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