Williams left blowing in the wind

Frank Williams will be absent from the trackside at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and, though this is not a unique occurrence for the 62-year-old team principal, it is certainly highly unusual.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair for the past 19 years after a car crash in France left him paralysed from the chest down, more often than not it has been business as usual in the formula one pit lane for this iconic figure who attracts universal admiration within his chosen sport.

“Saving money,” he said wistfully with a faint smile by way of explanation, and he is right. The Williams formula one squad have been on the back foot for the past three seasons, never quite achieving the consistent performance breakthrough that their status as a top team really justifies.

In an attempt to rectify that situation Williams sold their private Falcon 900 executive jet last year, a decision that freed up an additional £10,4-million to invest in the team’s infrastructure, in particular a second wind tunnel that has recently been commissioned at their Oxfordshire headquarters.

“Selling the plane really proved what a racer Frank is,” said Jackie Stewart, the former triple world champion. “Formula one is his whole life and there’s nobody in the business who deserves a private jet more than he does.”

On the face of it 10 grand prix wins achieved since the start of 2001, in partnership with their engine suppliers BMW, seems a pretty impressive tally.
But anything short of a world championship challenge is simply not enough for Frank Williams, and he is bracing himself for more initial disappointment this year.

He has serious reservations about the immediate prospects of the Williams FW27, to be raced for the first time by Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld on Sunday, after the car struggled to keep pace with the McLaren and Renault opposition during the last pre-season test sessions. Problems correlating results from the new wind tunnel mean that Williams still have a 45-day backlog of aerodynamic components that have to be tested and assessed.

Despite this Williams is quick to reiterate his confidence in Sam Michael, the 33-year-old Australian engineer who took over the role of technical director from the team’s co-founder, Patrick Head, last year.

“Sam is a very tough and hard-working character,” he said. “He has 101% of my confidence. Patrick works very well with him and is a good guiding light for him, but Sam puts in a lot of effort and is a very good man indeed.”

Williams also believes that Michael and his engineering team have already forged a strong working partnership with Webber, the 28-year-old former Jaguar driver who leads the team paired with Heidfeld. “Mark puts a lot into the team and we like that,” said Williams.

“He works very hard and has integrated easily into being a member of the group. That’s very positive.”

Antonio Pizzonia is due to stay on as the team’s official reserve and test driver. Yet Williams’s immediate concerns for the future stem more from the sport’s political instability rather than from any short-term performance deficit of his own cars.

He and seven other teams are now firmly entrenched on one side of what seems a yawning chasm with the car manufacturers’ group GPWC, while Bernie Ecclestone, the formula one commercial rights holder and custodian of the official International Automobile Federation (FIA) world championship, is ranged on the other side together with Ferrari.

Williams is an old hand at formula one politics. Twenty-five years ago he lined up behind Ecclestone as the British teams became embroiled in a confrontation with the then FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre over who had rightful claim to the sport’s commercial income.

The Ecclestone camp won the day, then operating under the collective banner of the Formula One Constructors’ Association. In those days Ecclestone’s legal adviser was Max Mosley, who would eventually oust Balestre in 1991 to win the FIA presidency.

Since then, Williams believes, Mosley has become too interventionist. “Formula one has never been like this before,” he said, “even back in 1980 when we all fought a war against Max’s predecessor. But Balestre never tried to interfere so much in the daily life of the teams.

“Max will not leave things alone. He is in charge and, if you stand up to him, he can cause you a lot of trouble. He’s very difficult to handle and very driven. He is always lecturing us as to how we should be running our businesses.”

He continued: “I think what we have realised is the best way of surviving and having our rights upheld is by sticking together. Bernie has always exploited us by trying to split us and splinter us to get better deals.” — Â

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