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F1 through the Williams revolving door



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Damien Magee


Williams-Cosworth FW03


Anderstorp Scandinavian Raceway


VI Polar GP of Sweden (8 June 1975)


There was a time when Frank Williams hired (and fired) more drivers than mechanics. Between 1973 and 1976, when WGPE was still a far-away thought and Frank Williams Racing Cars acted as the cars' entrant, Williams incessantly tried to field a fully fledged two-car Grand Prix team with a budget barely decent enough to maintain a singleton kit-car chassis. But while several one-car minimal-budget efforts failed to make it into their second year (see the Lyncar and Token story) Frank was marking himself out as the King of Perseverance.

Where did he succeed (in dragging on his effort to the next back-of-the-grid season) where others failed? Simply by getting people to like him so much that they would supply parts to him, lend him their tools andů race for him. Effectively, the difference was made by the class drivers who were willing to drive his number-one car and score some remarkable live-saving results with it. In the ISO-Marlboro year of 1973, Le Mans legend Gijs van Lennep dropped in to net sixth and a point for Williams at the Dutchman's home GP. Then the highly touted Jacky Ickx stepped aboard as a guest driver in the season closer at the Glen, having disappointedly left Ferrari, and almost repeated the fact, before rejoining the team for 1976. Van Lennep and Ganley's points were enough already for another year in F1. For 1974 the next Ferrari renegade joined Williams and would remain with them for one and a half season. Arturo Merzario surprised everyone with a string of amazing qualifying positions: 9th in Brazil, third at Kyalami, 7th in Spain and 6th in Belgium, before finally taking a vital three points at Monza. The next year Jacques Laffite's brilliant performance at the 'Ring, which lifted him from 15th on the grid to second at the finish, gave Frank another reprieve before Walter Wolf moved in during 1976.

The second car was another story though. In all, some 22 hired men (and one woman) temporarily occupied the number-two seat in those four years (including the embarrassing Wolf-Williams months), with Frank in some occasions even resorting to a double-pay scheme, although on the occasion of the 1975 Swedish GP it must be said that Williams were plainly forced to hire the services of other drivers as regulars Merzario and Laffite were out winning the 'Ring 1000kms for Alfa Romeo.

Thus Arturo and Jacques missed one of the most likeable ways of cheating in the history of Grand Prix racing, the March mechanics slightly improving their man Vittorio Brambilla's qualifying efforts by "accidentally" waving their hand in front of the timing beam as the Monza Gorilla was heading for the line. Vittorio couldn't believe his luck when his time was almost four tenths faster than anybody else's. But in the race the accident-prone Italian who recently befell us proved that he was fully deserving of that pole position by leading the first third of the race before his March succumbed to transmission problems.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the grid, Damien Magee was among the many one-time Williams drivers, and a perfect fit for the job. The Ulsterman was perenially cash-strapped and although reasonably talented he was always seen scratching around paddocks for a decent ride. Damien's one-off rent-a-drive at Anderstorp was a typical Magee opportunity of the time, with Damien's next F1 break following about a year later when the RAM driver merry-go-round stopped right in front of him at the French GP. But whereas at Anderstorp Magee had brought the car home a decent 14th, 2 laps down, he failed to qualify RAM's old BT44B at Paul Ricard in the last year private Brabhams were seen entering GPs. He outpaced RAM's mainstay Loris Kessel by a full two seconds, however.

It wasn't his only job of the season. At the start of 1976, Damien had finally managed to secure a regular drive, racing a Cosworth GA-powered March 751 in the Shellsport Group 8 series, competing against Richard Robarts amongst others. Entered by John Goldie's efficient Hexagon Racing team Damien got off to a magnificent start at Mallory Park, taking second, before going one up on that with a win at Snetterton. Round three at Oulton Park went his way again, and now Magee was leading the series comfortably. Then came a third and a second on the Brands Hatch Club circuit, interspersed by a non-classified finish at Thruxton. Two retirements at Mallory Park and Snetterton blunted his challenge.

