Motor racing: Williams ponder the unthinkable

David Tremayne finds the champion team knocked down by the rise of Ferrari
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A Fly on Williams' wall last Monday risked a fearful pounding as Formula One's champion team began the German Grand Prix inquest into their worst performance for a decade.

The pace of Ferrari's development has clearly taken them by surprise, and the two driving errors that saw Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen fail to finish at Hockenheim sounded alarm bells. These became louder as their arch-rival Michael Schumacher scooped six more points to offset his own retirement in the recent British Grand Prix, where Villeneuve scored Williams' 100th victory from 371 starts. The question now arises: what must Williams do to win a title that seems to be slipping away?

Part of Ferrari's new-found speed has been put down to their electronic system of managing engine revs, which some say in effect acts as traction control. It has been declared legal by the FIA, and Williams' technical director, Patrick Head, is in no doubt that Renault will have to develop something similar. "It's wrong to change the interpretation of the regulations in the middle of the season," he said, "but I'm sure Renault will respond."

Williams have their own technical developments, too. "There is a development programme to improve the speed of the car generally," Head said, "but I would say that we all know that we can do better."

He has straightforward ideas about the team's strategy for the remainder of the year. "To be quicker than Michael Schumacher. Both Jacques and Michael are very quick. They're both great fighters, and they are both very determined people, so I think we are going to see a great battle between now and the end of the year. But it comes down to very simple things. Sure, it's true that we made a few mistakes early this year, and the drivers and race engineers have not got the best out of the car. Nobody is pointing the finger at anyone else but we are concentrating on getting focused to achieve that."

Head may not be a betting man, but he remains upbeat: "I am very positive and confident that if we get the best from the equipment we can take a good fight to Michael Schumacher individually, and Ferrari generally, in the Constructors' Championship. We've only once this year finished with two cars; at Magny-Cours where it was not a strong result. It's been a weak year for what we want to achieve, but like all these things, it will depend on reliability or not being in the wrong place when somebody decides to have an accident. We will try to make as few mistakes as we can on the pit wall."

Frentzen's failure to back up Villeneuve's results is part of the problem, and after Hockenheim, where again he expired following a clash with another driver on the first lap, Frank Williams snapped at one reporter enquiring about the German's position: "Don't bore me."

Head concedes that there may be a generation gap between Williams' management and their drivers. "Undoubtedly that is a factor. When you are more than a generation away from somebody it's more difficult to relate well, but we have technicians close to the drivers' age and they can relate more closely. It adds a problem, but it's a problem of life, and is not restricted to motor racing."

Villeneuve's race engineer, Jock Clear, doesn't believe that Jacques needs to change his approach. "There's nothing that we've been doing so far that is any different to what we were doing earlier in the season at Melbourne. He began to feel the pressure around Canada, but that was a small hiccup. It brought the realisation that it's going to be a real fight, but it's far from a clear-cut issue. It will be up and down. Jacques is one of those people who is better when he's got a fight on his hands. He's strong enough psychologically to vie with Michael all the way to the end. We just need to keep doing what we have been doing, as consistently as we can. I'm very confident that Jacques can win the World Championship, and so is he."

A Williams insider who did not wish to be named offered another insight into the situation within the team, which contrasts strongly with Schumacher's style. "After the problems in the first two races of 1994, Ayrton Senna asked Frank if he could address the entire factory, and he told them that the car wasn't bad and that we could still win the championship. It was his way of getting everybody really motivated at a tough time. Earlier this year, when we were having problems, Jacques turned down the opportunity to visit the factory and do something similar to rebuild morale.

"Everyone here is working very hard to win the title, but the personal touch can mean just that little bit more, and it makes people invest even more of themselves. Maybe Jacques needs to recognise that."