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.”