Autosport70: Senna, tragedy and the battle for Coulthard

Williams has been through tough times recently, but the team has come through hardship before. At the end of a traumatic season, Frank Williams spoke to Autosport's NIGEL ROEBUCK in the 22/29 December 1994 issue of the magazine

Autosport70: Senna, tragedy and the battle for Coulthard

Damon Hill was ready for the BBC interviewer who asked him who we would prefer as a team-mate for 1995, David Coulthard or Nigel Mansell. "I'm not going to answer that," Hill smiled, "because it's going to be one of them, and I don't know which yet..."

The question was asked a few days before the Contract Recognition Board announced its findings on the disputed 'ownership' of Coulthard, and Hill quite sensibly had no wish to say anything that might later prove an embarrassment to him.

In exactly the same way, Frank Williams was understandably tentative when I went to see him. Thanks to the unresolved deliberations of the CRB, my timing was as bad as the BBC interviewer's. It was 7 December, and a final ruling on Coulthard's future was still a week away. No great powers of anticipation were required to work out that Williams would be unwilling to comment officially on the situation.

Certain fundamentals could be established, however: "It's not a secret that, at the Belgian Grand Prix, David agreed to extend the option, at my request, until two days after Adelaide (the Australian GP, on 13 November), so that we could make a choice - whether we'd go for Mansell or for him.

"There was no query at all. We have a letter to that effect, signed by both David and by (management company) IMG, and we believe the option to be valid. Therefore, we believe it precluded his committing to another team. Simple as that. Now we wait.

"I know it's been written all over the place that 'Williams has screwed it up again', but it's really not the case at all."

It was after the signing of the extended option, in fact, that Coulthard's maiden Formula 1 season truly began to turnaround. Immediately before, in Budapest, he had his worst weekend of the year, crashing in both qualifying and race, but in his last three races in a Williams-Renault, at Spa, Monza and Estoril, he excelled, and the paddock's perception of him significantly changed.

Williams smiled. "I think you could say it was then that David really begin to show his true capabilities, yes."

"I asked [Mansell] to test, and he said he couldn't. I confess it was a disappointing decision" Frank Williams

Undoubtedly, it irked Coulthard that, after riding shotgun to Hill in three races, he was then obliged to give up his car to Nigel Mansell at Jerez, Suzuka and Adelaide. There was nothing to be done about this, for the arrangement had been made months earlier, before he had made his mark, but of course he found it deeply frustrating - as also did many members of the team.

By the time of the Japanese GP, Williams was aware that he was into a fight with Ron Dennis for Coulthard's services next year. Logically, the matter could be resolved only by the CRB (which also sorted out the Mika Hakkinen wrangle between McLaren and Lotus two years ago), and that meant Coulthard needed another contract to conflict with his Williams option; hence he signed with McLaren.

Since my visit to Didcot, the matter has been resolved in Williams's favour but, at the time, he had no way of knowing who would be partnering Hill in 1995. Inescapably, though, the hiring of George Carman QC indicated that his fight for Coulthard was a very serious one indeed, obliging one to conclude that the Scot, rather than Mansell, was very much his first choice for the job.

"I've got no problem with that," Williams said. "Nigel will have to live with it. I've told him he's on hold, and of course he's not taking it very happily - he's got an ego, but I don't belittle him for that."

Many have suggested that Williams should have committed to Coulthard immediately after the European GP [at Jerez, in October], but Williams admitted that there was some pressure from Renault not to make a final decision until after Adelaide.

"It wasn't irresistible, however," said Williams. "They always recognised that we had the final say. In those last races it was obvious that Nigel wanted to drive next year, so he went out of his way to be cooperative, which was good - we needed a happy and committed Mansell, a man who would help Damon to win the world championship."

There was considerable surprise when, after Jerez, Mansell did not take part in any of the tests before Suzuka and Adelaide. Given his wish to return to Williams full time, and his awareness of the need to impress in the concluding GPs, one might have expected him to snatch any opportunity of more time in the car.

"It wasn't convenient to him," said Williams flatly. "I asked him to test, and he said he couldn't. I confess it was a disappointing decision."

In 1994 Williams-Renault once more won the constructors' title, and Hill lost the drivers' title to Michael Schumacher by only a point, but while these things bring pleasure and satisfaction to Williams, they are not what he will chiefly remember about the year.

