How Frank Williams started his eponymous F1 team after Wolf split
The previous season, Frank had hooked up with wealthy Canadian oil entrepreneur Walter Wolf. After seven years of endless financial struggle his dreams appeared to have come true as he finally found a generous benefactor.
Wolf acquired the cars and assets of the defunct Hesketh team, rebadging the 308C as the Wolf-Williams FW05. However the 1976 season was to be a disaster, as the cars were hopelessly uncompetitive.
The ambitious Wolf had commissioned Harvey Postlethwaite, who’d come as part of the Hesketh deal, to design a brand new car for 1977.
Then at the end of ‘76 he brought in ex-Lotus man Peter Warr as team manager. Erstwhile boss Williams was given the position of sponsorship finder, and he thus found himself being edged out of the organisation that he’d founded as Frank Williams Racing Cars. When the Wolf team took its new WR1 to Argentina in January 1977 and Jody Scheckter won, he was not present.
Frustrated at being edged out, Williams quit the Wolf operation and decided to start afresh, setting up a company he called Williams Grand Prix Engineering. After all those years of hard graft since his debut with Piers Courage in 1969, he had nothing, having lost his hard-won FOCA membership in the Wolf deal.
However he had made contact with Belgian driver Patrick Neve, who had sponsorship from the Belle Vue brewery concern, so there was light at the end of the tunnel. After achieving reasonable success in FF1600 and F3 in Britain, Neve had found an F1 chance with RAM in early 1976, making one start in his home race at Zolder. He also raced for Ensign in France, while Bernie Ecclestone asked him to drive a works Brabham-Alfa around the streets of Birmingham as a taster for the F3000 race which finally happened 10 years later.
After concluding the deal with Frank, Neve had an outing in the International Trophy F2 race at Silverstone, in which he put in a sensational performance to finish third. Alas, that form was never backed up in his F1 outings, and it was later speculated that his car wasn’t quite on the weight limit that day.
Meanwhile Frank found a modest extra sum from a man who represented Saudia Airlines, and was convinced that his bosses would like Grand Prix racing.
Patrick Head and Frank Williams at the launch of the Williams FW06 at their new Factory
Photo by: Sutton Images
Williams had an ace up his sleeve in the form of Patrick Head, who he’d initially brought to Williams at the end of 1975, just before the Wolf deal was done. Then working under Postlethwaite on the WR1 project, Head was tempted by the challenge of designing a car from scratch for the following season.
“I was still at Wolf and was actually at a test in South Africa,” Patrick recalls. “Frank rang me up and said, ‘I’ve started up again. We have a budget to do 10 races, do you want to come along and join?’ I said I’d think about it, and tell him when I got back.
“I think the time had come to do my own thing really. For the first year we’d use somebody else’s car, and then do our own for 1978. However, I don’t think I thought much beyond the first year.”
Patrick Neve, Williams Belle-Vue Saudi March 761
Photo by: Sutton Images
Frank’s main task was to find a second-hand chassis. He opted for a March 761, and having paid Max Mosley the princely sum of £14,000, he acquired four used Cosworth DFVs at bargain prices.
The next step was to find a suitable factory, and he settled on Unit 10, Station Rd, Didcot in Oxfordshire, a premises that had once been considered as a home for Wolf. There were delays in getting the paperwork completed, but on a date which remains etched in Head’s mind, they moved in… prematurely.
“I forget why we didn’t have a key,” says Head. “We were just desperate to get going. We had the Spanish GP coming, so we broke in on March 28, 1977. The factory had the most filthy floor. It had been a carpet warehouse or something. It had no machinery, no equipment, nothing. It needed everything setting up, and we were just desperate to get going.”
In early May the team set off to Jarama: “We had a slightly dippy truck driver. Wolf had this great, gleaming blue truck, and at our first race our guy happened to reverse into it and do a considerable amount of damage…”
In Spain Neve qualified a humble 22nd, and finished 12th, four laps down on winner, Lotus’ Mario Andretti. Nevertheless, WGPE was on its way. The team skipped Monaco, and instead Neve went to test at Zolder, only to comprehensively crash the car. A huge effort was required to fix it.
“Frank had been told it was a 1976 chassis,” Head recalls. “When it went back to March to be repaired, the fabricators did a great job, but when they stripped off the paint they said it was a Vittorio Brambilla car from 1974. It had been in for a major re-skinning several times before!”
The accident certainly didn’t help, given that the team was running on a shoestring.
