FRANK WILLIAMS has an odd way in conversation of mentioning bad accidents that have happened to Formula 1 racing drivers as if they were almost incidental - "the Senna death", "the Lauda accident", " '85, when what's his name? Italian driver . . ." - like mere references in the analysis of what really matters - the success of Grand Prix motor racing and, particularly, the success of Williams Grand Prix Engineering within it.
Just after our meeting, this rather curious manner took on new meaning: the possibility of criminal charges arising from the death of Ayrton Senna, which had lingered in the pit smoke ever since the accident at Imola in May 1994, suddenly became reality. Italian prosecutors charged Williams, among several others, with manslaughter. Williams will unquestionably be the chief focus of the trial. If convicted, he faces anything from a two-year suspended sentence to seven years in an Italian jail.
Williams's reputation with the public has never been lower. Ironically, this has nothing to do
with Senna, but to do with Damon Hill, whom he sacked in the very year he became world
champion in Williams colours. This, a mere four years after the same had happened to Nigel
For Williams, so it is said, they were just jockeys - Mansell and Hill, and all the others - jockeys who could handle a 750-horsepower machine round 70 laps. And sometimes jockeys come off. Occupational hazard. Regrettable; tragic, obviously, but there you go. Everyone knows that's the way Williams is: complete obsessive, sleeps dreaming of new machines, despises the financial driver-power - jockey-power - of the Nineties.
It is an attitude that wins him few friends. Even Murray Walker, the voice of motor sport for 30 years, and not one, by necessity, to cause trouble among his peers, appeared before a camera, anger boiling on his face, after Hill had been sacked, and said: "I think he's been treated very badly by the team. Sadly, this sort of thing happens in Formula 1. Sadly, it particularly seems to happen with Williams."
No doubt Williams could defend himself against such criticism. But the thing is, he never does openly, bar admitting that some people think he's "a bit of a villain" - but, he would add, they are probably just being manipulated by "gutter", Williams's generic term for newspaper speculation. The result is that Williams has become charactersied as a Machiavellian figure.
Now, Williams has no choice but to take the stand. Prior to the charge being made,
Williams was said, privately, to be convinced he would be charged, and that, in his own
words, "the volcano is about to erupt".
Although Williams is convinced his innocence will be established, the trial will be about more than a question of the charge under consideration. Between the lines of complex engineering data that will no doubt form the trial's text, what Williams will really be defending is what he has always avoided defending: the very nature and extent of his obsession.
The imposing new Williams compound stands over several acres outside Oxford ("We are a small British racing team," Williams insists). Inside, Williams sits behind a large desk, green eyes piercing, a mini control-module strapped to his palm.
I begin by asking him about Piers Courage, Williams's first driver in Formula 1, 28 years ago. Their backgrounds were different. Williams, middle class, born in South Shields in 1942; brought up by his mother in Nottingham after his father went to war (and now married with two sons). Courage, by contrast, the identikit Grand Prix hero - wealthy (heir to the brewing millions), dashing, metropolitan and fast. Williams had himself tried to become a racing driver but was not good enough. He and Courage became close friends, sharing a flat together in London, with Williams devoting himself to finding the car to propel Courage to Formula 1 glory.
Contemporaries say Courage made a profound impression on Williams, on the way Williams would in future present himself to the world. Indeed, Williams's conversational manner is oddly redolent of a past age - his favoured drivers are "gentlemen"; cars are "motor cars" or "automobiles", racing cars do not have logos but "livery".
"Very gentlemanly," Williams says of Courage. "They don't make them like him any more, I think. He had a good background, went to all the right schools, et cetera, and was a very gay and bubbly person. Charming and very amusing. Screamingly funny. Good driver, great talent. Whether he would have been as good as Jackie [Stewart, the three-times Formula 1 champion of that era], I don't know. He didn't get the chance, really."
Indeed he didn't. At the Zandvoort race in 1969, Courage's first year in Grand Prix, he crashed and died. Journalists remember seeing the figure of the 27-year-old Williams standing alone by the track, staring at the site of the accident, long afterwards.
