The former athlete Michael Johnson has been helping the Williams F1 team by looking for ways to speed up their pit stops
When Williams announced that they had signed Michael Johnson to help their Formula One team the first reaction was that the great American athlete would be employed to push their jalopy round the track.
Williams, after all, were the most disappointing of the 12 F1 operations last year. The once dominant team finished ninth, ahead of the three minnows on the circuit. They were the weakest of the midfield outfits, scoring only five points – and four of them came from their departing veteran, Rubens Barrichello.
The car’s tiny gearbox appeared to symbolise the team’s meagre ambition and only three times did one of their cars make it through to Q3 on Saturday afternoon.
However Johnson, four-times winner of Olympic gold and famous for his upright and short-stepping style, has rather been brought in to sharpen up the Williams pit crew.
This may sound about as important as touching up the livery and logos – and Williams certainly have bigger issues to concern them as they work to improve on last year’s desperately disappointing FW33 – but last year Red Bull, followed by Mercedes, were the sharpest operators in the pitlane and, in a sport where fractions are famously vital, this is an area that cannot be ignored.
The problem is that mechanics and engineers are not necessarily renowned for their physical fitness, outside getting down to the Ferret and Firkin for a pint and pie and double chips. Johnson may have his work cut out.
Watch out, then, for the first Williams tyre change in the opening race of the new season, in Melbourne on 18 March; it could be deeply impressive or tummy-slappingly hilarious. But at least the move does win originality points for Williams.
Johnson, who has been following Formula One since 1996 – the year Damon Hill won the world title with Williams – says: “I feel extremely confident in myself and my staff in terms of what we have put together in training methodology and biomechanical efficiency. I don’t think anybody knows it better than us. There is a tremendous amount of biomechanical movement going on in the pit stops so it stands to reason we can make that quicker.”
Johnson, who owns one of Michael Schumacher’s old helmets and was once introduced to a number of drivers by Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s supremo, warms to his subject at the team’s Oxfordshire headquarters.
“The amount of steps that it is going to take for the guy that has got that tyre and has got to put it on – it makes all the difference in the world which is his lead leg to how many steps he is going to take.
“And the guy with the gun – it jumped out at me immediately that you can do it two different ways. You can take it off the wheel and bring it straight back into your chest or you can take it off and point it upwards to get it out of the way [he looks a little like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry at this stage]. What has never been done is to evaluate the guy from a sensory stand-point to see how accurate can he be.”
And what does the guy himself think? Ben Howard, who has been with Williams for three years and works on the left front wheel, says: “I think everybody was excited, but possibly a little bit apprehensive as well. Michael is well known and trains top-level sports people but we’re not professional athletes so there was some nervousness as to what he might make us do.
“To be honest not everyone goes to the gym to train because we use our own activities and hobbies outside of work to keep fit. It’s been good, though, really interesting, and obviously a privilege to be working with someone of his calibre.
“At the track you have teams either side of you doing their practice stops so you’re always watching to see if you can learn anything. We’re fighting each other all the time, in a friendly way, but we’re not going to be showing them any of the new secrets we learn from Michael.”
Johnson is already talking about working with Williams again next year. So how long is his deal? “We’ll be going until it gets done,” he says. But something tells you that this particular job may not feature among his world record times.