The world of motorsport lost one of its greatest heroes on Sunday as Sir Frank Williams passed away, aged 79. While famous for creating and running Williams to 16 Formula 1 world championships, Williams did have an impact on rallying as David Evans recalls.
On February 7, 1983, Frank Williams and Patrick Head joined John Davenport to stand alongside a bright red, and very shiny, example of a car originally codenamed ‘prototype LC8’.
The Mini Metro.
The photograph was taken at Austin Rover’s Cowley premises, but much of the work on what would become known as the MG Metro 6R4 had taken place down the road at Didcot, home of Williams Grand Prix Engineering.
Davenport can be a jolly persuasive character when he needs to be, but ultimately Williams didn’t take much cajoling to get involved.
“The Williams team was sponsored by Leyland,” said Davenport. “And in late 1980, they were testing at Paul Ricard. We had some race cars we needed to work on, so we were sharing the circuit.
“I was talking to Patrick about the Metro and he was interested. A couple of months later, in January of 1981, I was in Didcot talking to Frank and Patrick about the idea.”
The original plan for the Cowley-Didcot partnership, soon to be known as the Metro VHPD (Very High Performance Derivative) was to develop a front-engined and rear-wheel drive car. Once Audi’s quattro did its thing, there was a reconsideration.
Patrick Head said: 'If we’re going to all this trouble anyway, why don’t we make it four-wheel drive?' I wasn’t sure it could be doneJohn Davenport
“People still weren’t completely convinced by four-wheel drive,” said Davenport, by then the man in charge of driving Austin Rover’s rallying return, “but it became clearer it was the future.
“We were in a meeting and looking at the plans for the Metro when Patrick said: ‘If we’re going to all this trouble anyway, why don’t we make it four-wheel drive?’ I wasn’t sure it could be done.”
It could be done and Williams Grand Prix Engineering was the company to do it. The first two prototype cars came out of Didcot in 1983.
Realizing there might be some aero gains – something which became clearer through testing over the jumps in Finland – the Metro gained a front spoiler and a rear wing. Both came directly from the Willliams’ parts bin – the initial rear wing having seen action on a Formula 1 car.
At this time, Williams had forged an alliance with Honda – already an Austin Rover partner – for turbocharged V6 engines to install in an FW09 for Keke Rosberg. Davenport hoped the V6 might suit the Metro. It didn’t. Instead, a couple of cylinders were lopped off the end of Rover’s own V8 to put the six into 6R4.
The car famously broke cover with a brilliant 1985 RAC Rally podium for Tony Pond, but never quite got the chance to fully develop with Group B banned at the end of 1986.
Involvement in the project was a source of pride for all involved and it demonstrated early on just how multi-dimensional the management and engineering skills of Williams and Head were.
Sir Frank Williams will, of course, always be associated with circuit racing and Formula 1, but it’s worth remembering one of the world’s most iconic Group B cars would never have got off the ground were it not for his involvement.