Patrick Head: 'Silverstone is emasculated... it's just another track now'

Brian Viner Interviews: As Formula One touches down for the British Grand Prix, the driving force behind Williams' past success discusses Max Mosley, £90m budgets and how the sport has changed
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The Independent Online

Patrick Head is still a resounding big shot in the world of Formula One, despite moving "sideways", and in truth a little downwards, from the job of technical director at Williams, the company he co-founded with Frank Williams more than 30 years ago, to that of engineering director. So it is a surprise to find him, by his own admission, having to do a spot of "meeting and greeting" at the team's Oxfordshire compound. Our conversation in the company boardroom is scarcely five minutes old when Head receives a call asking him to go to reception. The World Superbike champion James Toseland has arrived, and needs some gladhanding.

This leaves me with the opportunity to study the boardroom walls, proudly festooned with the photographs of all the Williams world championship-winning cars, and their drivers. "It does rather pointedly end at Jacques Villeneuve," says Head, rejoining me.

It was Villeneuve who, in 1997, registered the team's 100th win, in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was at Silverstone, too, where Williams won their first Grand Prix, with Clay Regazzoni in 1979. And Williams drivers – Nigel Mansell twice, Alain Prost, and Damon Hill – won there four years in succession from 1991. So the Northamptonshire circuit has plenty of happy memories for Head, rather begging the question: with Williams having bagged just 13 more Grand Prix wins since Villeneuve won the 100th, and none at all since the last race of 2004, is the hugely distinguished Formula One career of 63-year-old Patrick Head more about the past than the future?

We'll come to that, but first let's focus on Silverstone, where the Grand Prix circus arrives this weekend. I ask whether he is still a fan of the circuit so associated with the team's halcyon years.

"It's very unfair to say so but actually I have to say no," he says. "We used to regard it as our Indianapolis, but the circuit is emasculated from its greater days. Most of the corners apart from Copse have been made much slower, and it's just another track now. I like there to be differences between Grand Prix tracks, and at Silverstone the motorhomes used to be up one end on a grass area. It was like a village. Now it's like everywhere else."

Williams too have lost their distinctiveness; these days they are like everyone who isn't Ferrari or McLaren, back among the also-rans, and since Nico Rosberg's third place in Melbourne the podium finishes that Head predicted at the start of the season have not materialised.

"It's a disappointment," Head admits. "One can't delude oneself in this business, but both at Monaco and in Montreal we were in positions from where potentially we could have got podiums. Except for a little misjudgement from Nico Rosberg, who crashed in both cases, we weren't that far away. We could be sitting here with three podiums which at least puts an S on the end of our single podium."

His eyes twinkle as he says this, but I don't suppose he twinkled much at Rosberg. Head, the son of a colonel, is not known for his easy-going tolerance when Williams employees muck up. Here in the boardroom he is the very essence of genial charm, but it's easy to imagine him going ballistic. He has a loud voice, and precisely articulates every word, which is a joy for a journalist with a tape-recorder, but doubtless less pleasant for anyone on the end of his disapproval.

"We obviously deal with these matters within the team," he says politely, when I invite him to recall the scale of the bollocking he gave Rosberg. "Ultimately we go to a motor race to finish first and second. At the moment our car is not fast enough to do that, but we want to achieve our capability. If we don't then I'm not very happy."

Clearly, Head – whose engineering brilliance Sir Frank Williams generously cites as the overwhelming factor in the team's 16 world championships – still has a considerable emotional investment in Williams, but the word in the pit lane is that his heart is not really in it any more. Is it? "Ermmmm," he says. In our hour together it is his only expression of equivocation. "It's really quite different now," he adds. "In 2004 Sam Michael became technical director, a decision I made because I was and still am, married with two young kids, and although I was putting in 55 hours a week, when we were winning championships I was putting in 90 or 100 hours a week."

Handing the baton to a much younger man made sense, but Head concedes that the baton was dropped. And what a baton it has become. "In our first year we had eight people, in our second year 18, and we won our first Grand Prix at Silverstone with 24. Now we employ 540 or something ridiculous, so purely as a management activity it's a much bigger challenge. Ross Brawn [the team principal of Honda] told me that they have 750 at Brackley and another 100 Japanese, so we're small compared with some of our competitors. We handed to Sam a structure that was me stretching the single pyramid to its absolute limit, and we got into trouble, but we're very happy with Sam. We're not back into Ferrari-beating form, but our reliability is good ... if we don't bump into other cars." I wince on Rosberg's behalf.

