HITTING THE BIG 4-0 IN STYLE
Williams F1 know how to throw a party. Heroes and racing gems from the past drew a huge crowd to a lively (and loud) anniversary shindig at Silverstone
ANTICIPATION HANGS IN THE AIR.
The grandstand opposite Silverstone’s dramatic ‘Wing’ pit complex is every bit as packed as it will be over the weekend of the British Grand Prix, and each person within it is xing their gaze rmly on the line of garages on the other side of the track. Anyone with a phone is pointing its camera in this direction rather than idly scrolling through Facebook.
Within the Wing, four decades of Formula 1 and sportscar historic machinery is barking into life in turn. The familiar growl of Ford’s venerable DFV V8 gives way to the angry squall of a BMW V12, which, in turn, hands over to the high-strung blare of a Renault V10.
To paraphrase Louis Armstrong’s famous quote about jazz music, if you have to ask what makes Williams such a vital part of the past, present and future of Formula 1, you’re never going to know. Such has been the demand for access to this event that Silverstone has made provisions for 50,000 spectators. After all, it’s not every day that an F1 team reaches its 40th birthday, let alone celebrates it by running cars spanning those decades.
And what a fantastic mixture of objects and people this is. Sir Frank Williams had been entering cars since 1969, but 1977 was the denitive Year Zero for Williams Grand Prix Engineering, in which the team elded a solo DFV-engined March 761 for Patrick Nève. Sadly Nève passed away earlier this year, and is one of very few absences today from Williams’ historic driver roster, but his car is here, occupying pole position in a chronological line of 20 that stretches back to the 2017 FW40 and includes curios such as the experimental six-wheeled FW08B.
“The 761 spent years in a museum in Stavelot in Belgium,” explains Mark Higson, who owns and races the ex-Nève March 761. “Patrick was Belgian, and the main sponsor, Belle Vue, was a Belgian beer. The car was restored in 2008 and I bought it two years later. And I’ve been racing it ever since.”
With its shovel wing, exposed radiators, and coil-over shocks hanging in the airstream, the March seems agricultural compared with the car parked immediately alongside it: the car that was its immediate successor, the elegant and neatly integrated Williams FW06. Also admiring the details are Williams’ old hands Neil Oatley – now design and development director at McLaren – Frank Dernie and Ross Brawn.
“When I joined in the winter of 1977 they were just nishing the rst season with the March, so the FW06 was the rst car we built,” says Ross. “It’s pretty special to me. And then the move to the ground-effect cars with the FW07, that was the point where Williams started to lead and win races – and eventually championships. It was a big step on in the status and fortunes of the team and such an exciting time to be part of something like
that. So, yes, these early cars are the ones I’m especially fond of.
“There have been lots of reminders for me today, and some good pointers for Formula 1’s future,” he adds, nodding approvingly both at the line of cars and the massed ranks of fans standing outside the garage. “The engagement with the fans has been fabulous, and something else that’s appealing is the simplicity of the cars.”
Indeed, many of those fans are calling out to him now, so we leave Ross with them to continue his programme of engagement, and run almost immediately into 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, who is contemplating the FW10 in which his father Keke set a fastest-lap record that stood for 17 years. “I only drove for two teams in my F1 career,” he says (perhaps suffering from selective amnesia when it came to recalling that he also drove for Theodore, Wolf, Fittipaldi and ATS...). “So to have been part of the Williams story means a lot. They gave me the big break in my career, and I’m very thankful for that. I’m also a fan of racing history, so I’m just enjoying walking around here and looking. And it’s great to see so many other people here who were part of Williams, including… is that Ross Brawn? Awesome!”
Alex Wurz, sometime Williams racer and now a team advisor, stands between the ground-effect FW08 and the FW08B with a slightly forlorn expression. Had he been holding out for an offer to drive one of these cars?
