At a Williams Martini Racing themed Autosports Show, Badger GP was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Dickie Stanford. Sarah Merritt talked through his F1 career with him – a CV that includes being Nigel Mansell’s number one mechanic, Team Manager, and now running Williams Heritage.
Sarah Merritt: Dickie, it’s great that you have spared the time to sit down with me today. When I told people I was getting the opportunity to chat to you, and asked them if there was anything they’d like to know, they all said one thing; tell him to tweet more! We used to love his tweets!
Dickie Stanford: The problem is that I work for the majority of my time on my own, there’s only Jonathan (Williams) and I that actually run Heritage, and then when we get busy some of the supporting guys from racing come and give us a hand to get things ready. So most of my day is actually taken up doing something!
I don’t want to keep re-tweeting the same cars as when I have them in the workshop, we have them there for two or three months and I think people will get bored with me. What I’m trying to get Williams into at the moment is actually putting a time-lapse camera in there, so you can see the strip down of whatever car we are working on, and then the process of putting it back together again.
There was a lot more going on then, but I find now that I’m doing a lot of the same thing and, as I said, I don’t want to bore people with the same cars as they are in the workshop for such a long time. I might have seven cars in there, but they will be the same seven cars for three months.
SM: Well just for the record I don’t think we’d ever get bored of the cars you work on!
When I hear your name the first thing I think of is Nigel Mansell, and watching races with my Dad at that time, as I know you came to Williams in 1985 as Nigel’s mechanic. Can you sum up for me how that felt back then as you joined the team?
DS: It was quite strange because I’d been racing since I was 16 or 17 and I thought I was quite old for Formula 1 when I applied in 1985, but then when I actually got to Williams I was the youngest person on the team! I was expecting there would be a lot of people younger than me.
It was a bit awe-inspiring because you are suddenly coming into an F1 team. I’d been doing Formula 2 before that, and the difference? It was like light years of difference! In Formula 2, there were about ten of us in total, but then you come to Williams and there are departments to do this and departments to do that.
You’re just there putting the race car together, and we didn’t do half the things that I was used to doing. It was great, really awe-inspiring.
SM: And probably you’d have had a lot of differences back then to today’s setup?
DS: Yes, garage set-up, it was nothing. You just wheeled the tool box in and that was it. It wasn’t probably until about 1986 or 87 that we started putting the canvas sheet down the walls with Canon Williams on it.
When I first was at Williams, you literally had the stuff all the way down the side of the garage, but it wasn’t a mess, but things like we do today you wouldn’t have even entertained!
SM: And back then there was no curfew..?
DS: No, that didn’t come in for a few years. It’s like with the FW14 – we did a lot of “all nighters” in ’91 when that car first came out. I class that as probably my favourite car.
We did so much work over the first couple of races at the circuit because the gearbox kept going wrong, and some of the carbon fibre wasn’t strong enough, and so it was a really hard start of the year. But when we got on top of it, it turned out to be one of the best cars of the year.
It didn’t win the championship, but when it was ‘on song’, and working, it was on song…
SM: You’ve worked with many different drivers and they must have many different styles and traits of working; Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna – is it even possible to say who you enjoyed working alongside the most, or who you had the closest relationship with?
DS: All of them, a good relationship with all of them. It is very close, the whole team, from earlier days where we’d bring about 40 people it’s grown and grown and grown, until sometimes it will be 110 – and you are that 110 people, and the driver is a part of it.
They might not speak to you all day long, but when they do, there’s a reason. I have favourites, but I never tell anybody who they are because I still know them!
I don’t think there has been a driver at Williams that I have disliked. I hope they think that as I’ve got on with them, they’ve got on with me, because I’m still friends with all of them. The worst thing is that now I’ve worked with the fathers and the sons!
SM: In your role as Team Manager you were responsible for heading up the team and “herding” them all around the world. I bet that has thrown up some challenges over the years?
DS: You mean “mother” to 60 or 70 people? It has, because you’re together for such long periods and now they’ve increased the races it’s probably just as bad. You’re together, you’re just like family, and you have to know, if you’re the head of the team, whether people have problems because that will affect their work.
