By Damian Reilly
F1 legend Sir Frank Williams talks about the economics of speed, scandals & Schumi's comeback to the sport.
Sir Frank Williams has seen it all in F1. Here he talks openly about the economics of speed, Jean Todt, scandals and the prospect of Michael Schumacher making a comeback to the sport.
Sir Frank Williams hasn’t been media trained. Long may everything he touches prosper.
In these days of two-bit CEOs and egomaniacs glancing nervously at their communications man before trotting out the official line to killer questions like ‘any plans for the weekend?’, it is both wonderful and rare for a journalist to interview a genuinely impressive man who answers the question he has been asked.
On Michael Schumacher’s return to F1: “Not a chance. No.”
On ex-Ferrari-boss-turned-FIA president Jean Todt: “He was a very difficult character. Very hard to get on with.”
On former president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) Max Mosley: “Max is seriously unfairly clever.”
On having an independent team: “Being independent means lots of things, not just not having enough money.”
And on who is the fastest driver today: “Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel.”
Williams is wheeled into the room late. The gathered journalists had long ago turned restive. Most of us had had enough of the F1 hoopla a month ago, and waiting for Williams for the last ninety minutes was nobody’s idea of fun.
Within about thirty seconds of his arrival, his enormous personality has filled the room and we are all laughing at his jokes. His diction is immaculate, delivered with old world courtesy (he apologises to the ladies present after contending that men get “turned on” by racing), and his eyes are filled with mischief.
He’s a man’s man, and unapologetically so, but then you’d expect nothing less: he’s been the driving force behind the most illustrious independent team in the most testosterone filled of sports for four decades.
“Men are different from women, and for many men the noise, the thrill, the speed is just a magic turn on. Well it is. I don’t look in the shops and say ‘wow that is a pretty dress.’ We’re all different, thank goodness,” he says.
“To have a really competitive car you need a great engine, but more importantly, a great chassis. And the reason we were very successful in the late seventies and eighties, not every season, but most, and in the nineties, was that we then made superior chassis. And the Renault engine, and before that the Cosworth engine, were as good as anybody else’s at that time. More and more manufacturers have come in, not that there are that many, and they have brought with them very, very large budgets. Toyota and Mercedes and Honda are the best examples. And they have bought talent, not just the best drivers, but the best engineers,” he says.
He adds that it is in the chassis that the differences in teams respective budgets is most felt, because the chassis is where the aerodynamics are, and it is the science of air movement around the car that ultimately wins races.
There is however, a master of air movement, and from the praise Williams lavishes on him during our interview it is clear he sees him as the answer to his team’s woes.
He says: “There is a man who works in Formula One at the moment, he works for Red Bull, called Adrian Newey. When it comes to where the air goes around the car, he is a magician. He just understands it. He has a brilliant understanding of aerodynamics. He was with us for about eight years, and then McLaren pinched him for a great deal of money. Now he is getting even richer, but he deserves it, at Red Bull.
“I don’t know when his contract finishes. Everyone is dying to know. But the Red Bull man is spending a great deal of money, his own money, and I think he is happy there unfortunately,” he chuckles.
However the playing field has been affected by the influx of manufacturers with massive wallets, Williams believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. The economic conditions of today are making the sport a little rich for some car makers’ blood, and their possible departure from F1 should redress the balance in Williams’ favour.
“There is certainly one manufacturer going, and Honda has already gone. The next, we think, will be Toyota — although I don’t know, I am only surmising. Toyota doesn’t share their business dealings with Williams. They’ve had such poor results really for years. I imagine they’ll withdraw sooner rather than later,” he says.
As the interview progresses, Sir Frank will talk passionately about the innovation his sport has pioneered which has then trickled into the mainstream. He waxes lyrically and at length about the majesty of the humble tyre, which he says we all take too readily for granted.
“The tyre is a quite extraordinary piece of kit. Its ultimate degradation is when in the city somebody’s dog comes along and pees on it,” he says.
