All of the talk among the invited guests - milling around in a nondescript hangar attached to the airport in Valencia, awaiting the presentation of the new Williams car - was about one thing only. Rather than considering how the team was hoping to break the choke hold Ferrari have had on both Championships for the last half a decade or so, everyone wanted to know who was going to be sitting in the car parked next to Mark Webber's in the team's pits around the world for the forthcoming season.
At the end of last year, Antonio Pizzonia was seen as being a locked down certainly for the drive - he had been with the team for a few years and tested strongly, but more importantly he had been given a chance to compete for the team at four races as a consequence of Ralf Schumacher's torrid accident in Indianapolis, and fellow tester Marc Gene's tepid performances in the previous two races. In those four races, Pizzonia performed strongly, running at a podium pace in Spa before his engine blew up, and at the remaining events he was as fast or better than teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, a man whose race pace had never been in question with the team.
The performance was enough to put a lock on the seat for the young Brazilian, with Frank Williams admitting as much on a number of occasions after the season. The decision to give someone else a test was seen as an exercise in showing that the team had considered all options, had crossed every t and dotted every i, with the choice of Nick Heidfeld to test a consequence of most of the teams agreeing on their driver line-up before the decision was made - Heidfeld was clearly the best of the drivers in Formula One without a contract for 2005, and as such the obvious candidate for the test.
That Heidfeld performed well was no surprise - he has a solid reputation, and he was driving to save his career - and the testing results that were being released showed little difference time wise between the two drivers. There was a sense that, the longer the testing process continued the more the momentum could be switching to the new driver, but trying to second guess Williams on their driver decisions has always been an fool's errand over their history.
Back in the darkened auditorium in Spain, the various team members joined the stage as a large video screen showed footage of the team's recent accomplishments. Despite the shadows it was still clear that Heidfeld was the first person to walk in, his head high and his chest pushed forward, followed by the slightly wilting form of Pizzonia, who trudged in behind and slumped into the seat next to his rival. The master of ceremonies started proceedings with the driver decision, but it was already clear which way it had gone before anyone could say a word.
"It was a very simple, straightforward procedure, as I'm sure would be applied by any of the teams," Frank Williams noted when asked for his view on the matter. "We were able to run both drivers on the same track, with the same weight of fuel, engine revs, etcetera, at the same time, and over a number of many, many kilometres we were able to obtain a sufficient amount of data that biased the choice in the direction made, with the slightest of margins.
"Both drivers had 9,640 kilometres; actually unfortunately one driver got four kilometres less than the other, which was a terrible thing! It was probably experience - they were very close in performance, but Nick has a bit more experience I guess."
The decision was made on the morning of the presentation, Williams noted, although a team member later agreed that the beginnings of that decision were probably formed after the last test between the drivers a week or so previously and held back to avoid leaks to the press. Heidfeld, ebullient, stated that "I had no idea until this morning how the decision would go, and to be honest until yesterday afternoon I wasn't nervous, but the closer to when the decision was made the more nervous I got. Frank was just waiting here, around the corner in this hangar, and he told me half an hour before we had to go on stage that he chose me. Obviously I was very happy then!"
Heidfeld wasn't prepared to discuss anything to do with performance clauses or the proposed duration of his stay at Williams ("I can't tell you anything exact about the contract - probably if you ask Frank Williams he can, but I shouldn't really speak about that in case I get in trouble!"), but from his point of view it didn't matter - he had had an opportunity to drive for one of the most successful teams in Formula One history, and on ability he had taken it - the details would work themselves out in due course.
Pizzonia was naturally downbeat, trying to put a brave face on a decision he could never have foreseen a few months previous. Telling a driver that he doesn't have a drive minutes before pushing him out in front of the world's media is a harsh deal but, as one of the older journalists present dryly noted, Williams have never been known for being overly compassionate to their drivers.
"I do believe it was a very difficult decision for the team," Pizzonia allowed, "and as Frank said, I think it was quite, quite close. He didn't go into details about why he chose Nick and not me; the only thing he said was that my career with Williams is only at the beginning, and not to give up."
No matter how slight the difference before the decision, the difference afterwards was as wide as an ocean.
"Of course I want (podiums and wins)," Heidfeld proclaimed, smiling broadly. "It all depends on how good the car will be, and I know that the team is quite happy and optimistic about the car, and they have worked very hard for the last year. You can see that the team, even in years that they call not successful, usually wins races. So I want to do that, for sure."
"I will still try to do my best and help the team to progress," Pizzonia acknowledged. "I think to be a test driver is not an easy job, but I still enjoy every time I go out there and drive a Formula One car, so I have to go out there and do my best, and hopefully we can improve the car quite a lot from last year."
After the main presentation the drivers split apart on the edge of the stage - Heidfeld was surrounded by the German press, eager to get any words of wisdom in his own language from their newest challenger at the top level, while the British media congregated around Webber, the team's de facto lead driver due to the delay in naming his teammate and looking increasingly comfortable in the position. Over to the right, away from the cameras and the crowds, Pizzonia seemed to be coming to some sort of acceptance of the unexpected life change he'd had thrust upon him.
"Well obviously there were a lot of different people saying different things [to Frank Williams, about the driver decision], but really it's not up to me to say anything about the political side of it - I have my view, which I'm not telling you!" he laughed. "But anyway I have to move on - we all have to prepare for changes in life, the good ones and the bad ones, and unfortunately it didn't go my way this time but I have to carry on and keep working.
"I think the relationship between all three drivers is good, and that's important in the team. Obviously we are all trying to beat each other when we are on the track, but that's normal."
Drivers compete - it's what they are there to do. Given this it is easy to see why the team decided on a head to head comparison for the remaining race seat - tell the drivers that they are competing for a seat and let their nature push them, and then make a decision on the results. Pizzonia lost, and saw it this way: "honestly I can say I was never really happy with the idea of comparing drivers, because I've been with the team for a little while now and I did four races last year, so if I couldn't prove myself in that period then I wouldn't be able to prove myself in two or three tests. So obviously I'm disappointed that the job I did in the four races last year wasn't good enough for the team."
DC: There are still a seat or two available in Formula One - if you were to be offered one of those seats, are you free to take it, and would you?
Pizzonia: "I think it's not the time to make a decision now, but the idea is to be in Formula One, testing or racing, so I really need a couple of days to think about it and make a decision for my career. But I think at the moment I want to stay at Williams, and as Frank said to me this morning my career is only at the beginning with the team."
DC: If you are offered a race seat elsewhere, are you free to take it?
Pizzonia: "To race, I think, yes."
DC: Is there any chance of you leaving the team?
Pizzonia: "Obviously the idea was to be racing this year, and to spend another season as a test driver is not ideal really, so really we have to think about it and see what is best for my career. I want to stay in Formula One, and I'm still quite young, so we'll see what happens."
DC: Is there a chance of a CART drive?
Pizzonia: "Well, a little bit; we've been in touch with a few teams over there. Like I said, I really want to be racing this year, but also I want to be in Formula One, so it's going to be a difficult one."
DC: How do you see your testing role working out? The teams have signed up to the thirty day restricted testing agreement; obviously you're going to have a big role in that, and with Marc Gene having left for Ferrari how do you see your role in all of that?
Pizzonia: "I think even when Marc was with Williams I still did a lot of mileage with the team, and obviously the test driver's job in not an easy one. I think it's good - the more mileage I get in the car the better for me, so hopefully I'll be doing a lot of testing days with the team if I decide to stay here, and it's all experience that you only get when you're in the car."
DC: The team won't have a third driver on the track on race weekends, so you won't have that experience, but thirty days away from the track is still a lot of running if it's only you.
Pizzonia: "I don't think it's going to be only me. But, anyway, I don't even know what I'm doing tomorrow! So we'll see - we have to wait and see."
DC: What are the plans now? They're testing here for the next few days.
Pizzonia: "I think we're going to be here the whole week, but I don't even know if I'm going to be testing here or not, so I'm going back to the track this afternoon and we'll see what happens."
After the drivers left the auditorium, everyone went about their jobs - the journalists filed their stories, the team went out to the track and started to prepare the car for a demonstration run and further testing, and team partner BMW had a fleet of vehicles ready to ferry everyone around in between. The winter sun shone down, warming the track and everyone standing around, waiting for that familiar scream of a V10 engine being coaxed into life.
With everything finally ready, Heidfeld was the first driver to take the car out onto the track. The journalists stood upstairs or along the pitwall, smiling and pointing as he drove out of the pit. Pizzonia sat inside, changed out of his overalls and, wearing headphones, watched the track action with the rest of the team. Heidfeld, sitting in the seat Pizzonia had thought was his own, rolled down the pitlane, and the world continued to turn beneath us all.
