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From the archive: How Williams's last F1 title challenge unravelled

For all the optimism surrounding Williams ahead of its first season under new ownership, it still has some way to go before it can reach the heights of its last title push, when tyre politics and unreliability proved crucial in its defeat to Ferrari. Patrick Head explained all to NIGEL ROEBUCK in the 20 November 2003 issue

Patrick Head is ever the realist: no excuses, no blarney. "We started 2003 very weakly," he says, "then were strong in the middle of the season - and then it ended awfully. There were lots of mistakes, including some circumstantial things, but part of the business is to foresee every circumstance and try to make sure you've got it covered.

"And that we didn't manage to do. At one point, we were eight points ahead in the constructors' championship and we finished 14 points behind Ferrari - we lost 22 points to them from Hungary onwards."

By Head's own admission, the recent past of Williams Grand Prix Engineering has been patchy. Four wins - more than expected - in 2001, one in 2002 and back to four this year. After Hockenheim, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari still led on points, but Williams-BMW was on a roll, with both Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher in strong contention for the world championship.

"Juan won there by 65 seconds," Head muses. "We're all experienced enough not to count chickens, but I don't think any of us came away from Hockenheim thinking we weren't going to win another race this year."

The previous season had been disappointing, and the feeling was the FW24 had been simply too conservative to get the job done. That being so, it was decided FW25 should be a smaller, more compact, more agile car.

"It wasn't simply a matter of a shorter wheelbase," says Head. "Obviously, if you make a car smaller you tend to make it lighter, which gives you more ballast to play with, a lower centre of gravity, more room to change weight distribution, front to rear, and so on. However, fundamentally, the biggest development was a more effective, more capable windtunnel department."

When Montoya briefly went back to the FW24, at Indianapolis in June for Jeff Gordon's test in the car, he was astounded. "Compared with the FW25," he laughed, "it feels like a boat! So lazy in its response."

By then, JPM had won the Monaco Grand Prix, and the latest Williams-BMW was getting into its stride, but its early performances had been less than scintillating, as Head admits.

PLUS: The rollercoaster ride of F1's fastest and slowest team

"We'd made various decisions," he says, "some of which were beneficial, but one which was not, in that we decided to put a lot of our winter aerodynamic testing towards a set-up that hadn't been used before, based around a sort of rearward-mounted bargeboard: we were trying to create a car that was less pitch-sensitive.

"Juan was then quite a bit quicker than Rubens Barrichello, who was second, and I suspect he would have finished there - which would have been very useful to him later in the year. As it was, he didn't score" Patrick Head

"The thing is that, if you make a decision to focus on a forward guidevane, then all of the aerodynamics - from in front of the item to behind it - change. The FW25 appeared first as a 'bargeboard' car, but during early testing we undid that decision and decided to go back to the forward guidevane. That proved more fruitful, but any changing route mid-flight is going to be damaging.

"We'd done a new back end for the car too, but we got some confusing data from the tests and that made us uncertain about the way to go. We had what was called the LG7 gearbox and rear suspension, and then the LG7B - the gearbox was unchanged, but the suspension was different. The 'B' made its debut at Interlagos, the third race."

The first, though, was in Australia, a learning experience for everyone, given the new rules concerning qualifying and parc ferme. In fact, everything went more smoothly than might have been anticipated.

"Between them," says Head, "Sam Michael, Carl Gaden and Dickie Stanford did an amazing job to rejig everything on race preparation. Previously, it had taken all of eight to 10 hours, but now it had to be compressed into two-and-a-half hours. A lot of that was by doing on Thursday all the normal procedural checks that had been done on Saturday afternoon.

"As for the new qualifying rules - running with 'race' fuel in the car - we had had a look at it beforehand, and by a third of the way through the season we were fairly stable in our approach."

In Melbourne, Montoya qualified third, Schumacher ninth; weather conditions at the start were uncertain.

"We started on dry tyres," says Head, "which very few people did, and everything was looking good - Juan was 25 seconds in the lead - but then we had two safety-car periods, and a very powerful position was wiped out - twice! Then Juan spun, and in fact we were lucky, because the car slid into the tyre barrier, but wasn't damaged, and he was able to finish second. Ralf... two spins, eighth."

Two weeks later at Sepang, Schumacher was fourth after a steady drive, but he had qualified only 17th, and there were suggestions he was unsettled by stories about his private life in the German papers. Whatever, his employers were concerned.

"Juan made a far better job of qualifying, but at the first corner he lost his rear wing - our former test driver, Antonio Pizzonia, drove into him," says Head. "But he was then quite a bit quicker than Rubens Barrichello, who was second, and I suspect Juan would have finished there - which would have been very useful to him later in the year, obviously. As it was, he didn't score."

At Interlagos there were no points for Williams. "At first," says Head, "we were going quite well, but then Juan went off in the same river that claimed Michael [Schumacher], and Ralf came in for his final stop the lap before the Mark Webber/Fernando Alonso accident: a large number of the cars in front of him were due to come in, but the race was stopped at 75% distance."