You need to talk to people, you need to know what their personal life is. It might seem a trivial problem to somebody but it might turn all of a sudden into something major, so you have to be mother to 70 people.
SM: And as well as personal things you’ve had things like the fire in Barcelona, you have successes and highs and lows as a team, you’ve got to keep everyone together through those…
DS: That’s correct, bad races and good races. Okay we’ve had a good race, get the cars finished first, and then we’ll have a celebration, but then we’ll get on to the next race.
If it’s been a bad race it’s “okay guys, let’s get it all finished, I’ll open the bar up for you for an hour or so”, then it is literally, “don’t be late in the morning, we are on a 6am leave to Australia”, or something. Mostly it’s all as straightforward as that.
SM: Have you a favourite destination that you went to on the calendar, one you looked forward to the most?
DS: I used to enjoy Adelaide because we used to get a week off there, the freight never used to arrive!
I think I enjoyed most of the races. I was very sceptical of going to China and Korea, but the tracks and the facilities were good there. You do get bogged down with the organisation on new circuits, but by the second year, it’s normally all ironed out.
Favourite places? Australia. Most people say Australia. I didn’t mind Malaysia. I must admit, one thing I do miss since I’ve not racing is hot weather! I really do struggle with England now; my holidays are now somewhere hot. I’ve just come back from Mexico because I am not going somewhere with the summer in Europe, where it’s cold and horrible. I am a warm weather person, I don’t like the cold!
SM: Over the years, is there one race, or a couple of races, that you can think of that stand out in your memories?
DS: Yes, I suppose ’92 Silverstone, and then winning Monaco in 2003; that was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever experienced. All the times with Nigel, with everybody else, we’d been on the front row, been leading the race and the car had broken down, and then for Montoya to go on and win it. It was like carrying a weight around your shoulders.
Every Monaco, I went there thinking “please don’t go wrong, please don’t go wrong” and something would. Then winning it, it was like pretty much better than winning some of the world championships because it was a race we’d never ever won until then, in 20 years at Williams.
Doing well in Monaco, and qualifying well, and thinking “this is it”; like when Nigel had the puncture when he was leading Senna, only to come out behind him. He then positioned the car perfectly so that Nigel couldn’t get past, even though we had the better tyres and the quicker car. He knew what he was doing. We really thought we were going to win that day.
SM: It’s a rollercoaster of emotions isn’t it?
DS: It is. And I must admit, I’m teetotal, but that night I did have a drink. I had so many bets on with people that when we win Monaco, I would drink this or that. I was a little tipsy!
SM: You’ve retired from that role now, but you haven’t retired at all really, because you are now in a role with Williams Heritage. You have some beautiful cars to look after every day. Do you feel you’re in your element, getting your hands on the older cars again, is that what you prefer to be doing?
DS: Yes, a bit of both. Jonathan Williams and myself run the Heritage side, and we are into selling cars, and into preparation for other people, which is really another area we want to get into. We have two cars we prep for other people, but they don’t use them very often.
As well as keeping all the Williams cars up and running, we want to turn this into a major business, and actually be out there maybe doing the Historic championship. If a guy wants, we just go an hire a circuit somewhere and he can drive round it in his car. We have the facilities to do it, but it’s like anything else, it’s a bit of a hard world. We’ve got to push ourselves out there.
That’s the ultimate thing at the moment – to actually do the preparation of the cars and get them on track, and then keeping the Williams cars in perfect condition, and showing them as much as we can.
SM: I read a description on the internet as it being “uncovering mothballed cars”. What gems have you turned up?
DS: We have 130 cars on the Williams Heritage books, and there’s cars in there that were built – like the FW13 that we ran at Goodwood last year, that was built in 1990 – and then put into storage and had never seen the light of day.
I got it out, and completely stripped it down, put in new fuel tanks, brake lines, everything is brand new, so it’s like a ground up restoration. They’re the type of cars that we want to get up and running.
At the moment we have Damon Hill’s FW15, the one that he won his first few races in, that’s actually up for sale. Once we’ve rebuilt it, we’re also doing another one of Damon’s cars, the FW17.