At the age of only twenty three, Antonio Pizzonia was an ex-Formula One driver. He did everything he was told to do to get there, and initially it worked. He knew he had to leave his family behind in the Amazonian town of Manaus, Brazil, and he did. He then had to fight through the junior ranks at home and in England, against drivers with bigger budgets and more impressive names, and he did. In doing so he impressed to such an extent that a test seat with Williams fell to him, which then translated into a race drive with Jaguar.
In March 2003 he was living the dream - he was lined up on the grid in Melbourne, Australia, for his first ever Formula One race. Ten races later the dream was over - Jaguar announced that they had fired Pizzonia, after an earlier aborted attempt to rid themselves of him, and amid rumours of rancourous backroom fights and unequal equipment. The young Brazilian retreated from public view to lick his wounds - in the eyes of the public he had gone from the new boy wonder to a has-been in effectively six months.
It was a brutally tough time for the young driver. "Yeah, for sure it was difficult," Pizzonia reflects over a year later. "I was in contact with Williams, and I knew they still believed in me, but it was pretty hard." Making an appearance at the paddock for the first time in Indianapolis last year, he had very valid fears for the future at a time when it was uncertain whether he would even be able to reclaim a test seat, with that position under debate by the FIA and the teams.
Frank Williams, succinct as ever, gave his reaction to the poor form in a green car of a driver he had personally rated very highly before the move thus: "It did surprise us, and no it didn't change our perception (of his abilities), but of course that was in a different car to ours. All we knew was that when he's driving a Williams BMW he's very competitive - whether it's testing or racing, his application is exactly the same."
All Pizzonia could do was push and hope. Ahead of the season ending race in Japan last year Williams gave him a few days of testing at Jerez to help set up the car, and the results were impressive - his feedback was as good and concise as ever, and while he was there, he also set a new track record in the hybrid car. He had put down a marker - his speed was still there, despite the nightmare of his time with Jaguar.
"There were a lot of things going on at Jaguar," Pizzonia recalls. "I don't really want to go back to that - for me it's part of the past - but it was very frustrating for me. Right from the very start things went completely wrong with the team - things just seemed to happen that didn't help much, and I think the team didn't help me much either. I was always trying to do my best, but really they wouldn't let me. I think I wasn't really treated very well there, and also there was a real lack of money to do anything, even to run two cars properly - I guess you can see those money problems now.
"Still, I did learn a lot there, and I've managed to put it behind me and move on. I had a few bad times there, but even with that I think I learnt a lot at Jaguar, and right now I'm just looking to the future, looking ahead."
"He took a hard knock as you say," Frank Williams adds, "and I'm sure his pride and his reputation caused a rethink of his approach; he certainly came back [to Williams] a wiser and a more experienced character."
Williams' Technical Director Sam Michael has a different theory of why the driver he knew so well had failed to impress in his time with Jaguar: "Maybe it was just starting racing. If you look at most guys it does take them six to twelve months to learn the tracks and how to deal with the team situations, and maybe it's just down to that. I didn't work at Jaguar, so I can't really comment on it, but maybe it was just that it was his first year.
"If you go right back to the end of 2001, when we first tested him, it was pretty clear that he was talented right away, so we gave him the test drive for 2002, and there were no fewer than five or six times where he was exceptional compared to Juan Pablo [Montoya] and Ralf [Schumacher] in terms of talent. Even Ralf himself had followed him on a few laps and said ‘look, this guy is really good, he knows how to drive a car and knows the right lines, you can see from the car that he's good', and that's quite rare for one driver to say that about another driver.
"So we really thought, and not because of what the drivers said because that was a tiny thing, most of the time it was because of his pace that we thought this guy is going to be really good."
Nonetheless, the Jaguar period had blotted Pizzonia's copybook in the eyes of the then Chief Operations Engineer, who had formerly been a big supporter of the Brazilian. "Obviously he didn't do a good enough job at Jaguar; Mark Webber outperformed him there, and we went through a period of probably twelve months, from the middle of 2003 to the middle of 2004, where we almost thought he wouldn't do a good job as a race driver.
"I certainly didn't - I was a big, big fan of his in the middle of 2002, and he sort of faded in my eyes; I told him as much and said that he hadn't performed well enough. We told him there were a lot of things we weren't happy with, but then he himself was left to his own devices to fix that. At the end of the day we put a lot of encouragement into him in 2002, and we weren't prepared to do it again - I certainly wasn't, and neither were Frank and Patrick.
"So we said ‘here's a one year testing deal - it's up to you - you're the one that has to sort it out, as we don't have the time to invest in you like before', and he did do it himself. He obviously felt as though he had a rough time there (at Jaguar), but we explained to him before he started working for us again that basically we wanted him to approach everything positively, we weren't interested in what type of problems he had there as such, and that if he was to drive for Williams he had to do it positively and just get on with it basically, and not dwell on anything that happened in the past.
"And I must say that he did do that - since the end of last year when he was back with Williams he didn't concentrate on any of that, and he just got on with the job. He took it onboard, came back to testing and then racing with us, and proved to everyone that he could do the job."
The period was a godsend for Pizzonia. "Yeah, it was really important for me, first to get back in a car and realise how good I can be for myself, and then to just get back in the team and gain some more experience after one year away to see how they had improved too. When I came back there were so many new things on the car - it was really amazing! But mostly it was important to just get back in the car, and I've done quite a lot of miles in testing this year, which is great - I really love driving, and it's the best way to learn everything to do with the car.
"I knew I had a lot of support from Williams over the years, even when I was at Jaguar, and that's always been great. To be honest it was really good to come back to Williams because I've always loved them as a team - ever since I was nine or ten I've dreamed of being with the team.
"And it was a dream come true to race for them."
The odds were stacked against Pizzonia ever returning to a race cockpit again - a one year testing contract more often than not becomes a temporary reprieve before the slow slide back down the motorsport pile - but he plugged away in testing and quietly hoped. After Ralf Schumacher was injured following a high-speed crash in Indianapolis this year, the team turned to third driver Marc Gene to take over the reins - he had done a more than adequate job filling in for the German the year before after another crash in Monza, and contractually was the first port of call for the team.
But after two races it was clear that the Spaniard wasn't the answer - the team won't say it, but it is obvious from his lap times during those two races that Gene just wasn't quick enough. With Schumacher still recovering, there were two options - pull in a driver from outside and hope for the best, or put their hopes on Pizzonia, who clearly knew the car well after thousands of testing kilometres, having regained his racing chops.
Pizzonia got the call.
"It was a really, really special moment for me, for sure," Pizzonia smiles broadly at the thought. "I knew that I'd really have to perform, as it could be my last chance to race in Formula One, so there was a lot of pressure but I really just wanted to prove to everyone what I could do if I had the chance. The good thing was I knew there was a lot of support for me from the team, and I knew the car really well, and the tracks, so I was pretty confident I could do alright. I think I managed to impress a few people."
But how good was Pizzonia's racing performance over the four race period?
"I think it was pretty good, you know," Pizzonia says. "Things were good and it went pretty well, really. I think I managed to be better than a lot of people expected, which was important, and it was a good experience. It also gave me more time in the car, which is always good. I just wanted to score some points, really - there wasn't a lot more I could do than that with the car. It would have been really easy to look a bit silly, and it was important for me not to try and be a hero but really to just go out and do the job as well as I could.
"Certainly the team asked me to just go out and try to bring back some points. I think I performed pretty well in the car over the four races - okay, in terms of points not really, because I didn't finish in one race. There are a few reasons why I didn't, and they weren't anything to do with me, so really I think I achieved what I wanted mostly."
"He definitely outperformed our expectations and scored good points for the team in those races," concurs Sam Michael. "He scored two points in each race that he finished, and he would have been third in Spa before his gearbox stopped his race. In those races he did a good job. In his first race in Hockenheim he didn't do a good job in the main qualifying session, but it wasn't bad considering he hadn't raced for twelve months or so, and from that point on he didn't get it wrong again - for the next three races he always had more fuel than his teammate, and in a couple of races he outqualified him. He did a good job."
Frank Williams was, too, impressed with Pizzonia's comeback. "We were very surprised at his immediate level of performance," the veteran team chief says. "He rarely made a mistake, and he unquestionably improved race by race. We had a direct comparison with Juan, and he compared very favourably in that comparison."
"Antonio was very hard," agrees Montoya. "He was quite impressive, especially his pace. He needs a bit more experience, but his pace was flying in the races; it was very, very fast."