“Ah, I wouldn’t t in any of them! Some technical directors have told me it would be cheaper to shorten my legs than to modify the chassis…”
In the middle of the line, briey interrupting the F1 ow, stand a number of cars deeply touched by Williams expertise even if they don’t bear the ‘W’ logo: the 1999 Le Mans-winning BMW V12 LMR, Jaguar’s new Formula E
challenger, the Aston Martin RapidE concept car, and the Jaguar C-X75 last seen wreaking havoc on the streets of Rome in Bond movie Spectre. The BMW’s engine cover is off, and today’s driver, Steve Soper (who raced it with JJ Lehto in the American Le Mans Series), has sauntered off for a cup of tea. Meanwhile, Mark Webber is regaling a group of BMW Motorsport technicians with the story of how Sir Patrick Head insisted on shaving several inches from the bottom of the notoriously tall V12 lump. Perhaps it’s a good thing Patrick was in semi-retirement when Alex Wurz was driving for Williams…
Not all the cars are runners – some will see an element of irony in the Honda-engined Williams cars being on static display only – but there’s one that everyone wants to see out on track: Nigel Mansell’s 1992 titlewinning FW14B. Plenty want to drive it, too – ex-Williams drivers including both Rosbergs, Mansell himself, Damon Hill, Antonio Pizzonia, Pastor Maldonado, Martin Brundle and Riccardo Patrese are hovering nearby like bees around a honeypot, along with a Martini-suited Felipe Massa.
“I would love to drive the famous Red 5,” he condes. “An amazing car. But I had some good fun in the six-wheeler – it had a bit of a misre so I had to stop, otherwise I’d have done another two, three, or 100 laps!”
As the FW14B undergoes a last-minute change of fuel tank, Patrese compares notes with a palpably excited Karun Chandhok, the lucky individual due to drive it – if it can be persuaded to run.
“Heritage have had their work cut out,” explains deputy team principal Claire Williams, “because much as these cars are all here and look great, a lot of effort has to go into making them run and keeping them running. Old racing cars can be quite temperamental beasts. The one we really wanted to do was the Williams FW14B, which hasn’t run since 1992, and it’s a very complex machine. There was an issue with it, which is why we didn’t publicise its appearance in advance – we didn’t want to disappoint people. We had all these engineers sitting around the table discussing it, and it was like something out of a lm, as if they were talking about some alien spaceship that had just landed and how they might get it working.”
“HERITAGE HAVE HAD THEIR WORK CUT OUT – OLD RACING CARS CAN BE TEMPERAMENTAL BEASTS” CLAIRE WILLIAMS
One of the main reasons the FW14B hasn’t run since 1992 is that it wouldn’t run. Some electronic gremlin deep within this car, chassis number six, has rebuffed all efforts to return it to working order. Jonathan Williams, who heads up Williams Heritage activities alongside former team manager Dickie Stanford, explains that the car’s resurrection came about with some unlikely assistance.
“We had been talking to Cosworth about restoring other Williams machines for customer use,” he explains, “and we asked them for help with the FW14B at pretty short notice. They came through and it’s now running with a complete Cosworth electronic control system. Which is ironic, considering it was competing against Cosworth products in period. But without their help, it wouldn’t be here today.”
All other activity stops as the Renault V10 engine suddenly res into life. Chandhok belts himself in, and the car exes and jiggles on its suspension as its oleo-pneumatic juices start to ow. Recently appointed chief technical ofcer, Paddy Lowe, one of the architects of the active suspension system back in its day, is documenting every second of the car’s activity on his phone’s camera as the FW14B pulls out of a Silverstone garage for the rst time in a quarter of a century.
Out on track Chandhok roars past us again and again. The signicance of this moment isn’t lost on anyone; when Karun nally guides the FW14B back into the pitlane and cuts the engine, the denizens of the grandstand rise from their seats and applaud.
“I’m buzzing!” says Claire Williams. “It’s been an absolutely brilliant day. What has really made it so special for me has been the fans – to have all these people out here with us to share our 40th anniversary celebrations, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Also here for this very special day, taking in the scene, soaking up the atmosphere and beaming paternally, is the man who started it all: Sir Frank Williams himself. He’s been in poor health recently, but, like the tens of thousands of people who came to Silverstone today, he wouldn’t have missed this for the world.
“WE ASKED COSWORTH FOR HELP WITH THE FW14B AT SHORT NOTICE. IT’S NOW RUNNING WITH A COMPLETE COSWORTH ELECTRONIC CONTROL SYSTEM” JONATHAN WILLIAMS
Familiar F1 faces old and new turned up to view – and, in some cases, drive – a dazzling array of historic Williams machinery, dating back to 1977
Team founder Sir Frank Williams (bottom right) was present to enjoy the 40th anniversary celebrations, which included demo runs of some of the cars
The Williams machine that everyone’s come to see in action is Nigel Mansell’s title-winning FW14B, driven here by Karun Chandhok (above left)