Wasn't Williams tempted to walk away from the sport right then? "Never any chance of that, no." Why not? "Well, faced with such an event, such a catastrophe, I was personally very saddened by it. But it didn't in any way affect my attitude to Formula 1 racing."
Having asked me if I wanted a cup of tea, he tapped some message into the module, and presently a female aide appeared, bearing a cup for Williams, with a straw poking out. Since 1986, Williams has been paraplegic, with little or no control over his limbs below the neck, save for his hands. Generally, he is forced to remain still. The accident happened as he was driving, by his own admission too fast, to Nice airport after a Mansell testing session. Unlike most who have suffered similar spinal injuries, Williams is not confined solely to a wheelchair, and nor has his ability to do his job been drastically affected. The money he has earned from Formula 1 enables him to employ 24-hour nursing staff, and to buy devices such as a harness that hoists him vertical, to allow the relatively normal circulation of his blood.
Despite numerous well-meaning approaches, Williams has refused to make emotional
capital out of this predicament. Indeed, agreeing not to ask him about it remains the one
advance condition imposed on an interviewer (although, of course, several other non-topics
later emerge). One printed comment about his disability, "I don't give a ----", seems
And yet, again, such reticence denies him public understanding. In Hill's recent video, The Fight For Victory, there is a moment in the pits at Estoril, Portugal, the penultimate Grand Prix this year, where Williams is watching the action on his monitor. Behind him, Hill's wife, Georgie, watches too. It is the crucial last pit stop. Hill has to stay ahead of his Williams team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, to stand a chance of clinching the championship before the last race in Japan.
But Hill's pit stop, compared to Villeneuve's, is slow. It is Villeneuve who leaves first. In one second, through no fault of his own, Hill's hopes are finished. Georgie Hill mouths the word "sh--". She is aghast, angry at her - her husband's - powerlessness. But Williams just sits there, icily still before the monitor, as if nothing has happened at all.
Clearly, the film's director thought this a revealing moment. But one wonders whether it did reveal anything about Williams. After all, what else could he physically do?
I asked Williams what he looked for in a driver. "Essentially, you're looking for speed," he
said. "How quick is the guy, how quick do you think he is. Second, what are his results to
date. Then, is his temperament right; is he lazy, tough, et cetera?"
The quickest he's seen? "From '69 onwards, Senna was probably the best. People will always say, what about Jim Clark, and Fangio? But you can't compare different eras." Asked to nominate a group of greats, Williams chose, a little surprisingly, Senna, Stewart, Schumacher and Piquet.
So no Mansell. "Very talented. Erratic in his early years. Made all his own deals. Tough negotiator. Immensely well prepared. Wonderful. A formidable opponent." Hill? "He was much stronger this year than last year. Stronger physically and mentally. He had much more self-confidence."
Several times I tried to find out if Williams could at least appreciate what it might be like,
say if you were a teenager, to follow a racing driver, your hero, to invest all your hopes in
him winning the championship, and then, when he does, to see him catapulted out of the
ejector seat by an unseen hand.
"Of course I care," Williams said. "But what is best for the company, we will do." Then, at another point: "I know I have a bit of a villain reputation with certain drivers. But it's very much to do with all the people. We don't carry passengers in this business." And finally: "In England, it seems to be that if you win the championship, your hands are tied. It's a load of b------- is what I'm saying to you."
Despite Williams's classification of driver negotiations as non-topics, he has always
managed to disseminate his point of view about the departures of Mansell and Hill: that it
was purely down to failure to agree terms.
Moreover, he has let it be known, had he acceded to the (unspecified) terms, he would have put at risk the jobs of some of "all the people", his 250-strong support staff at Williams HQ, whom Williams likes to describe, in his arcane way, as "skilled artisans". Obviously, he could not contemplate that.
This is what infuriated those close to Mansell and Hill - Williams assuming the moral high ground, while implying greed on the drivers' part. When, in their view, another factor had been playing on Williams's mind: the driver-factor - contrary to the jockey theory about Williams - in the form of two drivers whose signatures Williams craved. First Senna, then Schumacher.
