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Sir Frank

by on August 12, 2012

I recently put together the article below for the official journal of the (British) Motor Sports Association (MSA).  As the MSA magazine isn’t available on-line (it is sent to all British competition licence holders and industry figures) I thought you might like to see it here:

I had a lot of fun with Frank at the Goodyear track days that used to be staged before every British GP. Here, in 1981, we’re laughing about Nigel Mansell’s spin in the Lotus Esprit…when Frank was riding in the passenger seat….

IT WAS one of those regular Frank chats, born of a thinning pit lane and a dispersing Canadian crowd.  Frank, in wheelchair, wearing customary v-necked, dark blue pullover, grey trousers, black Rosettis.  Frank, a study in concentration, eyeing a Toro Rosso, a few yards from where he sat.

“How’s it going, Frank?  All good?”

“All wonderful, thanks Pete.  Just looking at the TR there.  Wonder why they’re struggling…”

“Indeed.  No telling who’s going to be quick.  One race to the next.”

Silence.  A Frank silence.  Says a thousand words.  As in:  “You may be right.  You may be wrong.  No point in speculating.  Just get on with it. Things to do, job lists to tick.”

“Do you need anything,” I ask, noticing that Frank’s PA has for the moment disappeared to the back of the garage.

“No.  Fine thanks.  Just enjoying the sunshine.”

Ah. The sunshine.  A memory filters through.  Buenos Aires, 1979.  The same sun is glowing hot, dominating an azure sky.  And Frank is in the forecourt of the Sheraton, sweat pouring from his tender English skin.  Wearing a singlet, short shorts and Nikes, he is alternately jogging and then stretching, jogging then stretching.

 

            “Frank!  How far?  How far you run?”

 

            It is Carlos Reutemann, king of Argentina, who speaks. 

 

            “Just a short one today.  Eight-miler.  Lovely there, down by the docks.  Saw Ken and Nora on the way…”

 

I look down at Frank, whose attention has now turned to the Lewis Hamilton McLaren being pushed down the pit lane towards Parc Ferme.  Again his is a face of contemplation.

It is Austria, 1985 – and we’re setting off for a run in the mountain foothills.  It is Saturday night.   A brief shower has passed.  The air is clear.

 

            “Must sign Nelson this weekend,” he says, breathing easily.  “Talk to him tomorrow.  Ask him to come to the caravan when he gets a moment.”

 

            “I spoke to him this morning,” I say, gasping a little.  “He’s fed up at Brabham.  He’s definitely ready to move.”

 

A spurt from a nearby wheelgun – the prelude to a Force India pit stop practice – jolts me back.  “How’s the sponsorship going, Frank?” I ask, intrigued as I am by the after-affects of Pastor’s recent win in Spain.

Frank again peers into the middle distance that, over the years, has become his friend and support.

“I think it’s looking pretty good,” he says, choosing each word with care.  “Spent a lot of time in the Middle East recently.  It’s not the old days.  You don’t wait for their response.  You provide a service.  That’s what it’s all about.  We’ve put a lot of effort into the base in Qatar.  We provide a service and from that things may grow.  That’s the way now.  Sponsorship is changing, Peter.  We have to maximize every part of the company – maximize what we can do.  I love this new aspect of the business.  Fascinating…”

I concede (to myself) that I am impressed.  McLaren appear to be the world leader in (another F1-word coined!) Applied Technology – in leveraging F1 expertise to generate income or product from other industries while simultaneously opening doors to new sponsors (Lucozade, via GlaxoSmithKline being a classic case in point)  – but WilliamsF1, to my eye, lies a strong second in this new race.

There’s the flywheel KERS technology Williams Hybrid supplied to the Le Mans-winning Audi team;  there’s the Williams-Jaguar C-X75 hybrid Supercar programme;  there’s the partnership with Kinetic Storage Systems for the development of low-carbon mass transit rail and grid networks;  there’s the Williams Technology Centre in Qatar, and its association with Silatech, the employment-generating company owned by the region’s royal family;  there’s the deal with the Canadian-based multi-national, Hatch, to supply F1 technology for mining, metal processing, energy and transportation; there’s the Qatar simulator deal with Mowasalat; there’s the partnership between Williams Hybrid and Go-Ahead to develop flywheel energy storing applications for buses; there’s the award-winning Williams Conference centre and Museum at Grove, Oxfordshire, and the afore-mentioned, similarly-impressive, facility in Qatar (venue of the global Tedx Summit in April);  and there are the nice little touches like the  “The Williams Story” topiary – the silhouette of car and pit personnel that won a Gold Medal at the Chelsea Flower Show eight days after Pastor’s win in Spain.

All busy, diverse stuff – most of which arose from 2010-11,  when Williams were in a racing slump.  It is a reminder that Frank always seems to be at his most creative, and at his most industrious, when things appear not to be moving along well.  We’d win the British GP but on Monday Frank would walk into the Race Shop with a face like thunder:

“What are those vans doing, parked in the truck bay?”

“Just the mini-vans, Frank, about to go back to the rental company.”

“I don’t care.  Get them moved.  Now.”

