The New Winner In Town
April 24, 2001 | 10:00 A.M. EST
Frank Williams has been fielding Formula One teams since 1973, but it was not until he hooked up with partner and technical director Patrick Head in 1978 that things really took off, once they started to build cars rather than buy them.
Since then, Williams and Head got to know all about winning. Their team earned 103 Grand Prix victories, 108 pole positions, seven Driver’s Championships and eight Constructor’s Championships between 1979 and 1997, but they had a long wait for win 104. They are realistic enough to know that, despite the competitiveness of the Williams BMW this season, the next championship is not quite within their grasp yet.
Prior to Ralf Schumacher's victory in the San Marino Grand Prix on April 15, Williams’s last win was at the hands of Jacques Villeneuve in the Luxembourg Grand Prix at the Nurburgring on Sept. 28, 1997. That was also the last year the team won a championship.
Things changed dramatically for Williams in 1998 as Renault, which had been building phenomenal engines, withdrew from Formula One. In 1998 and 1999 Williams had to make do with "customer" engines, which were the same Renault V10s the team had been using but were now maintained by the Supertec firm. No matter how good the engine was, without factory support it quickly fell behind the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.
"The 1997 season was the end of our contract with Renault, so we then had two years with a customer engine," Head said. "That was not the only reason for our total lack of competitiveness, but for two years we had an engine that had absolutely zero development from the end of 1997."
BMW, which had built engines for Formula One from 1982 through 1987, returned to the series in 2000 as an exclusive partner with Williams.
"Last year was the first year with BMW, so that was certainly an influence on our improved performance," Head said. "We have been forging our relationship with BMW over the last year and a half, and learning to understand them and they have been learning to understand us. I don't know what they think about us, but I think that they have been doing a fantastic job, and this (San Marino) win was impressive."
Michelin made a return to Formula One this year (after providing tires from 1977 through 1984), and Head believes that the French tire maker needs more experience before it can provide a winning tire at every track. And that, he maintains, is one reason why Williams won't be contesting the title with Ferrari and McLaren this year.
"It is just very difficult to think that Michelin can produce the right tire for every track and every circuit condition, wet or dry, in their first year back in F1," Head explained. "It is an unrealistic expectation. We will go to every race trying to get the best result that we can, and we will have to see how it goes."
Like his partner, Williams takes a cautious approach to the team's chances this year.
"We hoped to win one or two or three races this year," Williams said. "We've got one and maybe we will do two more by the end of the season. Those guys (Ferrari and McLaren Mercedes) who are currently the best in Formula One are very, very good. They are tough and they have fine equipment."
While Williams and Head are realistic about their championship chances this year, they are racers and fighters and not about to give up. Asked to sum up the team's chances for winning the title, Williams said: "It's a slim, slim, slim one. But it is not impossible."
Both men believe now that Schumacher has scored his first Grand Prix victory, more wins will follow soon.
"He is already a mature driver," Williams said. "This win will settle him down and give him more confidence. He will know how to win."
Head said he’s worked with talented drivers in the past, and Schumacher is certainly one of them.
"I have seen some pretty good performances from drivers over the years, and to win a championship you have to be a very class driver, and part of that is avoiding problems and staying on the track,” he said. “And all I can say is that Ralf did it perfectly (in Imola), and I suspect that doing it for the first time perfectly helps you a lot really. It tells you that you can do it and gives you an idea of how to go about doing it. What happened to him will be very good for him."
As for the team's other young hot shoe, both Head and Williams have high regard for Juan-Pablo Montoya. Head stresses the fact that it is the team rather than Montoya that has been responsible for the Colombian's lack of track time and finishes this year.
Although they have finally achieved that long awaited victory, Williams believes back-to-back wins in the San Marino Grand Prix and the upcoming Spanish Grand Prix will be difficult.
"We didn't test very strong at all at the last test in Barcelona," Williams said. "We were quite a way off the pace, and that is of some concern."
But, then again, Williams didn't think his team was going to be competitive in the San Marino Grand Prix ... and that is where they experienced that winning feeling again for the first time since 1997.