Profile: Driven by a clear vision: Frank Williams: Richard Williams studies the successful formula of the focused man of grand prix racing

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The Independent Online
SIX MONTHS ago this weekend, Frank Williams sat helpless in the pits at Imola watching tragedy unfold on his TV monitor. From a helicopter hovering a few hundred metres away, a lens was trained on the wreck of Ayrton Senna's car, lying in the middle of the racetrack. Alone in all the world, the camera held an unflinching gaze. 'Three minutes . . . five minutes . . .'

Williams recalled last week how the low point of a dark season seemed to last for ever.

'Those good old Italian TV cameras never left him alone,' he continued.

'Television is a major reason for the sport's success, but it's also a problem we have to face. When Ayrton was killed, it was immensely public. It was terrible. But we can't have it all ways.'

In the third race of the season, Williams lost his new team leader, the greatest driver of his generation, and a man with whom he looked certain to share further glory. Suddenly, bracketed by the death of Roland Ratzenberger the previous day and the accident to Karl Wendlinger two weeks later, Senna's death turned Formula One's travelling circus in on itself.

'We're always a bit introspective,' Williams said, 'in that we're too self-important, forever concerned about our own problems. But I guess that's just a manifestation of people being very competitive, having to succeed because in Formula One the price of failure is so great.'

But this time the questions were bigger, more philosophical: why are we here, what's it all for?

'To be truthful,' Williams continued, 'I've never thought like that. I've never asked myself what it's for. And I would doubt that other people . . .

well, most people in this business only care about the next race, and how to avoid today all the mistakes you made yesterday. Philosophically, there are times, speaking personally, when you think . . . losing a driver, yes, that makes you be philosophical. But there's never any question about your motivation, or about carrying on. There's not much self- examination on that, to be frank. Speaking for myself only.'

And now Williams and his team are preparing for the final chapters of this season's story, to be played out over the next two weekends in Japan and Australia, where his new No 1 driver, Damon Hill, has an outside chance of overtaking the championship leader, Michael Schumacher, who has revealed himself during the course of the season as the heir to Senna's pre-eminence among his peers. A crushing win for Schumacher and a poor showing by Hill in Suzuka next Sunday would put a premature end to the story, but at the moment a season of trauma and tears still holds out the promise of suspense.

'Oh, it's certainly going to be a season that will not be looked back on fondly or with great pleasure by most of the participants,' Williams said, 'because there was too much unpleasantness of one sort or another. But on the positive side we did see the emergence of a man who is going to be, to use a hackneyed phrase, one of the all-time greats. The guy, unfortunately - unfortunately because he's not here at Williams - is brilliant.'

Williams was talking in his office at the team's headquarters in an industrial estate spread beneath the cooling towers of Didcot power station.

He was strapped to the standing frame which he sometimes uses instead of the wheelchair to which quadriplegia condemned him after a road accident in 1986, at the age of 44. He was wearing the headset through which he takes phone calls, a lightweight version of the apparatus that enables him to listen in to the conversations between his drivers and engineers during a race. Below the neck only his arms moved, meaninglessly. But the thin, sharp, green-eyed face was throwing up an endless succession of expressions so vivid and intense that sometimes it was hard not to stop listening to his words and just watch the kaleidoscope of masks. That's the face you see in the pits, on TV: the visible expression of a mind in which all extraneous thought has been cancelled. In repose, that face assumes a blankness that appears tragic; to see it quickened into thought is impressive; to see it break into a sudden smile is like a miracle.

One of his main rivals, McLaren's Ron Dennis, once suggested that the disability had actually made him more formidable, since it allowed him to devote all his energy to the complex intellectual demands of running a top Formula One team. In that case, Williams responded, would Dennis care to swap places? But there may have been something in it, there was a sense of history in the making when Senna joined the team last winter. Yet when they got to Brazil for the season's first race, they were shocked by the realisation that their new car was inferior to Schumacher's Benetton.

'Yes. We were not on the pace. The car was too new. We knew we had a fight on our hands, but that's the nature of our business. You're on top, you're looking good, everybody said, 'Williams, Senna, no problem for the championship' - not true. Ayrton's most remarkable attribute, in my opinion, was his ability to concentrate, to focus - which was his word - on the process of getting the best, with his engineers, out of the racing car. An amazing power of mental application. I've never seen a driver apply his mind so thoroughly as Ayrton. No contest. We've had some great drivers here, of whom we have some very fond memories, but Ayrton was without doubt the most committed in a racing car. And it was coming right when we lost him.'

At which point a double burden descended on his understudy, Damon Hill, who had to take control of the car's development while fighting off Schumacher.

He responded, Williams said, 'with sang-froid . . . and grit. He never talks much about it. But he's had a troubled season in his mind. He drove by his team-mate at Imola, not at the time knowing he was dead, but he was in the same race in the same type of car . . . that sort of thing makes an enormous impression on a driver. He had a lot on his mind. He doesn't talk a great deal, doesn't our Damon. He doesn't complain about it. And look where he is, in his second year: right up there.'

Senna's death brought a double response from Renault, Williams's engine supplier. First they pressed for Nigel Mansell's return to the team at the expense of the promising young David Coulthard. Then they established links with Benetton - and, crucially, Schumacher - for 1995, ending Williams's exclusive claim to Formula One's most powerful engine. Neither move was greeted with rapture in Didcot, but Williams had to swallow his pride. 'It's not ideal,' he said. 'But I've always recognised that it's Renault's engine, and we respect their wishes.'

Mansell, he noted, was a changed man when he rejoined the team at Magny-Cours in July. 'He was less overtly aggressive, but just as determined. That weekend in France I remember not just his speed in qualifying but his mental attitude. He was cracking jokes, pulling the mechanics' legs. He lifted the team up, no question about that. He was definitely a worthwhile addition to the team from that point of view.

'I don't really want to talk too much about Nigel. But I will say I've always suspected that he's never felt at ease in a Formula One paddock. He's always felt that he must stay on his guard, that he has many enemies - and I believe these are imagined enemies - who are trying to pull him down. But when he's feeling relaxed and safe among people he's happy to be with, he's quite different. Then he shows a lot of enthusiasm.'

Enthusiasm has never been a problem for Frank Williams, who came into grand prix racing 25 years ago as an impecunious privateer, fuelled only by his love of the sport. This season, his chief opponent has been Flavio Briatore, the Benetton boss, a flamboyant jet- setter who knew nothing about the sport when he arrived in its midst five years ago, and who has since trodden on many toes.

'I don't much like being beaten by anybody, whatever they're like,' Williams observed. 'But I recognise that he has a lot of talents. He's made a few mistakes this year, probably as many as I have, and fallen on his face a few times, but he's also learnt a great deal and it will only make him wiser and more formidable as an opponent. It's a very fine team over there. Very good at marketing. Even better at their technology, unfortunately. They've given us a very hard run for our money. The only thing that gives me any comfort is that when you're on top, it's very difficult to stay up there. He'll already be feeling threatened.'

It's been a long six months, and few will be sorry to see an end to the season. How is it going to finish? The green eyes glittered.

'Very difficult to beat Michael. But not impossible. If he stumbles, we'll get him. Which way the dice will go, I don't want to predict. Because I don't know. Except that it's going to be close.'

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