Frank Williams had ambitions to be a racing driver, and was part of the ‘Formula Three circus’ of the late 1960s. To support his racing, he ‘wheeled and dealed’ in second-hand racing cars.
Eventually it dawned on Williams that he was going nowhere as a driver, but he couldn’t let go of motor racing. He therefore became an entrant and, in 1968, ran his close friend, Piers Courage, in a Formula 2 Brabham.
The role of entrant suited him, he enjoyed wheeling and dealing and, being a perfectionist, his car was always immaculate. In 1969, he ran Courage in Formula One, again in a Brabham, and the little team was rewarded with three second places.
These performances established Williams as a serious player and for 1970 he landed a deal to run what was, in essence, a works team for de Tomaso. The car wasn’t special, but the long-term prospects looked promising. Then Courage was killed in the Dutch GP. After that, de Tomaso lost interest and though the team continued to the end of the season, it was merely going through the motions.
For Williams, it was a devastating blow. Piers had been his best friend, yet he had to soldier on. The deep personal loss Williams felt coloured his relationship with every subsequent driver he employed.
At the end of the season, de Tomaso withdrew and Williams spent 1971 as a private entrant running March 711s. During the season he made plans to be a constructor and between 1972 and 1975 he ran his own team which was often publicly known by the name of the sponsor. Money was a constant worry and people who worked for him never knew when they arrived at work whether even their drawing boards would be in place, or had been seized by the bailiffs. At one stage, Williams was even forced to sell the carpets from his house and, the most bitter blow, his beloved Porsche 911.
During those four seasons, Williams scored only 12 points, and half of those came when Jacques Lafitte inherited second place at the 1975 German GP. In the pit-lane, Williams was known as ‘Wanker’ Williams.
In late 1975, Walter Wolf bought some of the assets of the defunct Hesketh team, and 60% of Williams. The new Wolf-Williams team ran Hesketh 308Cs, renamed FW05s, and they proved disastrous. Before the end of the season, Williams left and took the number two designer, Patrick Head with him.
During 1977, while Head settled down to design a new car, Williams ran paying drivers in a second-hand March 761. Then he pulled off a coup, by landing substantial sponsorship from Saudi Arabia. In typical Williams fashion, he had a car painted appropriately, trailed it to London and parked it outside the hotel where he was making his pitch. He had no need to speak in abstract terms, the car was outside the front door.
From that moment a new Williams team emerged. A single car, for Alan Jones, was run in 1978, the Australian only chosen because he was available and inexpensive. Williams thought that he was no more than a midfield runner, but Jones had other ideas. Though he scored points only three times, with a second place among them, he was a front runner all season. In the year of ground effect, Williams was frequently the top DFV car behind the Lotuses.
In 1979, the Williams FW07, a ground effect car, struggled at first and then became the class of the field. Its first win was at Silverstone and then it won three of the remaining six rounds. From being a joke in the pit-lane, Williams became a leading player, able to attract big money sponsors and the best drivers and technicians. In 1983, Williams entered a partnership with Honda, the first of several partnerships with major manufacturers.
By the beginning of the 1986 season, Williams had won 23 Grands Prix, and two Drivers’ and two Constructors’ Championships.
That same year, driving to the airport after a test session in France, Williams crashed his car and was terribly injured. His life hung in the balance and he emerged a quadriplegic, paralysed from the chest down.
That would have wrecked most men, and most teams, but Williams demonstrated the steely determination which had carried him through years of struggle. Further, he had built a team so strong that it could cope with his absence. Indeed, that year Williams won the Constructors’ Championship and Nigel Mansell came within a burst tyre of taking the drivers’ title.
A second Constructors’ Championship for Williams-Honda followed in 1987, and Nelson Piquet took the Drivers’ Championship, while Frank was appointed CBE in the honours list. Despite this, Honda withdrew its engines and provided them to McLaren instead. The most probable reason is that Honda did not believe that Frank Williams could continue to deliver the goods while being confined to a wheelchair.
