I realise it’s Christmas, but I’m afraid I’m going to say something incredibly bah humbug; I’ve never really liked pantomimes. I know, I know, but I could never stand all those unreasoned arguments (oh yes he is, oh no he isn’t etc etc ad infinitum). And then there’s the inability of people like Widow Twankey to catch someone standing right behind them despite everyone in the audience shouting perfectly reasonable directions. However, if panto Aladdin had stumbled upon a cave like the one I’ve just walked into at Williams HQ in Oxfordshire then I think I would have not only loved Christmas theatre, but probably started wearing baggy trousers and rubbing every lamp in sight.
This is the heritage department at Williams F1, run by the quietly spoken but encyclopaedically knowledgable Jonathan Williams (son of Frank) and Dickie Stanford who has been with Williams for 32 years, first as a mechanic and then team manager. Wandering between the sliding shelves with Dickie I gawp at towers of thick grey carbon brake discs on one level before my eyes wander up to the beautifully, intricately machined hubs just above them. He stops randomly and picks up a small, golden-coloured linkage out of a grey plastic box of assorted items.
‘That’s for holding a wheel tether on’ he says.
Made of titanium (the colour comes from a specially hard coating called TecVac) and feels so light as he places it in the palm of my hand that it would be hard to comprehend it was there if I shut my eyes. All around me, wherever I look are decades of this sort of beautiful, cutting-edge engineering that borders on the artistic.
Huge slick tyres are piled up against one wall. The old Goodyears are apparently one of the biggest headaches for the department as they perish yet are irreplaceable. When they want to run the cars of course they use a new historic spec Avons, but for show cars you want that correct period look. Then there are the engines. Racks of V10s, some real, some dummies just for show cars. Apparently BMW made such good fakes that it’s hard to tell them apart, but the Renault mock-ups are rather easier to distinguish.
‘BMW moved the game on so much when they came back into F1,’ says Jonathan ‘Not only with horsepower but with packaging. We used to call their engines "the shoeboxes", because they were just so small.’
This is just one of three such treasure troves and the remarkable thing is that until the heritage department was formed in 2014, all of this was in a jumble of boxes and crates and piles. Every single part has had to be sorted and catalogued. I wonder if, at times, Jonathan felt like he’d been given the worst ever order to ‘go and tidy your room’ by his father?
We wander downstairs to the workshop below where half a dozen cars are in various states of assembly.
‘That’s the car that Mansell was sitting in when he won the championship,’ says Dickie pointing to the Red Five by the door. And next to that is a Metro 6R4, a car that Williams built the three prototypes for. Then I become mesmerised by the trio of F1 cars that have been stripped back to varying degrees – an FW26 and two cars from 1995, an FW17 and an FW17B. I’m so used to teams shielding their latest marvel from view that it feels strange seeing F1 cars left naked and exposed like this. The fragile complexity that lies under their skin looks like it would take a lifetime for one person to understand. What’s even harder to comprehend is how Dickie can happily work on such a variety of complex cars from such a range of eras, all with different engineering solutions and intricacies. He explains that he has the advantage of being able to raid the archive for the blueprints of each and every car and component, but nonetheless… Someone could give me an A-Z of London, but that doesn’t mean I’d have The Knowledge.
It’s not just the mechanicals of the cars that need tending either. There are the electrics too. For a number of years its been impossible to start an F1 car without at least one laptop. On the worktop in front of one of the cars is an open PC that looks to be of quite some vintage. The curious thing is that the F1 car it’s associated with seems to have aged far less than the computer. Dickie explains that he has just finished cloning the laptop so that they have a backup. The old data cards that run the active ride cars are even more of a headache as they’re like gold dust and they only have three left.
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The purpose of all this heritage activity is really twofold: there is the preservation of Williams’ history; and they are also starting to run a business around selling heritage cars to customers. You can, if you have the money, buy everything from a display car to hang on a large wall or place in a glass box, to a fully functioning F1 car that you can drive. I’m shocked, however, that a completely drivable car like one of the Rothmans FW17s will probably only go for somewhere between £650,000 and £850,000. Something like the 1993 Damon Hill Monza race-winning car that’s at the far end of the workshop (it was perfectly preserved in storage from the end of the race until about three months ago, complete with damage to the floor where Senna had forced him across a kerb on the first lap, so it’s incredibly original) will go for over £1m, but even that seems good value for something so impressive and so rare when you consider that it’s about half what one of 200 LaFerrari Apertas would set you back. Of course the sting in the tail, and what apparently puts some potential customers off, comes with the running costs. Just to start an F1 car up – something which has to be done every two or three months if you want to keep it in fine fettle – costs £500 with all the fluids and filters (fuel is about £12 a litre, filters £60 a throw) as they actually have to start it three or four times, draining the oil and replacing the filters between each start. To run an F1 car down at the Goodwood Festival of Speed probably costs them about £20,000 once you add up all the manpower etc. If it’s a BMW propelled car then an engineer needs to travel from Germany just to run the V10.
After the workshop we’re allowed into one of the warehouses where another 30 cars are being stored. Stacked two deep and five high on shelves it looks like a huge Toys R Us for F1 fans. They’re mostly from the early 2000s with blue and white liveries. Looking up at the undersides of the front wings and rear diffusers gives a whole new perspective, quite literally, on the aerodynamics. There’s even a walrus-nosed car in amongst them, which somehow looks rather more attractive now than it did at the time.
Finally we have a wander through the museum which is part of the conference centre and houses the largest private collection of F1 cars in the world. Here examples from pretty much every year since Williams’ first F1 season in 1978 are on show (you can book onto a tour, but at £60 it’s not cheap). Williams has actually had to buy back some of its early cars that were sold off at a time when such things weren’t valued in quite the same way. Because they were the years that I grew up watching F1 avidly, I associate Williams most with the Rothmans- and Camel-liveried cars. But from the first white and green Saudia colour schemes through the RBS years to the current Martini sponsorship, they’re somehow all very recognisably Williams. Only the red Winfield years of ’98 and ’99 stick out like sore thumbs.
‘If you look just down here, on the left-hand sidepod… can you see the damage?’ says Jonathan, standing next to a mid ‘90s car.
I peer at the blue bodywork and although it’s not much, I can clearly see two puncture wounds like a big snake bite where the carbonfibre has had an impact with something. That something was Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. It was the 1997 F1 season finale at Jerez and I can remember it, clear as day. Villeneuve catching the Ferrari, going for a clean pass into the long right hand hairpin and then Schumacher effectively using his car as a battering ram to try to stop the Canadian from passing him. We all held our breath, thinking that it surely couldn’t be Adelaide 1994 all over again, but this time the Williams was strong enough to withstand the onslaught. Villeneuve went on to finish third and take the Driver’s Championship as the villainous Michael was left beached on the gravel. What a pantomime.
Photography by James Lipman