Motor Racing: Williams will keep eyes on the road

Derick Allsop assesses the chances of the champions retaining their drivers' and constructors' F1 championship
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The Independent Online
If tunnel vision is a prerequisite for world championship success, then Williams-Renault can abandon all hope of retaining their drivers' and constructors' titles this season. The concerns and possible ramifications of the Ayrton Senna trial, the legal wrangling over the future of their chief designer, Adrian Newey, and a heavy-duty political dispute within Formula One ought to be enough of a distraction for any organisation.

Frank Williams, founder and patriarch of this remarkable racing operation, glumly contends the trial and tribulations could take their toll and no one would be so insensitive as to suggest this is "just crafty old Frank, laying it on".

But such is the order and structure of what is, after all, an engineering firm, such is the ingrained expertise, that it is difficult to imagine it could be deflected so significantly off course. Once the racing team are at the race track, the competitive impulses take over, and once Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen are strapped into their cars, the mission to win grands prix will be all-consuming.

Williams' performances in testing indicate their drivers are again likely to win on a regular basis this season. Some observers believe the champions are in even better shape than they have been prepared to let on, that Williams has instructed his drivers not to show their hand.

That would not be surprising and the other half of the old double act, Williams' long-time technical wizard, partner, confidant and friend, Patrick Head, smiles off the speculation with a comment: "We just get on with doing our own thing."

Smiling is an emotional excess Williams is not renowned for, as Head acknowledges: "People say to me, 'That partner of yours is the most miserable bugger, why doesn't he ever have a smile on his face?' I tell them he's not. You should have seen him when they had him in that Renault Espace and whisked him round Silverstone. He was smiling then all right."

For those of us fortunate enough not to be in a wheelchair, it is impossible to comprehend the distress Williams has to endure, not least when a television camera is constantly focused on him. He once confided he found that a source of considerable discomfort.

But then engage him on level terms, on a wide range of topics and especially on motor racing, and the conversation flows and the grin is ear-to-ear. He is an intelligent, articulate, quick-witted man. He is also a hard- nosed boss who is not afraid to make tough and controversial decisions. Ditto Head. The difference is that Head finds it less easy to suppress what he thinks and sometimes that makes crafty old Frank squirm.

So it is that while Damon Hill may despise both of them for dropping him at the end of last season, Head is the one he derides for his "outrageous and hilarious" opinions. Williams admits he may have made a big mistake in replacing the world champion with Frentzen, and Head has hinted they might not have done so had they not been committed to an existing agreement with the German.

Down the years, Williams have fallen out with a number of their drivers. Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost all departed as champions. They have certainly made stubborn stances over money or the ranking of their drivers. Some contend their laissez-faire policy with Mansell and Piquet cost them the championship in 1986. Hill argues it cost them in 1995. Head concedes that his man management has not been of the highest order. Again, for example, Hill.

Williams put the team first, reminding us that drivers come and go while most of the rest remain loyal to the factory cause. You do sense, however, they relish any opportunity to cut a driver down to size and emphasise the excellence of their car.

You can, of course, afford to embrace that doctrine when you win as consistently as Williams do. Last season they equalled Ferrari's record of eight constructors' championships. They can afford, also, to maintain that they cannot afford the best driver in the world.

It is just as well for the Formula One show that Michael Schumacher joined Ferrari rather than Williams, and there is no doubt that piece of business had the blessing of grand prix racing's marketing man, Bernie Ecclestone.

Williams drools over the talents of Schumacher, much as he did over Senna's, but it is not part of a driver's make-up to concede the next man is better and neither Frentzen nor Villeneuve appreciate the on-going Schumacher eulogy. Head revealed that Villeneuve "scowls when he hears everybody regard Schumacher as the man," but was adamant: "If Schumacher had the best equipment he'd have to be favourite."

He went on: "We've got a car that is capable of winning the championship but I'm not fully satisfied it will be reliable at the first race. Jacques has all the armoury in terms of skill, brain power and race craft to get the job done, and would have to be one of the favourites.

"Jacques has brought his oval experience into Formula One and I was amazed that in Japan, at the final race last season, he was able to go through a certain corner at 130-ish - flat. He came back grinning, saying: 'Told you it is possible to do it flat'.

The racer in 25-year-old Villeneuve has patently won the approval of the racer in Head, and indeed, in Williams. Frentzen, 29, is a less obviously cavalier character, but then the racing has yet to start.

Williams said: "He's a quiet person, hasn't sworn at the mechanics yet. But that doesn't mean he's too gentle. We've not seen him under pressure yet."

Head summarised: "I think Jacques and Heinz-Harald will be very similar in lap times in qualifying, but Jacques could have the edge in the races."

Williams and Head admit they wonder how long they can retain their competitive edge. "We'll have to go some time," Williams said, "and we've been thinking about it. It may be two years, or 15 years. I don't know. I just hope it's well down the road yet."