There followed a year when Williams had to use customer Judd V8 engines, with predictable lack of success, but then the team announced a deal with Renault. It was to be a long-lived and hugely successful partnership.
The key to the team’s success has been the enduring partnership between Frank Williams and Patrick Head, which has no parallel in the history of Formula One. As a designer, Head showed a rare ability to keep his feet firmly on the ground, yet allow his imagination full reign. Further, he gathered around him a team of engineers of like mind, capable of exploring new avenues.
Until such devices were banned at the end of 1993 Williams set the standard in areas such as active suspension. Under Adrian Newey, the team’s aerodynamic package was also second to none. By the end of 1997, Williams had won 103 Grands Prix, taken pole position 107 times, had won nine Constructors’ Championship, and had provided the wherewithal for drivers to take their championship on seven occasions.
The death of Ayrton Senna in one of his cars in 1994 at San Marino, the legendary Brazilian’s third outing for the Grove outfit, hit Williams hard. Adding to the team’s grief Italian prosecutors sought to charge the team and Williams personally with manslaughter, the case dragging on for another decade.
In respect for the Brazilian, to this day Williams cars bear the famous Senna ‘S’ logo and though Senna failed to score a single point with the team, had he not perished it is almost certain that he would have added further titles to his tally such was the team’s dominance over the seasons that followed.
Williams regarded the Constructors’ Championship as paramount. Indeed, the team’s record with its treatment of drivers was uneven. Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill all left amid varying degrees of acrimony immediately after winning the title and there are other instances of drivers not flourishing at the team.
Williams’ great partnership with Renault came to an end after 1997 and for the next two years, the team had to fall back on Supertec customer engines, which saw it slip down the grid. The team also lost the services of its brilliant Chief Designer, Adrian Newey. Newey wanted a share in the company to secure his long-term commitment since he was being beguiled by other, very lucrative, offers. Frank Williams refused and Newey went to McLaren and McLaren straight away won two Drivers’ Championships and the 1998 Constructors’ Championship.
It must remain a matter of speculation how much Williams comparative decline, 1998-9, was due to having to use customer engines and losing its chief designer to one of its main rivals.
In 1999, Sir Frank Williams – a knighthood richly deserved – announced that his team was to enter a partnership with BMW from the beginning of 2000. With affecting modesty, both parties played down the possibility of success in the short-term, but it is clear that this was a partnership which was intended to last.
Though there was the odd win, the team was never to match the success of its golden era and with BMW subsequently buying Sauber, over the years that followed Williams partnered with Toyota and even Renault (again) but with little success, other than a one-off win for Pastor Maldonado in 2012 at Barcelona.
Around this time Williams stepped down from the board and effectively handed the reigns over to his daughter, Claire.
The following year, Williams was rocked by the passing of his wife, Virginia, whose book, A Different Kind of Life, details the struggles the family had endured whilst Sir Frank doggedly pursued his dream.
Despite Claire’s best efforts, Williams was no longer the team it was and as it regularly struggled alongside its fellow backmarkers those glory days of the late 90s seemed a life time ago.
In August 2020 it was announced that the team had been bought by the US investment group Dorilton Capital and though the team retained the name, over the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix Claire stepped down, thus leaving the Grove outfit without a Williams family member at the helm for the first time in 43 years.
Legend and icon are words used with abandon these days but in Sir Frank they are fully appropriate. Sir Frank built a team that remains the second most successful in terms of constructors’ titles and fourth, only to Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes in terms of drivers’ crowns.
In the age of ‘Drive to Survive’ few of the sport’s new fans will know about its roots or the men that established the teams their heroes race for, but Sir Frank Williams is at the top table in terms of men who shaped the sport and helped make it what it is today.
Today is another sad day in the history of our sport.
Sir Frank Williams motor sport icon.
To his family, Jonathan, Jamie and Claire, Pitpass and its readers send their sincere condolences.