Through his ties with John Watson, Goldie took delivery of Penske PC3-02, that Watson had campaigned in GP racing that season before the race-winning PC4-01 arrived. Magee debuted it at Brands but could not manage better than fourth, while RAM's Andy Sutcliffe took 7th in the BT44B/1 that Damien tried to qualify at Ricard but was now transferred to Britain for Shellsport duties. At Thruxton Magee placed the car second and was led home by pole sitter Brian Maguire in his Williams FW (FW04). Then, at Oulton Park, Damien crashed heavily in the race and was replaced by Derek Bell for the season closer at Brands. With three rounds still to go, Damien had been in with a shout for the title, which eventually went to David Purley with 171 points. But Magee was still the championship runner-up with 107 points.

Driving a Lola-Chevy T332C F5000 car on his return to the series in late 1977, Damien took a strong second to later champion Trimmer at Snetterton and was 8th in the final round at Brands. After that the Ulsterman disappeared from the international scene.

Reader's Why by John Cross

"And here, son, is a rather fine shot of me driving in the only Grand Prix I ever started. Admittedly, I only got the ride because Frank's regular drivers were winning the Nurburgring 1000km for Alfa Romeo, but it was still a proud moment for me, and even ensured that I would eventually get an entry in that funny quiz called W8 many years later. You never know, I may even achieve immortality on the 'Formula 1 Rejects' site one day! It's a shame it's black and white, but it's better than nothing."

"Anyway, since both of Frank's drivers were busy, Ian Scheckter, Jody's brother, was also having his first drive for the team, and he had the newer car while I had an older, ex-Iso chassis with a chisel nose, as you can see in the photo. I was quite happy with the car, although it was understeering a bit, and even had a couple of spins to show Frank how hard I was trying! I was only a couple of tenths slower than Ian in Lafitte's regular car - of course, since he was the 'star' of the South African F1 series at the time, he made some excuse about the handling being 'difficult'! I was unlucky in the race - right at the start my car was showered with dust and my throttle slides were sticking throughout the race from then on, making the understeer worse than before. I couldn't believe it - after all the bad luck I've had, I thought I might get a break on that day. As it was, I ended up the slowest runner on the track although at least I made it to the finish in 14th place, two laps behind the winner. I had to feel sorry for Ian - he had a slow puncture after 49 laps and was cruising round to the pits when the carcass suddenly exploded and he ended up in the catch fencing. He still got another drive in the next race, mind you."

"But the most amazing thing about the race was the speed of Vittorio Brambilla 'the gorilla' in the orange March. During practice, he was 0.4 seconds quicker than anyone else - and usually he was nowhere near the front! Nobody could understand why he was so quick. Admittedly, the Anderstoorp circuit was rather an odd one with most of the corners banked and some of them going on through a full 180 degrees. At the time, everyone thought it was simply a question of balance - Vittorio could hold the car through the long bends without the front or rear ends running wide. Many years later the March guys admitted that they had been cheating - the timing beam was located on the pit wall close to the March pit and one of them decided to wave his hand in front of the beam just before Vittorio crossed the line! It's a shame we weren't near the beam ..."

"So that was my moment of glory! I tried to qualify a Brabham a year later in the French Grand Prix, but was unlucky yet again - I was nearly 2 seconds faster than team-mate Loris Kessel and only missed the cut by 0.7 seconds. Oh well. that's the story of my life, I suppose. I started racing an old Cooper in Ireland before moving to England, where I earned my nickname "Mad Dog" Magee in Formula Ford - I suppose I was a bit aggressive in those, although no worse than James "the Shunt" - and look how he ended up! I started the 1973 season with an elderly F3 car I had raced the previous season and couldn't sell, and was going really well. I was taken under the wing of car dealer Tony Brown who bought me a new Brabham which the I promptly put into a superb 3rd place at Monaco. But then the car was sold, to be replaced by a F5000 which never arrived, so my only remaining drive in 1973 was in an elderly Brabham F1 at Phoenix Park. Typical!"

"In 1975 I had rather a confusing season, driving in FF2000, Formula Atlantic (for the Tui team in Canada), British F5000 (a Chevron and an old Trojan) plus, of course, my Grand Prix debut you see here. At last in 1976 & 1977 I had a regular drive, in the Shellsport G8 series."