"I think I proved a point," Pizzonia adds. "Especially inside of the team - not so much outside of the team, because from the outside you don't really see the real picture, for example the fuel loads you're carrying in qualifying and all those things. There were times when I had more fuel than Juan Pablo - sometimes much more, like in Hungary, where I was three or four tenths faster (in qualifying) I think, and yet I didn't stop for about another four laps - people don't really look at those things from the outside, but for sure I think the team was pretty impressed with me for those reasons."
Michael: "Probably his results didn't reflect how quick he was. Look at Spa and Monza - his pace in Monza was pretty good, he got punted off on the first lap but was the fastest Michelin runner by over three tenths, and in Spa he was headed for a podium until his gearbox failed, so the final results don't reflect what type of job he did, whereas we did see in the car where he got to. Probably Monza was his best race, because although he only finished seventh he was punted off on the first lap and came around 35 seconds behind Rubens, and at the end of the race he was 35 seconds behind Rubens, so he didn't lose anything after 53 laps - Rubens won the race, and he didn't make any time on Antonio during the whole race. So he's really surprised everybody, surprised everyone inside Williams."
When Ralf Schumacher made his return last month, for the first ever Formula One race in Shanghai, Pizzonia's dream was over. He had proven his point, and changed a lot of opinions in doing so, most importantly those among the hierarchy at Williams. He had more than held his own against Montoya, and while a comparison with Schumacher couldn't be made ("It's impossible," Williams noted, "they're not driving in the same cars on the same tracks at the same time") there was ample proof that it was the Jaguar period which was the anomaly, not anything on either side of it.
But where does that leave Pizzonia for the future? Williams have two race drivers signed for next year - Mark Webber and Jenson Button - although the latter's contract is disputed by the driver's current team BAR, and a verdict from the Contracts Recognition Board is expected this weekend. If Williams do need to find a second driver, for whatever reason, then what are Pizzonia's chances of being considered for the seat?
"Well obviously he's got a job at Williams, and in what capacity remains to be seen," Michael says, "It's too early to say [whether he could get Button's seat], and I don't really want to go into it. Yeah, it's not something that we're … well, we're putting everything into winning at the CRB, and if that doesn't come off then we'll look at things like that."
"Certainly he would be on our list," Frank Williams clarifies. "Since December 2001 he's done tens of thousands of kilometres of testing, he has thereby accumulated a substantial knowledge of what makes racing cars go tick and which are the quick ways around Grand Prix circuits, and he has learnt what not to do. That is not to say he hasn't got much more to learn, but I think if he is in a good team, if he finds himself on a good team he could be capable of winning races in due course."
Pizzonia himself expects to continue testing for Williams next season, while harbouring the hope that luck would again offer him a chance to return to racing.
"I really want to race," Pizzonia admits. "You never know - if Jenson doesn't end up coming back to Williams then maybe I'll get a chance to race for them again. Unfortunately there's not many seats in the top teams anymore, so if I don't race for Williams I'll test for them - I've got that contract already. In a way I wish that the races I had were a bit earlier in the season, because maybe I could have had more chances at a race seat with the other teams, or maybe even with Williams as well."
If, for whatever reason, Williams do find themselves with Pizzonia in a race seat again, they now know what he can do - he's young, fast, knows the car well, has dealt with adversity and come through the other side, and has proven his abilities in front of the world.
Pizzonia himself isn't getting carried away. "I think that I've just got a lot more experience of everything," he notes, smiling. "I'm still young, I've just turned 24, and in a way I've still not got enough experience in some ways, but I think I'm learning something every day and improving all the time.
"I think you have to remember that I've only had 15 races, so of course there will always be more to learn and experience. When I went back to Williams I actually still felt like a newcomer, with so much to learn - in Formula One experience is so important; but I'm getting there."
And so, at the age of twenty four, Antonio Pizzonia may just be a Formula One driver once again.
Early this year McLaren team boss Ron Dennis was in the wars – he had suffered the indignity of building a car that was never driven in anger (the MP-18) the year before, and the media pack was baying for blood. After suggesting that the situation had been successfully turned round and that the team were looking toward to wins in the season, Bob McKenzie, long time Formula One journalist for The Express, stated: "if McLaren win a race this year I will run around Silverstone. Naked."
Ron Dennis has a way of polarising public opinion, unlike any other team boss, but why were the McLaren statements treated with such disdain when those of Williams, a team with a similar pedigree, are given a free pass?
The new millennium has been unkind results-wise to any team not wearing red. Since 2000, Ferrari have won an astonishing 54 races up to last week's result in Spa, as well as every Championship, which doesn't leave a lot left in the pot for anyone else. There is a perception that Williams have been the best of the rest, but in fact in that time they have won a paltry 9 races, against McLaren's more respectable 15.
To put this into perspective, over the preceding five year period Williams took 25 wins, against Ferrari's 21, McLaren's 19 and Benetton's 12.
Williams have clearly under-performed by their own standards, and after falling short in both Championships in a tight year in 2003, most commentators thought that 2004 would be a return to the top for the Grove based team. A radical design philosophy, exemplified in this year's FW26, which was designed with the input of former Ferrari aerodynamicist Antonia Terzi, was thought to be enough to get the job done. It wasn't.
Midway through the season, renowned Technical Director Patrick Head decided it was time to step back and let some new blood have a crack at pushing the team back to their former glories, and 33 years old Chief Engineer Sam Michael was handed the reins. It was a popular move in and outside of the team, as Michael is generally seen being the personification of the Williams Type of Man, but the task he now has on his shoulders is enormous.
In his first race as Technical Director, at the Nurburgring, Williams teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher collided at the start of the race – Ralf retiring immediately and Montoya eventually finishing in eighth.
The next couple of races, however, were somewhat more eventful for Michael - after claiming second and fifth in the Canadian Grand Prix, the team had their results striped when the air ducts on the front brakes were deemed to be outside of the proscribed dimensions, and the following race saw one driver black flagged for failing to switch to the spare car in time and the other hospitalised and out of racing for at least six races following a horrendous shunt in Indianapolis. Not an ideal start by anyone's standards.
"Well, it's been..." Sam Michael - sat at a table in the team's motorhome in Spa - pauses, refining his words, looking for the correct combination. It is a trait he has in common with team boss Frank Williams. "Obviously we've had a few problems in the last few races, but it's starting to settle down a bit now and we're starting to put in place directions for next year. But the problems we've had have not really been directly related to the change, so it doesn't really bother me. At the end I always think about it, and every race performance is what happens, but you just get on with it and keep looking forward."
Many commentators have suggested that Michael is a Head junior, but in fact there are a number of differences between the men. Whereas Head was famous for his flamboyant and at times loud manner of speaking, Michael is soft spoken, eternally appearing calm. Rather than speaking openly about the team's problems, he is more likely to deflect comments with his dry, slightly sarcastic sense of humour, and he is much more likely to put a positive spin on everything. He is very much a man of his times.
"At the end of the day, you just keep pushing," Michael continues, "and putting in place long and medium term plans to correct things – it's not a matter of falling over or anything like that. Motor racing is tough, and we've made some mistakes on this year's car and we've had a terrible time because of that, but you don't give up – you just turn around and try and put things right."
In Hungary, the team moved away from the radical styling of the car's nose, bringing back a more conservative approach to aerodynamic package but retaining the controversial twin keel chassis design philosophy.
DC: The team made an obvious change of direction with the nose in Hungary. Does that point to an admission of failure with where you were going design wise?
Michael: "Not really – it was good at the time, and really changing the nose is no different to changing the diffuser or a winglet, a flip up, a barge board or anything like that on that car. The only difference is that it's so visual to everybody else. Last year, we changed between one winglet and another probably six times, but no one said (anything) - because it's a winglet, it's not so visual on the car. As far as we're concerned, it's just an aerodynamic device, and we chop and change between those regularly throughout the car's development."
DC: A lot of the aero work flows back from the car, of course, so there must have been a substantial change behind the nose.
Michael: "It does, but it's no different from any other aerodynamic device. I mean, a front wing endplate or a guide vane are all at the front of the car as well, the same as a front wing flap – we change the front wing flap concepts, with different main planes as well – it's only that the nose is wide and short that it's so visual, so people pick up on it, but to be honest you can try and pick up a bigger story but there's really nothing to it."
DC: The other thing is you went to a twin keel design this year – was that a mistake?
Michael: "We've probably evaluated single keel versus twin keel for the last three or four cars, and we've still got twin keel on this car. But we haven't decided what we're going to do for the next car yet – we're still in the stage of evaluation, and that will continue until we finalise our chassis at the end of the year."
