Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who You Know...

Twenty years ago, Williams had just claimed their second straight constructor's championship and Nelson Piquet had brought the driver's title to Grove for the first time in five years. In one sense, the Didcot team were at the very top of their game and appeared invincible. If one looked a little closer though, they seemed very much to be staring into the abyss.

Honda, their partner in the successes of the two previous seasons, were abandoning the team, and Frank Williams' men would be left to do what they could with specialist engine builder John Judd's atmo V8s. Not only that, they would have to find the budget to pay for them. Reigning champion Piquet was abandoning the sinking ship for Lotus, who were keeping their Honda V6 turbos.

Quite why Honda elected to leave Williams high and dry has never been entirely satisfactorily explained. Sure, the fact that Mclaren had Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna on their books for 1988 explained why they were a catch for the Japanese manufacturer, but why abandon Williams in favour of Lotus?

It has been said in some quarters that Honda were irritated that the team allowed supposed number 2, Nigel Mansell, to race and beat his double world champion team mate, Nelson Piquet. Perhaps closer to the truth, they were frustrated that an absence of team orders enabled Alain Prost to sneak through between them in 1986 and win the world title in a demonstrably inferior Mclaren Porsche.

Still, why stick with an increasingly shambolic looking Lotus and end the deal with Williams? One possibility is that it came down to Frank Williams' refusal to countenance employing one Satoru Nakajima. Satoru was the first full time F1 driver from Japan. He had come into his ride at Lotus at the relatively late age of 34, and his record in the junior formula suggested he was competent, rather than exceptional. Paired alongside Ayrton Senna at Lotus Honda in 1987, he never really stood a chance. The most telling statistic is that while Senna won 2 races that year with the awkward but not entirely hopeless Lotus 99T, and was even an outside bet for the World Championship at one stage, Nakajima finished in the points on just two occasions. About the best that can be said is that he did no worse than John Player's man, the Earl of Bute, the previous year (Scottish aristocrat, painter, and some-time racing driver, Johnny Dumfries, in case you're wondering...) when he found himself alongside the Brazilian.

Nakajima was in Formula 1 not because anyone was under any illusion that he would set the world on fire with his pace, but because Honda's marketing man demanded a Japanese driver in F1, and their engine supplier status gave them leverage to place him in one of their cars. Nakajima was a long-time Honda man, and was one of only a handful of Japanese drivers of the time who would not embarrass themselves in a Grand Prix car, and so the job was his.

To be fair to Nakajima, he had his moments. A fine drive in monsoon conditions at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix, where he scored his best finishing position, of 4th, on a day when many more illustrious drivers failed to keep it on the island, springs to mind. In hindsight, his biggest problem was probably that at just over 9st, he simply lacked the brute physical strength to get the most out of an F1 car. Nonetheless, it was entirely understandable that Frank Williams, who was running a team that had just won the constructor's championship twice in a row, did not wish to employ a journeyman in one of his cars on the mere say-so of his engine supplier.

In the long run, he was probably right. A year later, Lotus lost their Honda engines and began to spiral into a terminal decline, which ended with them messing around with drivers like Phillippe Adams in 1994, before being declared bankrupt. Williams, meanwhile, endured a torrid season with Judd, nonetheless picking up a couple of second places, courtesy of an inspired Nigel Mansell, before embarking on a fresh relationship with Renault which would yield multiple titles.

Fast forward twenty years, and all of a sudden, Satoru's son, Kazuki has been gifted a drive in the Williams FW29 in the final race of this season, and is being talked of as a serious option for a full-time seat next year. On balance, this seems rather odd. Nakajima has looked decently, rather than exceptionally quick, in GP2 this year, against a field that is perhaps not the strongest. He finished fifth in the championship, but in a GP2 grid that produced 12 different winners, he never finished higher than second. His wild driving style, all Peterson slides, and armfuls of opposite lock, looks spectacular, but is unlikely to translate well to an F1 car.

So why has he got the drive? There is a saying, which I've oft heard repeated gleefully by people who on any rational analysis look hopelessly out of their depth that "It's not what you know, it's who you know" (this is sometimes echoed by the more competent and somewhat bitter people they have been promoted over...). Unfortunately, this is all too true in the motor racing world. Given a completely free hand, Williams might be more inclined to try out Timo Glock, or even to have made a bid earlier this year for multiple Champ Car champion, Sebastien Bourdais. Come to that, I actually felt that Hiroshi Yoshimoto did more with what he had in GP2, having done about as much as anyone has with the haphazard BCN team last year, but he seems to have been perversely ignored by those on the lookout for Japanese drivers. However, Frank has an engine supplier to please...

Williams are not in the position they were 20 years ago. They have not won a race since 2004, have not scored a podium since 2005, and can hardly any more be thought of as front running team. They get their engines for free from Toyota, and in exchange for that, the team might be well advised to show a little willing. Nakajima, being the son of a man who for a long time was Japan's most famous racing driver, has plenty of contacts in the Japanese racing world. Doubtless, this has opened plenty of doors for him with the major manufacturers whose support is becoming increasingly vital in developing a career in motorsport. For a couple of years, he's been a Toyota development driver, and at a time when Honda have been seen to be doing rather more for Japanese drivers, Toyota now want in on the act. Frank Williams, this time around, has found he holds none of the high cards, and has judged it is in his team's best interests to accede to Toyota's request and hope that Kazuki is a shade better than his F3 and GP2 results suggest.

And who knows, it might even be the case. Certainly Nakajima looked a good deal more convincing in GP2 this year than he did in the F3 Euroseries the year before. Perhaps he's just taking a while to develop. All the same, I can't help but feel that this could be a move too far, too soon. Another season of GP2 might provide an opportunity to smooth over some of the rough edges which are undoubtedly still there, away from the limelight. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't help thinking that Kazuki may find out in a fortnight's time that , beyond a certain point, it really is about what you can do...

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Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

I heard one unpalatable rumour at the time that the Honda folk were uncomfortable with Frank's disability. It was said that Japanese business culture, at that time at least, perceived such disability as weakness.

Anyway, it was great to see Williams finish fourth (fifth if you count McLaren)in the constructors' championship this year. Perhaps they can challenge Renault and BMW next year for third place.

12:44 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

Heard the same rumour. To be fair, they might have had reason to be concerned at the time - Frank Williams has coped exceptionally well with his disability, and others might have struggled to run a successful racing team. I remember reading somewhere that Williams is one of the longest-lived quadriplegics anywhere...

2:56 AM  

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