Williams are in a bit of a mess at the moment, which is a shame. Not that I have any particular affinity with the team, but they are one of three, along with Ferrari and McLaren, that have been on the grid at every Grand Prix I have been to.
I was there for their first win and for their last with many more in between on their way to seven driver’s and nine constructor’s titles.
There is a whole generation of race-goers who have only known Williams as a top-ranking winning team but this was not always the case. When I first saw them they were very much mid-grid/tail-enders making up the numbers. Their cars were driven by a succession of drivers, some appearing for one race only and no doubt paying handsomely for the privilege.
As a 1975 magazine article put it at the time, ‘Williams are unlikely to ever be Grand Prix winners, but they make a colourful addition to the grid’.
The first Frank Williams entered car I saw was the Iso-Marlboro of Arturo Merzario at the 1974 British Grand Prix where he posted a DNF whilst team-mate Tom Belso failed to qualify the second car. That season six different drivers were used and in 1975 there were no less than eleven. Entry lists for races I attended apart from Merzario and Belso included Jacques Laffite, Mario Casoni, Maurizio Flammini, Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Ian Scheckter, although not all turned up and many of those who did failed to qualify. They did manage to pick up a few points along the way though including a magnificent second place from fifteenth on the grid by Jacques Laffite at the Nordschleife in 1975.
1976 looked like it would be the start of great things. With funding from Walter Wolf, Williams acquired the assets including some of the key personnel from the defunct Hesketh team. The Hesketh 308C as driven by James Hunt was re-branded as a ‘Wolf-Williams’ although the team was still entered as Frank Williams Racing Cars. Jacky Ickx, still a ‘name’ in Formula 1 was lead driver with the second car driven by Renzo Zorzi who was replaced after one race by Michel Leclère.
It was a disaster, the car was hopeless although Leclère fared better than Ickx in the races I saw qualifying both at Zolder and Paul Ricard. But by Brands Hatch he had been dropped to concentrate on a single car entry. Jacky Ickx on the other hand, after a promising third in the non-championship Race of Champions, I saw qualify only once more at Paul Ricard before he too got the chop after another DNQ at the British Grand Prix. The driver merry-go-round continued with eight different drivers employed that year but they could not muster a single point between them. Merzario was back as sole driver for my visit to Monza, posting a DNQ, .
Also by the time i went to Zolder the team had become ‘Walter Wolf Racing’ and Frank Williams was an employee of the team that once bore his name, before he eventually departed the scene.
The 1977 season started without the name ‘Williams’ on the grid. But at the start of the European season a new racing team appeared, ‘Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd’ as it is still known today, entering a year old March driven by Patrick Nève. And so the ‘modern’ era of Williams had begun. The rest as they say is history and within two seasons they were Grand Prix winners and within three, world champions.
The 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone was one of motor racing’s great days as Clay Regazzoni scored the team’s first victory. Everyone seemed genuinely delighted for Frank Williams with the possible exceptions of the Ferrari and Renault teams that is.
Two weeks later I was at Hockenheim to see Alan Jones take his first win for the team and again at Zandvoort. He won two further races and although it was too late for 1979, AJ duly won the driver’s title the following year. The team would have to wait until the following season, 1981, for their first Constructor’s Championship.
The eighteen seasons between 1980 and 1997 saw Williams win their sixteen combined titles and that could well have been more as Carlos Reutemann really should have won the 1981 driver’s title but eventually missed out by one point to Nelson Piquet. For a period throughout the 1990s it was almost a given that whoever was number one driver at Williams would be that year’s World Champion. Ayrton Senna may also have been added to the list, but his Williams career was to be tragically short.
Unlike recent periods of single team domination; Ferrari/Schumacher, Red Bull/Vettel and Mercedes/Hamilton – all of Williams’s titles were won by different drivers.
Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 Championship was the end of their glory years and after that the team slowly slipped down the order. They picked up occasional wins but the next one I saw was at Interlagos 2004 when Juan Pablo Montoya in his last race for Williams took their only win at the season’s final round.
And that appeared to be it until the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. That season’s opening four races had all been won by different drivers and it caused some surprise when Pastor Maldonado’s Williams claimed pole in Barcelona albeit thanks to a grid penalty for Lewis Hamilton. But he did better than that. He won Williams’s first victory for one hundred and thirty races since I had seen their last one in Brazil 2004. And he deserved it, holding off Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari for the final tense fifteen laps.
Williams are now the slowest two cars out there, consistently in every session. Just four years ago I watched Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas running one-two at Silverstone in their resplendant white-liveried, Martini-sponsored cars. They finished third in that year’s Constructor’s Championship and with Mercedes power units and some of the sport’s most respected designers and engineers the future was looking bright.
Since then something has gone seriously wrong somewhere and I fear for their future. just think Lotus and Brabham.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.