Williams are currently in fourth place in the Constructors' Championship, with McLaren rapidly rising up and looking to overtake. It is unfamiliar territory, and it's clear to see how much it hurts a team that is used to much more. With Toyota already stating that the remainder of the year is effectively a practice for next season, does there ever become a point where a team like Williams could make a similar statement?
"No." Michael is emphatic on this point. "Even if you start to lose the battle for the Championship - and obviously the Championship is gone and it's even looking like getting second and third is not a reality. But the way you finish a year is still important. You need to continue development, and any development on this year's car we can generally carry over to next year's car anyway, so you never turn the year into a development year, if you like – it's all learning and pushing hard on this year to help next year as well."
DC: But there are no guarantees that anything on this year's car is going to end up on next year's car.
Michael: "No, that's true, and because of the regulation changes we don't know how the parts on this year's car are going to be affected by that - there'll be a lot of things that we are developing now for this year's car that won't work on next year's car because of the regulation changes."
DC: How are you going to design next year's car? There's still no agreement from the Technical Working Group, so what are you going to design to?
Michael: "Well, aerodynamically and chassis wise we're designing to [FIA president] Max Mosley's regulations – well, I wouldn't say regulations, because the exact wording of the sporting regulations and technical regulations still have a few problems with it, which are not intentional. But there are four main changes aerodynamically, which are to lift the front wing 50mm; move the rear wing forward 150mm; trim a 400mm cut out in front of the rear tyre and the diffuser; and lower the diffuser ramps angle so it only goes to 125mm in Z. And we're working on those regulation changes, assuming they're going through."
DC: In the past, Ferrari have stopped the development of their car fairly early to allow them to concentrate on the following year's car, for example in 2002.
Michael: "Yes, and they have this year as well."
DC: That gives them a huge advantage for next year.
Michael: "Yes, it does. It does give them a big advantage and it's pretty hard to overcome, but that's what we've got to do basically, so we've got to push on this year and next year."
DC: What, in your view, do you have to do to overtake them, if you're going to push on until the end of the year with this year's car?
Michael: "We've got to do both, that's the thing; there's no alternative, because we've got to maintain this year's position - you can't give up on this year - and you've got to develop next year's car. Unfortunately, you've got to do both, and that's why whenever you're in a position where you're really competitive or you're uncompetitive it makes the decision easier.
"The problem is, this year the penalty is far greater, because the cars are so different from this year to next year – none of the bits we develop for this year's car will carry over to next year's car – whereas in previous years if you don't have a big rule change you can push right up to Suzuka. All the front wings, engine covers and all that sort of stuff that you develop you can (traditionally) put them onto next year's car, but unfortunately it won't work like that and so it's very expensive in terms of performance to concentrate for too long on this year's car."
DC: But you can't get first, and it's unlikely that you can even make second or third.
Michael: "No, of course, but it's still important – our main target is to maintain fourth, to hold onto fourth."
DC: Is the potential penalty for next year worth it? Is there ever a stage where you realise it's better to stop and work on next year?
Michael: "If it's a position in the Championship it's still worth it – at the end of the day, it's in the record books, and you should still go through it."
With this decision, Williams are now in potentially the same situation that McLaren found themselves in last year – they have to split up the factory into different design and engineering groups to concentrate on separate projects rather than focusing all of their resources in one direction. McLaren struggled with the process, and it is only recently that they have been able to turn around their performance, with the team focusing on this year's car.
Surprisingly, Michael believes both teams are of a similar size, stating that "the difference between us and McLaren wouldn't be any more than plus or minus five percent." In any event, both are now running two programmes (pushing this year's car plus designing its successor) and it will be an intriguing battle to watch. What is at stake is, effectively, nothing more than pride – it is arguable that it would actually be better to finish fifth in this year's Constructors' Championship, as that would give the fifth team the advantage of running a third driver on race weekend Fridays next year – and both teams have committed to pushing for fourth place.
If the unthinkable happens and Williams do finish fifth, they will have to consider the third driver programme carefully as well. Stand in driver Antonio Pizzonia will not be able to run on Friday as he has had too many races in the last two years (the sporting regulations state that a third driver must have done no more than six races over that period). Marc Gene, the team's other tester, is a possibility, but his replacement as the race driver, filling in for the injured Ralf Schumacher at France and England, seems to make that move unlikely.
So where would the team look to fill this hole? "It means that you'll have to be looking at a young guy," Michael says. "If you look at the names coming through now, you've got Nelson Piquet Jr and Adam Carroll in British Formula 3 - they're the two hot guys there, both very talented. In Euro Formula 3 Jamie Green is absolutely dominating, Nico Rosberg as well, not bad, and there are two or three other guys out there as well. There are probably five or six names that have got good potential."
Whoever would be brought into the team will have to work with a new driver line-up – Mark Webber has signed a three year deal to race for Williams, and pending the result of BAR's legal case, Jenson Button will also be returning to his old team. After the last few years of internal bickering between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, the new front men are seen as a breath of fresh air - and despite both men's relative lack of results to date, it's obvious that the team is relishing the prospect.
DC: Moving on to next year, how do you see the line-up of Mark and Jenson working out?
Michael: "I think Mark and Jenson will be a fantastic combination, and that's why we're excited about starting them next year – they're both big motivators. They've both got undeniable talent in the car, youth but without greenness as they've both got three or four seasons of Formula One under their belts and have got rid of any sort of problems. They know how Formula One works and what they have to do to push and win, and it's something that we're looking forward to starting as soon as possible – they're Williams type drivers, by a long way."
DC: Jenson already was a Williams driver, of course, but Webber has always struck me as a potential Williams driver – these moves must be a huge motivation for everyone at the factory.
Michael: "It is, it's massive to have that – we haven't had that for a long time, and to get two drivers in there who are pushing each other, pushing the team, makes a massive difference. There are drivers who push the team and there are drivers who don't, and I'm afraid the day where a driver turned up and just drove the car is long gone – if it even existed. The drivers are part of the team and they have to realise that; some of them do, and some of them don't."
DC: Frank, Patrick and you have all stated that you were looking for winning drivers for next year, and although neither driver has won in Formula One yet, they have a clear potential. Tell me what it is that you see in both Jenson and Mark that points towards this?
Michael: "Well, if I start on Mark: every single car that he's got in, he's been fast – whether it be sports cars or go karts or Formula 3 cars or Formula 3000 cars or Formula One cars, straight away he's fast. So that tells you something. And there are only a few guys that are like this that we've seen in history – [Mika] Hakkinen was one of them, Michael [Schumacher] was one of them – they can get into anything and feel the car, know where its limits are on its tyres with not much experience.
"So we've seen that over seven or eight years, watching Mark in various categories, and then when he came into Formula One he's done probably three or four things - and remember, we see a lot more than you guys at testing and in practice sessions, particularly in testing. In testing you do maybe triple the miles of a race weekend, and we see him do things in testing that make you sit up and take notice.
"And we also see him do things in races, even though he might be running around in tenth or something. We keep an eye on everything, especially if we take an interest in a driver. So there's that, and the next thing is his ability against his teammates – he's completely outclassed any of his teammates that he's had. Antonio [Pizzonia] drove with us in testing in 2002 and was regularly quicker than Montoya and [Ralf] Schumacher in testing, and Mark completely dominated him when he was with Jaguar. So that straight away told us that this guy was pretty good.
"Then, coming to the personal side and his actual character - when we met him, we realised this was someone who wants to be a Champion. There's a clear difference when you talk to people who understand how they're going to do it – he's an intelligent guy who realises what's required to do the job."
DC: And Jenson?
Michael: "Jenson at the same time has had a very different career path to Mark, but we had a very good experience with him – it was before I was at Williams, obviously. He was a Williams driver before and everyone in team was a big fan of his, from the engineers to the mechanics and all the factory staff – there's a massive amount of support internally for him.
"As for his talent, you can see how he can drive – you could see that at Hockenheim, for example – and he's got the right mentality, he's very smooth, doesn't get flustered, he's a professional as well, and intelligent enough to understand what makes the cars go fast. I've got a lot of time for Jenson, and I personally pushed very hard, along with a couple of other people inside the company, to get him into Williams."
DC: What do you mean pushed very hard?
Michael: "Well, I wasn't involved in getting him out of his contract with BAR – that's not what I meant. But even before he was available, and for a long time, we were all supportive of him coming to Williams and once his manager contacted us, it was a unanimous decision among us to sign him. It wasn't a hard decision."
DC: How do you see them working together?
Michael: "As far as we're concerned, we'll probably have the best drivers line up outside of [Ferrari's] Michael [Schumacher] and Rubens [Barrichello] - and not because [Button and Webber] are not talented enough, but because they haven't worked together in the team for long enough, whereas Michael and Rubens have been together for a long time now and they do compliment each other pretty well. So that's going to be the strongest combination.
