Motor Racing: Williams poised in adversity

Senna charges are the latest challenge to be confronted by a born fighter. David Tremayne spoke to him
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The Independent Online
It is typical of the way the man greets adversity that Frank Williams is adamant that his grand prix team will defend themselves vigorously against the charges arising from the death of Ayrton Senna.

The threat of the charges, which were finally filed against him, his technical director Patrick Head and estranged chief designer Adrian Newey in Italy last Monday, had been hanging over the team ever since Senna's fatal accident while leading the San Marino Grand Prix on 1 May 1994; such are the processes of Italian law.

If one believes paddock gossip Williams is at crisis point. Unpopular in some circles for deciding to drop Damon Hill, the sixth driver to win a championship in one of his cars, he is already embroiled in another legal battle - a protracted contractual dispute with Newey. For a lesser man and team the Senna situation might prove the final straw, especially since Williams is also at present exiled from the Masonic protection of the 1997 Concorde Agreement, by which Formula One is ruled and financed.

Yet, talking calmly over coffee, Williams surveyed the walls of his office in the opulent new factory into which his team moved this year, and invested in the smile that television audiences so rarely see. "Yes," he observed dryly, "you can see all the cracks that have started to open up, can't you? Everything's beginning to crumble..."

The quintessential Englishman, he frequently favours wry humour, and despite appearances to the contrary, this will be no winter of discontent for the man who has just equalled Ferrari's record of eight constructors' World Championships. The continual windmilling motion of his arms, necessary to maintain circulation, is a reminder that Frank Williams has fought a far more significant battle. In 1986 he crashed his road car and sustained injuries which had left him wheelchair bound. Born in South Shields, the son of an RAF bomber pilot and a schoolteacher, Francis Owen Garbutt Williams, 54 going on 55, has always been a fighter.

He is resigned to the indictments, the fact that his team has had less than 20 minutes in which to examine the remains of a car that every Italian engineering student and his grandfather seem to have picked over at leisure. And to the paradox that Roland Ratzenberger's death the same weekend as Senna's does not appear to warrant similar investigation. But he and Head will defend their renowned engineering integrity to the hilt. Both refute absolutely premature allegations that steering failure was the cause. "To the best of my knowledge," he says, "the investigators have taken no account whatsoever of our technical report telemetry.

"We are disappointed at the content of the summons, and we do not believe that the charges are well founded. We will defend ourselves." He paused, then added: "Ayrton's death was very public, and any trial would be, too . . ."

Of the Newey affair, he acknowledges: "We are in dispute over the validity of Adrian's contract. He is not happy and he wants to go. And he wants to go sooner and we say it must be later. Adrian wants to be his own man. It's understandable. A career move." Williams will of course feel the loss, but does not believe it is a catastrophic blow. "We have a lot of very clever people downstairs," he says quietly.

His ability to make hard decisions has earned him few fans, witness the departures of Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and now Damon Hill. But he absolutely refuses to explain his rationale for dropping Hill in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen. "It's a business thing, just something that happened. In simple terms we declined to renew an expiring contract for our own reasons, but I don't want to discuss why. I said I wouldn't, and I won't."

He is equally reticent to discuss his present impasse with the FIA over the terms of the new Concorde Agreement, even though the new television deal that is an inherent part of the document is thought to be worth millions of dollars over the next three years to teams such as his. "There has been a serious misunderstanding and quite a lot of ill feeling," is as much as he is prepared to admit of the situation in which Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell have been isolated by the signatories - Ferrari, Benetton, Jordan, Arrows, Ligier, Minardi and Sauber.

Matters will doubtless be resolved before the 1997 season kicks off, but a massive schism has developed within the Formula One ranks, partly because of the terms of the new agreement and partly because of the manner in which new rule changes have been incorporated. It remains to be seen which side has to capitulate the most before the compromise is hammered out.

Williams adopts the poker face known to television viewers the world over: "It's all part of business. I can cope with it. I'm not losing any sleep over it."

He never relaxes mentally, nor lets complacency distract him. In 1997 he confidently expects Ferrari and Michael Schumacher to be the team to beat. He concedes: "Michael starts half to three-quarters of a second quicker than most, unfortunately. Our core business is winning Formula One races, and it's very difficult."

There are some who say that nowadays he has too much time just to think. But the fear of defeat constantly provides fresh impetus, redefining the focus. In 1996 Hill and Jacques Villeneuve won him 12 more races, but, rather surprisingly, he says: "Next year we may win one, if we're lucky. We really may get a trouncing. You just don't know." And his most revealing comment, and its vehemence and choice of words, provides the real insight into a man who was born to compete. "It really focuses your mind to do everything you can to make sure that nobody is going to piss on you."

He's not a man for being bullied, Frank Williams. Not by his drivers; not his business rivals; and not by the Italian legal system.

The likely legal arguments

Case for the prosecution

Italian law requires that an investigation be held into the circumstances behind accidental death. The magistrate Maurizio Passarini was appointed to instigate the investigation into Senna's death, while Professor Enrico Lorenzini headed a technical inquiry.

In December 1995 Lorenzini was quoted as attributing the accident to faulty welding on the steering column of Senna's car. He denied making the comments but alleged negligence is expected to be the crux of the prosecution's case.

At the same time, indictments have been issued against FIA and circuit officials, alleging negligence.

Case for the defence

Williams strongly denies steering failure, and the technical director Patrick Head has produced on-car telemetry indicating steering input for the full 12.4 seconds between Senna crossing the finishing line to begin his last lap, and the impact with the wall. Williams says the steering column broke in the impact.

Williams is thought to believe privately that the accident was due to a combination of slow running behind a safety car (following an accident on the start/finish line) which lowered tyre temperatures and thus chassis ride heights, thereby making the car bottom out; and a slow puncture picked up from the debris of the accident.