Williams Heritage - the rags-to-riches story
"Number 0" - as in Damon Hill's Rothmans-branded FW16 - was one of the first things I could coherently utter as a toddler. It was the beginning of a fanatical obsession with Formula 1 which has lasted to this very day, and cemented a lasting fondness of the Williams team.
I've longed to visit the Heritage collection at the team's Oxfordshire HQ for some time, and a couple of weeks ago I finally made the trip (£60 per ticket) to see the cars I've seen on TV, YouTube and in some cases, driven in video games, in person.
At the reception, I am immediately in the presence of the team's 2017 car, with the renowned Martini branding, and after a long lunch - cooked, we were informed, by the same chefs that prepare food for the team at race weekends - we were escorted into the belly of the building, where the tour began.
As one of the nerdiest of F1 nerds, all the backstory of Frank Williams and his rise to the top of motor sport's highest echelons are familiar to me already, but it's a story I won't tire of hearing again. After losing control of his own team to Walter Wolf in 1977, Frank coerced Patrick Head to quit the Wolf team and rejoin him, designing and producing new cars at an old carpet factory in Didcot. Within two years, the team won its first Grand Prix - befittingly at Silverstone, with Clay Regazzoni at the wheel - and a year later, they were World Champions, with Alan Jones taking the drivers' title. Since then, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve became champions in a Williams, but of course, there have been bad times along the road, too.
Although the aforementioned FW16 of Damon Hill's - along with his instantly-recognisable helmet on display, is what brought-out the inner-child we were encouraged to release - the same car with the number 2, the small Brazilian flag on the side of the air-intake accompanied by the name "SENNA", stirs the blood and really humbles you. The story of Senna's journey with Williams begins early in the tour, where we are introduced to the 1982 FW08 car, which Senna tested at Donington Park in July 1983, setting a time faster than their race drivers, Rosberg and Jacques Laffite. Laffite and Rosberg were already under contract, so Senna - who badgered Williams into the test after being sat beside him on a flight - was unable to drive for the team, and signed for Toleman for 84. It wasn't until a whole decade later the Senna finally drove for the team, but as everyone knows, the Senna/Williams story went unfulfilled after tragedy at Imola.
The FW16 bearing Senna's name in the main collection was not actually driven by Senna himself, but the modified 93 car used for winter testing for 94 was, and sits upstairs amongst game simulators, trophies and technical odds-and-ends that was open to viewing after the main tour. Despite being told not to touch the cars, we were encouraged to touch this one, given that Senna requested for carbon fibre to be shaved away in the cockpit area, in-front of the steering wheel, as Senna's hands rubbed against it as he turned the wheel. If you ever go to the tour, I guarantee you will feel a certain aura as you stand next to the car and, just for a moment, realise that you're in the presence of a car that was driven by Ayrton Senna himself.
As for viewing the cars, they're pretty much all there, from 1978 onwards. The six-wheeled 1983 car, that was banned under regulations after lapping six seconds fast than the previous Williams, is also there, as well as the MG rally car, Renault touring car and BMW Le Mans car that Williams helped develop. Every car has their story, and all make-up the Williams story.
If you're passionate about Formula 1 like me, then I would recommend visiting the tour. Some of the folks that took the tour with me had been before, and I'm certainly planning my next visit already.