Celebrating The Other Williams FW19 That Won A World Championship
It’s ironic that, when he crossed the line to finish 2nd at the 1997 Japanese Grand Prix, it was Heinz-Harald Frentzen, not teammate Jacques Villeneuve, that put Williams’ last F1 Constructors’ Championship beyond the reach of arch-rival, Ferrari. Simply put, the German’s debut season with a top team – the top team – in Formula 1 is considered by many to be ‘underwhelming’ at best, or, perhaps unfairly, ‘a disaster’ by others.
The pressures of landing a seat in the best car on the grid not withstanding, heading into 1997, Heinz-Harald would also be replacing 1996 World Champion, Damon Hill, news the Englishman, brutally, only found out about via Autosport magazine. 11 races into the season.
On top of that, a reputation, of sorts, preceded Frentzen. During their time together as junior drivers with Mercedes-Benz, the young German is said – perhaps that should be, rumoured – to have rivalled a certain Michael Schumacher in terms of sheer speed. During his first F1 test with Sauber in ’93, Frentzen also apparently caught the eye of one Ayrton Senna, though whether, as the stories go, it was the Brazilian who encouraged Frank Williams to make initial contact in 1994, we’ll never know.
Consequently, hype and expectations were enormous pre-season, with even Williams adding to the tabloid flames by promoting its new young charge as a future World Champion. Something that, for obvious reasons, went down like a lead zeppelin with the team’s other wunderkind, Villeneuve, now in his second season with what he now considered his team following Hill’s departure.
“When Heinz-Harald was signed, he was announced as the next champion for Williams,” Villeneuve later spoke of Frentzen. “And that was it. That made me feel that I had to destroy him, in and out of the car. The battle started, and it quickly went in my direction: at the first race, he was P2 in qualifying, two seconds off. That was damaging.”
The results speak for themselves. Across their 1997 season sharing a garage, the Canadian took seven wins to his teammates one, and 81 points to Frentzen’s 42, thanks in no small part to the car, FW19.
The last of the Adrian Newey-designed Williams(es) – though the man himself had long since departed for McLaren – the 1997 FW19 was essentially an evolution of the wildly successful FW18 that won all but four of the 16 races it started. At the car’s heart was a new, ‘RS9’ engine from Renault, the last officially-entered powerplant from the French marque until its return as a works entry in 2001. Utilising the same 3-litre V10 configuration as its ‘RS8’ predecessor but boasting a minutely tweaked v-angle, the RS9 was mounted 27mm lower than its predecessor, incrementally improved the centre of gravity, and even shaved off 11kg of girth. Mated to that was a more compact, six-speed transverse gearbox, also mounted lower, thus allowing tighter, more aerodynamic bodywork at the rear. The FW18’s carbon-composite chassis meanwhile was strengthened and lightened for FW19, while the airbox was revised to prevent the drivers’ helmets from disrupting airflow to the V10.
“Like driving on ice but with a lot of grip”, FW19 left its drivers on a knife edge, but “if you could live on that edge, it was great.” A balance the son of the fighting Gilles Villeneuve was more than capable of handling. It’s hardly surprising that Villeneuve’s championship-winning FW19-04 still takes pride of place at Williams Heritage.
But what of the car you see in the pictures above, FW19-05? The car with which Heinz-Harald Frentzen tackled all but three of that year’s 17 races? Fully restored, and still under the custodianship of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, FW19-05 is now up for auction with William I’Anson Ltd after a full restoration and, bizarrely, many years spent suspended above the entrance to Williams’ conference centre in Grove.
That the car sealed ‘just’ a single Grand Prix win could be considered disappointing. Delve a little deeper though and Frentzen’s maiden season with both Williams and FW19-05 was stronger that the stats would suggest.
It’s often forgotten for instance that, while David Coulthard ultimately secured the first Grand Prix win for McLaren and Mercedes in three and 42 years respectively at the season opener in Melbourne, it was Frentzen who, until lap 40, had the race in his pocket. Even despite the deficit to his teammate in qualifying (+1.754s, just FYI Jacques). Pitting from the lead, and with the race’s fastest lap already secured, the German lost almost seven seconds to a stuck rear wheel, dropping him to 3rd. Back on a charge in the closing stages, it’s also unfairly misremembered that brake failure, not an errant spin, sent Frentzen into the gravel with just three laps remaining. Villeneuve, out on lap one after an audacious (read ‘bone-headed’) dive into turn one by Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, no doubt appreciated the irony of losing a race win on his Williams debut.
Granted, Frentzen’s struggles to protect his tyres and find a workable balance with the FW19 – a problem that followed him mercilessly for the first half of the season – meant an off at the first corner, a slow formation lap and an unfortunate bout of food poisoning were about the only memorable facets of the German’s point-less outings in Brazil and Argentina. That, plus clutch failure.
The glass ceiling was grazed at Imola of course, where Frentzen dutifully took his first Grand Prix win on FW19-05’s debut no less. It was a win characterised by a strong tussle with M.Schumacher and another fastest lap, but one, admittedly, aided by the gearbox failure that eliminated teammate Villeneuve from the lead. Nevertheless, critics had been temporarily silenced but, sadly, business returned to usual soon after.
