As the fastest cars in the world hurtled over the finish line in the finale of the 1980 Grand Prix racing season, two flags unfurled in the pits. One was the Union Jack, the other the national colors of Saudi Arabia.
There was every cause to wave both, for, as one sports writer put it, the British and Saudi Arab "back-street boys" of auto racing had, with cars built in an upretentious little factory in southern England, beaten the giants of the Formula One world: the builders, sponsors and drivers of the international Grand Prix cars that compete annually in national races for the world's auto racing championships.
The victory, according to the Observer, a British weekly newspaper, was a "blistering triumph" for the infant Saudia -Williams FW 07, a model that - in just its second year on the track - won first place in six of the season's 14 Grand Prix races, first and third places in the World Championship for drivers, first place in the Constructor's Championship, with more points than had ever been scored before, the Eutectic-Castolin trophy for car reliability and the six fastest laps of the season.
It was also an exciting conclusion to a story that began in 1977 when independent car constructor Frank Williams, reeling from years of struggle to keep his cars on the track alongside such world famous names as Ferrari and Lotus, decided to have one more try "to prove that my cars could beat theirs."
At first, Williams would probably agree, his chances were slim as, with only four employees, plus designer Patrick Head, he leased part of a factory in Oxfordshire - that they had to paint themselves - and set about building a car. But then Williams, a perky, 38-year-old Briton, persuaded the advertising manager of Saudia, the national airline of Saudi Arabia, to sponsor his car. Saudia did not put up an excessive sum in Grand Prix terms, but it was enough to keep going. And for Saudia, it was a bold move; until then Airlines had shied away from racing sponsorships because of the potential connection between flying and accidents.
Now it was Williams' turn to be daring. He ordered one of his cars resprayed white and had the name of one of Saudi Arabia's largest trading companies, Albilad, painted round the cockpit. The car was loaded onto a trailer, towed by Williams into London and parked outside the Dorchester Hotel, where an Albilad investor was staying. When the investor saw it he agreed to join Saudia as a sponsor and to encourage other Saudi companies to follow suit.
Eventually, a consortium of Saudi Arab firms was formed. The four major partners were Saudia, Albilad, Technique d'avant Garde (TAG), and Dallah-Avco. Later, five smaller Saudi Arab firms, M and M, Baroum, Bin Ladin, Kanoo and Encotrade, joined too, with additional support from an oil company, a tire company, a sparkplug manufacturer and British Leyland, a British auto maker.
In a two year period, this consortium put up close to $4.5 million, a sum, automotive industry sources say, that was only a fourth the budget available to the Formula One giants, but a blessing to the Williams team. "You've got to hand it to the Saudis," said one Williams aide. "We went to them with an unproven car and they gave us a chance."
The Saudia-Williams design team quickly took advantage of the opportunity. Openly inspired by the Lotus 79 racer, the "first real wing-car," Williams and designer Head decided to avoid further innovation; their car had a classic monocoque and honeycomb chassis and an almost classic rocker arm front suspension. "But from that basis," said Williams, "we worked to improve its most important qualities: aerodynamics, weight distribution and suspension. We're not innovators. We prefer to develop a car step by step." What they came up with was a model that was simple, light and maneuverable. Also, perhaps even more importantly, it was reliable. In a total of 28 race starts, the two Saudia-Williams cars had to pull out only four times - twice with broken drive shafts, once with crown wheel and pinion failure, and once due to an engine oil leak.
"My car," says driver Alan Jones, "was consistently competitive all year. We had the Renaults to contend with at the beginning of the year, the Ligiers in the middle, and Brabhams at the end. But we were in the top six in every race."
One reason for this was the Saudia-Williams insistence on perfection-right up to the last race of the season, the U.S. East Grand Prix, by which time the World Championship was already theirs. The team, for example, flew to America with four cars and four engines for their two drivers and at the close of practice changed both engines. "After 250 miles they've lost their edge," says Williams. "We only use the best. That’s why we're winners."
By the "best," Williams not only means the best parts but also the best people, as those who follow the glittering but grueling world of Formula One racing make clear in their assessment of the Saudia-Williams squad. For example, each of the four Saudia-Williams cars - three racers and an experimental model - has two mechanics each, all with a reputation for diligence.
As for the rest of the squad observers say that designer Patrick Head is a "practical engineer" with a college degree who hides his will to win under an overdose of English "cool." Driver Alan Jones, who at the age of eight watched his father win the Australian Grand Prix, is "ready to give all he has."
Frank Williams himself, observers say, is a "resolute man." A non-smoker and non-drinker, he keeps in trim by running four or five times a week, and on race weekends completes two laps of the average Grand Prix circuit - on foot. On his frequent visits to Saudi Arabia,
Williams even runs at one o'clock in the morning when the temperature is cool. Williams, Head and the mechanics, of course, spend most of their time in the Oxfordshire factory, now divided into three units. The first is where the cars are built, the second where the cars are maintained and the third where there search and development is housed.
