GUARDIANS OF HONOUR
Williams has an ever-growing catalogue of illustrious Grand Prix cars. Now these two men must dovetail this sumptuous history with the high-flying Formula 1 team of today Writer Simon Arron, photographer Matthew Howell
The northern end of the A338 is something of a throwback, a reminder that Britain can still be a nice place to drive as it cuts between open countryside, the landscape speckled with pheasants and sheep. Close to Grove, Oxon, a small roundabout interrupts the flow and filters into a smart engineering complex, set back discreetly from the main road. There are no ceremonial placards to tell the wider world what goes on here, nor what has been achieved, but a sign by the roadside reads, very simply, 'Williams F1'.
The Grand Prix team is based here, of course, as are Williams Advanced Engineering and, between them, the Williams Conference Centre, which does what it says on the tin and also houses the family museum – the Williams Collection. For the past year or so, this has been the platform for another new business, Williams Heritage, whose mission is to preserve, showcase, run, sell and service cars from the team's back catalogue. It is overseen by Jonathan Williams, Sir Frank's son, and Dickie Stanford, who first joined the company 30 years ago and has since served as chief mechanic and F1 team manager, among other things.
The main exhibition hall is notable for its striking ambience, darkness prevailing but subtle spotlights picking out many a purposeful line. At the time of our visit, only one car stood apart from the F1 silhouettes, an ex-Alain Menu Renault Laguna that Williams Touring Car Engineering once ran in the BTCC. There is much more to this, however, than the display area.
"The museum houses what we call our 'prime' cars," Williams says. "There are 123 chassis on the books at present – we sold about 10 last year – and the company owns 120. We are custodians of the other three, although one of those [not on view] is an Earth Dreams Honda F1 car from 2008…"
Stanford elaborates: "It belongs to Rubens Barrichello, but he has yet to pick it up. He asked us to collect it from the Honda/Brawn factory and store it for him, which we did, but now he needs to pay for it to be freighted to Brazil. We're still waiting…"
Although the Williams F1 tale began with Frank Williams Racing Cars, in 1969, there is nothing here that pre-dates 1978, when Patrick Head's first Williams Grand Prix Engineering chassis, the FW06, was launched.
"I recall Bobby Rahal sending my dad a note," Williams says, "telling him that an ex-Piers Courage Brabham BT26 was coming on the market and wondering whether he'd be interested. But he said, 'For this museum, it's the Patrick Head cars onwards. The earlier stuff is part of my history, but I don't want it in a museum that should represent where Patrick and I started'. He has been very consistent on that.
"At Goodwood in 2009, though, there were two 40th anniversary celebrations – one for my father's time in F1 and the other for the Porsche 917. It had never occurred to me that the two things coincided! The Goodwood team sourced a few older cars with Williams associations and there was a De Tomaso 505 among them. Dad was being wheeled around, stopped by the De Tomaso and said, 'Wow, that's so pretty. I haven't seen one of those since the early 1970s'. I thought it would be a difficult car for him, because of its association with Piers' fatal accident at Zandvoort, but it really caught his attention and he even mentioned that he'd quite like to own it, which threw me, although the idea was never pursued."
In relatively recent times, the only obvious interloper in the collection was an ex-Alain Prost 641, from 1990. "In its own way," Williams says, "even that was part of our history. We'd signed a contract to run Jean Alesi in 1991, then Ferrari made a fairly late bid for him because Nigel Mansell had unexpectedly announced his retirement at Silverstone.
"Dad did once say that he'd like to dedicate a small corner of the museum to our competitors' cars – a Piquet Brabham BT49, a McLaren MP4/2 and so on. That was his thinking at the time, so the 641 was part of our settlement with Ferrari. I think we got some money, but we also got the car. We had it for 12 years. It was fully operational – and even went back to Italy for a complimentary service – but we eventually sold it on. It was becoming too much of a star attraction in what was supposed to be a Williams museum, simply because it was so distinctive."
With a set amount of space and an inventory that will but grow in future years, the museum is likely to become thematic, with a rotating cast and areas set aside for the company's non-F1 projects, such as the aforementioned Laguna, the Le Mans-winning BMW V12 LMR of 1999 and the MG Metro 6R4. In F1 terms, though, the post-Head collection is complete.
"We have at least one of everything from the FW06 to the FW36," Williams says, "and hopefully in a year or so we'll get a very good FW37. We even have cars that didn't race, most notably the FW08B six-wheeler and also the FW15D, a passive version of the C that was used for testing early in 1994, prior to the arrival of the FW16. That was a Senna test car, although it was quite well used by the time he arrived in January 1994. It had been fettled around Prost and Hill, but Senna used a bigger steering wheel and his hands began rubbing on the cockpit sides. During testing, the factory gave permission for a travelling composites technician to make a small adjustment to the cockpit surround."
Stanford adds: "The modification was tiny and we were all wondering whether it was actually worth it, but it did the trick."
Not only are the cars present and correct, then, but most of them are still operational – despite obvious hurdles such as software obsolescence. Readers with long memories might recall a Motor Sport feature from five years ago, when Damon Hill's Williams FW18 cut out during the F1 world championship's 60th anniversary celebration in Bahrain. At the time, Stanford and his team were unable to interrogate the chassis because their MS-DOS laptop was on the blink and nobody at the circuit knew how to fix it.
"Happily," Stanford says, "there is now a company that can take a modern laptop and convert it to run older software such as MS-DOS. In that particular incident with Damon and the FW18, we pulled the fuel tank to bits that night and then realised the problem had in fact been a consequence of running too high a gear at too few revs, which the Renault alternator didn't like. After we put it all back together, we told him to use low gears with high revs and the problem went away…"
Williams: "It was pretty much what happened to Nigel Mansell at Montréal on the final lap in 1991. He was trundling around a first-gear hairpin in third, waving to the crowd, and the Renault alternator couldn't keep up. The car fired up perfectly in the garage after being towed back, which made it all the more painful."