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Williams and the Future

The customer car row continues to heat up, with Frank Williams pointing out that the concorde agreement for 2008 is not yet a done deal and Gerhard Berger promising to fight the matter in the courts if necessary. One can understand Frank’s point of view – as the last truly independent constructor in F1, he sees his future as threatened by the arrival of customer teams that will be, in effect, B teams for the manufacturers.

FW29

Williams FW29

It does seem that the FIA have chosen to take the B team route and abandon the independent constructor by doing so. This quote from a Reuters article is very telling:

“We’ve signed a Concorde Agreement for 2008 and while it hasn’t been clarified, we’d never been told that customer teams would be included in it,” said Williams.

“That was until (International Automobile Federation president) Max Mosley very charmingly said to me over lunch in December: ‘You do realise, Frank, that your business model is history now?’

“I said ‘What do you mean?’ and Max said: ‘From now on, it’s manufacturers and B teams’.

That makes it pretty clear where Max’s thoughts are heading and he usually gets what he wants. And Prodrive’s Dave Richards agrees that this must be the future:

“Frank is talking this up for one reason only,” the former Benetton and BAR boss told the magazine.

“He can see that his business model — employing 600 people to build a racing car without manufacturer assistance — won’t stack up in the future.

“The business is changing. We need teams at the back given the same cars as Ferrari and fielding promising young drivers. That’s the spectacle we want to see.”

It seems that Frank is swimming against the tide and can expect no help from the FIA in his argument with Toro Rosso and Super Aguri in 2007. Spyker are in a similar position in spite of being owned by a manufacturer; the company is small and has to buy in engines from Ferrari so it looks likely that they too will be defeated by the costs at some time and have to throw in their lot with one of the big boys.

Like it or not, we are seeing the last days of the independent constructor. Unless the FIA changes its mind, the manufacturers and their sidekicks will be the only teams in F1. Frank and Spyker’s Colin Kolles will fight to the last, no doubt, but, even if they win in the courts this year, in the long run they will lose.

It may well be that Williams’ best hope for survival is the one I suggested way back in July 2006 – to become Toyota’s B team. If the new Williams FW29 maintains its impressive form into the 2007 season and they continue to beat the Toyota factory team, it would make a lot of sense for the Japanese giant to merge the teams and save itself a lot of money and embarrassment.

What Spyker will do, however, is anybody’s guess.

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Psychology in Formula One

Honda’s Nick Fry reckons that Juan Pablo Montoya would have fared better in F1 had he raced for a team more sensitive to the driver’s needs. It is certainly true that Williams, Montoya’s first F1 employer, is renowned for having a “robust” attitude towards drivers (although it should also be said that Frank Williams knows a good thing when he sees it – he wanted Senna as a Williams driver for years before the Brazilian finally made the switch). And Juan Pablo’s second team, McLaren, are also regarded as fairly picky when it comes to drivers – if you click with the team, you’ll succeed; if not, you might find yourself out in the cold. Whether Montoya would have done better with Honda, as Nick Fry is suggesting, is a moot point, of course.

Juan

Juan Pablo Montoya

But is it right that a driver should expect to be “understood” and assisted in his weak areas? The old saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” might come to mind at this point. I suppose it depends upon how much potential the driver displays.

Ken Tyrrell was known as the team manager that could build drivers into champions. Any number of drivers benefited from his advice and encouragement but the best example is probably Jody Scheckter. Early in his F1 career, Scheckter was blamed for an enormous pile-up in the British GP and he was labeled as wild and unruly until Tyrrell got hold of him. Under Ken’s guidance, Scheckter developed until Ferrari became interested in him and the result was a world championship.

Scheckter’s early problems were not really the result of a complex psyche, however – he was young and eager, just needing to be restrained and taught patience. The speed was always there. Drivers like Frentzen and Hakkinen were more complicated and needed to feel wanted if they were to give of their best.

Hakkinen had the good fortune to get on well with Ron Dennis and the rest of the McLaren team and his talent blossomed as a result. But Frentzen never felt at ease with the team that gave him his best chance, Williams, and he soon left. It was his bad luck to click only with second rank teams like Sauber and Jordan, achieving some outstanding results with them but never being in with a good shot at the championship.

