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Minding his peas and counting the days

Maurice Hamilton March 7, 2013
Sir Frank Williams can't wait for racing to get underway in Australia © Sutton Images
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You can tell Sir Frank Williams has been a former pupil in a boarding school.

"Claire!" he calls to his daughter across the lunch table. "It's not fair. Hamilton has more peas than me!" Then that infectious grin and an explanation that you never forget school days when the amount of food on your plate and the art of one-upmanship were differing but essential parts of survival in a character-building regime.

Frank may be 70, but that same competitive urge continues to drive him as he surveys the British media lunch and wonders what we'll be writing and talking about in just over a week's time.

"Can't wait," he says. And you believe him. Just as you believed him three decades ago when he began the annual ritual of providing lunch as an excuse for a good gossip about how the season ahead is going to pan out.

It was different then, of course. About eight of us gathered in the cramped Conference Room of the team headquarters in Didcot's Basil Hill Road. Lunch with a team boss was a novel experience, all the more so when Frank and co-director Patrick Head personally served us soup from a steaming urn carried upstairs from the canteen. "So come on boys," Frank would say while passing round the soup bowls, "What's the gossip? Are those bloody red cars any good?"

The ritual missed a beat in the days following his fearful road accident on March 8, 1986 but, 12 months later, we were back at Didcot, Frank making a brief appearance in his wheelchair for the main course.

The move to the current premises in Grove in 1996 upped the tempo even more as the lunch numbers grew to fill what was now a substantial boardroom. Frank would be wheeled in as usual and have a chat. Then he'd leave the coast clear for Head to arrive in time for cheese and biscuits.

Maurice Hamilton's invitation to lunch in 1985, complete with directions (click to enlarge) © Maurice Hamilton

The trick at this stage was to make sure there was at least one glass of fine red left in the bottle for Patrick; not that he needed any encouragement when it came to irreverent remarks, the majority of which, sadly, were never suitable for printing.

We went through good times and bad, Frank and Patrick typically refusing to glory in championships with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve and yet maintaining the same cheerful optimism in the days when the team had not been within a sniff of the podium during the previous 12 months.

This week, the pace had risen another gear as more than 50 journalists and broadcasters sat down in the Williams Conference Centre to enjoy an equally magnificent three-course lunch prepared by Michael Caines MBE.

The difference now is that Frank is not yet on first name terms with such a large gathering as he relies on Claire to carry on the charming and understated welcome started by her father all those years ago.

I'm fortunate enough to be sitting beside Frank. We chat about Maldonado: "Lovely guy. Getting better all the time", Bottas: "Signs are good so far, but we don't really know. He doesn't say much!" and Venezuela, post-Chavez (the death has yet to be announced but we know it's imminent): "They've been very, very supportive and those who are next in line follow F1 and Pastor very closely. I'm hopeful everything will be okay".

Frank then looks up at a video screen carrying the message: "12 days until lights out at Melbourne.'"

"That can't be right," he says, a grin returning to his lips. "The race doesn't start at bedtime, does it?"

I look blank.

"Lights Out only meant one thing in the school dorm."

"Ah, I see! No, definitely not bedtime, Frank. It'll all be kicking off when the lights go out."

"I know," he says. "Can't wait…"