SM: Does Damon not have one of his cars himself?
DS: I think he used to but I think he sold it; where do you keep it? When you start moving around, house to house, what do you do with them?
SM: I would imagine that there’s quite a substantial parts store that you have, like an Aladdin’s cave. Do you have any idea how many parts you have?
DS: Our stores are three times the size of the race team’s stores! We have three-quarters of it catalogued, so everything from somewhere around 1990 is actually catalogued on the computer. Everything else is in racks and numbered. We have our archives, which ties in with all the parts.
We have 96% of every single drawing that was ever produced at Williams, and if you wanted a set-up sheet from any of those years, even a test set-up sheet, we have it. Our archive is quite amazing, so even if we haven’t got the part we’ve got the drawing to make it.
SM: Do you ever have any problems when you need an old part, and when you have to source something specific for the cars?
DS: The biggest problem I have when we come to make new bits for the car is the timing. Our engineering and fabrication side is actually based around the F1 team, so now I wouldn’t even attempt to ask the factory to make me something, I would wait until after Barcelona race.
They are going off to Australia and you never, ever have the number of bits that you want when you go racing, and then there’s always an update to the car for Barcelona, so what you do is you have to wait until after then. Now we do have some outside machine shops and fabrication shops that work for Williams, so if I’m really desperate, I have to go across and say “please can you put his in the system?”, but normally I just put in a requisition for a new front wishbone for a FW08, and they’ll put it into production for me.
SM: Because of that, and knowing the value of the older cars, do you ever feel a bit protective over them when the drivers drive them at somewhere like Goodwood?
DS: Yes! When we do Goodwood, or even here at the Autosports Show, we are doing a demonstration. We’re not racing, we’re not setting a time, even if you have to say to the driver “I want you to stick your arm out of the car and wave to the crowd”, that keeps him slow!
Most people we pick to drive our cars know what these cars do. All the cars that we have at Williams here are the history cars – if we say “that’s Damon Hill’s championship winning car”, it is Damon’s actual car. We don’t go around saying to everybody its worth this much, don’t crash it, we just say it’s a museum car, we’re not here to set a time. You don’t want a phone call hearing it’s been backed into the wall somewhere!
SM: One last question; I have seen you tweet about this before I think. but inside the cars there are some stars that I think denote the success of that car?
DS: Yes, it’s a mechanics thing from the past but they still carry on with it now. There are three different types of star; red, silver and gold. Red is for a pole position, silver is for a second place, and a first place is obviously gold, and you never had anything for third place.
SM: But third is still a podium!
DS: Yes, but if I said to you who finished third in 1987 at the British Grand Prix, nobody remembers! That’s why we always said it was just first and second. We used to, in the old days, have Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet first and second in races, then Mansell and Ricardo Patrese, then Damon and Jacques Villeneuve, so it’s was only first and second that counted.
SM: Is it just a Williams tradition? I’ve not seen anything similar inside other older cars I’ve looked at.
DS: I’m not sure, I’ve not looked in other cars. The only other similar thing to that was on the FW15, when we were sponsored by Sega. They used to put a skull and crossbones on the rear wing for a win, I think it was with Alain Prost and Damon Hill, even though the mechanics used to put stars in the cockpit there was positioned a skull and crossbones with the name of the race underneath. So if you look at any FW15, either in the museum or in the workshop, you should see those.
Dickie then took me outside to show me the stars inside the cars on display at the Autosports Show.
We looked inside Damon Hills Championship winning FW18 (5 reds, 4 golds, 1 silver) and also saw that special Monaco winning moment that Dickie recalled highlighted inside Juan Pablo Montoya’s FW25 (1 red, 2 golds, 4 silvers).
Dickie was engaging to talk to and I could have spent all afternoon chatting to him. I’d encourage any of you visiting Goodwood or similar to take the opportunity to speak to Dickie, a man who really has Williams and F1 running in his veins, and loves the cars he is working with.
Our thanks to Williams Martini Racing and Dickie for their time.