Au­thor­ity, wit and in­tel­li­gence from the voice of F1 Rac­ing


Forty years ago, al­most to the very week, I stood by the re­volv­ing door of the crazy São Paulo Hil­ton, cap­ti­vated by an ebul­lient Frank Wil­liams. Dark blue polo shirt, dark blue trousers, neatly pressed. The usual Ros­setti loafers, black leather belt. It was Brazil­ian Grand Prix Fri­day.

“I tell you, Peter, I’ve had enough,” said Frank. “No more fetch and carry for Mr Wolf [Cana­dian oil mag­nate Wal­ter Wolf, who had bought Frank’s F1 team at the end of 1975]. You know what he had me do­ing the other day? He had me at Heathrow, pick­ing up one of his friends and driv­ing him into town. That’s not me. I don’t need it that badly.” “So what are you go­ing to do?” “I’m ying back to Eng­land to­day. I’m go­ing to nish with Wal­ter and start my own team again. And this time I’m go­ing to get it right. Do you know Pa­trick Head? The lad who de­signed the Scott F2 car? He’s been with us un­der Har­vey Postleth­waite for the past year. Top man. Works so hard that I found him asleep in one of the cars be­fore the race in Ja­pan. Any­way, I’m do­ing it with Pa­trick. He’ll be with me not just as a de­signer, but as a part­ner. That’s the fu­ture. Engi­neer­ing. I’m go­ing to have ‘engi­neer­ing’ in the name of the new com­pany. ‘Wil­liams Grand Prix Engi­neer­ing Team,’ or some­thing like that. With­out an en­gi­neer it can’t be done; I know that now. And Pa­trick’s the man. We’ll start small and grow from there and try to do our own car next year. Don’t for­get, though: engi­neer­ing. That’s what F1 is go­ing to be all about… engi­neer­ing.”

And, with that, he was off. Soft leather bag in one hand, bat­tered, black, square-cor­nered brief­case in the other. Frank Wil­liams. Off to con­quer the world. Off to pound pave­ments, search­ing for loot with which to nance the engi­neer­ing.

Frank did it, of course. He and Pa­trick Head rose to be­come the most suc­cess­ful combo in the his­tory of F1, a vir­tu­oso dou­ble­act repli­cated in re­cent years only by the suc­cess of Chris­tian Horner/Adrian Newey. The key, as Frank had ex­plained in Brazil, was Pa­trick – or was it some­thing more? Of course it was.

The real key, so ob­vi­ous at the time that we all took it for granted, was longevity. Frank not only made it his busi­ness to nance Pa­trick’s engi­neer­ing (and then hire the best driv­ers he could – in that or­der) but he also made it his pri­or­ity to keep Pa­trick happy. That was his golden rule. As log­i­cal as this sounds, con­sider the con­text: Enzo Ferrari at that time was con­stantly spar­ring with his own ex­cel­lent tech­ni­cal leader Mauro Forghieri; Colin Chap­man was for­ever say­ing good­bye to such tal­ents as Len Terry and Mau­rice Philippe. Guy Ligier would strike gold in early 1979… but he wouldn’t be able to keep the Brut-wear­ing, Gi­tanes-smok­ing, in­croy­able Gérard Du­carouge from walk­ing out the door. So it is in For­mula 1. Team own­ers dic­tate; en­gi­neers come and go.

Pa­trick, of course, could never sus­tain the same level of per­for­mance, but he grew very good at del­e­gat­ing to such tal­ents as Adrian Newey, Ross Brawn, Neil Oat­ley, En­rique Scal­abroni and Paddy Lowe, and was even able to move grace­fully aside for the likes of Mike Cough­lan, Mark Gil­lan, Sam Michael and Pat Symonds. Al­ways, though, he was there, in the back­ground.

Only now, 40 years on, is Sir Pa­trick nally cut­ting his le­gal ties with Wil­liams, trans­fer­ring, as I un­der­stand it, his stake in the team to Pa­trick ‘Paddy’ Lowe – about the only per­son in the world, I should think, to whom Pa­trick would be happy to sell.