"But Jenson and Mark have both already supported each other and said 'this guy is the best teammate I could have', respectively to each other. I don't expect them to be mates and go to the cinema together or anything like that, but I'm sure they will be fiercely competitive – they've already said so – and I think they'll be strong together professionally and do the job properly.
"So it will be good – I think that it will be very positive for us next year."
Sidebar: Obstacles on the Way to 2005
The Technical Working Group, a collection of Technical Directors for all of the teams, has been charged with agreeing on changes suggested by FIA President Max Mosley to the Technical Regulations for next year. These changes include the aerodynamic designs (as laid out above by Sam Michael), as well as amendments to the tyres (one set of tyres per race) and the engines (the existing engine is to be modified to last for two races instead of one for 2005, followed by a change to a 2.4 litre V8 engine for 2006).
At present Renault, Ferrari, Sauber, Jaguar, Jordan and Minardi have agreed to the amendments; Williams, McLaren, BAR and Toyota have not.
"At the moment we're assuming the regulations will be as written in Max's document," Michael says. "That's what it will be aerodynamically. We're getting on with it assuming that's not going to change, and I don't think it will because there's general agreement in the TWG with the way they've been written.
"But The final date for agreement is the 6th of September, so until then there's general agreement and anyone can walk into the meeting and say 'is there general agreement on this point?' and people will say yes, yes, no, yes and that sort of thing, but the 6th of September is when you walk in there and say, 'yes I agree to this package' or 'no I don't', and that's the final vote that matters. So there are six teams now, and whether that's two teams or ten teams it doesn't really matter – it's the vote on the 6th of September that really matters."
DC: Can't they get the TWG agreement out of the way?
Michael: "Only if they have eighty percent - there's not eighty percent at this stage. The problem is that the package comprises of aero, tyres, the 2005 engine and the 2006 engine, so there are a lot of things to agree to as a package."
DC: Would it be fair to say that it's the engines that are holding up Williams on agreeing?
Michael: "Most likely yeah – I think that's fair to say. It's most likely fair to say not just in Williams's case, but probably everybody's."
DC: Well, the other four anyway.
Michael: "Yeah – put it this way, if we had a meeting in thirty minutes and Charlie [Whiting] said, "you've all got to decide yes or no on the aero regulations now," I'm quite sure you'd get unanimous agreement, so that probably tells you that those are not the things that are holding it up."
Juan Pablo Montoya doesn't give a fuck if you or I think his season is already over this year.
But don't just take my word for it, take his: "I don't give a fuck. Sorry about that word, but I don't really care; that's what the media is all about." Montoya had stomped into Williams' refrigerated offices on the Friday before the race, coming in from the balmy Malaysian afternoon swinging, starting as he meant to go on. The trigger for his ire was a seemingly innocuous inquiry as to whether or not it annoyed him to hear people writing him off after only one race.
"They put attention on things and it can get inside your head," he continued, warming to the theme, "but you've just got to be positive and go for it, you've got to go for it in every race. You never know how many points you're going to score in a season, so you've got to score as many as possible today."
Montoya has won a legion of fans for doing just that; getting into whatever car his team provides him with and just going for it, not to mention speaking candidly to anyone who would listen before and after throwing it around the track. For his entire Formula One career Montoya has been spoken of as a future champion, as the guy that could finally take on Michael Schumacher and beat him at his own game, and although the two have had a number of battles on and off the track, the Colombian has yet to take the title.
Early this year, just like every other year in recent memory, the pundits have crowed that finally the Ferrari number was up and the red team was headed downhill. At the launch late in January journalists were united in claiming that the Ferrari was underwhelming, remarkably unimproved in the face of the dramatic new walrus tusked beast the squad at Grove had dreamed up. Surely, they said, this year was Montoya's year.
Obviously no one told the Maranello brigade; they came straight out of the box and won the first three races.
Cue a large number of anguished cries around the world as various team principals, journalists and fans alike stared at their television screens and asked as one 'how did that happen?' But, having been invested with so much faith by so many people, what did Montoya himself make of the red wash? Was he surprised at Ferrari's pace in Melbourne, or at how comparatively slow his mount was? "No," Montoya stated emphatically, leaning into the table as if for emphasis. "Me, I'm not. We're quick, although we're not as quick as we wanted to be, but it's not like we're ten (spots) away, you know."
Ferrari enjoyed, and then some, a one-two finish in Melbourne, with thirty seconds of air back to a distant Fernando Alonso in third, and everyone up to the points lapped by Schumacher. Montoya, apparently not surprised by this, was fifth, a light year away. Did he really expect Ferrari to come back and spank the rest of the field so publicly? "No; (in Melbourne) they were really strong and it surprised everybody; the track really suited them a lot and they've always been very hard to beat there. But the season goes on and things change, and there are another 17 races so...
"It would be nice to take big points from race one, but if it doesn't then you go on, and when they come, they come. Last season it took five races to take some points, so we'll see."
DC: But last season was a bit different; it seemed last year that the team had a good car but they didn't quite understand it and it took a while to work up to that understanding; is it the same problem this year?
JPM: No, it's not as extreme. And we're quicker; I qualified last year in third (in Melbourne), and this year as well, but it is a bit different and that's what we have to deal with.
DC: It's hard to really tell a lot about where the teams are from winter testing; you might know where you are, but you won't necessarily know where Michael is. Considering that how do you now think the season is going to go?
JPM: I think we've got an idea how we're going to go, but we've got no idea how they're going to go. We know we've got a better car than last year, but they know they've got a better car than last year as well. The thing is Ferrari has got a step on everybody, but as long as you don't do a major step, big enough to get there, you're going to go here (hold left hand low) and they're going to go here (raises right hand), and it's going to go on until someone makes a major step.
How are Things at Williams?
If things weren't bad enough with Ferrari playing "follow my lead", there is that whole Montoya and Williams at loggerheads problem, apparently all caused by his move to McLaren at the end of the season. Certain parts of the media have had an almost unholy glee in pointing towards a cessation of talk between team and driver. Although Montoya himself hasn't noticed it so far, oddly enough: "Things are okay; they're the same as every year. It hasn't changed at all."
So Montoya is either blissfully unaware of any rift between himself and the team he is leaving, or he's glossing over the problem for the media. To be fair, it has to be pointed out that there doesn't really seem to be a problem from the outside; after the race in Bahrain (a race which would have tried the patience of any driver given the gearbox problem which cancelled out a certain podium finish) Sam Michael and Montoya were chatting away as though nothing untoward had just occurred on track.
But surely things will become a little different towards the end of the season? "Oh, I think probably towards the end of the year it will, of course" Montoya agreed. "I'm sure there are two tests booked towards the end of October, and I'm pretty sure I won't be asked to be there!"
The problem, and it's a fairly sizeable one, with that sort of behaviour, is that if you are challenging for a World Championship towards the business end of the series, then that is exactly when you need your team behind you the most. "I think in racing the team will be 100% behind me. You know, if they go only behind one driver, and their ultimate goal is the Constructor's Championship, then to win the Constructor's then they need both drivers there."
DC: So how would that work? Williams don't want to give anything away to McLaren, so would they just say 'you can get in the car, but you're not allowed to look at these new bits'?
JPM: Yeah, but a lot of things are internal; at BMW everything is internal.
DC: So you wouldn't even necessarily notice if there was a change?
JPM: Well, I would probably feel more power, but I wouldn't be able to see what it is!
DC: How much could you honestly take to McLaren over with you?
JPM: I'm not interested in taking anything over.
DC: But from a knowledge point of view...
JPM: My knowledge is the knowledge of a driver; how the car behaves and that's it. I could get into a car and say 'we need to improve this, we need to improve that', but I'm not going to say this 'oh it's different', because the day I go to McLaren they're going to know I could do the same thing when I leave McLaren, so it's the same thing with the next team if I ever leave McLaren. You've got to be straightforward, and I think it would be wrong against Williams and wrong against McLaren if you do that.
Montoya is caught slightly between a rock and a hard place; the team he is currently driving for is being beaten by Ferrari again, but not as badly as the team he is signed to go to next year. "I'm not driving for McLaren yet!" he laughed, leaning back in his chair and slapping his feet onto the table. "But yeah; I think we can do better than that, and hopefully we can show some sort of better performance here."
DC: Looking at where McLaren are at the moment in comparison to Williams, does that make you worry slightly about the future?
