up our ideas in order to comprehend the rules of the game played in the Williams' manner.

Damon Hill knows the reasons of his retirement from Williams. But, in his own words, he cannot allow himself to make them public. One thing is clear - the matter has no financial side. Indeed, Mr Williams doesn't like to administer his pilots with generous honorariums, - as it said, not by money alone! But in this case we have to refute the banal financial reason as worthless and put our eyes at two another, which seem the most probable.

One of them is well known and well visible from the team's point of view - thinking about the future. Just like Benetton, Williams faces the necessity of looking for a new engine supplier to replace the departing Renault. Taking into consideration Flavio Briatore's warm relationship with Japanese manufacturers, it may be supposed with a high degree of probability that Benetton has its engine supply problem solved already and the 10 cylinders of Honda is almost in the hands of Flavio Briatore. (allow an ever so small remark: remembering "F1 Rule Number One" multiplied by enigmatic Briatore' nature, we shouldn't wonder seeing a Benetton car performing in 1998 with ... Ferrari engine.) Whatever happens, Honda is scarcely a proper partner for Williams in spite of such speculation that has been circulating around.

It worth to remember the last time when Honda was dealing with Williams, - the failure of 1986 when both Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell missed the World Champion's title in favour of Alain Prost; the tragic accident with Frank Williams that was one of the reasons Honda took their engine from the team to McLaren at the end of 1987, believing Williams would flounder doing without Frank' leadership. On the whole, there is no fundament for a successful business relationship between two companies.

As a matter of fact, the most likely engine for Williams would be the ever developing Peugeot, which is nearly the most powerful engine at present Formula One. Reality shows that Eddie Jordan intends to retain Peugeot in his team at whatever costs, as well as McLaren is not nearly willing to present its Mercedes to anybody. But whether Mercedes itself is satisfied by performance of the cars decorated with its famous emblem? If the German manufacturers are offered to link to the Number One team among the top, - certainly Williams is such a team today, - their reaction will hard to predict. Apart from all this, Mercedes maybe concerned with such an important motive that there is no German racer backed up by their three-rayed star! And in this case Frank Williams does that very standard move, using all rich experience and acting in the traditional F1 manner - he invites the German driver Heinz- Harald Frentzen. So, even if it does not managed to gain the Mercedes star, there will be a great chance to decorate a Williams' nose with the white-blue BMW logo. The Bavarian concern is just arising again at the Formula One horizon and its real intentions and terms of World Championship challenging remain vague so far. And in both cases Heinz-Harald Frentzen appears to be represented as an alluring figure and attractive bait as for Mercedes and as such for BMW.

So it was that the leader of the 1996 World Championship has found himself in a role of a pawn to be sacrificed for future successes in the strategic game with manufacturers...

There is one other aspect of Frank Williams' decision and it is the most powerful one which reflects in full measure a style of the Williams team. This aspect is psychological.

Many pilots have driven Williams over the past twenty years. Some stayed with the team for many years, such as Ricardo Patrese, while a number of others only completed just one race. Anyway the real stars have never remained there for long, - we mean those well-known names had been mentioned above. One after another Mansell and Prost, as well as Piquet before, were ditched together with their World Champion' crowns, and doors were opened for each of them in the same not very beautiful manner.

Why was Nigel Mansell going away after winning the 1992 Championship? He had been caught unaware that Alain Prost would be his team mate under contract at Williams for 1993, - an announcement was made at the 1992 Portuguese Grand Prix. Williams' intention was to have Prost and Mansell as its line-up for 1993, but Mansell, who fairly objected to losing his number one status, had reacted by switching to IndyCar. Alain Prost was to find himself in the same situation just twelve months later when Ayrton Senna was employed for the 1994 season. Prost had preferred not to stay on for the next season, which would have meant having Senna as his team mate. In his row he had reacted by retirement from participating in F1 championship at all. Yes, Frank Williams doesn't like if glory of his famous cars appears to be obscured by that of somebody else.

Each win must be Williams, not a driver - the only impression that must occur to minds all over the world. Frank Williams prefers to put into his car some test-pilot, or some rookie, or some hot looking perspective but not very successful racer. If a one is lucky to drive good, it confirms once again the majestic idea of the superior car named Williams. This Idea-fix is a sheer core of the managing style at Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd.; this Idea caused Damon Hill' bitterest frustration in his the most important year of his F1 career; this Idea reflects and regulates all relationships with drivers, - whether one become a F1 star or was almost so, - they all are ever treated in this traditional Williams manner.

Remembering another quotation from Mr Williams: "The nightmare is to picture Michael (Schumacher) in a car next season that is as competitive as the Williams.(...) It's not on the agenda, but of course I would like to see Schumacher in a Williams". Pay attention to this last sentence, - it means that while the great Williams Idea is alive the best Formula One driver named Michael Schumacher will NEVER press the pedal of the best Formula One car named Williams...

There is much worthy for Jacques Villeneuve to consider too. Just let us hope Jacques is valiant enough and tactful enough to stir this unshakable "engineering" Williams style by probably brining into it some new paints of humanity.

* * *
Epilogue: One will never find a more honored sign in Formula One than the "#1" on a car's body. The "#1" is carried by a current World Champion. An engine manufacturer, which helped him to win this title, has fair rights to share the advertising dividends have being gained by "#1" throughout the all next season. But there is one ill-fated aspect here - if the World Champion leaves a team, manufacturers automatically lose their rights to take glory and profits from using this gloried number.

This is Renault who has a bad luck to always suffer from it. Undoubtedly the company has been experiencing one of the greatest pages in F1 history and needless to say its engines are the best now. But no one Renault' car carries this coveted "#1"!

1992:The World Champion becomes Nigel Mansell (Williams/Renault). He moves in IndyCar and the next season Hill and Prost use the numbers "#0" and "#2".

1993:The World Champion becomes Alain Prost (Williams/Renault). He retires. The situation with numbers stays the same.

1995:The World Champion becomes Michael Schumacher (Benetton/Renault). He moves in Ferrari, carrying the "#1" with himself.

1996:The chances for Damon Hill (Williams/Renault) to be the World Champion are so high. But Williams ditched him. Renault is losing "#1" again!

1997:Even if any of pilots performing for Williams/Renault or Benetton/Renault becomes the World Champion, Renault will not have this dreamed "#1". Because there is no Renault in Formula One in 1998...

Therefore it seems that Renault appears as the only real support for Damon at this very moment, and I rather like to bring the last situation into this page - the current World Championship leader, who has achieved all his Grand Prix wins with Renault engine, said on occasion of an announcement of the famous manufacturer quitting F1: "I have worked with them for six years so I'm saddened that they are leaving. But all things change and I appreciate their reasons. I'm footloose and fancy-free at the end of the season and the decision may have some bearing on my future". (21.06.96 - Independent)

Naturally a few last words said three months ago sound like very prophecy now. With support of Renault it was considering so that appeared a plan to recommend Damon Hill to Benetton, in spite of both Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger have their contracts confirmed for 1997. But Flavio Briatore must not forget Renault had led Benetton to its remarkable victories in 1995, - The Beauty of a debt is its repayment. So why doesn't Flavio Briatore to prepare three competitive F1 cars at Benetton, - and one of them for Damon Hill?

Do the best on 13 October, Damon!

Natasha Kholiavko
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