“Think about it, the tyre is less than quarter of an inch thick, it goes over all of those bumps, it goes 120mph, but we all take it for granted. It is a fantastic bit of engineering. Those tyres today were developed for racing cars twenty to 30 years ago.”
Every F1 season is as much pantomime as carnival of sport. For every hero it seems there must a villain. The egos of the men at the top are famously vast, as vast as their wealth, and the scandals the sport throws up are always fabulously lurid. Last season, Jenson Button’s accession to the world championship was almost a side story set against the main intrigues of the possible return to the sport of retired seven time world champion Michael Schumacher, the appointment to the head of the FIA of former Ferrari supremo Jean Todt, and billionaire team owner Flavio Briatore ordering a driver to deliberately crash into a wall at 200mph.
On the prospect of Schumacher returning to the sport, an idea which captured the imagination of many million of the sport’s fans earlier this year when it looked like it might happen, Williams is dismissive:
“No chance. Well, he thought he was going to, but he forgot what the rules were. He wanted to have a go. One of the areas we are trying to save money is in reducing the testing, and I think this season you are allowed to buy 1000km or 500km testing, which is very insufficient for anybody, even Michael, who hasn’t driven a grand prix car in anger for about five years. Because motor racing drivers have neck muscles like everybody else has chest muscles. They have massive necks, all of them. You can’t build that up in one day of testing.”
Schumacher enjoyed most of his considerable success driving for Ferrari, for team manager Jean Todt. Recently, Todt has been appointed the head of FIA, the sport’s governing body, in a move which many commentators on the sport said would give the Italian team too much influence. Williams seems relaxed about it.
“I must try to be a diplomat here. He ran Ferrari for a long time. He was very successful. His methods weren’t methods that we would use. But he delivered. He was then a difficult character. Very hard to get on with. Very clever, don’t misunderstand me, he did a fantastic job for Ferrari. And he had a brilliant driver with Schumacher. But hard man, hard worker, long career in motorsport. Now that he is in the presidential role, and I met him recently, I think he has taken some charm lessons. I mean that in the right way. I think he is going to try to be a different character, with a more paternal view of Formula One generally.”
But is he not worried Todt will be biased to Ferrari, unwittingly or otherwise?
“I imagine he will know everyone is watching out for that, so he will be behaving himself. He’ll soon hear about it from the teams if we think there is a bias. And frankly I think he will be very straightforward about it all.”
Todt replaces Max Mosley as the FIA’s President. Mosley was Bernie Ecclestone’s right hand man throughout the growth of F1 into the mega-sport it is today, but his uncompromising reputation seemed to earn him as many enemies as friends in the paddock. Williams sees both sides of the coin:
“Always mixed feelings about Max. Max is seriously unfairly clever. His father was brilliant politician in his day, despite the fact his views were unusual, to say it charitably. Max inherited all of his brainpower and his ruthlessness. He was almost impossible to beat in any argument, legal or otherwise. His greatest contribution to F1 was safety. When three drivers were killed in eighteen months, including Ayrton Senna, he shook F1 by the head and by the tail. He made us make much stronger cars, and they have been very safe since.”
Asked who the best driver in the paddock is, Williams answers quickly: for his money it is Hamilton or Vettel. Pressed on why he does not say it is Button, who is after all World Champion as we speak, he talks about the importance of making sure you are in the fastest car if you are going to win the championship. The implication seems obvious.
“Jenson is very gifted. He a terrific example of one of the guys who have a natural gift for going fast. When Jenson is driving, the car doesn’t seem to slide. Michael Schumacher was much more physical. The trick is, you’ve got to be a great racing driver and you’ve got to be a great judge of who’s going to have the best F1 car next season, or two seasons out. Michael was always good at that.”
Williams has seen it all during his time in motorsport. But even he must have been stunned by the fall of Flavio Briatore, who stepped down as Renault team boss amid allegations he ordered driver Nelson Piquet Jr to drive deliberately into a wall to throw a race in Singapore. He smiles mischievously at the suggestion.
“I wasn’t shocked, I was very surprised. There are some ruthless people in all these sports.”
On today’s evidence, not Sir Frank. Good luck to him.