The Right Decision?

March 6, 2014 at 9:02 pm
The right decision? We think so...

The right decision? We think so…

The cover of the June 8, 2000 cover of Autosport has in big red letters “OUT”. Jenson Button was to lose his seat at Williams in 2001 to Juan Pablo Montoya. Jenson was the rookie sensation in 2000 at Williams in only his third season of single seater racing but he was to lose his seat to the 1999 CART Champion and 2000 Indy 500 Winner Juan Pablo Montoya who Williams had an option on which came from Alex Zanardi’s move  from Ganassi to Williams in 1999.

It was said that Williams were looking for someone to blow current driver Ralf Schumacher away and they expected Montoya to be the guy after his two stellar seasons in America. So, was it the right decision?

Montoya and Button raced against each other in F1 from 2001 to 2006. Montoya raced for Williams from 2001 to 2004 and McLaren from 2005 to 2006. During that same time period, Button raced for Benneton/Renault from 2001 to 2002 and BAR/Honda from 2003 to 2006. In 2001, Montoya won one race and finished 6th in the World Driver’s Championship while Button had no wins and finished 17th in points. So it was clear in the year after, that this was the right decision.

During Montoya’s Williams years he had 4 wins and finished 6th, 3rd twice and 5th in the WDC while during that time period Button had no wins and finished 17th, 7th, 9th and 3rd in the WDC. In 2005, Montoya joined McLaren and had three wins and finished 4th in the WDC while Button remained winless and finished 9th. In their final year together in F1, Montoya had no wins and finished 8th in the WDC while Button got his first win and finished 6th.

In their time together in F1, Montoya won 7 races and had an average WDC finish of 4.8 while Button had 1 win and an average WDC finish of 8.5.

So it’s clear based on the comparable numbers that Williams made the right decision. However, after Montoya left F1 for Nascar in 2007 things began to change. After two horrible years in Honda, Ross Brawn bought the team and Jenson became world champion in 2009 with 6 wins. Since moving to McLaren in 2010, Button has had eight wins and appears to have a chance to increase the total in the next few years.

So did Williams make the right move? At the time yes, Montoya was on fire after his CART title in 1999 and his dominant Indy 500 win in 2000. He was proven in F3000 and had the makings of being the next big star in F1. Looking at the time Montoya and Button spent together in F1 the decision was correct as Montoya had the better statistics. Button’s star didn’t shine until 2009 when he was given a lifeline (and a dominant car) by Brawn.


The Losing End of Winning

April 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm

hill 96

If we’re the best in our field, the last thing we expect to hear from our employer is that we’re being replaced by someone else who has accomplished less but might have more potential. That was the curious case of Damon Hill as he was on his way to winning the World Championship in 1996. It’s a scenario that took place over a three year period that ended up with Hill finding out during a race weekend that he would be replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in 1997.

The courting of Frentzen by the Williams team started in 1994 after the death of Ayrton Senna; Frank Williams was looking for someone to fill the now open seat and offered the position to Frentzen, then a Sauber driver and former Group C Mercedes Junior Team teammate to Michael Schumacher, who after his early season performances was looking like the man most likely to be world champion. Frentzen turned down the drive as the Sauber team (who ran the Group C Mercedes team) needed consistency after the near fatal crash of his teammate Karl Weindlinger. Williams appreciated his loyalty to the team and kept him in mind as future driver.

At this time Frentzen was highly rated by all in paddock. Schumacher was beginning the start of his reign and many viewed Frentzen, his former Mercedes teammate as being faster of the two but perhaps not as mentally strong. It’s also interesting to note that a former girlfriend of Frentzen’s is Mrs. Corinna Schumacher, the wife of Michael.

From 1991-1997 it was widely agreed upon that Williams had the best car in the paddock. It was shocking to Williams that they were being beaten by Schumacher and Benetton. The Williams philosophy was that driver was just another part on the car and it angered Hill when Williams brought back Nigel Mansell in the middle of the 1994 season when his IndyCar commitments would allow, leaving Hill who was supposed to be the number one driver and still in a title fight to feel as if the team had viewed him as second rate; a quality number two who could win a few races a year and provide great technical feedback to the team but not a superstar.

The 1994 season ended in controversy with the Hill/Schumacher collision in Adelaide and accusations of title winner Schumacher’s Benneton being illegal. The 1995 season was the first year of the raised nose Williams and Schumacher was even more dominant in the Benetton clinching the title with two races to go and Hill finishing second in the points but having a terrible second half of the year.

It’s believed that during this stretch when Hill was struggling was when Frentzen was signed for 1997.  Hill had a contract for 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve was joining the team for 1996.  1996 came along and Schumacher was now driving for Ferrari and Hill came into the season motivated to win at what many felt was his best chance at the world championship. It was during the summer while leading the championship that Hill found out at the German Grand Prix that Frentzen would be driving for Williams in 1997 and not him.

Hill went on to win the World Championship that year and continued what was a tradition of driver’s winning the world championship in a Williams and leaving. It started with Nelson Piquet in ’87, Mansell in ’92, Prost in ’93 and Hill in ’96. Hill would go onto to drive for the TWR Arrows team and later for Jordan giving the team their first win at Spa in ’98. It’s interesting to note it was the same Jordan team where Frentzen after struggling at Williams would go on to have the best form of his career.

Was it just Williams’ view that Hill was a really good number two and his poor result in 1995 was the reason that he was dropped from Williams? A few other scenarios come to mind. Was Williams aware in 1995 of Renault’s withdrawal from Formula 1 at the end of the 1997 season? Was the hiring of Frentzen a way of enticing BMW to partner up with Williams? By this point, F1 racing in Germany was at its peak; Mercedes was fully involved with McLaren and the men from Munich had been sniffing around F1 since the early 90’s.  Audi was also rumored on joining Formula 1 and where one of the big German manufacturers is, the other two are soon to follow.

It’s also interesting to point out that Renault was upset about Hill being dropped as they would be unable to have the number 1 on a Renault engined car for the third time with Williams in five seasons. Hill was also regarded as the best out of the four Renault engined drivers (himself, Villeneuve, Alesi and Berger) in giving technical feedback. There was also rumors that Renault was trying to have Hill replace Alesi in the Benneton for 1997 (important to note that Alesi was regarded as the worst at giving feedback).

Another alternative reason is money, Williams was notorious in its refusal to throw big money at drivers, Frank Williams was once quoted as saying that they spent more on Nigel Mansell’s salary in one year than they did on R&D. It’s possible that Hill priced himself out of a drive for 1997 like Mansell had done during his 1992 title season and found himself without a ride when his arch enemy Alan Prost was signed for 1993.

One final scenario (and the least likely) is the idea that Williams was betting against the success of Jacques Villeneuve. By the time Frentzen was signed, Villeneuve was confirmed at Williams for 1996. In the mid ’90’s CART was producing the best racing in the world and viewed as a rival to F1. Bernie Ecclestone fearing CART courted one of it’s biggest star’s in Villeneuve to F1 with promise of a frontline drive. The last CART star to venture to F1 was Michael Andretti in 1993 for McLaren which was complete disaster. Did Williams fear they were going to experience Andretti 2.0 and thought Villeneuve would only last a year and go back to CART with his tail between his legs?

While Hill did end up getting sacked he did what all of us aspire to do in our jobs; leave a place better than we found it.


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