Williams was the first Formula 1 owner to spot Senna's potential in the early Eighties, when
the Brazilian was an unknown in Formula 3. Although circumstances kept Williams and
Senna contractually apart for the next decade, Mansell remains convinced that, before then,
in 1992, it was a sensational public offer from Senna, to drive for Williams for nothing, that
prompted his departure. In his bitter retirement speech of that year, Mansell said that in the
light of Senna's offer, he, the world champion, was asked to accept a reduced deal. "If I did
not," Mansell said. "Senna was ready to sign that night, I was told." But Senna's offer was
mischief. Williams had been chasing shadows.
Likewise, Hill's agent, Michael Breen, has suggested it was Williams's obsessive regard for Schumacher which stalked Hill's contract with Williams. Except that this time, Williams had failed to spot Schumacher's talent early on. With Schumacher tied up at Ferrari, the effect was indirect. Instead of Hill, Williams signed up Heinz-Harald Frentzen ("He's a gentleman, H-H," Williams says), a German with promise rather than form in Formula 1, who had once been Schumacher's master on the track in their sports car days. Breen believes approaches had been made to Frentzen long before Hill's negotiations broke down.
I put it to Williams that the common thread was that both Mansell and Hill believed
negotiations had been bogus - Williams had already made his mind up. But Williams just
said he wouldn't be drawn: "I don't burn my boats. You never know. The world goes round
all the time."
And he was right. Two years after their acid parting, Mansell was back to drive for Williams, in place of the fallen Senna. Hill, according to Williams, had popped in just a few days before we met, to say his goodbyes and have a chat.
So can we expect to see Hill, like Mansell, back driving for Williams? "I would doubt it in Damon's case," Williams said, with measured reasonableness. "He's married with three kids. And he's 36, er . . . 37?"
So what is it that draws these spurned drivers to seek out Williams's ear? One answer might be that they have become somehow psychologically dependent, still anxious to prove that they can equal the Sennas and Schumachers, the drivers Williams thought were better than they were. But given Mansell's mule-like stubbornness, this reading seems unlikely.
MORE probably, they see Williams for what he is, as an extension of themselves: for they
all have this same compulsion, to drive fast in the fastest car, and they admire Williams's
blunt projection of his obsession, their obsession.
Thus, they forgive him his eccentricities; the thrifty approach to driver contracts, the esoteric world of gentlemen and skilled artisans; the way his horror of being seen to personalise anything leads him to say inappropriate things. For, although Senna's offer was mischief, there was truth in it. Because, although Williams does not have Ferrari's resources, he consistently makes faster machines; because Frank Williams, more than anyone, knows what a racing driver wants in a car.
Williams was closer to Senna, perhaps, than to any of his drivers since Courage. There is no
doubt he was deeply disturbed by his death - particularly, by the TV cameras rolling as
Senna lay dying on a stretcher. At one point in our conversation, Williams began verbally
running through Senna's last hours, a time when the Grand Prix world was already reeling
from the death of the Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger, in practice: "Ayrton was very
shaken the day before, by the Ratzenberger death. But he seemed in good form that night,
went out with his Brazilian buddies. Fine at the circuit the next day . . ."
Then Williams stopped himself again. "I wouldn't like to get involved in any discussion . . . The thing about the Senna accident is that it was a terribly public accident."
But, given the risk, could he not understand why drivers sought premiums? "They want to exploit it while they can. Their careers are generally . . . finite. With any luck at all they'll retire and won't be killed."
This is a classic example of Williams's unfortunately expressed utterances, which seem to come out when he is awkwardly trying to prevent what, to his thinking, might be some "embarrassing" show of personal feeling. Ultimately, he is only comfortable expressing his grief for Senna, as for Courage, in terms of motor racing. "Ayrton just loved motor racing. Would talk about motor racing for hours with anyone."
The tragedy of 1994 is that of a lost race: "Saddest was to lose him. But another thing was
to lose the spectacle of those two at it, Michael and Ayrton. What a championship that
would have been."
Those in Formula 1, who understand what lies behind such tributes, are outraged by the charges brought against Williams. Already Flavio Briatore, the boss of the Benetton team, is leading calls for a boycott of Imola.
But will those who try Williams be as forgiving as the drivers? And if nothing else were to incriminate Williams, might he, in his awkward, arcane way, say something that unintentionally incriminates himself?
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