So is it worth putting time and effort into a driver’s psychology? I think it must be in that a team that is working together without interpersonal stresses is bound to function more effectively than one that is riven by undercurrents of dissatisfaction. Nick Fry is right to think that Montoya could have been handled better and, judging from the patience with which Button and Barrichello are being treated at Honda, it could be that Fry would have brought out the best in the Colombian. Personally, I doubt it, however.

Montoya has an ego the size of Colombia. That is not really a problem, as demonstrated by Michael Schumacher, but Montoya also has a sensitivity to criticism that is completely alien to Michael. Let Juan Pablo hear that he is being blamed for a few accidents and his anger boils over at the injustice of it all. He is what we might call “fairly volatile”.

Whether Nick Fry could cope with a driver who reacts so passionately to criticism remains to be seen. In Barrichello and Button he has two of the most stable and well adjusted drivers in the paddock. Montoya would be a very different kettle of fish.

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And What Of Williams?

While all eyes are focused on Ferrari as they begin their re-organization of the team after the departure of Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn, Williams are quietly undergoing a revolution too. With new financial backing from AT&T, the communications giant, and new employees pouring into the factory, the possibility of a Williams revival presents itself.

Williams

Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head

That is the thing with Williams: you just cannot write them off. They have proved too often in the past that they can compete at the highest level and their dissatisfaction with their results this year, plainly spoken of by Sir Frank and Patrick Head, has increased their determination to make a come-back. Add everything together and you have a team with enormous potential: good finance, fresh blood, Toyota engines and long experience.

The traditional Williams weaknesses remain, however, the most obvious one being their attitude to drivers. Sir Frank has always regarded the driver as just another component to be slotted in and out at will and his replacement of Mark Webber with the much cheaper Alex Wurz is just another example of this. Had the AT&T deal come along sooner, the team might have retained Webber; as it is, their driver line-up for next year looks a little frail.

Yes, Nico Rosberg seems quick, honest and professional. But he is still young and prone to occasional mistakes. So the experience will have to be supplied by Alex and he’s had plenty of it. He is competent and sometimes quick but somehow that extra spark of determination is lacking. What the team needs for next year is a star and I don’t think they have one.

Perhaps the most important part of the equation is the Toyota engine deal. As I have said previously, this may be the first step in a process that results in a Toyota/Williams merger in the future. Toyota is hungry for success and isn’t getting it; Williams miss past glories and want them back. If the two teams can combine their talents, they might both achieve their ambitions.

Looking into my crystal ball, I see 2007 as an important year for Williams. Never mind the championships, constructor’s or driver’s; their aim must be to beat the Toyotas. If they can do that, their future is assured.

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Frank Williams on Customer Cars

Autosport reports that Frank Williams has come out against the possibility of customer cars returning to F1. The FIA have turned down Super Aguri’s request to run this year’s Honda as their car in 2007 but it seems there has been some discussion on freeing up the rules in this area.

It is hard to see why Frank is so set against the idea. He makes the point that anyone with lots of money could buy a Renault, for instance, and be immediately competitive next year. Perhaps he has memories of Ferrari buying the Lancia cars in 1956 and making them into race winners. Since that time, however, no customer car team has enjoyed much success. On occasion, Rob Walker and Ken Tyrrell came close to race wins with bought-in machinery (okay, I know – Ken managed March’s only win in the year he ran their cars) but they were never serious contenders in the championship.

D50

Lancia-Ferrari D50 in 1956

And Frank himself had many a long year of struggle with customer cars before he broke through by making his own. The fact is that the pace of change in F1 is so great that last year’s machinery does not stand a real chance of winning. Even if you bought this year’s Renault, the factory team would produce something much better for themselves in 2007 and you’d be left in the dust.

The best argument against customer cars is that there isn’t room for them. There are constructors who would love to get into F1 but have to wait until given the nod by the FIA. And that doesn’t happen unless some existing team drops out. At which point, of course, the departing team is bought out by another concern and there are still no gaps on the grid.

Frank does mention the matter of Red Bull/Toro Rosso, however. This is a much more interesting subject; in effect, it could be said that Red Bull are running a four-car team. As long as the chassis are designed separately by each team, it would appear to be legal but, if they cut corners by using the same chassis, merely having a Ferrari engine in one and a Renault in the other, there are bound to be protests from the other teams. And that would be a particularly thorny issue for the FIA to sort out.

Personally, I would like to see customer teams return to F1; they make the mix more interesting and, on rare occasions, can cause upsets by scoring points. But I just don’t see how there can ever be room for them as long as the manufacturers remain in the sport.

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