Williams F1 keeps its wheels on

IMG_1250Metal wrenches against metal.  Too much time on the trigger.  A baby screams.  Fingers strain as a wheel slugs into place and a hand chops down to mark job done.  The time is unconvincing.

Final chance to slice the margins downwards.  The stopwatch flies – slick and precise.  In the first blur the wheel nut traps in the gun and the brief scramble to realign surges the time to over 35 seconds.   Aspiration deflates … it’s been a coffee and croissants performance suitable only for caravans.

This wheel change attempt was in the warm, carpeted conditions of a staff open day at the Grove headquarters of Williams F1.  There were no cars racing down the pit lane at 60km to 80km an hour – no drivers expecting to leave within a breath of reaching a halt.  This team of amateurs had no idea that Ferrari, current holders of the world record – secured at the Japanese Grand Prix this year,  had achieved a change of barely two seconds.

Last Saturday it was playtime but even so it proved its point – the pinnacle of Formula One is slippery, precise, and still dependent on humans to deliver consistent brilliance.

Thankfully for Williams their performance does not depend on ours.  We were just visitors and we were moved swiftly on towards the wind tunnel and the split-second subtleties of aerodynamics.

Like the rest of the Grove site it all seems effortless and established.  It’s only the conference centre that gives some measure of the endurance and effort needed to secure global recognition.

The conference centre is an unpretentious building but curled into the back of its ground floor are a selection of Formula One cars marking 34 years of Williams F1 motor racing history.  The exhibition is a strange mix of silence, sepia and sleek, static shells that gleam under spotlights.  These are the cars that have carried legends, made history, broken rules and driven advance … and they would not be there without Sir Frank Williams CBE.

Frank Williams, 71, is founder of Williams F1 and the longest serving team principal in the business.   The cars on display are his and they are part of the largest private collection of such cars in the world.

On the walls above the vehicles are the faces and names of the Williams’ drivers.  Not all the drivers have been victorious and two have lost their lives – Piers Courage died at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970 and Ayrton Senna died in an accident on the track at Imola in 1994.  The loss of Senna slashed the soul of racing and to this day all Williams F1 cars are marked at their tip with the Senna S.

In amongst the cars and the driving legends there’s a picture of Frank Williams.  He’s standing and looks relaxed.  He probably was.  1979 saw the first of the Williams victories coming in.  The company website notes that over the next 18 years the team claimed nine constructors’ titles and seven drivers’ championship wins.  It also mentions that in the middle of it all, in 1986, Frank Williams was in the car accident that left him unable to walk.

The accident might have stopped the whole racing adventure.  It didn’t.  That’s the point about Frank Williams and his team – they’re not in the business of giving up and the shiny, fragile, historic collection of cars is complete testament to that.  They bear witness to a man and his racing partners who have just kept building on the brutal frontline of Formula One.

The latest Williams news – Felipe Massa has just signed a multi-year contract with the team, as has Mercedes-Benz who have just agreed a new engine deal.  There’s plenty of change but no sign of slowing down yet.

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