Sir Frank Williams and his family have relinquished their roles in the Formula 1 team that bears their name, thus ending over half a century of the family’s involvement in motorsport at the highest level.
The team’s slide from superpower to minnows has been painful to watch for anyone who witnessed Williams in their full-pomp and glory, the team Sir Frank Williams built from the ashes of several abortive ventures before then.
But when his team hit the sweetspot in the late seventies it became a winning machine that attracted some of the sport’s greatest drivers as the team wrote itself into the record books.
Frank’s story could fill several volumes, but the Williams website sums up their team principal in a nutshell: Frank is and always has been in love with motor racing, from running around at boarding school imagining he was a racing driver to hitting the track in a short-lived racing career – “I was always going off the road!”
Thereafter, turning his attention to running a racing outfit proved inspired and three years after setting up Frank Williams Racing Cars, he bought a Brabham F1 chassis and entered the 1969 Formula 1 campaign.
Fifty years later, he’s still at the helm of a Formula 1 outfit – but so much has happened since then. In 1970, his driver and dear friend Piers Courage died in the Dutch Grand Prix. It hit Frank hard.
“He was a great character,” says Frank. “He had superb manners and taste. Losing him was major loss. When I went to the funeral, all the drivers apart from one were present – and there were no dry eyes.”
Battling on, Frank found the money to keep racing, even conducting team business in a phone box after his office line had been disconnected because of unpaid bills. He ultimately sold the team to Walter Wolf, and though he stayed on as an employee, that didn’t last long with Frank joining forces with Patrick Head to set up a new Formula One team – Williams Grand Prix Engineering – in an empty carpet factory.
In only the team’s second full season, they won their first race – the 1979 British Grand Prix.
“I was very happy,” says Frank. “Hours after the race, my wife Ginny and I were sat in our caravan. It just felt surreal.”
The year after, Alan Jones – “he was mighty quick and also very amusing out of the car” – delivered Frank his first drivers’ title with Carlos Reutemann assisting in delivering the constructors’ championship, too.
But on 8 March 1986, everything changed. Frank had a car accident when driving from Paul Ricard to Nice airport, suffering injuries that would confine him to a wheelchair. He had no intention of giving up on F1, though.
Supported by Ginny, who played a key role both at home with the family and with the racing team, he was back at the helm nine months after the accident – and has been there ever since.
There was more tragedy for Williams in 1994 when Ayrton Senna died at the San Marino Grand Prix. “He was a very talented driver, utterly determined,” says Frank of Ayrton, a driver whom he had long wanted to race one of his cars. Since his death, all Williams cars have the Senna ‘S’.
Jacques Villeneuve won the drivers’ title in 1997, with the team collecting the constructors’ prize, making Williams the second most successful constructor in the history of Formula One – an accolade they still hold until today.
While Frank doesn’t travel to many races any more, he remains Team Principal of the team he created with Patrick and has every intention of continuing on for many years to come.
Last year in July, Williams celebrated 50 years as an F1 team, their patron was interviewed by Sky F1 about the milestone.
This is what Sir Frank had to say: “Fifty years in Formula One. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it very much.
“I can’t say I’ve loved every minute of it, because moments have been very difficult – I’ve lost my wife, I’ve lost drivers. But Formula One has been very good to me. I’ve always been nuts about speed, since when I was a boy, I’d drive around pretending I was a driver – that sort of nonsense.
“Patrick Head joining was significant, he was key in making this company what it is. We’ve had great success but there’s a well-known expression in F1: ‘You’re only as good as your last race.’
“We will keep on fighting – and I’m not going anywhere yet,” he insisted a year and a bit ago, perhaps before accepting the Dorilton Capital deal that will see his family depart their Grove Offices after the Italian Grand Prix.
Williams F1 World Championship titles over the years:
- World Champion (Constructors) in 1980, 1981, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997
- World Champion (Drivers) in 1980 (Alan Jones), 1982 (Keke Rosberg), 1987 (Nelson Piquet), 1992 (Nigel Mansell), 1993 (Alain Prost), 1996 (Damon Hill), 1997 (Jacques Villeneuve)
All that’s left to say is, thank you for the memories Sir Frank Williams. Legend.