Motor Racing: New formula brings relief for Williams: The man behind the sport's leading team is ready for Sunday's British Grand Prix. Derick Allsop talks to him

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A CURIOUS event takes place on Sunday: a British Grand Prix without Nigel Mansell. It is unlikely that it will generate quite the same jingoistic fervour, nor anything like the hype, of recent seasons.

Mansell won the last two races at Silverstone, adding to his 1987 success at the circuit. He also had victories at Brands Hatch, in 1985 (Grand Prix of Europe) and 1986. He wallowed in his role as the home hero. He often told us: 'This is my race. No one else is allowed to win here.' He was only half joking.

His qualifying lap last year, completed in 1min 18.965sec, was a piece of inspired driving bordering on the outrageous. His engineers and mechanics hung the telemetry print-out on the wall at the factory. They called it 'The Ultimate Lap'.

And yet this time there is almost a feeling of relief in some quarters of the Williams-Renault camp. They seem to be relishing the prospect of a break from the pandemonium, and perhaps a little more of the appreciation for themselves.

Frank Williams, the managing director of the team, said: 'In the number of years we've raced with Nigel, we've always been in his shadow. He's the big star, the big attraction, so the attention quite rightly has gone to him.

'Whereas when we get some attention, it's not such an overwhelming amount that it's distracting. It's just a good feeling to know everyone's with you, to know you're the flavour of the weekend. The boys get a buzz. Their families are around and their friends from the pub are around.

'I try to remind myself there's 10 points here for a win, and that's no more and no less than in South Africa or Japan. But everyone knows your name and they all shout at you. You enjoy it, you are at home and, yes, there's a responsibility.'

The responsibility on the track now rests with Alain Prost, who will probably succeed Mansell as the world champion, and Damon Hill, presented this weekend with the opportunity to replace his compatriot as the star of Silverstone.

Williams and his long-time partner, the team's technical director, Patrick Head, are conscious that the yearning for a new British hero will heap expectation on the inexperienced Hill. 'Damon is pretty calm but he will attract attention and it's my job to make sure it doesn't become too much,' Williams said.

'We try to contain things. We know the warning signs. I am delighted at the way things are going so far for Damon. I don't think he should be more aggressive. He's still learning and he's very quick already. I wouldn't begin to criticise his driving. A win will fall in his lap.'

Wins, and titles, have been falling in Prost's lap these many years but only this season has Williams had the chance to observe the Frenchman so closely. He has done so with fascination. He said: 'Prost is a lovely gentleman, pleasant to work with and very happy as a team member.

'He is quite different to Nigel, but achieves the same result. He is immensely skilful. It's quite extraordinary. It's a style based on skill. He doesn't bully the car like Nigel did. That is something rather enjoyable for me, because it's something different. I've never seen it before and, no doubt, in a year or two I'll enjoy someone else's approach.'

So what does he look for in a driver? 'I look for guys with winning reputations,' he replied. 'We've not often gone out on a limb. With Damon, arguably, we have done, but he did have the benefit of 16,000 kilometres of testing, so he knew a very complicated car very well and we'd had an opportunity to test him.

'Both driver choices are made on reputation and hunch, and Alain and Damon communicate with each other very well.'

Prost would be Williams' fifth champion in 14 seasons, following Alan Jones (1980), Keke Rosberg (1982), Nelson Piquet (1987) and Mansell (1992).

Over that same period, the team have won the constructors' championship five times and should, come the autumn, have No 6. That record is testimony to enormous expertise and enduring enthusiasm.

Williams said: 'The team has always had the best of engineering, very good budgets, engines and drivers. The trick is to put it all together at the right time and in the right way. We obviously make mistakes, but generally we've got a good grip on things.

'We've got good motivation, as well. From myself and Patrick to the guys who drive the van, we are all nuts about motor racing. Everybody is really interested in what they're doing. It's a real racing team.'

Williams' domination over the past two years has given momentum to the campaign for a dismantling of technological aids. Williams, along with McLaren, have resisted wholesale changes, but whatever technical regulations operate next year, few would anticipate the demise of the Didcot organisation.

Certainly Frank Williams does not. 'Generally speaking, I think the better teams will inevitably rise to the surface, whatever the technology. Come next year, I expect us, McLaren, Benetton and possibly Ferrari to be there or thereabouts.

'It's down to the engineering capacity of the company. Wherever it's forced to seek an advantage, it will generally do a better job than other teams. Not necessarily all of them. There will always be a surprise or two, which is great. It's good for business.'

(Photograph omitted)

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