Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, August 11, 2000

Williams, Now Just One of the Also-Rans, Plots Comeback

Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - As Ferrari and McLaren continue their battle for Formula One supremacy at the Hungarian Grand Prix this Sunday, the two teams threaten to lap the rest of the field.

The gap between the top two teams in the constructors championship is the smallest it has been at this stage in the season in 20 years. Ferrari has 102 points. McLaren is four points behind. The third team is a further 76 points behind. That is the biggest gap between second and third at this point in 20 years.

''It's just astonishing,'' said Sir Frank Williams, the owner of the third-placed team. ''And it burns us. And it's what drives us.'' It is more astonishing because in the past 20 years, Williams has won 16 of the 40 available titles. McLaren has also won 16. Ferrari and Benetton have three each and Brabham one.

So what has happened to Williams?

''It has happened before, it happens to everybody, and when we do get to the top again, it will probably happen again,'' he said. ''That wicked word competition won't go away, and that's why we're all here trying to beat each other.''

It is the longest period without a victory in the team's history. Williams has not won a race since Jacques Villeneuve won the Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in September 1997. That season Villeneuve won the drivers' championship and Williams won the constructors' title.

Sir Frank has been involved in the sport since the 1960s. He founded his current team in 1977 with Patrick Head, a part owner and the technical director.

Head thinks Sir Frank, 58, can climb back. In addition to being an astute businessman -- a necessity in today's Formula One -- Head said Sir Frank was ''fundamentally an enthusiastic racer. His basic driving motivation is to be successful in winning races.''

The icy look Sir Frank is seen to wear on television as he watches his drivers race perhaps contributes to his reputation for being hard on drivers. But the team's titles also reflect that. Nine are for the constructors' and seven for the drivers' championship. At McLaren, under the direction of Ron Dennis, who has a reputation for being good to drivers, the numbers are the reverse.

Sir Frank said his reputation came largely because twice in the 1990s, with both Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, he dropped the drivers the year they won the world championship. But their contracts had ended, he said, and they asked to be paid too much.

But he said that he had great admiration for drivers while they are on the track, and the truth of that comes through when he talks about the one he admired the most of those who drove for him.

''Alain Prost never ever went quicker than he had to,'' he said. ''Once or twice he had to push himself on qualifying. And while he was always very smooth, his car, you could see, it was dancing. It was just hanging onto the road and it was fuss free. When he was on, he was devastating. He was not the perfect racing driver because he wouldn't hang it out in the rain, he had some deficiencies, but very, very clever. And gifted.''

Sir Frank was talking in the Grand Prix paddock, propped up to a standing position in his extensible wheelchair.

In March, 1986, while driving to the airport from the Castellet circuit in the south of France, Sir Frank lost control of his car and had an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down and with little use of his arms or hands.

''Before my accident I was extremely energetic physically and I was ubiquitous within the company and within the paddock,'' he said, his words coming out quietly and with the appearance of great physical effort as always.

But he added that even before he ''damaged'' himself, the advent of turbo engines and computer electronics meant that he had less and less to contribute personally in working on the cars.

He missed the 1986 season but the team nevertheless won the constructors' title, and in 1987, when he returned, it won both titles with Nelson Piquet.


THEN followed a period of rebuilding as the team began a relationship with Renault, which became one of the most successful in the sport as they won the constructors' title five times in the 1990s. The team also won the drivers' title in 1992 and 1993 with Mansell and then Prost.

Tragedy struck in 1994 when Ayrton Senna, who had just joined the team, was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, the season's third race.

''With Ayrton,'' Sir Frank said, ''we were all conscious that we had been given, for a year, for the period of his contract, an icon, an international sporting icon. And you could argue that, for whatever reason, we let it drop and it broke. Ayrton Senna died in a Williams car. And whatever the reasons were, that's something that weighs very heavily on our shoulders.''

Both Sir Frank and Head were charged with manslaughter by the Italian justice system, which claimed the car was faulty. The case dragged on for five years, but they were finally exonerated.

The tragedy might have destroyed a team of lesser character, but Williams won the constructors' championship in the year of Senna's death with Damon Hill and David Coulthard driving. Then in 1996 and 1997 it won both titles, with Hill and Villeneuve.

Then the team lost its designer, Adrian Newey -- who joined McLaren and designed that team's championship winning cars of the past two years -- and also lost its engine supplier.

''Renault pulled out a couple years before we thought they would, surprising everybody,'' Sir Frank said, ''and for two years we've been crossing a desert.''

This year Williams joined up with BMW, the German engine constructor, which returns to the sport after a 12-year absence. ''It'll all take longer than people would like,'' Sir Frank said, ''but they will have everything going for them in the long term providing we've all got patience. And when it is firing on all 10 cylinders again we will be a serious team. Time frame: one year, two years.''

Back to Samples Index