"Enormous sadness is the over-riding thing, of course, and I don't mean that in any trite sense," said Williams. "Everyone in the company was truly shattered by what happened at Imola. They all felt a certain responsibility, and it's still on the minds of many people here.

"At the end of the day, the fact is that Ayrton Senna died in a Williams car, and that's an enormously important responsibility. Quite apart from anything else, I feel very embarrassed that Ayrton never got a fair crack of the whip at Williams - he wanted to come here, and he'd wanted to for some time. He drove a good race in Brazil in a difficult car, got nowhere in Aida - first corner accident - and then came that day at Imola...

PLUS: Ayrton Senna's 10 greatest Formula 1 races

"His business manager, Julian Jakobi, who was very close to him, told me the other day that, despite not scoring in the first two races, Ayrton remained pretty certain he'd be world champion. And, with hindsight, I think he would have been. He'd have got the car sorted very quickly.

"Understandably, Damon isn't - or, at that time, certainly wasn't - in the same league as Ayrton, in terms of getting to a problem, analysing it and presenting it to the team's engineers for solution.

"It was a difficult car at the beginning of the year, and yet he was on pole position at each of his three races. Quite remarkable. He never bitched publicly about the car, although he gave us a hard time, in terms of making clear what the problems were, as you'd expect.

"At Imola, the car was a bit more competitive - I think he'd have won Imola: the two-stop strategy would have been quicker than Benetton's three-stop one.

"As soon as Ayrton was into F1, I regretted that I hadn't taken him - especially after that drive in the wet at Monaco in the Toleman" Frank Williams

"The night before the race, he came down to my room. Earlier, he'd been terribly distressed about Roland Ratzenberger's accident, but by now he was pretty relaxed. He said, 'Don't worry, Frank, I'm OK now'. He'd been out with his Brazilian friends, and they'd certainly cheered him up. On race morning he was fine."

It was in a Williams, back at Donington Park in 1983, that Senna first experienced a GP car, and, from the first, Williams was a committed fan. Did he not, I wondered, give any thought to signing Senna there and then, for 1984, his maiden season?

"No, I confess I didn't," admitted Williams. "We were pretty embedded in a policy of going only for experienced drivers at that time. We had an ongoing contract with Keke Rosberg, and Jacques Laffite was in the middle of a two-year contract.

"As soon as Ayrton was into F1, though, I regretted that I hadn't taken him - especially after that drive in the wet at Monaco in the Toleman. It was obvious from that alone that he was something very special."

Over time, the two men kept in contact, which is unusual for an owner and driver from different camps.

"Sometimes it was twice a week, sometimes not for a couple of months, but we never lost touch," said Williams. "The basic thing about Ayrton was that he just loved to talk motor racing. Get him on the phone, and you couldn't get him off it - he'd talk all day about so-and-so's tyres, or whatever! I used to love those chats..."

A framed photograph of Senna sits on a table in front of Williams's desk at Didcot.

Given the depth of his feelings for the Brazilian, the endless occasions on which he had tried to sign him over the years, Williams must have found the aftermath of Imola almost unendurable. How, I wondered, had he contrived to focus on the fact that, whatever else, Monaco was only a few days hence?

"It comes naturally, I suppose," he replied. "You've got to do it. I remember a great sadness, but I don't remember any particular difficulty in going to work, or turning up at Monaco. There was just this huge sadness.

"The people here - the mechanics and engineers - were very affected by it. It was a major setback for them. I repeat, it was a major responsibility, having a guy like Ayrton Senna drive for you - you're talking about a world property, after all.

"He had come from McLaren, after six years, brilliant career there, massive achievement... came here, and in three races everything cracked and crumbled."

Never a man to spare himself, Frank Williams.

"If you want a summary of Ayrton Senna," he said, "he was actually a greater man out of the car than in it. The adoration they felt for him in Brazil... that wasn't by accident. The turn-out when he was buried... this was no ordinary person. He was very clever, shrewd, focused, tough - he was all the things I admired.

"When he came here, I thought, 'Gawd, here we've Ayrton, and we've got Rothmans, a major company, and they're going to want him to do this, this, this - it's going to be wall-to-wall aggravation from start to finish.

"I never thought he'd agree to their demands, but he came out here with Jakobi, one Saturday morning before the launch in Estoril, and we told him what we wanted. We kicked it around, honed it a bit, and then, to my surprise, he said, 'Yep, I'll do that. Part of the deal.' And he did every little bit of it without a murmur. OK, you wouldn't get him to do anything that he hadn't agreed to, but that meeting astonished me. I'd been dreading it."

