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WilliamsF1 History 96-2000 The Nineties

By Andrew Hooper
May 20 2002

Williams Team History 1996-2000
The team tested variations of the FW17 during the winter months and on the 12th February 1996 the Williams Renault FW18 was finally shown to the world in Estoril.

The team had a successful test with the new car but it was not until the first race in Melbourne that the car's true potential was shown. The new boy Jacques was the star of the show, claiming pole. With Damon second on the grid, the pair were over half a second quicker than the nearest opposition. They continued their domination in the race and eventually Damon won, with Jacques second after the Canadian had to slow down in the closing laps and relinquish his lead due to an oil pipe problem. This success continued with Damon also winning in Brazil and Argentina and then Jacques winning his first ever Grand Prix in the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring circuit. The team went on to win 12 of the 16 races - Damon eight and Jacques four - and the Constructors' Championship was sewn up by the Hungarian Grand Prix.

The Drivers' Championship was led from start to finish by Damon, with Jacques second, but was taken down to the wire with the final race in Suzuka seeing the title settled. Damon needed just one point to win and for Jacques it was a win or nothing. In the end Damon led the race from the lights to the chequered flag while Jacques retired with a wheel nut problem. This was Damon's first and the team's sixth Drivers' World Championship.

Damon was only on a one-year contract with the team and just before the Italian Grand Prix it was announced that he would not be staying with the team. His replacement, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, was announced on the 4th September. Meanwhile, Jacques was on a two-year deal with the team so his drive for '97 was re-confirmed.

The first test for Heinz-Harald was on the 22nd October at Estoril and from there the team embarked on their usual intensive winter testing schedule in preparation for the new car - the Williams Renault FW19 - not expected until late January. In 1996 the team said goodbye to Damon who had been with them as a test and racing driver for six years, Elf who had been supplying fuel and oil for eight years, and in August Renault announced that 1997 would be its last season in Formula One.
Jacques Villeneuve
The 1997 season promised to be very competitive. The Schumacher/Ferrari combination was looking extremely strong and the first race was won by David Coulthard who was now driving for the McLaren team. Williams fought back but by mid-season still trailed championship-leaders Ferrari. There were celebrations at Silverstone when Williams achieved its 100th Grand Prix win at the scene of its first victory 18 years previously. This gave the team an unequalled wins/starts ratio of 1:3.

The famous Williams determination had kicked in and by round 14, the Austrian Grand Prix, the team was back at the top of the championship table where it would stay. The Constructors' World Championship was sealed at the Japanese Grand Prix on October 12th. This was Williams' ninth title and the team now leads second-placed Ferrari and McLaren in the record books. An emotional World Championship victory for Jacques in the last race at Jerez sealed the delight of the entire team.

A change of name and image in 1998 brought Williams a change of fortune. The Williams FW20, in the striking red and white livery of title sponsor Winfield, was unveiled at Silverstone on 28th January 1998 and looked to be immediately on the pace. Unfortunately the competition had shifted up a gear and by the first Grand Prix in Australia it looked like the West McLaren Mercedes team were going to walk away with the World Championships. A mass of new regulations in 1998 had presented all the teams with many new challenges including a reduction in the width of the car from two metres to 1.8 metres, more stringent crash testing and grooved tyres. McLaren had simply adapted best to the changes and the rest of the field was left to play 'catch-up'.

A tyre war between the outgoing Goodyear Racing Team and Japanese manufacturer Bridgestone had begun to rage with Bridgestone having the upper hand early in the year. Even though Goodyear's withdrawal from Formula One had recently been announced the American company fought back and by the end of 1998 it was widely felt that the Goodyear tyre was the best.
Williams had said goodbye to Renault in 1997 after a tremendously successful partnership that brought nine championship titles to the two companies. Williams would race with Mecachrome/Supertech engines before new Technical Partner, BMW, makes its return to compete in Formula One racing in the year 2000. Without an engine partner, the team had a hard fight on its hands to compete with the dominant McLaren and the hard charging Ferrari team.

By the close of the season, it was McLaren and Ferrari challenging for the Championships whilst the Winfield Williams team found itself in the fight for third place. Developments to the FW20 gave the team the push it needed and third place in the Constructors' Championship was duly secured. 1999 looked set to be another tough year for the team but there would be a few changes.

Reigning CART Champion Alex Zanardi and Ralf Schumacher were announced as Williams' 1999 drivers on 22nd September 1998. Jacques Villeneuve was to move to the new BAR team whilst Heinz-Harald had joined the Jordan team.
Ralf Schumacher
But after the 1999 season this relationship was to come to an end with Zanardi leaving the team after only one year of a two year contract. Early in 2000 his replacement was announced, Jenson Button. Button came from a background of karting and Formula 3 but has put in some testing performances to warrant his membership of the Williams Team.
What has made Frank Williams the man that he is today. Most people's view of Frank Williams will be one of a face, just visible above a bank of monitors, sponsors baseball cap on head, eyes firmly fixed staring ahead, never smiling, never showing any emotion. This is the picture that is relayed to millions of homes sixteen times a year. This view could lead people to believe that Frank Williams is a hard, dispassionate man. One thing is certain, he is passionate about Formula One racing and has guided his team to many championships, in the process turning Williams Grand Prix Engineering from a lowly new entrant to the top team just twenty years later.
For the 2000 season Williams was secured a long-term partnership with BMW to supply engines to the team.
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