It is with immense sadness that I must report the death on Sunday morning of Sir Frank Williams, at the age of 79. Frank was remarkable in many respects, not just as a Formula 1 team owner, and as a high profile tetraplegic, who inspired so many others with his courage in the face of adversity, but also as a close friend.
Frank never really got over the death of his wife Lady Virginia (Ginny) in 2013. They had been together for more than 40 years, through thick and thin, and Frank struggled to cope without her. Even before her death there were signs of mental deterioration. He would forget conversations that he had just had although his memories of the old days when he struggled to become a successful team owner remained clear. It was clear that he could no longer run the racing team and in 2012 he stepped down from the board, although he remained the team principal, while his daughter Claire took the role of deputy, and to all intents and purposes, took over the running of the team. The family finally ceased to be involved when the team was sold in September 2020.
In recent years Frank was very frail and nearly died on at least one occasion as a result of an infection that was difficult to shrug off.
Motor racing made him a wealthy man and his achievements were recognised in many different ways, with his appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) back in 1987. He was appointed a chevalier in France’s Légion d’Honneur, in recognition of his achievements with Renault engines and in 1999 he was knighted in the UK.
Williams was the son of a Royal Air Force officer and a teacher, who later became a headmistress. Born in South Shields on Tyneside in 1942, he was raised partly by his mother’s sister after his parents split up. He was then sent away to school at St Joseph’s College in Dumfries, Scotland, where he developed a passion for cars. He left school at 17 intent on becoming a racing driver and did a variety of jobs, while hitch-hiking to races all over the country. When he had enough money he bought an Austin A35 and started racing when he was 19. The car was wrecked when he crashed into a lamp-post in Salisbury and he acquired an A40 for 1962, although this was soon destroyed in a crash at Mallory Park. With his namesake Jonathan Williams he started a team in Formula Junior in 1963 but it was the other Williams who did the driving, while Frank worked as his mechanic. The pair travelled all over Europe.
Frank was racing again in 1964, sharing a Formula 3 Brabham with “Bubbles” Horsley, one of a group of young racers who shared a famous flat in Harrow, including Piers Courage, Charles Crichton-Stuart and Charles Lucas. After several years of trying to make a racing career while buying and selling racing car parts, mainly in Europe, Frank decided that he was more likely to succeed as a team owner and established Frank Williams Racing Cars in rented premises in Slough.
In October 1967, Williams made his debut as team owner, running Piers Courage in a Brabham BT21 at Brands Hatch. In 1968 he ran Courage in Formula 2, while running an F3 car for Richard Burton and he later ran Tetsu Ikuzawa and Tony Trimmer in F3 with some success.
In 1969 Williams bought an ex-factory Brabham Formula 1 car and entered it in selected races for Courage. The team scored two second places that year, while also running cars in F2 and F3.
After this promising start the ambitious Williams went into partnership with Alessandro de Tomaso for 1970, running Courage in a Giampaolo Dallara-designed de Tomaso F1 car.
Sadly Courage crashed at Zandvoort that summer and was killed, leaving Frank bereft. He kept the team going as best he could and in 1971 acquired a March F1 chassis for Henri Pescarolo and a year later expanded the operation to run a second car for Carlos Pace.
He was still keen to build his own cars and the first Williams-built F1 car appeared in 1972, although the Len Bailey-designed Politoys FX3 was destroyed by Pescarolo on its first outing.
For 1973 Williams found backing for two years from Marlboro and the Italian sports car company Iso, but not all the money arrived.
Williams struggled through the next three seasons with his financial situation becoming more and more difficult before he was finally forced to go into partnership with Austro-Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf for the 1976 season.
He had lost control of his old team and when he was dropped as team manager he quit and early in 1977 started Williams Grand Prix Engineering with a young engineer from Wolf called Patrick Head. They set up shop in an old carpet warehouse in Didcot and acquired an old March F1 car, which was driven by Patrick Neve, who had funding from the Belgian Belle-Vue brewery.
The new organisation began to build its own cars with money coming in thanks to Crichton-Stuart, who managed to find some funding from Saudia Airlines. The Saudia Williams team ran Head’s FW06 in 1978 for Alan Jones and there were some promising results and in 1979 the team expanded to two cars. Head’s FW07 was a much better car and with some aerodynamic tweaks it became competitive in the hands of Jones and Clay Regazzoni.
It was the Swiss driver who scored the first Williams victory at Silverstone in 1979, after Jones retired from the race, but it was the Australian who followed up with a string of victories and in 1980 he took the World Championship title. Williams dominated the Constructors’ Championship but the following year Jones and his team mate Carlos Reutemann fell out over team orders which Reutemann ignored and so the Argentine became the team leader although both men grew so disenchanted that they quit F1 that year and Williams hired Keke Rosberg and Derek Daly.
The team sill required funding and in 1980 it was agreed that Williams would build the Metro 6R4 rally car for Austin Rover.
Rosberg managed to win the 1982 Formula 1 World Championship despite winning only one race and then in 1983 the team began a relationship with Honda. It was disappointing at first but it would lead to Constructors’ World Championship success in 1986 and 1987, with Nelson Piquet taking the 1987 Drivers’ title.
In March 1986, however, rushing to get an airport after a test at Paul Ricard, Frank rolled his hire car and was paralyzed. He was not expected to survive but Frank refused to give up.
Embarking on what he called “a different kind of life” he was soon back to racing. The accident led to Honda deciding to switch to McLaren and Williams was left to run Judd engines in 1988 but then Frank struck a deal with Renault for its new V10 engines in 1989.
The Williams-Renault partnership was even more successful than the deal with Honda with the team winning a string of World Championships in the early 1990s with Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. There followed the terrible accident at Imola in 1994 that killed the great Ayrton Senna, but the team bounced back to win championships with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1996 and 1997.
In the autumn of 1994 Williams and Renault decided to enter the British Touring Car Championship with the Laguna. Alain Menu and Will Hoy both won races and Menu finished runner-up, giving Renault the Manufacturers’ Championship. The team would win all three BTCC titles in 1997. The programme would continue until the end of 1999 but by then Williams was working with BMW, building a sports car that would win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1999.
The relationship with BMW came close to winning the F1 World Championship but th German firm then decided to do its own thing and Williams began to slip back on the grid. The team tried new management as Frank felt it was needed, but the slide continued.
The passion that drove Frank to battle through so much adversity lived on, even through the worst times and Frank remained as enthusiastic and fascinated as ever. He was in awe of the great drivers and one of his happiest days was to be driven around Silverstone in 2019 by Lewis Hamilton.
However, the team lives on and things are finally on the up, the goal being to put the Williams name back where it belongs in F1.
“The Williams Racing team is truly saddened by the passing of our founder Sir Frank Williams,” said team boss Jost Capito. “Sir Frank was a legend and icon of our sport. His passing marks the end of an era for our team and for the sport of Formula 1. He was one of a kind and a true pioneer. Despite considerable adversity in his life, he led our team to 16 World Championships making us one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport. His values including integrity, teamwork and a fierce independence and determination, remain the core ethos of our team and are his legacy, as is the Williams family name under which we proudly race. Our thoughts are with the Williams family at this difficult time.”