"Damon's a very unusual man, in some ways. I think he's a remarkable man, too. I've said this time and again, and I still say it: he never stops surprising one with his performances" Frank Williams

After Senna's death, of course, it fell to Hill to assume the role of Williams-Renault team leader, and soon it became patently obvious that the gentlemen of Renault, anyway, did not consider him truly up to the job. Despite the acrimonies of the past, the Regie lost no time in attempting a new deal with Mansell, and Patrick Head, for one, made clear from the beginning his absolute opposition to the plan. Williams felt otherwise.

"At that time I must say I agreed with the Renault people," he said, "that the correct thing was to get Nigel into the team, to give it a lift, a sense of direction. No one else of his experience was available."

It was perhaps inevitable, however, that Hill would become... unsettled, let's say, when word got out that Mansell was to receive a seven-figure sum for each of his four guest appearances for the team. In a weekend, Nigel would be making considerably more than Damon's fee for the entire season.

Perhaps raising the matter immediately before Adelaide, the most crucial race of his life, was an eccentric decision, but it was not too difficult to understand why he felt aggrieved.

Williams agreed: "Damon's a very unusual man, in some ways. I think he's a remarkable man, too. I've said this time and again, and I still say it: he never stops surprising one with his performances.

"In Adelaide, for example, he was one second away from Nigel in practice, and I remember Patrick and I looking at each other, and rolling our eyes. There seemed no way he was going to get near the championship. Then, next day - where did that come from? It was a quite remarkable performance by a remarkable person.

"He's a simple soul, and I don't mean that patronisingly. I mean that he's not malicious and he's not avaricious. OK, all drivers push for more money, because their earning time is finite, but he's not greedy in the way that some are."

However the Coulthard/Mansell situation resolves itself, Hill is firmly on board at Williams-Renault in 1995. Looking further down the road, I asked Williams for his impressions of today's young drivers. Ten days earlier, (1994 Formula 3000 champion) Jules Boullion had tested a Williams at Paul Ricard, and to great effect. Did he watch the F3000 race at Spa, where Boullion - in the wet - took the lead from Franck Lagorce at the daunting Blanchimont?

"Oh, did I ever!" he enthused. "That's why we wanted to put Boullion in the car. I couldn't believe what I'd seen. It was probably the move of the season. Brilliant.

"At Ricard, he was pretty sharp, too. All right, if Damon had been there perhaps he'd have done a four-zero, who knows? In February, Ayrton did a three-zero, in similar conditions, but without the chicane before Signes. OK, the car was pretty mediocre at that time - but it had a lot more downforce than now, remember. Boullion, with the chicane, did a five-six on his first day, and a five-two on his second. Impressive."

I reminded Williams, too, that a few months ago he was expressing keen interest in Heinz-Harald Frentzen. "Less so now," he commented. "He's very quick, but I don't think he takes himself seriously. For one thing, he's nothing like as fit as Schumacher, who has to be the yardstick these days. That's reality.

"Mika Hakkinen is hyper-quick, but still a bit rocky in the head. Rubens Barrichello I think is pretty good, and I'm waiting to see how Eddie Irvine turns out" Frank Williams

"If Michael's that fit, you have to be too, if you want to compete with him. That's one of his main assets.

"As for the others, well, Mika Hakkinen is hyper-quick, but still a bit rocky in the head. Rubens Barrichello I think is pretty good, and I'm waiting to see how Eddie Irvine turns out. I reckon Jean Alesi is a remarkable driver, but he does make a few mistakes.

"I like Jean a lot, and he's certainly up there, but whether or not he can put a championship together, I don't know. He's in the wrong car, I'm afraid - I'm not trying to belittle Ferrari, but I think it's true.

"Having said that, Ferrari did make a lot of progress in 1994 - helped by the return of refuelling, to which I remain completely opposed, on grounds of safety.

"Gerhard Berger had a terrific season, didn't he? He won at Hockenheim, and I have to be honest and say that, if he hadn't made a silly mistake in Adelaide, he'd have won there, too, instead of us.

"Something I'll always remember," Williams concluded, "is that at Imola, on the Sunday morning, the last words that Ayrton said to me were, 'I've got to go and see Gerhard'. They were very close buddies. He felt he could trust Gerhard absolutely, and that always mattered to him more than anything else."

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