To Imola, then, and by now the FW25 was progressing well, not least because the aero department was regularly adding performance. "I didn't go to Imola," says Head, "but we were in quite good shape there - not to win, perhaps, but certainly to finish second and third. We didn't achieve that - mainly because of errors around the pitstops - but at least both cars were in the points.

"At Barcelona, we definitely underperformed. Although we qualified reasonably, we converted to a two-stop strategy, where others - notably Renault and Ferrari - stayed on a three-stop, and that proved to be the better solution. Then, later, Ralf went off, and we had to change the floor and so on. He finished fifth, behind Juan."

Although things weren't coming together as the team might have wished, there was a feeling of optimism now, the more so after Austria.

"Ralf had an off on the Friday," says Head, "which put him close to the back for qualifying, which wasn't ideal. But Juan was in good shape, and by this time we were certainly making progress. We took Frank Dernie and John Davis to Austria as well: both good, experienced engineers, and they were a definite help.

"It's true I did think Juan would have had more of a go, but when I looked at the data afterwards, I could see Ralf did have one or two problems" Patrick Head

"Michael led from Juan until the first stops - where Michael had his fire of course. Fairly remarkable to have a fire in a 17-second pitstop, wasn't it? After that, we were steadily pulling away from Kimi Raikkonen, with Michael seemingly unable to get by him.

"Then we had an engine failure - we'd known for at least 10 laps it was going to happen: there was a leak in the cooling system. Had we not had the problem, it would have been a close-run thing. Although Michael was faster than us on the day, I'm not convinced he would have got by. At least we knew we were thereabouts."

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At Monaco, the team was there.

"We were really keen to win there," says Head, "because it was so long since we'd done it with Keke [Rosberg]. And Juan drove an absolutely brilliant race, really quick when he needed to protect himself, particularly against Raikkonen. He could have won at Montreal, too."

It was an all-Williams front row in Canada, but Montoya spun early on and lost 12 seconds to the leaders. "In the late laps, he was right up with them, which is why I believe he could have won," says Head. "This was a race controlled by strategy around pitstops - and also by brake wear. Michael was certainly driving to conserve his rear brakes."

Afterwards, Patrick was simmering that Schumacher hadn't been more aggressive against his brother. "Mmmm," he says. "I have been known to say one or two things in the heat of the moment, and it's true I did think Juan would have had more of a go, but when I looked at the data afterwards, I could see Ralf did have one or two problems."

At the next couple of races, though, he didn't have any at all, winning at the Nurburgring and at Magny-Cours. Now, with the FW25 the class of the field, Schumacher seemed temporarily to have the edge on Montoya, who was second on both occasions.

Head puts forward the theory that, when the car wasn't working well, Juan would get more out of it than Ralf, but that when it came good Ralf's greater set-up experience allowed him to get it closer to perfection. Although they finished 1-2 in France, the race was not without controversy. Schumacher built up a 10-second lead, but late in the race Montoya had pared it down to almost nothing.

"I don't think Ralf would willingly have let that happen, let's put it that way," says Head. "Getting towards the last stops, he radioed to say 'I'm coming up on traffic - can I stop early?' Juan was not informed - not deliberately, but because everything was happening so quickly.

"He had also stopped a lap early, and then did two very fast laps, expecting Ralf to come out of the pits just behind him - but in fact Ralf came out a lap earlier than he was expecting - and still just ahead. Juan was definitely pissed off by that - he thought we have connived to bring Ralf in early, because he had, but it hadn't been like that."

JPM's victory at Hockenheim was the most dominant of the season, but Ralf was again in the wars, involved in a startline accident with Barrichello and Raikkonen.

"Up to that point," says Head, "our starts had been extremely competitive against our immediate opposition - Ferrari and McLaren - although Renault's had always been the best. We were due to bring a new starting strategy to Hockenheim but, because of a component failure on the Saturday morning, we weren't able to do so.

"Both cars made a relatively tardy start but, while Juan kept the lead, Ralf went off his line and moved left, not to crowd other drivers as much as to get the line into the first corner. Had he made a better start, he wouldn't have had a problem, of course. We went through a period of making poor starts and it had a serious impact on our title aspirations.

"It was even worse in Hungary. Both drivers were told, 'Whatever you do, do not be on the outside at the first corner!' We were in second and fourth places on the grid, and after the first lap we were eighth and 18th - because at the first corner both drivers had found themselves on the outside, and about to run into each other!

"I'm not using this as an excuse for not winning the championship, but it did definitely cause an upset" Patrick Head

"I'm not saying it was all their fault, because if their cars had had better starts it wouldn't have happened - they were both on the dirty side, but so was Jarno Trulli, and he overtook both of them before the first corner. Both drivers made very good recoveries, but we could have done better."

By this stage, Montoya was but one point behind M Schumacher, and the world champion looked to be on the ropes. But then came the major controversy of the season: the suggestion from Bridgestone, via Ferrari, to the FIA that Michelin's front tyre, when worn, was wider than the rules permitted.

"Not surprisingly, that did quite a lot to destabilise our - and McLaren's - preparations for Monza," says Head. "We had a very difficult test beforehand, some of which was self-inflicted, starting with Ralf's accident.

