It had been a pretty intense introduction into the world of Formula One for my father. Colin Chapman was a perfectionist and a hard taskmaster to say the least. And emotions were high as Lotus were having a particularly bad season.
After a lot of struggles with the Lotus 80 at the start of the 1979 season, Chapman had resorted to running the 1978 Championship winning Lotus 79, which despite being prone to technical problems, had been a very successful car the previous year. However in 1979 plagued with further reliability and design issues, it now no longer had the performance advantage of the year before, when it was the only car with fully developed ground effect. With five consecutive retirements for Mario Andretti, Chapman was eager to figure out why the Williams FW07 was such a competitive car.
At the 1979 Austrian Grand Prix Lotus engineer Nigel Bennett, who was leaving to join Mo Nunn’s Ensign Team, was told by Nunn that Williams were running much stiffer springs than commonly used. Spurred on by Andretti, Chapman was insistent that they needed to know what the rear rocker ratio was on the Williams, to allow him to calculate the significance of that spring rate. He instructed my father to go to get the Williams rocker measurements.
In Sunday morning’s warm-up free practice, Alan Jones had crashed his FW07. Back then most teams had a spare car, so Jones was to start the race in the spare. This meant the whole Williams team would be on the grid for the start and the damaged spare car would be unattended at the Williams truck. My father saw this as his opportunity to appease Chapman and succeed undetected. As everyone went to the grid for the race, my father made his move and snuck under the tarpaulin covering the damaged Williams.
Quite pleased he had achieved his task and had not been caught, he made his way to the grid where the cars were assembled for the start. He was greeted by Chapman who was surprised to see him, “what are you doing here? Did you get it?” enquired Chapman. “Yeah, I got it” my father said and gave him the rear rocker measurement. To which Chapman responded “What about the front?” With a look of disbelief my father said “Well, you didn’t tell me to measure the front!” So off he went back to the Williams awning to measure the front.
Unfortunately this time things didn’t go so well. Just as he finished measuring the front rocker, a Tyrrell Team motorhome man, happened to walk past the Williams truck and recognized an out of place Lotus uniform. My father dashed back to the grid, crossing his fingers that the Tyrrell man would not appreciate the significance of what he had seen.
After the race my father and Nigel Bennett were just about to leave the track when they overheard someone mention that someone had been seen at the Williams awning measuring the car. Having overheard this my father and Nigel agreed it was time to get a move on! Just as they were about to drive away Frank Williams and Patrick Head came marching towards their rental car with a ferocious look on their faces. As they approached my father opened the car window just enough to listen, fully aware by their demeanour that it might be unhealthy to open it further.
Frank and Patrick were both highly agitated and accusing him of spying on their race car. My father, evidently, played dumb, while frantically gesturing to Nigel to get moving. As things heated up, an infuriated Patrick, told him; “I’ve got a good mind to punch you on the nose!” (It really sounds better when you hear my father’s impression of Patrick!); an agitated Patrick Head is someone not to be taken lightly.
Back in the UK that week, my father became front-page news. Lotus were accused of espionage on the cover of Motoring News and everyone in the industry was talking about it. At Team Lotus headquarters, Ketteringham Hall, the offices were abuzz with the whispers of the weekend’s events, and my fathers instant notoriety.
At the following race, in Zandvoort, there was a FOCA meeting scheduled on the Thursday with all the team principals in attendance. Frank took this opportunity to state his case for my father’s gross misconduct and dismissal! He was apparently making a big deal of what had happened in Austria, saying it was “industrial espionage” and “completely unacceptable”. Chapman saw the humorous side and suggested Frank calm down. As he said, Lotus had been spied on in the past many times and he had never complained about it, and he certainly had no intention of firing his Manager as he had instructed him to do it. Having had to remove numerous people from under the championship-winning car in 1978, Chapman found it quite amusing, as he always had the view that the Lotus already on track, in his mind was already outdated, as he always believed there was something better coming from Lotus in the future, so the old model wasn’t so important. In fact he thought it to be quite the compliment to have people trying to find the Lotus’ engineering secrets.
I don’t think that Frank and Patrick saw it that way!
Before Williams Grand Prix there was Frank Williams Racing, which then became Wolf -Williams Racing when he joined forces with Canadian oil millionaire Walter Wolf. Frank bought the last Hesketh designed by Harley Postlethwaite at the end of 1975 and used this car for the 1976 season. The car was a major disappointment and it was a terrible season with few results, culminating in a split between Wolf and Williams.
Frank then set out on his own and with the help of Charlie Crichton-Stuart they found sponsorship from Saudi Arabian Airlines and started his own team for the 1978 season. Patrick Head joined them as Chief Designer from Wolf-Williams. In 1979 in only their second season with their own car, Williams were starting to see results, winning their first Grand Prix at Silverstone, and were strong contenders for the Championship over the remaining races. Understandably Frank and Patrick didn’t want to share their secrets and lose the competitive edge they had built.
Meanwhile in the Zandvoort paddock, having gained a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons, my father was trying to keep a low profile upon his arrival at the Dutch Grand Prix. Standing in the Lotus awning he suddenly saw Alan Jones coming towards him. Although apprehensive at first, he knew his fellow countryman quite well and noticed a slight smile on his face. Jones told my father that he had something that could help him next time he decided to measure a car. Bringing an object from behind his back, he presented my father with a three foot rule, personlised with the phrase “ ‘you’d have to be a real asshole to use this and get caught!’ Mario”.
© Samantha Collins. This article may not be copied or distributed in part or in whole without the consent of the author.