JPM: No. You know, when I went to Williams they were nowhere, and we have brought up the team quite a lot forward. So it would be nice if I could go over to a winning car, but if we don't it's all the same; we've got to work with the team to make sure we've got a better car and do what's needed to push the team forward.
DC: How much improvement can a team make in a year? Formula One is engineered so highly, and it seems that it's not the work to get to about 97%, but that extra few percent is so difficult to get through.
JPM: Yeah, but it's not just two or three percent; it's always going up. You see, the cars at every race have new things, even if you don't notice; every race there's a little bit here, a little bit there, and it just keeps increasing, and it's the rate that you keep increasing that makes the difference.
DC: Well sure; Williams, McLaren or whoever improve every year; in Melbourne you were faster than last year; but there's always going to be that improvement...
JPM: Well, if you look at the laptimes from last year to this year, this year was smaller even though I made a mistake.
DC: How do you think the relationship between you and the team is going to be over there? It's very different team to Williams.
JPM: I'll find out when I get there, but so far so good.
DC: Have you spoken much to Ron, or do you see him a lot?
JPM: That's none of your business!
DC: I just mean...
JPM: Exactly; none of your business!
One Horse Town
Ferrari is a one horse team: discuss. This is the essay topic millions around the globe have taken up as their own, debating vociferously the merits of putting all of a team's eggs into one basket rather than sharing all of the resources of a team across both cars and letting the best man win. It's an argument that will run and run, and one that has filtered up to the various teams in the championship.
Montoya is in no doubt that Michael Schumacher has been handed his lot on a plate, but does he think that the German's teammate can take the fight to him? "I think Rubens has been getting into Michael more and more and more, and I think if he can just get that last bit out of him and start outqualifying Michael it's going to really get into Michael's head. It would be nice to see that." The thought put a broad smile on his face as the Colombian considered his fellow South American taking the fight to his more fancied rival.
DC: What do you think is the best way to take on Michael - in a different team or in the same team?
JPM: Having a quicker car than Michael and winning - that's the way he's done it to everybody else.
DC: Do you think you're better off facing him from Williams, or next to him?
JPM: If we were both in Williams it would be a different story than if we were both in Ferrari.
DC: Why? Because this is your team and Ferrari is his?
JPM: No, because this is the team where you are 100% sure you're going to get equal things; you know, I've never been there but from everything you hear they don't! (laughs)
DC: How does that work do you think? That has always been the rumour, but if they are making a mould for a new part then the cost is in the mould or design, not the manufacture of the extra parts.
JPM: It's about timing, not about money. I think if they've found something, and they found it in the week before the race, then they don't have the time to make all of the pieces for all the cars. They might only have the time to make one piece; the way they develop is they're happy just to give one piece to Michael probably, and at the next race the two cars get the same piece, or Michael with something newer again. I don't know how they work; I'm not involved in that; but that could be a way to work.
DC: Does that sort of thing ever pop up in Williams?
JPM: It has done in the past, yeah, and whoever's ahead gets it; simple. Whoever is ahead in the points gets it; it's obvious. The first year when the B chassis came out on the 23, that was for Spa, Ralf had the car and I put it on pole in the A (laughs). Just to wind him up!
Another amusing parlour game for Formula One fans worldwide is to guess the name of Montoya's replacement next year at Williams; it's not every year that a top line drive becomes available, mores the pity, and most fans relish the idea of their favourite stepping up to the main event. So who would Montoya see as a suitable replacement? "Don't ask me that!" he howled, amused. "Even if I knew who they were going to sign I wouldn't tell you!"
DC: No, but who would you put in there?
JPM: Don't know, don't care. I'm not going to be here; it ain't going to be my decision, is it? I think Frank, the same way he took me, he'll find somebody else as well, and I'm sure they'll find somebody good.
When did it all happen?
There has been some debate about when, where, why and how the Montoya to McLaren move was initiated, and although the end result is the same (Montoya in silver overalls next year) there are still question marks surrounding the move (and more, it seems, are on the way given the relative performance of the two teams). Many pundits have made noise about Montoya's supposed love of Mercedes as a major factor in the move. "Oh, I'm not such a big fan," he answered, "I do like driving Mercedes - I'm not going to lie - who doesn't enjoy that? And I like driving BMWs as well.
"No, I mean it'll be cool, just like it's cool to race for BMW."
But what of the link to one of Montoya's childhood heroes, Ayrton Senna? Is it important to him to be driving for the spiritual home of his great hero? "No, nothing. It's not important at all."
The other main speculation focuses around last year's French Grand Prix, where Montoya made it abundantly clear that he was unhappy with the team and everything attached to it. But did McLaren come knocking before or after the race?
"Before" Montoya mumbled, under his breath.
DC: Just before?
JPM: No (long pause). Before Magny Cours.
Williams ran IRL champion Scott Dixon in a last minute test in Paul Ricard two weeks ago, and without any previous time in the car he lapped with 0.4sec of Ralf Schumacher. It was a prequel to a bigger test in Barcelona this week, and it seemed to indicate he has the talent. That's one more name on the already long list of potential replacements.
"I think he's got plenty of speed, but the last two years he's spent going around ovals," Montoya says of Dixon.
DC: I guess that's the problem with America; its lead series is just ovals now, so it's difficult to take someone like you from there anymore.
JPM: Yeah, but we'll see; I think if you've still got the talent you should be okay, so we'll see.
DC: Was it something you had thought about before then, or was it the French...
JPM: Yeah. I think everyone thinks I left because of the Magny Cours race, but it was a lot of things that add up. When you have a relationship, and I've said this about a hundred times, when you have a relationship with a girlfriend then sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and it gets to a point where you say 'I've had enough - that's it'. And it's like that; I got to a point where I thought one more year at Williams would be good, but I want to try something new and see what happens. Now it might be McLaren will be like the ideal girlfriend, might be not, you know (smiles)?
Sidebar: Bigmouth Strikes Again
Not only does Montoya have to race his rivals on track to gain success, but increasingly the battle is raging off track as well. Eddie Irvine, not noted for keeping his opinions to himself when he can sell them to a newspaper for the amusement of others, has recently declared war on the Colombian (and his teammate Ralf Schumacher) in his column in British tabloid The Sun.
DC: Did you see the comments from Eddie Irvine before the season?
DC: He said the Williams pairing was dumb and dumber.
JPM: Well, we're driving and he's not (laughs)!
DC: He was criticising you both for making silly mistakes and so on.
JPM: Well, I think for someone who never really did it it's hard for them to really comment on it.
DC: It's just nice to see him mouthing off again!
JPM: Well he always did that; he's always been better at that than driving (smiles broadly).
After last year's whitewash of both Championships by Ferrari, few people had any hopes of anyone taking the fight to the red corner this year, and with Williams losing some key personnel, their chances were being written off from the start. When McLaren made the running early this year, with Ferrari and Renault following in their wake, Williams were seen as being adrift in the rough waters of Formula One, with many suggesting that the team would never achieve the heights they've raised in the past. The unexpectedness of their comeback has made it all the more beautiful to watch.
At the same time, the focal point of the team, particularly from a media standpoint, seems to be shifting, with Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head stepping back from the front line, allowing Chief Operations Engineer Sam Michael to speak for the team. For example, he represented Williams at the recent FIA hearing in Paris, where the appeal over Ralf Schumacher's penalty from the German Grand Prix was heard. It was particularly remarkable, given than the hearing was televised for the first time.
"The FIA were very open," Michael commented on the experience in Hungary. "The judges were very passive and allowed everyone to say what they wanted to say and present all the evidence that they wanted to present. It was a good process really."
More importantly, Michael is fast becoming Williams's main man in the circuit - whether it's during a Grand Prix weekend or in testing. In the last few days, Michael oversaw the critical test at Monza, ahead of this week's race. On the first day of testing Williams suffered a setback as Ralf Schumacher's car ran off track at the Lesmo section, somersaulting spectacularly into the Armco and resulting in the driver spending the night in a local hospital. For a lesser team this would have been a huge blow, but Williams was able to salvage the session. "We still completed our planned test schedule," Michael says. "This was helped by doing another half a day on Friday morning. However, it did have an impact as we lost one days testing preparing the spare car."
The tests were even more vital, given the recent controversy surrounding Williams's Michelin tyres. Williams enjoyed an undeniable advantage since the Monaco Grand Prix with no small thanks to the Michelins, so the FIA's new stance on tread width could have been seen to serve a blow to their Championship chances. "No," Michael says. "The morale is high. Michelin's tyres are legal and always have been." In fact, Michael agrees with Renault's technical director, Mike Gascoyne, who announced after last week's test that Michelin's new tyre is in fact an improvement over the previous one. "Mike is correct. The new Michelin front mould profile is faster and more consistent than the old profile. They are a slight improvement. We expect this to be the same at Indy and Suzuka as well," Michael sums it up.