"Car failures are something that we've generally been quite good at avoiding - it was a bond failure in a composite suspension component. Obviously, if you have that sort of thing happen, until you've understood exactly what caused it, and can be certain it isn't going to happen on other components, you can't run a car again.

"We lost time with that, after which most of our running was done, essentially verifying that we could run the modified tyre. Michelin did it very quickly - and it was not to comply with the regulation: the actual geometry of the tyre was exactly as we'd run from Imola 2001 on.

"It was basically a change of interpretation, with the FIA suddenly saying, 'We're going to measure the tyres when they're worn, as opposed to when they're new'. I'm not using this as an excuse for not winning the championship, but it did definitely cause an upset. Had we not put so much time into that, I suspect we would have been able to get more performance from the car at Monza."

At the press conference, Head was in very fine form, making clear his feelings about what Ferrari had done. "Well, I thought I was very restrained actually!" he says. "I know Ross [Brawn] quite well, because he used to work here, but he's quite good at putting on a holier-than-thou act, and saying Ferrari would never do anything that might be... I mean, we know the record over a number of years, don't we? And some of it sticks in my craw, and I'm not prepared to stay quiet when that happens, that's all."

One trusts he will never change.

"For the race, we ran too much wing on Juan's car, and that was damaging," says Head. "In terms of pure lap time, Monza is fairly flat-topped, using more wing or less wing, because there are some fairly significant corners. Juan was keen to run the higher amount of wing, and we eventually - and reluctantly - agreed.

"In qualifying, he was up until the end of sector two, but then clipped a kerb, which cost him a bit of time. Not beating Michael to pole position was critical - and so also was not being able to compete in terms of straightline speed."

Montoya dogged Schumacher much of the way, but eventually settled for second, with stand-in Marc Gene an excellent fifth.

"In the last stint, Marc was the fastest guy on the track," recalls Head. "I thought he had a fantastic run - after all, he was in the traffic on Saturday morning when he got a call to say, 'You're racing, mate!' As far as he'd known, Ralf was going to be driving."

Indianapolis put an end to Montoya's championship aspirations. Again his car got away poorly, and he found himself behind Barrichello, with Schumacher away in the lead.

"Over the season, our car's come out top on reliability, in terms of distance covered, but that doesn't make you feel any better when you go out at the last race, pulling away" Patrick Head

"Juan was under pressure to get Rubens - and they touched," says Head. "We got a drivethrough penalty, which we had to do within three laps of notification, then he had to stop again immediately for fuel - and then, on the lap he went out, it started to rain, so within three or four laps, he had to make three pitstops.

"Although he fought back to sixth place, he needed to be fifth to stay in the championship fight. He was very upset afterwards.

"For obvious reasons, people don't want the race result to be changed retrospectively, but if you're on the receiving end, you think to yourself, 'I just don't think those guys had adequate information to take somebody out of the championship,' which is what happened to Juan.

"As for Ralf, he was going well early on, but then he came on the radio and said he needed 'shallow wet' tyres - that's what Michelin call their intermediate. We said OK, but then he came back to ask if his decision was right - and sailed straight by the pits again! And, of course, on that lap he spun off."

Suzuka, the final race, yielded no points for the Williams-BMW team, although, at first, Montoya led comfortably.

"When Rubens began to pull him in, Juan said, 'Where's he faster?'' says Head. "His race engineer, Tony Ross, told him, and immediately he started pulling away again - until a hydraulics problem occurred. Over the season, our car's come out top on reliability, in terms of distance covered, but that doesn't make you feel any better when you go out at the last race, pulling away.

"Ralf's qualifying was destroyed by rain, and he then had a massively messy race, with lots of spins, bumps and so on. He was very angry afterwards at the way Michael had chopped him into the first turn. Brotherly love..."

So how, in the round, does Head look back on 2003? "I don't feel we were robbed - basically, we lost the championship," he concludes. "Ferrari did a fantastic job of coming back, and we did badly at the end of the year when it counted. What we have to do is start off next season with a much stronger package than in '03, simple as that."

Ever the realist, as I said.

What happened next?

After its near-miss of 2003, Williams had a nightmare in 2004 with its radical tusk-nosed FW26 failing to mount a challenge to Ferrari and slipping to fourth in the constructors' standings behind BAR and Renault.

Only after the concept was abandoned - and Head stepped down as technical director, with Sam Michael taking the reins - would Williams prove a competitive force again, as Montoya won the last race of the year in Brazil. But, by that point, he had already committed to joining McLaren for 2005, while Ralf Schumacher's final season with the team before a big-money move to Toyota was hampered by a concussion that resulted from a tyre deflation at Indianapolis and caused him to sit out six races.

Gene failed to score in two substitute appearances and was himself replaced by Pizzonia for the next four races, although three seventh places hardly set the world on fire.

The BMW partnership continued for one more season in 2005, with Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld joining the team in an all-new line-up, and ended with a whimper rather than a bang as Williams slid back to fifth.

There were no victories, a second and third at Monaco the team's brightest showing, while Heidfeld utilised a light fuel strategy to take pole at the Nurburgring and inherited second when a puncture pitched Kimi Raikkonen off the road on the final lap.

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