I remember the day it happened. Struggling out of bed after a somewhat rowdy night, loading up Atlas News... there it was. Michael Breen, Damon Hill's lawyer, had announced that the talks with Williams were terminated and Hill would be looking elsewhere for a drive in 1997. Most interesting was the announcement that the reason for the termination of Hill was not money related. Shortly after, the predictable occurred.
"Frank hates his drivers! Heís dumped Piquet, Mansell, Prost and now Hill!!," graced the majority of the world dailies. Not completely surprising is the almost logical analysis of what has happened. On reflection, and after much deep thought, my mind has been made up. The firing of Hill was the most logical decision on the part of Frank Williams -- as were the previous sackings by the Williams team.
First off, lets separate Piquet from the rest of the bunch. Including him in this grouping is quite a mistake. Piquet left Williams. And, he left them at the right time. In 1987, Williams-Honda won both the driversí and constructorsí World Championships, but it also signaled the end of their partnership with Honda. The Japanese manufacturer moved to McLaren, and Piquet renewed his relationship with Honda at Lotus. By the end of the season, the reasoning was quite clear: Williams-Judd scored only 20 points the whole season -- Piquet had amassed 22 on his own for Lotus. A good achievement in the season defined by the McLaren-Honda dominance.
The three that remain, however, all share the one common factor in their "release" from Williams.
Frank Williams is without a doubt the genius that has put together the most successful team of the last 5 years. Frank Williams quest is a superior balance of perfection with the best chassis, engine and driver.
I know what you are thinking: "Best driver?" You only have to look at the folly Williams was in when they built themselves around Patrese and Boutsen in the early 1990ís. The package never fired. Mansell was brought in for 1991-92, claiming the World Championship title in 1992. Then things changed.
Alain Prost (at the time) with 3 World Championships to his name (and the driver who had beaten Mansell quite clearly in 1990) joined Williams. In this company, Mansell was not a necessary requirement for the team and his proposed fee for 1993 was summarily lowered. Mansell chose, of his own free will, not to remain at Williams, probably sensing that his value would be again lowered by Prost (who was the quicker of the two).
Come late 1993, and deja-vu. Prost learned that Williams were negotiating with Ayrton Senna for a drive in 1994. There is no doubt that Senna was the faster of the two. Again, Williams were on the look for the best talent to take them to new heights. As we know, Prost chose not to race in 1994 next to Senna. Unfortunately, due to the fateful Imola race of 1994, these heights were never realised.
The common link between both Prost and Mansell is they were replaced with drivers better then themselves.
Damon Hill: 67 GPís, 20 poles, 21 Wins, 326 total points.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen: 48 GPís, 0 poles, 1 Podium, 29 total points.
Can Frank Williams really be hiring a driver with this record as the person to surpass Hill and lead Williams forward?
Why was Hill "shown the door" anyway? Well, I put it down to two distinct factors.
Words will probably not describe how Frank Williams felt about the disaster of 1995. Williams had already decided to replace David Coulthard with Jacques Villeneuve. Most likely, the prospect of two new drivers for 1996 looked rather undesirable. Looking at Benetton this year, it seems somewhat justified.
Hill was retained for 1996 and has performed well. Aside from some minor blips in Spain and Monza, his season has been fairly impressive. I for one, was expecting him to be retained.
While this was occurring, I suspect I was not the only one to be watching out further down the grid. The showdown was on between Coulthard and Hakkinen. Coulthard was, without a doubt, the quicker of the two Williams drivers by the end of 1995. Yet, he was, on average, 2 places and 0.25 of a second slower than Hakkinen. I donít doubt that this called a question in Frank Williams mind given the outright pace of his chosen drivers. The time was right for change.
"Quicker than Schumacher in F3 and Group C" is said of Frentzen. In itself, it is a worthy compliment, but not exactly the credentials on which to hire a driver. The answer would appear to be a little closer to the heart of Williams. In a word: Boullion.
Jean-Christophe Boullion, the official Williams-Renault test driver, won the 1994 F3000 title and was spoken about as the next "French Hope: a driver in the Prost mold". After 11 GPís for Sauber, opposite Frentzen, his chances for a drive again are only likely if a Williams driver suffered injury or ban.
In the 11 Grands Prix that Frentzen and Boullion met, the closest Boullion ever managed to qualify was 0.2 of a second in the rain affected chaos of Spa 1995 when both Saubers outqualified Schumacher. The average gap over the 11 GPs was slightly over 1 second in Frentzenís favour.
The story of Boullionís testing for Williams reads slightly different. The gap between Boullion and the Hill/Coulthard/Villeneuve combo has been minimal at best. Some choose to say that this is 'just testing', but, if anyone is in a position to evaluate these times, it is Frank Williams and Patrick Head... and they have made their choice.
Next year, we get to see just how wise it was. Finally, one of the other highly rated talents of F1 gets his opportunity to stake his claim. The prize at stake? The 1997 World Drivers Championship. It has the makings of a classic already.