On a bad Monday, however – the day after the race you’d want to forget, Frank would be a different man:

“How’s the wife?  How’s the dog?  Anything you need?”

The Williams factory today, in Grove, near Wantage, Oxfordshire, England

AND SO there lies the first real truism about Frank Williams.  He is – and always has been – one of the sport’s greatest procurers of sponsorship…but he is at his best when his back’s against the wall.  He is a born charmer, a quick-thinking, fast-moving salesman of the highest order.  A ducker-and-diver who learnt how to survive when survival was the only game in town.

When I first befriended Frank, in 1972, and Henri Pescarolo was consuming Frank’s March chassis at about the rate that Frank devoured his pre-run Digestive biscuits, Frank’s life was only about raising the money.  A quick deal here, a local deal there.  No time to chat.  No time to think.  Frank, fluent in Italian and pretty good in most other tongues, would force himself to deliver;  there was no alternative.  It was what he had to do.

Already, of course, there was plenty of road dust.  He had worked his way up from Formula Three, first as a driver (who won an F3 race!) and then as a team owner.  He bought an F1-spec Brabham for his dear friend, Piers Courage, to race in the 1969 Tasman Series and then fitted the same car with a full 3-litre engine for the 1969 F1 season.  Piers had delivered with second places at Monaco and Watkins Glen but was killed the following June when Frank’s DeTomaso lurched out of control on the quick corners at Zandvoort.

Frank picked himself up.  He kept at it.  He swapped the DeTomaso for a March in 1971 and 72.  In 1973-74 he built his own car, with designer John Clarke, but again the battle was uneven.  The money was right on the edge.  A million balls floated in the air.  Frank merged with an Austro-Canadian millionaire named Walter Wolf.  And then Wolf fired Frank.  Out in the cold, in early 1977, Frank was at minus-zero.

Frank had never been more motivated.  I spoke to him in the shaded lobby of the Sao Paolo Hilton that year, when Frank’s eyes shone 100-Kilowatt:  “I’m starting again.  I’ve found a great little space by Didcot rail station – lots of council subsidy.  Patrick Neve.  You know him?  Pretty good.  Some sponsorship there from Belium.  A March.  European races only.  Some of the old lads will be joining me.  And I’ve got a new engineer.  Patrick Head.  Designed the Scott F2 car – you know.  And I’m going to call the company ‘Williams Grand Prix Engineering’.  Engineering’s the thing.  That’ what it’s all about.  May even call our first car the PH-something…”

Patrick Head, a Wolf employee with engineering ambitions of his own, liked Frank’s style.  The new team would be 80 per cent Frank, 20 per cent Patrick. Patrick’s conservatism defined the nomenclature, though, and thus the car was born:  the FW06 was in 1978 both simple and “non-ground effect”.  It had great traction, however;  it was light for strength; and it was easy to set-up and to run.  A new era was born.

Frank asked me to a meeting at the Steering Wheel Club (then in Curzon Street, Mayfair) early in 1978.   Amongst the signed photographs and car badges, sitting there near the bar, I stared at the array of famous wheels – Jim Clark’s from Aintree, 1962, Fangio’s from the 1957 Maserati 250F.  Mike Hawthorn’s from the 1958 Ferrari.

“I saw Peter Collins win the British GP in ’58,” said Frank, sipping his Rose’s lime as he walked over to examine the four-spoke wheel.  “Hitch-hiked down from Scotland, where I was at boarding school.  Loved it.  Loved it.  Never wanted to do anything else after that.”

“Anyway.  Enough of that.  Haven’t got a lot of time to dwell on the past, so let’s get started:  it’s a whole new world out there,” said Frank, ordering sandwiches for us both. “The Middle East.  That’s the new market.  That’s where the money’s going to come from.  And we’re going to be first in line.  Point is, the Arabs don’t have a clue about F1.  We’re going to have to educate them.  I’ve got a list here of all the big magazines and news agencies in Saudi Arabia.  I’d like you to write press releases about the team and what we’re doing – you know, all the gen – before and after each race.  We’re going to give them the chance to be ‘the Best in the West’ but it’s only going to happen if we keep giving them the story.  Now.  Let’s start this afternoon.  I’m leaving for Jeddah tomorrow, and….”

Frank did raise his Middle Eastern money.  He stayed in Jeddah long enough to learn some Arabic;  and, as a clincher, he famously painted an FW06 in Saudi Arabian/Albilad Airlines colours, parked it outside the Dorchester, chatted-up a traffic warden for long enough to make a quick phone call from the lobby – and waved to his Saudi Prince from the road below.  Deal done.

The Patrick Head Williams FW07s were dazzlingly fast in 1979-80-81, winning the team two Constructors’ and one Drivers’ title.  Keke Rosberg followed that with another WDC 1982 with the FW08.  Frank Williams had made it.  He was there.

Time to de-construct.

