Patrick Head just wanted to build a better Lotus 79. But with the Williams FW07, he created the greatest car of Formula 1’s ground-effect era.
The Williams FW07 earned 15 grand prix victories, one Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship, and two Constructors’ titles.
And at a time of extraordinarily rapid change in F1 technology, despite the increasing dominance of turbocharged engines, the naturally aspirated, Cosworth DFV-powered machine’s front-line career stretched over four seasons, from 1979 to the start of ’82.
Its record of success, and the manner in which it was achieved, ensure that the car has earned its classic status. But what makes FW07 even more amazing is the fact that it was in effect only the second car built by a team whose eponymous founder was once regarded as something of a joke by his F1 rivals.
Frank Williams had first entered F1 with a privateer Brabham in 1969. In the early ’70s, the wheeler-dealing Brit ran his own cars, juggling sponsors and pay drivers and living hand to mouth, sometimes operating from a payphone after the one in his factory had been cut off.
In 1976 he seemed to have found a sugar daddy when he hooked up with Canadian oil-drilling equipment magnate Walter Wolf. However, by year’s end, he’d been sidelined within the team he’d founded and quit to start afresh. After eight years as an F1 entrant he departed with nothing…apart from the commitment of an ex-Lola engineer named Patrick Head, who preferred to go with Frank rather than remain with the new Wolf Racing setup.
They ran a March for Patrick Neve in 1977 under the Williams Grand Prix Engineering name, but Frank had bigger ambitions. For ’78, Head designed the neat and effective Williams FW06, in which tough Aussie Alan Jones – another man at something of a crossroads in his career – hounded the dominant Lotus 79s of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson on a semi-occasional basis.
Frank, meanwhile, was building a useful portfolio of sponsorship from Saudi Arabia, and attention turned to running a full two-car effort in 1979. Head set to work on what became FW07, but knew that to have any chance of being competitive, he had to follow the ground-effect route pioneered by Lotus – aerofoil-shaped tunnels under the car that significantly increased downforce levels, yet achieved it without piling on debilitating levels of extra drag. It wasn’t quite something for nothing, but it was close, and the benefits in cornering performance were game changing.
“The 06 was a nicely balanced car and it suited Alan Jones very well,” recalls Head. “He liked throwing a car around. But he used to say to me all the time, ‘I tell you Patrick, those bloody Lotuses just don’t slide!’ The good thing about the Lotus was that the skirts that sealed its ground-effect tunnels were not brilliant, and the rear brakes were inboard and not properly cooled, so it would run out of rear brakes.
“But we just didn’t have anything like the grip, and it was quite clear that they had a lot of extra downforce. Yet I could see that the Lotus had a dreadful chassis. It was pop-riveted, folded-up, single-skin aluminum. And as the car revved on the grid you could almost see the rivets rotating in their holes!”
Head’s mission was an obvious one: design a better and more effective Lotus 79. Wind tunnels were just beginning to prove their worth in F1, and for the British teams the most popular was at Imperial College, the engineering facility of the University of London. After a tip from Peter Wright, the man who had pioneered ground effect at Lotus, Head conducted five days of testing there in October 1978, and soon began to unlock the secrets of the Lotus.
“There was just myself and Neil Oatley (now design and development director for the McLaren F1 team) in the design office,” says Head. “We produced an 06B at the end of the season. The radiators were at the back, it had a lot more bodywork on it, and it had plastic skirts. We only did one test with it – Eddie Cheever drove it at Paul Ricard – and in truth it was probably as quick as the 06, but no quicker. The car only existed because I was uncertain what to do, and an iteration of what you’ve got is easier – albeit, we weren’t looking at a new concept, because the Lotus had already shown the way.
“I was concentrating on the 07, but I thought the 06B would give us some breathing space heading into 1979, and then the Ricard test showed me that it was a waste of time. We were moving from being a one-car team to a two-car team, so we built another 06 for the first few races. I thought we’d qualify sixth, seventh or eighth in Argentina, but we were 15th and 17th. Everyone had just stepped up with their ground-effect cars.”
Head, who stayed at home for the opening races, needed no more motivation to get on and finish the 07. He’d opted for an aluminum honeycomb chassis, something that was still novel in F1, if not entirely original. Williams made what Head terms an “origami” chassis, which was laid out flat and then folded and bonded into shape. It was very stiff, which was what a ground-effect tub needed to be.
“There were no books or anyone I could talk to,” he says, “so it was quite interesting doing all the calculations so that by the time you folded it everything was in the right place…
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