It was from these workshops in the quiet English countryside that a development of the Saudia-Williams FW 07 emerged in 1979 - too late to take any honors that season, but showing the form that would sweep the Formula One board in 1980. No major changes were made, but in search for more speed, they did give the car a new underside profile midway through the season.
Towards the end of the season they also fitted one of their cars with a semi-lock differential, intended to improve handling on sharp corners, but eventually they left this car in the garage and stuck to the cars they knew were good. "We don't like to take risks," explained Williams.
The team had every reason to be cautious, for by September the rugged Australian Alan Jones in his Saudia-Williams, and the slight Brazilian Nelson Piquet in a Brabham BT 49, were locked in a man-to-man duel for the drivers' World Championship.
Jones had made a promising start in the season, winning in Argentina and placing third in Brazil. But then he hit a lean patch, being forced to retire in South Africa and the United States Grand Prix (West). He came storming back in Belgium, with the appearance of the "B" version of the FW 07 - which placed second - and then won the French and British Grand Prix. Meanwhile Jones' teammate, Carlos Reutemann, robbed Piquet of valuable points with a win on the Monaco circuit, third place in Germany and second in Austria, apparently clinching the championships for Jones. But then a bad mistake in Holland, where Jones ran off the track and damaged his skirts, threw the championships wide open again and the pressure rose again.
Both drivers, of course, had their fans, but those for Jones were particularly avid. When he received a new engine in Imola, Italy-flown in on a delayed British Airways flight for the third to last race of the season - he found that the factory personnel had attached a label to the engine. It read: "You'd better win, or else..."
As it turned out, Jones did not win that particular race. Because of brake trouble, he came in half a minute behind Piquet, a loss that gave Piquet a one point lead in the World Championship for drivers. Fortunately, a determined performance by teammate Carlos Reutemann of Argentina - who came all the way through the field with no fourth gear and a broken exhaust to take third place - gave Saudia -Williams enough points to clinch the Constructor's Championship.
This, however, diminished in no way the team's efforts to give Jones the best possible chance of catching up with Piquet at the second to last race of the season at Montreal. Before flying off to Canada they squeezed in a day's testing of the new differential in an attempt to give Jones the edge, and by the time Jones and Piquet took their places on the starting grid at Montreal, the tension was electric. Then the lights turned green and eight cars instantly collided in a chaotic shunt. Jones, who made the best start, appeared to bump Piquet, who went into a spin. Then Jones' rear body cover flew off and suddenly cars were going in every direction, with a whole clutch of them colliding on the left hand side of the track.
The re-start was less chaotic and Jones took the lead. In the second lap, however, Piquet took over and stayed in front until the 24th lap of the 70-lap race. But then the Brazilian's engine blew up, leaving Jones a clear track to the World Championship.
But if the Canadian race was not a conclusive win for Jones, the last race of the season in Watkins Glen, New York, certainly was.
As in Montreal, Jones got in trouble early: underbraking on the first corner, he ran wide on the grass and by the time he had nursed his racer back onto the track, he was in 12th place with Piquet in second place and Reutemann in third. But by lapping at a tremendous pace - and smashing the official lap record time after time - he fought to catch up and by the 25th lap of the 59-lap race, had reached fifth place. Meanwhile, Piquet, hard pressed by Reutemann, had skidded off the track and smashed his car's skirt system beyond repair.
At the halfway mark, Jones had picked up 10 places and won an open track to the leading Alfa-Romeo as, further down the track, car after car was falling victim to the grueling Watkins Glen circuit. Pushing the Saudia-Williams to its limit, Jones grimly kept going and - when the leading Alfa-Romeo's engine died - hammered across the finish line to score a victory that fully endorsed his world crown and the Saudia-Williams Constructor's title.
And there was more to come. Seconds later - further proof that the Saudia-Williams model really was the car of the year—Reutemann streaked home in second place, a one-two win described by Peter Windsor, British Sports writer of the year, as a"walkover mechanical victory" for the"ultra-reliable" Saudia-Williams car.
The final points tally for the year told the story briefly: Jones, 67 points, Piquet 54 and Reutemann 42 in the driver's championship, and the Saudia-Williams car an amazing 120 points - more than double that of its nearest rival for the Constructors' Cup.
It was a stunning triumph for the whole Saudia-Williams team, as well as for the drivers, for in modern motor racing the people who build, run, develop and sponsor the car win too. Even as Jones and Reutemann hurtled over the finish at Watkins Glen, for example, Patrick Head was already back in England, working on a new car for the 1981 season and his haste was not wasted; by February 7,1981, when Reutemann took first place in the South African Grand Prix, the Saudia-Williams team was again a contender for the World Championship.
John Lawton is a correspondent for Aramco World Magazine.