Blistering tyres once again bit in Spain, Villeneuve rattling the FW19 by the neck to take victory. Monaco? A disaster for both men, with Williams having taken the bizarre decision to start the very wet race on slicks, the only team on the grid to do so. Both drivers ended their races against the barriers, Frentzen’s debut pole position and a possible podium spot squandered, though admittedly, catching a peerless Schumacher on that day was never going to happen.
Matters improved in Canada when Frentzen, still struggling with tyres, finished a fighting 4th after Villeneuve, keen to perform well in front of his home crowd, hit the dreaded ‘Wall of Champions’ on only the second lap. The Canadian also span at the last corner of the following French Grand Prix too, but just managed to hold on to 4th, two spots behind Frentzen, who managed to tame FW19-05 in the cool, occasionally wet temperatures in Magny-Cours. He’d do much the same two years later, now with Jordan, to win the race.
Two podiums from eight races though was a far cry from the ‘future champion’ promised by Williams, and the nadir of the German’s season unquestionably arrived at Silverstone. Having stalled on the grid, Frentzen was forced to start from the back of the grid and was unceremoniously hoofed off on lap one by Tyrrell’s Jos Verstappen. He fared little better at Hockenheim, making contact with Irvine on lap one and retiring soon after with buckled front suspension. Villeneuve meanwhile, though he retired in Germany, collected a surprise win when erstwhile leader Mika Hakkinen blew an engine just a few laps from home.
Finally, there was Hungary, a race remembered for Damon Hill’s heroic drive and a near-fairytale win in the frankly awful Arrows-Yamaha A18 that was derailed with just three laps to go with hydraulics failure. Less remembered is a strong drive from Frentzen – his best since San Marino – aided by a gamble to take the start in high temperatures on harder compound tyres. One pit stop would do the trick while the rest of the front-runners would need two. A plan that, with Hill slowing in the closing stages, would ultimately have paid off had a fuel coupling not flown off on-track before his pit stop on lap 29. The German was out. The beneficiary? Villeneuve.
On top of his bad luck, the atmosphere in the team was far from the triumphant arrival ‘the future champion’ had received way back in January.
“It was not a fantastic time with Williams. Patrick Head and I didn’t get along,” Frentzen would later explain. “Patrick is a brilliant engineer, but he has no idea of man-management.
“It was sweet to win [at Imola] but it was not a thankful win. I was driving a top car and everyone expected you to win, so if you didn’t, it was more than a disappointment for everyone. We managed to get the championship, which was crucial for the team, but after my contract expired there was no way I was going to stay with Williams.”
Finally, a corner was turned in Belgium, and despite a silly off at Les Combes during qualifying and a poor choice to start on full wets in the changeable conditions. Once on slicks though. Frentzen charged through the field, setting fastest lap en-route to finishing 4th, which would later become 3rd when ‘fuel irregularities led to the disqualification of Mika Hakkinen. It was the start of a phenomenal run.
In Italy, Frentzen, complimented by the mighty Renault ‘RS9’ V10, comprehensively outperformed his teammate to finish 3rd, repeating the result in Austria. Fate once again went Villeneuve’s way at the Nürburgring, with long-time leaders Hakkinen (again) and McLaren teammate David Coulthard retiring from a commanding lead on the very same lap. Despite colliding with his teammate on the first lap, an impact strong enough to briefly knockout his ignition, Frentzen once again finished 3rd, and that ‘disastrous’ season had still been enough for Williams to re-confirm both of its drivers that weekend for, what would be, a win-less 1998.
And here we arrive back in Japan, Frentzen’s fifth successive podium and his last of the season, an accolade put firmly in the shade by a swing in the championship fight. Villeneuve, having finished 5th after problems during re-fuelling, was subsequently disqualified for failure to yield to yellow flags during free practice, the latest in a line of similar transgressions the fiery Canadian had committed in 1997. When it mattered most, Villeneuve had dropped the ball in Suzuka, and Frentzen, together with FW19-05, had been there to pick it up.
The 1997 F1 season finale in Jerez needs no introduction, and somewhat fittingly, you’ve probably forgotten that it was Frentzen who had the best seat in the house for Schumacher and Villeneuve’s infamous clash on lap 48. Or that, having been forced to back off to avoid a subsequent collision, this one incident likely cost Frentzen a higher spot than his eventual 6th place finish. Given that the top six were split by less than five seconds, he’s probably right.
An uneven season then, certainly. But a disaster? No. Schumacher’s eventual disqualification forever leaves an asterisk over Frentzen’s runner-up spot in the 1997 championship standings, sure, and just 19 points on the board after 11 races meant William’s ‘future champion’ would always be playing second-fiddle to his teammate after Hungary. Momentum can make all the difference though, and in the final six races of 1997, Frentzen outscored everyone but Villeneuve.
The FW19 will forever be remembered as Williams’ last champion and, more crucially, ‘Villeneuve’s car’. No doubt its new owner will relish the history of FW19-05 as both a Grand Prix winner and regular podium contender. That this car also helped Frentzen take more fastest laps than anybody else in 1997 – six –will hopefully be celebrated too. This man, apparently, rivalled Schumacher in terms of sheer pace, after all.
*Images courtesy of William I’Anson Ltd and Williams Heritage