Sir Frank Williams was a remarkable man, a pivotal figure in Grand Prix motor racing for whom life’s journey brought both great personal adversity and world-beating professional achievement. He created and led one of Formula 1’s most successful teams, presiding over Williams Grand Prix Engineering in spite of suffering a severe spinal injury in a 1986 car accident which left him confined to a wheelchair for more than three quarters of his 40 year career as team boss.
It is poignant that he has passed away 14 months after selling the team which represented his life’s work. Formula 1 is a lesser place without Frank Williams and one can imagine that Frank had limited interest in life without Formula 1.
His Williams team won no fewer that 16 world championships, seven Drivers’ and nine Teams’, amassing 114 race victories along the way. Together with business partner Patrick Head, Frank brought Formula 1 fans iconic driver and car combinations together with on-track excitement, successes, failures and tragedies.
It was fitting that Frank, forever a patriot, would see one of his cars achieve the Williams team’s first Grand Prix victory in its home race, at Silverstone in 1979, Clay Regazzoni surviving to take the chequered flag when team mate Alan Jones hit technical trouble. It was Jones, the aggressive, straight talking Aussie, who would win the team’s first World Championship for Drivers in 1980, Williams taking the Constructors’ Championship to make it a double.
There followed Keke Rosberg’s title in 1982, the Finn and his Williams-Honda car later entering Formula 1 folklore when he achieved a pole position at Silverstone in 1985 with an average lap speed of over 160mph. The 1980’s also brought us Williams’ duelling partnership of Britain’s Nigel Mansell and 1987 World Championship Nelson Piquet; the dawn of Mansell-mania, of ‘Red 5’, ‘our Nige’, of championship titles won and lost in dramatic fashion.
It was to Frank Williams that Mansell would return after a two year stint at Ferrari, finally claiming his World Championship title in 1992. By then every driver of note knew that it was a Williams car which could guarantee success, Alain Prost returning from a one year sabbatical to win his fourth World Championship in one of Frank’s cars in 1993.
That success caused Brazilian superstar Ayrton Senna to beat to a path to Williams’ Didcot factory the following year.
Tragedy first stalked Frank Williams during the early stages of his career as a Formula 1 team entrant when he lost his driver, friend and former housemate Piers Courage in the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix. But it was Senna’s death at the wheel of a Williams car, whilst leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which came as a particularly devastating blow to Frank and his team. Senna’s death would become a defining moment in Formula 1 history, robbing the sport of its supreme talent.
To make matters worse, this very human tragedy was followed by an agonising 13 year criminal trial in Italy during which time the Williams team’s renowned engineering prowess was called into question.
More happily for Frank a return to brighter days saw the team score further World Championship successes with Britain’s Damon Hill in 1996 and Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, but Renault’s withdrawal left the team without competitive engines for the next two years. There followed a six year agreement with BMW which started well and enabled Frank’s team to once again challenge, but ultimately the partnership never fulfilled its potential.
By the mid-2000’s the Williams team was beginning to struggle as the winning combination of funding, manufacturer support and A-list drivers eluded them. There was to be one more race victory, an unexpected win by Pastor Maldonado in the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, followed by something of an Indian summer at the start of Formula 1’s hybrid engine era when Mercedes power helped Williams to 3rd in the Constructors Championship in 2013 and 2014.
Frank had by then determined that his daughter Claire would take over the running of the team, underlining that in the harsh business that is Formula 1 the Williams team, at least, remained a family business.
The BAFTA winning 2017 documentary Williams reveals the degree to which Frank was supported and cared for by his wife Ginny throughout four decades of marriage. Her death, in March 2013, coincided with Claire’s rise to the role of Deputy Team Principal, a significant watershed for Frank in both his personal and professional life.
Ginny’s 1991 book A Different Kind of Life details the early years of their struggle following the car accident which left Frank tetraplegic, a man who had always been in a hurry paying a heavy price for an error whilst at the wheel of a rental car in France. An obsessive runner, Frank’s physical fitness undoubtedly helped him to survive the aftermath of the accident and his extensive injuries, while the same single minded focus and determination which had been used to such good effect in the cut throat world of Formula 1 helped him to battle profound disability.
Not one for emotion, Frank Williams did not allow himself to fall victim to self pity. Rather he felt himself fortunate, blessed even, as he returned to the helm of his beloved team and enjoyed the decades of success which lay ahead.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he told me when I interviewed him for the Sunday Express in the late 1980’s. “If I was a taxi driver in east London, living in a small two up two down house and unable to get around, I’d probably be gone within a couple of years. As it is, I am fortunate enough to have the ability to continue travelling the world, running my team, enjoying motor racing and doing the thing I love most. There’s no point in looking back, so I just look forward and feel fortunate to have so many good people around me.”