In 2011, Williams finished ninth in the Formula One Constructors’ Championship, their worst result since 1978. Two months before the new season kicks off, the team have unveiled a rather unorthodox aspect of their efforts to return to their glory days in the ’90s: they’ve hired ’90s track god Michael Johnson to train their pit crews. Yes, that Michael Johnson.
If you share my occasional obsession of watching men run very, very fast, you’ll no doubt have permanent memories of August 1, 1996. That was the day when Michael Johnson performed one of history’s great athletic feats, running 200 meters in 19.32 seconds, smashing his 5-week-old world record by a full third of a second—about an eon in a sprint event. It’s a run you can watch over and over again and still be flabbergasted by his otherwordly speed, making absolutely world-class athletes like Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon appear as though they’re competing on a high-gravity planet.
There were years when Williams’s F1 cars were like that. Footage of Nigel Mansell’s FW14B from 1992 shows a car which seems to disregard physics with Johnson’s flair. But the team have been on a slippery slope toward complete irrelevance since 1997. They’ve won a scarce 10 races in the past 14 seasons and haven’t finished in the top three since 2003.
To complement the past few months’ various personnel changes on the technical side of the team, they’ve now teamed up with Michael Johnson Performance, the company Johnson started after retiring from active competition. Johnson’s company, based in McKinney, Texas, provides training to Dallas’s Cowboys, Stars and FC Dallas, along with runners at various levels of competition.
Why the need for an Olympic athlete at a Formula One team? Since refueling cars during a race was banned in 2010, pitstops have crept into the 3-second range, and they’re ever more crucial to get right as fast as humanly—or, in this case, inhumanly—possible. The 2011 season has seen a number of high-profile position changes during pitstops. Now that teams can’t use super-fast helium-filled wheel guns, they’ll have to resort to simply doing things faster. And fast is something Michael Johnson knows quite a lot about.
It also turns out that Johnson is a fan. Here’s how he was quoted by the press release about the partnership:
I have been a huge Formula One fan since I first attended the Grand Prix at Spa in 1990 where I had the great privilege of meeting Sir Frank Williams. I am confident that the experience and biomechanics expertise of the MJP staff that has benefitted numerous American football athletes, Premier League football teams, and Olympic federations, can also benefit the Williams F1 Team pit crew in their goal to cut hundredths and even tenths of a second from their pit stop times.
Whatever magic he can inject into Williams’s crew on their way up from rock bottom, Johnson may also have Formula One history on his side. In 1978, their second season in the sport, Williams finished ninth. In 1979, they came second behind Ferrari. And in 1980 and 1981, they became back-to-back constuctors’ champions, a feat they would repeat three times. Not unlike Michael Johnson’s various magical runs in his helium-weight golden shoes.
Photos by Tony Duffy/Allsport (Johnson during his 19.32 run) and Allsport UK/ALLSPORT (Johnson at Brands Hatch in an unidentified race car in 1995—if you know anything about this photo, please tell us in the comments!)