About FW…

Frank Williams was always a bit of a “hard nut” until you got to know him. If you went near him with a microphone he would stop behaving like Frank and started saying what we was supposed to say, which meant that few intrviews gave anything away. There was a kind side to him that was often ignored and many examples of his kindness to people who suffered disabilities, which did much to inspire them to fight back. But there were other stories too where the real Frank would emerge. Here is one such story, which I wrote back in 2006.

“Twenty seven summers ago there was a day which, with the benefit of hindsight, was a pivotal one in my existence. Everything happened on the same day. It was my eighteenth birthday and that happened to coincide with the day that I left school. And, by chance, it also happened to be the day of the British Grand Prix. As a last birthday treat of youth, my parents took me to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. My first motor race. That day we stood (uncomfortably, I recall) on a mound of earth at Becketts, watching the action. Alan Jones led the race in his Williams FW07 but something mechanical went wrong and he disappeared halfway through the race, leaving the race to his team mate Clay Regazzoni. It was Williams’s first Grand Prix victory.

“I have been a fan of the Williams team ever since. They know how to go racing and do things properly. I am still a fan and now I count myself lucky to be a friend of Sir Frank Williams as well.

“Before the corporate days of BMW a Williams new car launch was tea and biscuits in the garage at a racing circuit, which was exactly what we journalists needed. We could talk to the people and did not have to worry about the hoop-la and dancing girls which some teams felt the need to employ. Things have changed and nowadays the press corps is simply too big to fit into one garage and so Williams hit on a new idea of having a proper sit-down lunch, in a nice atmosphere in the warm and familiar atmosphere of the Williams Collection, where one is surrounded by many old friends (the cars). This was very civilised and gave the event a very homely feel (deliberate I am sure). This was underlined by the team’s press pack which featured family snaps of team members when they were young made up like a photo album.

“If the truth be told, I was not planning to go to the launch because these events are rarely cost-effective for freelance journalists and almost all the information is available on the web within minutes of a car being launched and with one-to-one interviews these days so restricted there is no good reason to go, except to catch up with one’s pals. The thing was that it was also my son’s 12th birthday and I did not wish to leave before the dawn and come back late in the night and miss the whole day with him. You only get one 12th birthday.

“So one day, while chatting to Frank on the phone I mentioned that I was not coming to the launch. He would not hear of it. If it was my son’s birthday then Frank Williams was going to help out. Young William Saward must come to the launch as well – as Frank Williams’s personal guest.

“You might think that having a father who is an F1 journalist and a mother who is the press officer of the French Grand Prix, young William would be blase about such things but in reality he has been to only one race meeting in his life and was too young to remember that. Frank remembered the visit perhaps because the then four-year-old William did what kids do and said the first thing that leapt to mind when faced with a man in wheelchair.

“What happened to your legs?” he said.

Frank patiently explained that he had had an accident and that his legs did not work any more. The kid nodded sagely. That made sense.

Eight years later we turn up at Grove and young William was impressed.

“This doesn’t look like a factory,” he says.

“When he sees a box hedge sculpture of a racing car, complete with mechanics (a work of art if one knows about horticultural things) he says “Cool” which is the last thing I would have imagined. Then he meets all Dad’s friends, has his hand crushed by the handshake of the tall Australian racing driver, but is impressed by the cars in the museum, the windtunnel models and particularly the scale model of the whole Williams factory – which would make a great thing to fight model tank battles on. With this in mind I introduce young William to Frank’s chief executive Chris Chapple, who used to be a Royal Marine Commando. William is impressed by that. And then we sit down for lunch and we find ourselves sitting on Frank’s table (which is a nice gesture) and when another journalist fails to show up William moves seats and ends up sitting next to Frank and the two chatter away in French and English.

“When you try to explain to kids that they are doing things that millions of people around the world would die for, they never understand. It is part of their charm. There are not impressed by fame and fortune.

“The new car is unveiled. What did young William think of that?

“F1 cars all look the same,” he says.

“A point for the rule-makers to take on board.

“Later we have some photographs taken around the Conference Centre. And, for one photo, William sits on the front wheel of the car in the foyer.

“That’s the car that won Williams’s first Grand Prix,” says the Williams man. “The actual car.”

“Yes,” I said. “I was there. It was my birthday treat.”

38 thoughts on “About FW…

  1. A very nice memory for you and your son – I have a memory from 1978 – the year I left school – I worked serving fuel in a Petrol station on the A34 during the holidays and the the Saudia Williams Transporter, with its now iconic livery used to pull in and fill up with Diesel – I was impressed by the presentation – always spotless and gleaming. I was applying for positions as an apprentice engineer and decided to write to Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd. – I received a reply not only from Patrick Head but also from Frank – explaining that they couldn’t take an apprentice at the moment, but also what I should do to gain suitable experience etc. – my engineering life took an alternative direction but that letter always stuck in my mind as the most professional response I ever got from applying for a job. It also made me a Williams supporter ever since and I have had a great relationship with the team over the years. Today is a sad day but the world for me is a much better place for having the likes of SFW in it.