The irony is that Paddy be­gan his F1 life at Wil­liams and is now re­turn­ing as a vastly more ex­pe­ri­enced en­gi­neer, but oth­er­wise, the same plain-speak­ing man as be­fore. Along the way there have been win­ning stints for Paddy at both McLaren and Mercedes, af­ford­ing him the sta­tus – if you in­clude be­ing head of engi­neer­ing at McLaren above tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors like Cough­lan – of be­ing the most suc­cess­ful F1 en­gi­neer of all time.

The cir­cuitous route home? I guess Paddy’s orig­i­nal de­par­ture from Wil­liams to McLaren was un­der­stand­able: Paddy has al­ways wanted to do much more than ‘tech­nol­ogy’; he is drawn to ev­ery as­pect of rac­ing and is par­tic­u­larly good at man­ag­ing (ie un­der­stand­ing) peo­ple, be they en­gi­neers, driv­ers, me­chan­ics, truck­ies or gofers. Paddy had moved to McLaren in the hope that he could be­gin to play the larger role; McLaren failed to re­alise this. He ended up run­ning the car but star­ing at an­thracite walls rather than into the eyes of the peo­ple with whom he wanted to work.

Amaz­ingly – and I say this be­cause too of­ten in F1 we see very tal­ented, well-rounded peo­ple sink­ing with­out trace – his all-round tal­ent was ap­pre­ci­ated by Alex Wurz, who rec­om­mended Paddy to Wil­liams’ lat­est share­holder, Toto Wolff. With Pa­trick Head nod­ding in ap­proval, Toto could see the logic of invit­ing Paddy back to Wil­liams as deputy team prin­ci­pal un­der Frank. Paddy loved the con­cept.

Then it all changed. Toto saw an open­ing rst at Ferrari – and then at Mercedes. He joined the Ger­mans. Paddy wanted to main­tain the Wil­liams deal, but in Toto’s ab­sence the ground rules quickly changed. He would be tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor only; the deputy team

“There’s only space at the top for one man, and that man isn’t go­ing to be an en­gi­neer”

prin­ci­pal role was no longer on the ta­ble. Egos en­tered the frame.

The phone rang. It was Toto. Let’s do Mercedes! Paddy agreed. They would be his calls on the pit­wall; it would be his fac­tory to run. Toto would han­dle the Mercedes end of things. It would be Frank and Pa­trick, 21st-cen­tury-style. And, of course, it worked per­fectly: six world cham­pi­onships over the course of three glo­ri­ous sea­sons. It wasn’t all Paddy: Ross Brawn’s fin­ger­prints are still ev­ery­where at Mercedes, and many bril­liant peo­ple at Brack­ley pre-date Pa­trick Lowe.

The re­sults, though, are un­de­ni­able: part-en­gi­neer, part-man­ager-of-peo­ple, Paddy was able to ex­tract the best from ev­ery­one who mat­tered at Mercedes. Driver spats aside, the team ran as smoothly as any F1 team at its best has run at any time in his­tory.

Un­til the ex­plo­sion. Un­til they broke the golden rule. Paddy’s con­tract came up for re­newal at the end of 2016, but in­ex­orably the Toto/Paddy bal­ance be­gan to shift. By the au­tumn, even though he wanted to stay on and con­tinue to win with­out dis­trac­tion, Paddy could sense that his time was up. James Al­li­son came into the frame as tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor and Toto clearly wanted more of Paddy’s non­tech­ni­cal ter­ri­tory. Call it am­bi­tion. Call it board­room pol­i­tics. There’s only space at the top for one man, and that man isn’t go­ing to be an en­gi­neer. It’s the law of the F1 jun­gle.

Mercedes are chang­ing some­thing that didn’t need to change. It’s like the F1 Strat­egy Group mak­ing it eas­ier for cars to over­take by spec­i­fy­ing big­ger tyres, higher cor­ner­ing speeds and shorter brak­ing dis­tances. So now Wil­liams have another chance – and I hope they make it work this time. I hope the goal is to give Paddy ev­ery­thing he needs to get the whole job done through to the long-term. For that is what good man­age­ment is all about. That was in the air in São Paulo, ’77. That is the legacy of Frank and Pa­trick.

Frank Wil­liams with Paddy Lowe at the 1992 Por­tuguese Grand Prix. Lowe was em­ployed at Wil­liams as joint head of elec­tron­ics, and worked on the de­vel­op­ment of ac­tive sus­pen­sion

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