And all this responsibility, all this attention coming from a guy who is only 31 years old.
A Foot in the Formula One Door
Like most people in the Formula One paddock, Michael was a big motor racing fan from a young age, but whereas most start off wanting to be a driver he always knew the engineering side was his calling.
"I think I decided very early on that the chances of me becoming a good driver were quite slim, and I hadn't started driving karts when I was six years old or anything like that, so I didn't have anywhere near the grounding to do that," he explains. "And I didn't come from a motor racing family, so I quickly decided that wasn't what I wanted to do."
Q: Did you always have an interest in engineering?
Michael: "Yeah, always - I was always interested in mechanics and engineering. I've always been interested in motor racing, and at a very early age I was interested in motorcycles, but then from probably the age of about 12 or 13 I was interested in Formula One, and decided that if I wanted to work in Formula One I would need an engineering degree to go and do that, so I went to study mechanical engineering and that was it."
Q: How did you actually get your start in Formula One?
Michael: "I was doing mechanical engineering at Sydney University and I went to the Adelaide Grand Prix in 1992 and 1993, and in 1993 a friend of mine who lives in Sydney, Greg Siddle, knew some people who worked in Formula One. He introduced me to the guys at Lotus, including (then team manager) Peter Collins, and I started working there. Funnily enough, Peter Wright - who is now the FIA technical delegate - was the technical director of Lotus when I started working there."
Q: So you hadn't even finished your degree?
Michael: "No, I just finished - when Adelaide was on I had about three weeks left of my degree, I'd done most of the course work before so I only had about one or two exams to do after that race, because I went away with a racing team so I wasn't just there - I was also working there with a racing team. Not a Formula One team though; an Australian team, a Formula Holden racing team. When I finished my degree I left straight away - I didn't go to my graduation or anything like that next year; I went straight to Europe and started working with Lotus. I only had about five hundred Australian dollars!
"I bought a one way ticket there with Aeroflot, I had to go through Moscow and Bangkok and it took me about two and a half days. When I got there I had about A$150, and that was enough to get me to Norwich, which was where Lotus were. I remember the people who let me stay at their house for about a month without paying rent, because I didn't have any salary for a month, and that was it really."
So at the age of 21, Michael had his foot in the door of Formula One. He joined Lotus as a junior design engineer, splitting his time between vehicle dynamics, design work in research and development, and simulation and data engineering out of the factory for the first six months before moving on to test and racing engineering. At the end of 1994 the Lotus team finally folded under the weight of debt, and Michael hitched his wagon to the up and coming Jordan team in a carry over role from his former team.
In his first year at Jordan, Michael held the role of data engineer, doing simulation programmes as well as working on the racing and testing team. "After about a year and a half I came off the race team and set up research and development, because they didn't have an R&D programme at that stage," he recalls.
"I mean, we did R&D, but we didn't have such a big department that had rigs; we worked on seven post rigs and got all that done there, the power steering system, worked on the active differential, active brake balances. You could do a lot more things back then before they banned them as well. And I did all those type of design projects, commissioned them and signed them off and all the rest of it until about 1997."
The Way to the Top
Michael became Jordan's test engineer in 1997, and by the next year became Ralf Schumacher's race engineer, followed by another couple of seasons as Heinz Harald Frentzen's race engineer. Interestingly, his period as race engineer at Jordan coincided with the team's most successful years to date, and the experience he gained came without the added pressure of being with a top-three team and the scrutiny that comes with that. His experience grew with the success of the team, and the next obvious step was to move to one of the big three so as to push his experience to the next level. When Williams inquired after him in 2000, he leapt at the chance.
"I think at that stage I was looking to go beyond being a race engineer," he says. "Because although I'd been a race engineer for three years, I'd been on the racing team for six or seven years, and although I love racing and testing I thought it was time to take the next step up. And it was a job that Williams offered me; it was a good opportunity to work within the team and with people like Frank and Patrick who have so much experience and knowledge. The amount of things I've learnt was very significant because it's something that you know that it's in your head for the rest of your life, and there's no doubt that it's been the right decision."
Q: And you still think you're learning things?
Michael: "Oh, of course you do. In this game even people who have been in it for thirty years still learn things, because the game changes as well - the cars change, the tyres, the tracks, the regulations. So because it keeps shifting you're always learning something new all the time."
Q: What does the position of Chief Operations Engineer actually mean?
Michael: "I'm responsible for the racing cars at all tests and races, so that means I'm responsible for the preparation of the car at the factory, and making sure all the right parts are on it - I don't mean physically going down, although I do anyway. There are plenty of people that do that job for me - the team manager Dickie Stanford and Carl Gaden, the chief mechanic - and they work to make sure that that's fulfilled.
"But basically my job is to make sure that when we come to the track that the car has a setup on it, that the race engineers are doing the best job they can, they're supported properly with data engineers and equipment that they need, that we've got the right strategy - anything to do with running the cars."
Q: So if there's a mechanical problem or the car stalls on the grid, that would be your problem so to speak?
Michael: "Yeah, it would be in terms of operations of what we do, but I wouldn't go and physically start the car myself - the mechanics would do that for me. So yeah.:"
Q: Is that why we always see Patrick Head yelling at you on television?
Michael smiles. "A lot of time he's not yelling at me, he's yelling to me, if you like; so he's not telling me off, he's just telling me his opinion! But the thing is Patrick's really animated, so sometimes it can look as though he's really angry with you, but he's not really angry with you - he's just trying to tell you something!"
The Best Drivers Pairing
Williams probably have the best driver pairing among the teams in Formula One, and there is no question that Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher are, personality wise, poles apart. But how different are their driving style?
Says Michael: "the driving style and the set up they use are almost identical, to be honest - it's really not that different. Both of the drivers drive the same set up all the time. During the sessions they obviously drive with different things, whatever's on the programme, but inevitably they always come back with the same responses - it's very rare that you have a big difference in the set up between them. Normally the most you'll have is, say, half a millimetre in ride hight between the cars, or at most one spring difference in terms of rear end.
"So the differences are tiny, and that's a pretty significant help because it means you can start with anything that's found on one car and transfer it to the other car - if Juan finds that a particular damper setting is good we know that Ralf will as well, so he just takes it and doesn't have to test it, we can just stick it on the car for the race weekend, and vice versa. It's very helpful in terms of evaluating tyres as well - they both have a similar driving style and they both use their tyres the same and it makes it much easier to make a tyre choice."
Q: That is really surprising - they certainly appear to drive the cars differently. There's a perception that Juan is more aggressive and Ralf is more…
Michael: "Are you sure that you're not subconsciously seeing something because of someone's personality? The way that they analyse the car, and the way they talk about the car is quite different, but the end result of the way they drive and the setups they're on is the same."
Q: Is it something you would see in their telemetry, between their throttle and brake?
Michael: "Yes, exactly - if you compare speed traces and the way they gain and lose, it's why they're always within half a tenth of each other. Unless one of them has a specific problem they're normally very close to one another."
Q: Has it always been that way?
Michael: "More or less, yes; it's always been fairly similar. Maybe not in Juan's first six months in Formula One, because he didn't know anything about the cars and was exploring different things on the cars, but definitely for the last year and a half to two years it's been like that."
Q: When Montoya was in CART he would drive it in a different way, and I remember him stating he adapted his style to Formula One - was it just a case of him looking at what Ralf was doing and copying that?
Michael: "Yes. Ralf was a very good yardstick for him when he first came into Formula One to see what he should do and shouldn't do. The main thing is the cars are very different if you look at the Indy cars and the Formula One cars, and the tyres are significantly different. You can't just jump into that and not make any sort of adjustment time - you have to adjust to that. That's normal I think."
Q: There are certainly days when one or the other is noticeably better on the race track - is that just a matter one having a bad day and the other a good day?
Michael: "Yes - it can come down to them having a bad day, and not getting it together as much as they should. It's not as common as it used to be, though; it's not very common that they have a bad day."
Q: That's when Patrick has a little word with them, I guess?
Michael laughs. "Maybe, yeah!"
Q: You know Ralf better than anyone else in Formula One, but to most people he's a bit of an enigma - certainly he's as good as Montoya, but Montoya is seen as the star.
Michael: "I think that both drivers are very good drivers, and they're very close to each other, but to be honest the difference in their personalities is what comes out in the press more than anything - it's not from them trying anything different really or being different; they're very similar guys. They have very different characters, but they're similar guys when they are driving racing cars.
