Hungry like the Wolf

Hungry like the Wolf 01

From humble beginnings
For an avant-garde environment, the story of Formula 1® is often remarkably circular. Canada is well-known for having produced some memorable races and even more memorable drivers, but its contribution to the business of motorsport is often overlooked.
One Canadian team in particular,  even though it was only in existence for three seasons, employed three world champion drivers and a team manager who would subsequently mastermind seven drivers’ titles and nine constructors’ championships under a different guise. 
That team was Walter Wolf Racing. And without Wolf taking a shareholding in Williams in 1976, when the team was in serious financial trouble (from the Spanish Grand Prix in 1976 the cars were known as ‘Wolf-Williams’) it would have been extremely hard for Sir Frank’s team to survive and become the legend that it is today.
Walter Wolf, now 78, is a Canadian by naturalisation but was born in Austria just as World War II broke out. With his family having fled to Slovenia, he arrived in Canada penniless in 1957 to seek his fortune,  but not before he had hitch-hiked to Italy to watch the Italian Grand Prix, by sneaking into Monza. It was a moment that changed his life.
Wolf got his first big break by working for a company that installed marine equipment. Over the next 20 years, he worked his way from the bottom of the company to the top, just as the oil boom hit and they landed a contract for oil rig platforms. From out of nowhere, he had big money. So then, he decided to revisit his passion for cars and racing.

Hungry like the Wolf 02

Wolfs and Williams
It was when Wolf was buying himself a special edition Lamborghini that he met Gian Paolo Dallara, who asked him if he knew Frank Williams. Dallara explained that the team was struggling and could do with a backer. Wolf ended up buying Frank’s engines for him, before taking a full shareholding in the team. But the cars that they secured for that famous 1976 season were the previous year’s Hesketh 308 chassis, which were disastrously uncompetitive: the best result of the entire season being seventh place at the controversial British Grand Prix with Harald Ertl.
As a result, Wolf and Williams amicably decided to go their separate ways for 1977 (and that’s not the first time those names have drifted apart, because more than 25 years later, the unrelated Toto Wolff also split with Williams to join Mercedes…but that’s another story).
Sir Frank’s squad was back to being just Williams again, while Wolf put together a dream team managed by Peter Warr, using a new car designed by Harvey Postlethwaite called the Wolf WR1. It had no sponsorship, but proudly carried the Canadian maple leaf. And one of the team’s machinists was a certain Ross Brawn. Funding wasn’t a problem, so they secured the services of Jody Scheckter to drive it. 
The Wolf WR1 won its very first race, in Argentina: by a staggering margin of 43 seconds. Reliability was sometimes an issue, but every race Scheckter finished was on the podium, including another victory at the team’s home race in Canada: 40 years ago. In one of the most remarkable debut seasons ever seen in Formula 1®, Scheckter finished second in the 1977 championship.

Hungry like the Wolf 03

O Canada
That should maybe have been the start of an astonishing cycle of success. But for various reasons, it wasn’t. Scheckter was seventh in the 1978 championship with the new ground-effect car, then headed off to join Ferrari – where he would win the title a year later. At the time, Wolf was the only F1® team outside of Ferrari to have ever tested at Fiorano: but the Commendatore’s unprecedented invitation was just because he had his eye on Scheckter.
To replace him, Wolf hired James Hunt. But the 1979 season was so shocking that Hunt retired halfway through the year, swiftly replaced by Keke Rosberg – who couldn’t even qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix. It was probably at that point that Walter Wolf decided enough was enough, and sold his team to Emerson Fittipaldi.
But the story of Canada in Formula 1 continues. There were the Villeneuve superstars and now there is of course Lance Stroll, who illustrates the circularity of Formula 1 history perfectly by making his debut at Williams: the very team that gave Walter Wolf his entry into Formula 1. 
To prepare for his debut Formula 1 season, Stroll tested an older specification Williams F1® car at various circuits all over the world, in a programme that many people said had never been seen before. Except that it had, because Williams conducted quite a similar regime to prepare another Canadian, Jacques Villeneuve, for Formula 1 from Indycar. And Villeneuve then went on to win the 1997 F1® drivers’ title over 20 years ago, 20 years after the first Canadian Formula 1 team made its debut thanks to Walter Wolf. It’s not just F1® tyres that are circular.

Read more