Frank was also a man – the man – who would not give in to compromise.  He had befriended TAG’s Mansour Ojjeh in the course of his Middle Eastern campaign but remained stiff-lipped and dignified when McLaren’s Ron Dennis began overtly to court Ojjeh.  Ron had plans for a new Porsche F1 turbo engine but needed an investor.  Ojjeh was his target.  The project was attractive because the Porsche engine would not only race but also power helicopters for commercial sale.  (Yes, seriously.)  Ron asked Frank if he would like to “share” the Porsche programme with McLaren and TAG.  Frank refused – and thus effectively lost the sports’ single biggest investor in the history of multi-million dollar contracts.  And, along the way, Frank dialed himself out of at least two or three additional World Championships.

(The TAG Porsche-powered helicopters, however, never materialized.  Instead, Ojjeh bought the Canadian Canadair aircraft company and, then, Heuer watches.)

History would be repeated in 1987, when Nelson Piquet successfully persuaded Honda to provide engine power to Camel Lotus for 1988.  Honda offered Frank a new deal for ‘88 on the proviso that one of the drivers would be Satoru Nakajima.  Frank, who had taken Honda from the back of the grid to the front, rejected the offer out of hand. “No-one tells me who to put in my cars!” he said, minutes after the meeting. And thus switched to Judd engines.  More Championships lost.

But dignity retained.

When I joined Frank full-time in 1985 as Manager of Sponsorship and Public Affairs, Frank’s first instruction was disarmingly poignant:  “One rule here, Peter.  We never, ever approach the sponsors or investors of any of our rivals.  We’ll only go after new companies or sponsors who have been in the sport and pulled out for whatever reason.”

When the road accident occurred, in March, 1986, there shone the same dignity.

March, 1986: Frank’s Avis Ford Sierra hit the rock to the left of the wall on which Nelson Piquet is standing. It then somersaulted into the plowed field beyond

FOR THERE  he was, lying in that French field, blood shrouding his head, his legs and arms immovable.  “Right,” he said calmly.  “If anything happens to me tell Patrick that all the existing sponsorship deals have been signed for the year and that Honda have an option with us for 87.  Nelson is signed for 87 but Nigel’s on a two-way option.  Oh yes.  And I was raised as a Catholic.  If necessary, I’d like the Last Rites.”

The wall was never higher, his back less effective.  And so he recovered…and grew stronger….

Pain?  Inconvenience?  Regrets?  Frank had no time for them.  Still doesn’t.  Too busy thinking about the next race or the next deal.  He made his first public race appearance at the British Grand Prix in 1986 – and he was back regularly, a familiar part of the F1 scene, a few months after that.

And many have been the adventures, for Frank loves it all – risky or otherwise.  The IndyCar project, based around the FW07, is best forgotten.  The four-wheel-drive Williams Metro rally car was not in its own way an FW07.  The Le Mans BMW project was impressive – and gave inadvertent birth to what is today the Conference Centre.  And the Williams-Renault BTCC programme was both spectacular and successful.  As were the Williams-badged Renault road cars.

In F1, Williams’ success dovetailed with Frank’s desire not to relinquish control and the corresponding goals of various engine suppliers to take control.  A Ron Dennis, perhaps, would have found a happy medium – as he did/does with Mercedes.  Frank lost Honda, BMW and Toyota engines because Williams is always going to be Williams so long as he, Frank, can answer a phone call or set up a meeting.   Thus the Williams performance slumps.  Thus Frank’s dignity.

Renault have been a constant – but on Frank’s terms, not Renault’s.  Frank lived with the whole Mecachrome/Flavio thing – despite producing the most sophisticated Grand Prix car of all time (the Williams FW14B-Renault) – and his reward, if you like, was a new Renault contract for 2012.

Today, Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd (the company still exists) lives in a pharmaceutical factory past which Frank used to drive every morning en route to Didcot.  He enquired about it;  he researched it;  he bought it.  And he developed it – with wind tunnels, the Conference Centre (nee BMW Le Mans plant), a gym, an expanded production core and a larger race shop.  The architecture, though, is still 70s pharmaceutical.  Sir Richard Rogers (and Ron!) would drop their jaws in awe.   Yet from it has emerged a winner in 2012…

Sam Michael has come and gone.  Against the flow, and with Adam Parr’s encouragement, Frank contracted the unloved but industrious Mike Coughlin:  things had been down for Mike, so the next phase, as Frank knew, would be up.  Patrick, at last beginning to unwind, moved across to Hybrid.  Coughlin hired the excellent but neglected Dr Mark Gillan;  and, with Mark, came Jason Somerville, the aerodynamicist for whom Sam Michael had not been able to find room.  Three key people, all at a lower ebb. Frank knew/knows the position well…

“It’s still all about people,” said Frank, at last being wheeled back through the Canadian garage towards his office.  “It’s about people who are hungry.  We’ve found that with Mike and this team today.  I found it with Patrick in 1977.  We found it with Alan Jones in 1979 and with Nigel in 1985.”

Ups and downs.  Recovering from the downs.  Working towards the ups.  Construct.  Deconstruct.  Push.  Be self-critical. Never give up.

The man in the wheelchair – Knighted for his services to his industry – thus prepares for yet another race.

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From → Features, Formula One

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