If Ralf Schumacher or Juan Pablo Montoya claims a third consecutive grand prix victory for Williams at Silverstone today, the sense of approval within these few historic square miles of Northamptonshire would be palpable. Not only do that pair represent a concept too frequently lacking in Formula One in recent seasons - that of competitiveness between them- selves as much as with Ferrari's championship leader, Michael Schumacher - but in their team principal, the indefatigable Sir Frank Williams, there exists a vocif-erous champion of the 53-year-old circuit itself.
Silverstone and the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC), who own the circuit, have been routinely castigated by Bernie Ecclestone, ringleader of the Formula One circus. In recent weeks he has described the home of the British Grand Prix as "an embarrassment", claimed that £45m worth of investment had been wasted, and added the chilling reminder: "We don't have to have a race in Britain - why do we need to?"
Is this merely Ecclestone mischief-making, or a more grave threat? "I never try to second-guess Bernie," said Williams, 61, a member of the BRDC. "You normally crash and burn when you do that. There is a plan to improve everything at Silverstone, including new pits, but the money put up so far, it would appear, has been spent on circuit access. Maybe Bernie is just hustling them to get on with [the rest of] it."
He added: "Most of the grand prix teams are located in England [Williams are at Grove, in Oxfordshire], and that means at least 90 per cent of their staff are British. They put in phenomenal work to design and build these cars. They are unsung heroes in the true sense of the words.
"Just to remove the British Grand Prix would hurt them and, I believe, begin the inexorable swing of F1 out of England into Europe. If we start moving the British race and one or two teams move abroad, it'll just keep happening. It would be another step towards sounding the death knell of engineering in Britain. Racing cars will become another thing we don't make here any more. I believe that there is a strong case for government to provide help for the British Grand Prix."
It is uncertain whether earlier government promises to help finance the track will be forthcoming. However, what is vital for F1 is that the sport can rebut accusations that it has become a boring spectacle, with TV viewing figures in decline. "I think we need more exciting overtaking of the calibre and character of Montoya passing [Michael] Schumacher at the Nürburgring three weeks ago," said Williams. "If every team had a Montoya in the team, viewing figures would be sensational. Juan Pablo always does the unexpected. That's why people switch on."
It is five years since Williams last won their "home" event. But successive one-twos at Nürburgring and at Magny-Cours for Ralf Schumacher and Montoya surely bodes well. Not according to Williams. "I don't think our cars will be quite quick enough to beat McLaren and Ferrari," he said. "Anyway, you soon learn in F1 that if you're too cocky you get knocked off your perch. This one will be very hard."
He was speaking after Williams had announced a multi-million sponsorship deal with Budweiser. Not all F1 outfits are as fortunate. Was he not troubled by the possible demise of teams like Minardi?
"Sport's about being the best, isn't it? An enormous number of teams come and go. The fall of one is a magnet for enterprising people, those who think they can do well, like I did. I made it through when others didn't. That's not because I was good at my job; it's because I got lucky. It sounds as though I'm pretty callous. I'm not. I'm just saying that F1 is for the élite. It's meant to be tough."
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