Williams' wrong turn

David Tremayne says the grand prix team must forget internal tensions
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EARLIER this year, when Damon Hill had the temerity to criticise his car's reliability, the team owner, Frank Williams, snapped: "This is a team that wins together and loses together." But that sentiment seems to have been absent of late.

As their challenge to Michael Schumacher and Benetton has crumbled, Williams have turned on themselves in an unseemly and often quasi-public harangue. The internal friction has done nothing for Hill's performances. "The trouble is," one observer said at last week's Japanese Grand Prix, "that Williams is run on the lines of a minor public school, where miscreant boys are given cold showers."

Lately there have been rumours that Williams wants to sell Hill and buy in Gerhard Berger or the German Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who many believe to be faster than even Schumacher.

Williams has had worse times, but it has been a tough fortnight. A week after losing the drivers' world championship, his team lost the constructors' title as well, and that is the title that really counts to Frank and his partner, the technical director Patrick Head. Now some of the criticism that has been aimed at Hill has been focused on Williams' stewardship. All of which is unpalatable for a man who takes a deep and justifiable pride in his company's achievements.

Williams has always been a fighter. Even when the Austrian magnate Walter Wolf took over his team in 1976 and booted him out, he returned with a deal that enabled him to build a new team - Williams Grand Prix Engineering. The first victory came in 1979, the first world championship a year later. After the road accident in 1986 that left him paralysed, Williams said: "I never had a moment's self-pity; it was my own bloody fault."

Lately he has played his cards so close to his chest that they have been embedded in his ribcage, but the bottom line is that this often indecisive man made his moves for 1996 too soon. Pressured by other parties, he agreed to take the IndyCar champion, Jacques Villeneuve, and elected to drop David Coulthard. At the time, keeping Hill was the right decision, for he was performing the better of the two, even though Coulthard later came on strongly.

It was the timing that was wrong, and that was compounded when Williams failed to seek the services of either Berger or Frentzen when they were available in mid-season. For a swap of Hill for Berger at Benetton to be feasible, Hill would have to agree to a buy-out. He has made it clear that he is not prepared to do this.

Last week he reiterated his unwillingness: "I fully intend to stay with Williams and win the world championship with them next year. There are some things which cannot be bought and respect is one of them."

But if Hill's recent performances have been unconvincing, then Williams' pitwork, strategy and reliability have also been questionable. Only its engineering excellence cannot be faulted, but that is only part - albeit a vital part - of the package. Frank Williams has already made his bed for 1996. How comfortable it proves will partly be a product of the team's ability to forget its internal squabbles, regroup and face the future fighting - with Hill as the lead driver.They must also kill the virus of self- destruction that periodically threatens their runs of success.