“The budget was supposed to be 200 grand,” says Head. “Neve was supposed to bring 100, and Frank was supposed to put in 100. We ended up having 180, because he only got 80 together, but in those days it was quite a lot of money.
“I didn’t actually poke my nose into too much of the budgeting, but we were spending almost nothing. We were on cheapo flights, and staying in some of Frank’s cheap-deal hotels. At that time it was all good fun, but I’m not sure I’d be too happy about some of those places now! At each circuit we just rented a little 12-foot caravan as our motorhome…
“That year we did 11 races, and I think there were three when we didn’t qualify. That really gets through to you. When you are packing up and leaving on Saturday evening, and everybody else is staying around and preparing their cars for the race, it hurts, it really does…”
Patrick Neve, Williams March 761
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Neve scraped into the top 10 four times, logging a lucky seventh at Monza.
“To be honest, I’d have to say he wasn’t a very tough character,” Head recalls. “F1 was a bit above his league. I didn’t actually go to Watkins Glen, because I was working away on the new car. But apparently one time he went over a kerb at the chicane.
“He came in and said he’d gone off a bit and asked them to check round the suspension. There was a gap of about an hour between the practices, but he stayed in the car and wouldn’t get out. They couldn’t understand why.
“That night, when they took the seat out, the whole of the underside of the monocoque was buckled. That’s what was so funny about him. Any normal person would climb out and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve made a bit of a mess of the monocoque.’ It wasn’t as if we were that heavy; we didn’t give him massive bollockings or anything like that. He was a funny character…”
As Williams slowly expanded through ’77, its growing staff included a young fabricator/mechanic called Ross Brawn, who had previously been at Wolf-Williams.
“I guess I was a romantic at the beginning,” Brawn recalls. “I’d been taken in by Patrick and Frank, and Frank was quite an iconic guy. When he got hoofed out, as a romantic young kid it seemed wrong to me that that had happened.
“When the opportunity came to leave I didn’t feel the attachment with Wolf Racing that I probably would have done if Frank and Patrick had still been there. It was an easier decision to make.”
Brawn spent most of 1977 working in F3 before joining the new Williams outfit late in the year.
“Getting to know Patrick at Wolf and working for him was the reason why I went back there when he and Frank started Williams. I remember I was the 11th employee, including Patrick and Frank and the secretaries. There weren’t many when I arrived at Didcot.”
Head admits that he had no idea that Brawn would become such a key figure in the sport.
“It’s extraordinary really,” he says. “I interviewed Ross for the job at Wolf. He had done an apprenticeship at Harwell [Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Didcot], and I took him on as a machinist in the very minimal machine shop that they had.
“It was quite clear that Ross was an intelligent fellow, but even when he moved to Williams, and we gave him some projects to do, I never realised that he was capable of helluva lot more than we were giving him. That’s always one of the interesting things when you are employing people – identifying the people who are capable of doing a lot more.
“Ross was much more easygoing in those days than he was later on. You didn’t really sense ambition with Ross in those days. If it was there, he did a good job of covering it up!”
Alan Jones, Williams FW06, Long Beach 1978.
Photo by: Williams F1
Head and his number two Neil Oatley spent the latter part of 1977 designing what became the Williams FW06. Come January 1978, new signing Alan Jones was on the grid in Argentina in the Saudia-sponsored machine.
The car looked good and was well-engineered, and with Jones having won the previous year’s Austrian GP for Shadow, there was no doubting the driver’s credentials. Suddenly Williams was a serious player – and within 18 months the team would be winning races and setting the pace.
“We weren’t jousting at giants in ’77,” says Head, “whereas in ’78 we were starting to annoy a few people. We had about £350,000 in ’78, which a workable budget for one car, but Frank still had us staying in his doss houses…”
Neve, meanwhile, was never seriously considered as potential driver for 1978. That season he was seen just once, when he failed to pre-qualify at Zolder after putting together a deal to run a March under his own name. Following a spell in touring cars, he disappeared from the scene. He died in 2017, at the age of 67.
For Frank that initial 1977 season with the old March and the rebirth it represented would always remain significant.
“I don’t have bad memories of ‘77,” he told this writer when the team celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1997. “But the not qualifying bit, and being very much back of the field… Every now and then someone would come roaring down the pits and give us a bollocking for getting in the way when we were being lapped.
“I’d got nowhere on my own the first time round. But I was given the opportunity to start again, and I took it. I think ’69 can’t be forgotten and played its part, but the main thing was 1977. It was very difficult, but it was fun, it was worthwhile, and we were convinced that we’d get there.”
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