WILLIAMS holds a special place in the heart of most Australian race fans, given Alan Jones’ 1980 Formula 1 World Championship victory with the squad.
What’s long forgotten is that a well-known Kiwi tested with the team in 1998, and even had a job interview with Sir Frank himself at the squad’s headquarters.
And no, it wasn’t for F1: this was during Williams’ period running Renault’s factory British Touring Car program, which lasted from 1995-99.
Having lost his full-time drive with the Holden Racing Team when Craig Lowndes returned for 1998, Greg Murphy spent the year exploring international waters.
This oft-overlooked phase of Murphy’s career is covered in the 2015 book ‘Murph: An Illustrated History’ – of which limited remaining stock is now available at a discounted price through the V8 Sleuth Bookshop.
Murphy was in Phoenix, Arizona, on December 1 in 1998, undertaking a multi-day test with Tasman Motorsport’s Indy Lights team, when it was confirmed he’d be trying out with Williams the following week.
The surprise phone call came from Sydney-based businessman Graham Moore, who had gotten to know Murphy during their time together in Australian Super Touring and was keen to help him out.
Moore had organised for the Williams Renault team to compete in the 1997 Super Touring Bathurst 1000 and, according to Murphy, had been assisted by Jones himself to get the test over the line.
Alain Menu, BTCC champion of 1997, was moving to Ford, and there was a seat available for ’99. Murphy’s test was set for Nogaro in France, kicking off on Tuesday, December 8.
Having already committed to running the New Zealand Grand Prix, held for Formula Holden machinery at Ruapuna on December 5, Murphy drove three cars on three continents in the space of a week.
“It was just a crazy time,” said Murphy on an episode of the V8 Sleuth Podcast powered by Timken earlier this year.
He met the team – and completed his seat fitting, slipping conveniently into Menu’s regular setup – on the morning of the day’s running.
While Murphy had plenty of Super Touring experience, thanks to full seasons in Australia in 1995 and ‘96 with Audi and a ‘98 Bathurst assault in a Triple Eight Vectra, this was a major challenge.
“Jason Plato was the other driver and he was there at the test. [He was] very helpful, but it was miserable, absolutely miserable. It was freezing cold,” Murphy continued.
“Front-wheel drive, tyre temp, all that kind of stuff, [it was] really tricky in a car I’d never driven before and a track I’d never been before. I think I had a bit of jetlag, all sorts of rubbish going on…
“All I remember about that track is that, if we think Sydney Motorsport Park has high tyre deg, I reckon there was half a lap on a brand-new set of Michelins around Nogaro before they went off!
“It was just unbelievable. I don’t think I could get my head around it…. I don’t from memory believe it went overly well.”
A planned second day of running for Murphy was curtailed by rain, after which he drove back to England for a meeting with Sir Frank at Williams’ Oxfordshire factory.
“He was obviously a very busy man Frank Williams and I was sitting there at Williams HQ for quite a long time waiting for him to turn up and eventually ended up in his office,” recalled Murphy.
“The meeting was reasonably short and quick. The thing I remember most is at the end of it all, he said ‘how much would you expect to be getting paid by us, if you were given the drive?’
“That is out of left-field, I think I went ‘umm’… I can’t even remember what I said, but I didn’t get a second interview so it must have been the wrong answer!
“I think I said something along the lines of what I was getting paid in Australia. Maybe I undersold myself so much he thought there’s no way we’re hiring this bloke!”
The seat ultimately went to Frenchman Jean-Christophe Boullion – who had been a test driver for its F1 team in 1995/96 and was in line to drive for its touring car team in 1997, before Williams opted for Plato.
With his international hopes having faded, Murphy returned to V8 Supercars full-time in 1999 with Gibson Motorsport, pairing with teammate Steven Richards to win that year’s Bathurst 1000.