Friday, October 09, 2009

Maurice Hamilton meets Richard Dawkins

Cows can be modified to grow vast and ungainly udders, and these continue to yield copious quantities of milk indefinitely, long after the normal weaning period of a calf...And of course, the same would be true of dairy humans, if anyone wanted to try. All too many surgeons large sums of money to implant silicone...Does anyone doubt that, given enough generations, the same deformity could be achieved by selective breeding, after the manner of Friesian cows? (Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, p39).

Jacques [Villeneuve] was always a bit of a renegade - I'd say an odd character. He was a very appealing character but in many ways quite child-like. If he fancied a girl, he'd ask Ann Bradshaw [Williams Press Officer] to go out and chat her up for him. (Patrick Head, speaking to Maurice Hamilton in Williams, p296.)

Like most people, I've spent the past few weeks concurrently reading the latest books by Richard Dawkins and Maurice Hamilton. Both are absolute gems.

Dawkins's latest book is a fabulous exposition of the concepts and evidence to support evolution by natural selection. It's a gripping and eclectic work, whose range extends from embryology to plate tectonics, to artificial breeding. Did you know, for example, that cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and broccoli, have all been bred by horticulturalists from a single plant, the wild cabbage, over just a few centuries?

One of the big themes of Dawkins's book is the manner in which evolution yields modification over long periods of time, whilst retaining unmistakeable traces of what was in place at the outset. Such a description is also apposite for the history of the Williams Formula One team. As erstwhile Williams engineer John Russell points out, "Bernie Ecclestone once said that Frank and Patrick run the best grocery store in the business...It's no longer a grocer's shop; it's a supermarket,...but if you go behind the scenes the grocer's shop is still there."

In fact, in the early months of 1983, as a member of the nascent Williams Grand Prix supporters' club, I was one of the lucky few invited to visit the Williams factory at Station Road in Didcot. I remember being escorted around the factory by someone called Sheridan [Thynne], and being slightly underwhelmed to discover that it consisted of a small number of partitioned bays inside an industrial unit. As designer Neil Oatley recalls in Maurice Hamilton's book, the original Station Road factory was only about the size of two tennis courts.

Hamilton has sourced and written perhaps the best book ever on the Williams Formula One team. It has a somewhat unusual format in that it largely consists of personal recollections from the dramatis personae associated with Williams over the last four decades, but this plurality of subjective perspectives weaves into a fascinating and cohesive sporting and engineering history. In particular, the perspicacity of Patrick Head and Adrian Newey radiates from the page like a pair of Cobalt-60 sources.

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