Head, meanwhile, hasn't finished on this topic. "I don't ever want to use lack of resources as an excuse, but having £80m or £90m to spend each year is not the same as the £400m spent by Toyota and Honda. We have to cut our cloth very tightly."

What an extraordinary sport this is, I muse inwardly, where £90m a year consigns a team to the poorhouse. Still, as Head says, he's not making excuses. On the other hand, he welcomes the suggestion from Max Mosley – still the president of the sport's governing body despite being revealed by the News of the World to have a penchant for sado-masochism with or without a Nazi theme – that there should be spending limits in Formula One.

There is a clear football analogy, and Head (whose Brazilian wife Betise, once an aide to Ayrton Senna, is responsible for his late-flowering appreciation for football) does not miss it. "The Premier League should have 10 or 12 teams competing, not two or three. It's the same in Formula One. Honda, for example, seem to have unlimited resources. We recently lost an employee, whose salary was doubled elsewhere. A headhunter identified him. Until two years ago, Frank and I never employed headhunters. We disapproved of them. But I confess that we have them, too."

This disdain for headhunters encourages the notion that an old-school ethos permeates the Williams compound, which is perhaps not ideal in a 21st century business. I expect Head to grimace when I say "old-school". Instead, he nods. "Frank is 66, I'm 63. Inevitably we are getting to the end of our sell-by date." In the meantime, they see no reason to embrace new fashions, still less to resort to unethical activities such as industrial espionage. "A lot of Formula One teams now are run by managers, with no equity involvement in the teams. They are called in by the board, and told 'we don't care how you do it, you must win!' The News of the World did its sting job on Max, and more fool Max for getting into that situation, but it wasn't the editor who was responsible, it was the owner. It's the same in this business. The owners are like the editors of red-top newspapers."

Speaking of which, Head and Williams have been conspicuously quiet on the Mosley affair. I ask him to pass judgement. "Well, we have talked about it, and we take the view that we can't approve of whatever Max was supposed to be up to – and he doesn't seem to be denying he was there, he's not saying 'it wasn't my bottom' – but to some extent he's elected by the MSAs [motor sports associations] around the world. It's for them to decide whether he's a proper person.

"Our view is that Max, sometimes with our resistance, has done a number of things in recent years which have been good for this company. It is not in our interests to undermine Max, especially in the light of threats of him being replaced by [Ferrari's] Jean Todt. We have been to many meetings at which he [Todt] has been present representing the interests of Ferrari 100 per cent. He is confrontational, argumentative, and not impartial, everything that the president of the FIA should not be."

The more interesting confrontation, for those of us on the outside, is that between Mosley and his erstwhile close ally, Formula One rights holder Bernie Ecclestone. "It is not," says Head, "about what Bernie thinks of Max's peccadilloes. It's all about money. From what we understand, [the hedge fund] CVC is pressuring Bernie to get the FIA veto [over how the rights are sold] removed from the 100-year agreement. But Max has said he's very happy with it. Like most things, it comes down to money."

And doesn't he think that Formula One, the sport to which he has devoted his entire career, itself just comes down to money in the end?

"No, there are fantastic human, technical and logistical achievements in Formula One. That a massive Red Bull motorhome can be broken down in Monza and be standing there five days later at Spa, and can be brought into Monaco harbour on barges ... the human achievements within Formula One are stunning, and of course the cars themselves are immensely complicated pieces of engineering. There are wonderful people in all the teams, totally committed to their jobs, earning £35,000 a year or even less. But ultimately, to make any big show happen, you need big, brave people at the top."

The big show would undoubtedly have been less entertaining without Williams and Head. "Yes, it has been quite a story along the way. But Frank and I both find it embarrassing that our success is so far behind us. Maybe people think we're delusional, but we're both very keen that we should have a presence among the top three teams before we stand down." A podium finish at Silverstone on Sunday would be a start.