  2. Many years ago whilst promoting a hotel in Oxfordshire I cheekily asked Frank if I could borrow an F1 car to use in the PR. The car was duly delivered on the day, nothing asked in return. That is the true Frank, generous.

  3. Great story, brilliantly observed and told.
    I especially loved how you brought it right back to the beginning at the very end.

  4. What a delightful tale! Cheered up a rather dull day, having not long heard the news . . . oddly, the third person of my acquaintance with the surname Williams to pass within the past eight days, two on the other side of the Atlantic. Chin up, Joe – hope you’re keeping well . . .

  5. Lovely story Joe, like the others have said here.
    Those are the memories truly work keeping. Thank you for sharing with us.

  6. Ah, Joe, you always manage to leave me with goosebumps when you post stories of this nature. So sad we have to say good-bye to Sir Frank, but so thankful for this – and so many – memories. Thank you!

  7. Since waking to this news at 5am here in NZ, I have now read several tributes to FW – but I won’t read a better one than this.

  8. I worked in the Williams Design office for 6 months from September 2019. Staying away from home during the week, I worked late each evening. At around 8.30 each evening, Sir Frank would tour the design office on his way down to production and race bays. He would stop by the desks of all us ‘stragglers’ and chat. Nobody was left out. He would ask what we were working on, how late we were staying and how far we had to go home. When I would tell him I was in lodgings, he would give a cheeky grin and ask after the landlady. 😁 Of my 25 years in the sport with Stewart, Jaguar and Red Bull, this is my favourite memory that I recall the most. He cared about his team and I’m proud to have been a very small part of it. RIP Sir Frank Williams

    1. What a lovely story, thanks for sharing. Repeated heartwarming stories from so many about what a thoroughly decent human being he was.

  9. Sad day but a wonderful life, not just well lived but for having done so in spite of the most appalling injuries.
    I first met Frank when I went to the Slough “HQ” to buy a BT21B in January 1968. The car duly came to me a couple of months later, absolutely immaculate and I enjoyed a years reasonably successful racing handicapped by having too demanding a job and a very small budget necessitating my doing the “engineering”. I still have the chassis plate. From time to time I went to Slough from my Coventry workplace to make use of the level pad to set up the suspension and got to know Frank quite well in his beautifully decorated house designed by Sally Courage. Various racers would frequently drop in and Tony Trimmer and Howden Ganley were both always there. He was always very charming and from the get go managed to make a pound stretch a very long way. The date given for his purchase of a F1 Brabham is always given as 1969 but I remember the car being there in 1968, looked after by a single Aussi mechanic. Times have changed.
    Many years later I asked if my son could do his post GCSE work experience at Didcot. Frank charmingly said couldn’t be done but issued an invitation to Grove a little later on. Wise decision by him the young man visiting another race workshop a few days later asked the function of a particular button on the dash and learned when the fire extinguisher detonated !
    Frank’s place in the history of F1 is immortal and ranks at the very highest level in the sport.

  10. I love the way he went from being known as a crappy “W***er Williams” privateer to someone that totally dominated the sport. Thanks largely to money, that rarely happens in sport and would simply be impossible in F1 now.

  11. What a beautiful story! I was very sad to read yesterday of Sir Frank’s passing; as others have said above me, this is the loveliest tribute to him I have read.

    I’m very sorry for your personal loss Joe – again, as others have said I hope you have time to look after your own emotional needs this week.

  12. My favourite photo of Frank Williams illustrates his Foreword in Adam Cooper’s wonderful biography of Piers Courage. Taken in November 1968 with FF, F3, F2 and the Brabham BT24 it is a classic.

  13. Reading this instantly jogged my memory, of what I did that summer when Clay won for Williams. I know, I’ll turn a vacation in Europe into a trip to the British GP. Not knowing how many people would actually crowd the facility, I bought a general admit ticket, stood on a bank at Woodcote, and was so disappointed that I couldn’t see a damned thing. Took a chance to the track office, where a young couple had just turned in an extra ticket.. I scooped it up, and was surprised to find it was on the start finish line. The rest, history, remains as a pleasant experience. I thanked the couple who had the ticket, saw a great race, and became an instant Williams supporter. RIP, Sir Frank.

  14. When I saw the headline I was worried it was about the last apartheid leader of South Africa, slaphead FW de Klerk.

    What a lovely story. Frank WIlliams really was from a different age.

    Your son may not have thought it a big deal then. I’m pretty sure he does now.

  15. What a touching story Joe, William writes with same panache as his Dad

    Hope to catch up in Abu Dhabi, I’ve missed you and certainly missed Friday breakfast at Williams


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