My trip to the Williams F1 factory

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited on a visit to the Williams F1 factory. It was all organised by Synergy on behalf of Philips, who wanted to promote their amazing competition for a chance to win five laps round a grand prix circuit in a Williams F1 car, which I previously wrote about here.

I had the pleasure of meeting a host of other F1 bloggers including the people behind Brits on Pole, F1 Badger, F1-Fans and F1 “Not Keith” Fanatics. Most of them have got round to covering the visit much more sooner than I did. Brits on Pole have been particularly thorough.

It was a big trip for me. Believe it or not, it’s the first time I’ve done anything F1-related. I’ve never found the time or money to do anything in the past, but luckily this time round I happened to have some free time, so made the trip down from Kirkcaldy to Grove, where the Williams factory is based. I am mighty glad I did because I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and in fact I wish I could go again so that I could immerse myself in it more.

When I arrived at the factory, the last of the Williams trucks was just leaving to make its way to the Hungaroring. It’s a very inconspicuous, even modest-looking, place. If you didn’t know better you might think you were in a plain old industrial estate.

It might be silly to expect a giant rotating ‘W’ symbol to be sprouting out of the roof of the factory, but the fact is that all signage is minimal, almost as though they want to avoid attracting attention. This is no super-slick McLaren Technology Centre. That is the Williams way though. They care more about the racing than whether the floor is clean.

That’s not to say the place totally lacks character. Walking up to the RBS Williams F1 Conference Centre, you are greeted with this jolly topiary. It is a very nice touch, suggesting that perhaps F1 does have a green side after all! I also note that the display is 2010-friendly as there is no refuelling.

F1 is green after all

Villeneuve's FW19 The Conference Centre is relatively new, having opened in 2002. It used to be where BMW worked on their Le Mans project in the late 1990s when Williams were in partnership with them. But once BMW won Le Mans they vacated the building, and was left behind after their acrimonious split.

Many of the rooms at the Conference Centre are named after famous circuits. We were housed in Monaco and Silverstone! The morning kicked off with an excellent breakfast, which was just as well because the breakfast I paid five quid for at the Travelodge was a bloody insult. Nothing could be further from the case at Williams, who also provided a sublime buffet lunch that seemed to go down well with everyone.

After breakfast we were given a whistle-stop tour of the factory. Once again, it is striking just how normal the place feels. It looks, sounds and smells like a factory. There is little hint of pomposity about the place. They could be making widgets, but they just happen to make F1 cars. A radio sits in the corner, apparently tuned into the local radio station.

Our first stop was in the Pattern Shop where Brian Campbell gave us a great talk about seat fittings. I knew that each driver had to have his own seat specially made for him, but I did not realise quite how detailed the seats actually were. As Mr Campbell said, he can see which side a driver is dressed into. We were also told about the fact that new seats had to be made when Juan Pablo Montoya gained around 10 kilograms in weight in the course of a season, at the same time blowing away the myth about how fit Formula 1 drivers are.

We were given a seat to pass around, and I guess it is probably about as heavy as a similarly-sized cardboard box. Brits on Pole were in a different group to mine, so got a slightly different talk, but you can hear audio of their version on this page.

From there we moved onto composites, where our wonderful tour guide Millie looked for Paul who was due to give us our next talk, only to be told that there are eight Pauls! It was another entertaining talk. At one point he consulted a blueprint to answer a question, noting, “you’re not supposed to see that”. Minds flashed back to the McLaren–Ferrari “spygate” scandal, which we are later told Williams staff found very amusing all the way even when the rest of the world had got fed up with it. They can’t stand either team, of course.

From there we met Bernie (no, not that Bernie!) in the machine shop. He is the longest-serving member of staff besides Frank Williams and Patrick Head. He will have seen a lot of changes — Williams was set up in 1977 with just 17 staff. Today it employs 520 people.

The culture of Williams is noticeable. Frank Williams and Patrick Head are clearly very well-regarded by all staff members. They are not Mr Williams or Mr Head — it’s Frank and Patrick. In the later Q&A, Sam Michael said he liked working for the company because of Frank and Patrick.

Back on the factory floor, Bernie tells us that 95% of the car — more or less everything except for the engine and the wheels — is made in-house by Williams. We were given a variety of bits and bobs to feel. This ranged from a wheel nut which is as large as an ashtray but felt as light as a 50p piece, to a proprietary alloy which is used as ballast. Apparently this the most dense material in the world with the exception of depleted uranium.

All that was just the first part of the day! Visit later this week to read about the Williams simulator and their amazing museum.