"On their personal sides and how they are portrayed to the fans and all the rest of it, is less interesting to us, as long as they can get the results - and when their results are that similar it tells you that you have a good package. I don't see Ralf as any less of a racer than Juan or vice versa - they're both very competitive, and want to win as much as the other. If that's portrayed or comes out differently, then that must just come from their personalities, and it's not to do with their racing or their skills in the car."
Q: But if you ask the fans who had the most passing over the year, it's Juan…
Michael: "Yeah sure, maybe you'd have to say Juan is very good at overtaking, but… Look, I don't want to say anything against either of our drivers because they're both committed individuals."
Q: OK, but would you say they compliment each other?
Michael: "Yes they do, yeah - very much so. The two of them do have pluses and minuses, but together they are a very good combination. The best thing about our combination is when they are pushing each other, and that comes from how fast they are - if Juan was in a situation where he was much quicker than his teammate or vice versa, then it becomes too easy for them. It's very good that they're so quick because they're always pushing each other. And if you look at the combinations in Formula One right now they're definitely the best combination for the team, because they are scoring the most Constructors' Championship points out of all of them."
The Importance of Being Champions
Which brings us to the thorny issue of the Championships. It is commonly noted that Williams focuses more on the Constructors' title than the Drivers', and with good reason. "The main thing is that from a financial point of view the Constructors' Championship is very significant," Michael explains. "The prize money that the team receives; your position in the pitlane; the size of the garages; your status in the paddock - and I don't mean from an ego point of view but in terms of the decisions you can make and the input you can make into Formula One. It all comes from the Constructors' Championship, nothing is based on the Driver's Championship.
"This may all sound like small things but inside Formula One it's very important. If you listen to all the teams saying 'oh, we're targeting third in the championship' they're not talking about Drivers', they're talking about the Constructors' - you know, 'we want to be top five in the Constructors' this year'. Your result matters in the Constructors' Championship, whereas in the Drivers' Championship all that matters is the guy that wins. Who cares about the guy who comes second? The world doesn't care, the press doesn't care, and the fans don't care. Whereas in the Constructor's it's different.
But Michael rejects the notion that the Constructors' Championship is all his team cares about.
"I think there's a misconception that we don't care about the Drivers' Championship at all, which is not true," he says. "It just means that the Constructors' is more important to us, that's all. I would say personally that the Constructors' is the most important thing for the team, and the Drivers' second. But it doesn't mean that the Drivers' doesn't count; it's very important to us, and we want to win both Championships - it's very important to us to have a World Champion win in our car."
Q: So what do you do when you get to the situation - and Williams was in that situation in 1986 - when you have two drivers fighting against each other at the top and they are canceling each other out?
Michael: "Then you lose, just like in 1986."
Q: And it's worth it?
Michael: "Yes, because I don't think you can ever underestimate the effect you have inside a team if someone has a priority, particularly if the other driver is as fast as him. If we had a situation where Juan was always half a second faster than Ralf, all the time, and beat him, had more points, more wins, and was always five tenths faster and Ralf never beat him, or vice versa, then it's slightly different.
"But if both of them are equal and you applied some sort of rule or priority to one half… because it's not just the drivers - there's a garage of people in there that work on those cars, and there's engineers and people in the factory that work as hard as they can. And if one half of that garage always knew we're going to play second best then you'd have a very different group of people, and a very different team mentality. Williams have never been like that, and as you can see Williams have won a lot of championships even if they've lost the occasional one, like '86."
Q: You used to work with Barrichello at Jordan. Given what you just said, do you ever feel sorry for the position he's in?
Michael: "No. I like Rubens, and he's a good friend and also a very solid driver, but it's his decision to drive for Ferrari. He loves to drive for Ferrari, and he made that decision. You'd have to say that looking at his performance he's the best teammate Schumacher's ever had in terms of number of wins and his pace and always keeping his head up, and he's done a very good job. I think over the last twelve years he's been Schumacher's most competitive teammate.
"But also it is slightly different because Michael has built that team around him, and you can't forget that Juan and Ralf have come into this team - maybe Ralf to a lesser extent - but Williams have built their own team. Ferrari is built around Michael; when Michael went there they were nothing - well, not nothing but certainly not like they are now. They were qualifying in the top five and winning the odd race once a year or something, but he has turned them into a Championship winning team.
"So it's slightly different - if you look at Rubens it's very difficult for him to ever get into a team that is run by, effectively built by, Michael because they have so much respect for him there. And that's not disrespecting Michael, because the guy has put so much effort into his job that he deserves to be rewarded like that. But here it's a different situation because Juan and Ralf did not build Williams - the team is built by the people that work in the factory."
Q: I think it's every driver's dream to be in the position that Michael is, where he has the team rallying behind him.
Michael: "Yeah, but Michael built it - Michael went to Benetton when they were not winning and he made them win, and then he went to Ferrari and made them win - he didn't walk into Formula One and get these contracts for millions of dollars and number one status - he earnt it. People could see that he was good enough to demand this because he was fast, and he always has been."
Q: Could you ever see a day where a person like Michael comes to Williams and rallies the team around him to that extent?
Michael: "Oh definitely - the start of that happened with Ayrton Senna, didn't it? Senna would be the same type of person as Michael. Yeah, I could see that, but as I said because of the downside of operating like that, with the people in the garage and the engineers and the mechanics, you have to have a significant number of upsides before you do that - which Ferrari do have with Michael, so they can afford to take a penalty in some areas in terms of people's esteem and morale that are always having to give way to someone. And remember it's a lot less so now because of the banning of team orders, so it's a lot less likely that Rubens has to get out of the way for Michael."
From day one it seemed as though there has been a very good fit between Williams and Michael, as though he was created in a factory somewhere for the role of working with the team. He is very much in the mould of the senior staff at the team, and from the outside it seems there's a grooming process in action to push Michael through the ranks and take on more and more responsibility. The two senior men at the team are not getting any younger, and Michael knows he is being crowned as the next Head - by the media at least.
"At the end of the day I enjoy what I'm doing at the moment," he says dryly, "and my job as Chief Operations Engineer does cover quite a wide range of activities, and although Patrick is Technical Director a lot of the jobs that normally a Technical Director would do Patrick leaves in my responsibility, and there's a lot of things obviously that he does that I don't do because that's his role. Patrick's also a shareholder in the company, so whether he's Technical Director or not he still owns quite a lot of the company.
"But I think for the future I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing at the moment, and we'll just have to see what happens down the road - being Patrick's successor is something that I definitely aspire to in the future, but when that happens we'll have to see. I wouldn't say at any point that I would ever be a replacement for Patrick, because that would be quite a big… you know, he's spent a lot of his life developing his character and his knowledge and all the rest of it, so it's probably not right to say that to be honest."
Q: He's got some pretty big shoes to fill, obviously
Michael: "Yeah, and I don't know if you ever do fill them properly, or would ever need to do that - if you look at the way modern Formula One teams are, they're quite different to how they were when Patrick started racing, so the job's changed slightly. If you look at Ferrari and Ross Brawn, who is technical director there, fifty percent of his job is what I do at the track, but he also does things that cross over with what Patrick does in the factory."
Ten years in Formula One can seem like a lifetime - the teams are always working on making the cars faster, and this necessitates a lot of time away from home for those who run the programmes. Michael has two young children (Toni is four, and Jack is two), and for a young man it must be difficult to be away from his family for such long periods.
"It's probably harder for my wife Vanessa, to be honest, because of the fact that I'm not there," he says. "That's one of the penalties that you pay really, not seeing them - I mean I still see them regularly obviously, but four days every two weeks you don't."
Q: You came into Formula One because of your love of racing - what was the last race you sat with a beer or whatever and enjoyed as a fan?
Michael: "Probably the last race I ever watched sitting down with a beer was in 1993 in Adelaide when Senna won, the last race that Senna won."
Q: Are you able during the race to actually watch it and go 'wow, great move' - like we do?
Michael: "You can do to a certain extent, but it depends on the position of your own cars because if you're looking at a lot of things with your cars in relation to data and where they are position-wise to other cars, then you don't have time to actually watch the race as a whole."
Q: So only when they retire, then?
Michael: "Yeah, but even then it's only when they both retire because anything can go wrong - even at the last race in Hockenheim, when Juan was winning by so much, you were still waiting for something to go wrong, because that's what your job is."
Q: Do you still enjoy racing, though?
Michael: "Of course, yeah. This is a hard business, and you have to do a lot of hard work and hours and travel, and it's very demanding on your social and family life, so you have to make sure that you love every bit of it otherwise it's not worth doing it. Really, the day you realize that you don't like racing - you should just stop.
"But I'm nowhere near that day."