Sir Frank Williams, who has died at the age of 79, leaves a tremendous legacy, having founded one of the most successful teams in the history of Formula 1.
The team founder’s path to the sport began after he was bitten by the motorsport bug at school and hitchhiked his way to the 1958 British Grand Prix. Williams entered an Austin A35 to a race at Mallory Park but spun out early on in the wet conditions, whereupon he emerged from his car to meet Jonathan Williams. The pair struck up a conversation, quickly became friends and Williams’ namesake later introduced him to one of his future drivers, Piers Courage.
Williams scraped by in the early sixties as a combination of driver and mechanic, though he zest for speed meant he often inflicted an expensive toll on his machinery. By the second half of the sixties he was doing better business buying and selling parts than competing, so driving increasingly took a back seat.
By 1968 Frank Williams Racing Ltd had expanded from a series of lock-ups to dedicated premises in Slough. Having successfully run a Formula 3 car for Courage as a one-off, Williams entered him in the first of a series of Formula 2 races that year, in a Brabham which had been ordered for a customer who then chose not to purchase it. The car was dark blue. Courage was unable to commit to the full season as he was also racing in Formula 1 for BRM, so for the Monza round Jonathan Williams stepped in and won, giving Williams his first victory as an entrant.
They stepped up to Formula 1 the following year with a Brabham BT26 chassis. After a few unsuccessful non-championship outings and a retirement on their world championship debut at Montjuich Park in Spain, Courage brought joy to the team with a classy drive to second place in Monaco. He repeated the result later in the year at Watkins Glen, and enjoyed more success in their F2 outings.
Late in the year Williams did a deal with Alessandro de Tomaso to run one of his cars, designed by Gianpaolo Dallara, in 1970. But the season began poorly and took a terrible turn at Zandvoort. Courage crashed on the 23rd lap, the car exploded into flames and he was killed.
Williams admitted he was “heartbroken” by the death of a friend and driver he “worshipped”. Nonetheless he ploughed on after the tragedy, though the years which followed were arduous, filled with false starts, mounting debts and frustrations as a succession of chassis projects failed to get off the ground.
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Despite Jacques Laffite delivering a timely return to the podium at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 1975, Williams’ financial woes were becoming increasingly serious, and he sold 60% of the team to Walter Wolf in order to settle its debts. However after an unhappy 1976 in which he felt increasingly sidelined, Williams and his new hire – designer Patrick Head – sold the rest of his team and started from scratch again. His new team was called Williams Grand Prix Engineering.
A March was entered for Belgian pay-driver Patrick Neve throughout 1977, but for 1978 the team produced its own car, designed by Head. They showed potential from the off, Alan Jones qualifying 14th for the season-opener and eighth at the second round. At the third race in Kyalami he raced to a useful fourth from 18th on the grid. Second at Watkins Glen underlined their potential.
In the second half of 1979 Jones was the driver to beat. Williams had expanded to two cars and Clay Regazzoni scored a popular first win for the team at Silverstone, then Jones triumphed in four of the six remaining races. He parlayed that into a successful title bid in 1980. Another championship should have followed in 1981, but Jones and Reutemann fell out, and the latter missed his chance to clinch the title at Las Vegas. Keke Rosberg delivered another title with the team the following year, however.
Within a few years Frank Williams’ team had gone from nothing to multiple world champions. However following their success with Cosworth’s ubiquitous normally-aspirated DFV, it had become clear to him the team needed a turbo engine to contend with the likes of Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren. He did a deal with Honda in early 1983, but it wasn’t until the second half of 1985 that the improving engines made Williams a regular race-winning force again. With two-times world champion Nelson Piquet arriving from Brabham to join Nigel Mansell for 1986, the way was cleared for Williams to return to their championship-contending days.
But they would do so without their founder at the helm. Returning from a test session at Paul Ricard on March 8th, 1986, Williams crashed his Ford Sierra and suffered serious spinal injuries. A long period of recuperation followed, though he never regained the use of his arms and legs.
His team made a fine start to the season in his absence and went on to clinch the constructors championship. But there was no fairytale double-title, as Mansell and Piquet took enough points from each other for Alain Prost to remain in contention, and after Mansell’s left-rear tyre exploded in the season finale at Adelaide the McLaren driver stunningly grabbed the title.
Williams’ team were back on top the following year, sweeping both titles, but Piquet and Honda left at the end of the year. Undaunted, he agreed a new deal with Renault to use their normally aspirated engines once turbos were banned at the end of 1988. The astute hiring of Adrian Newey from March and Mansell’s return from a two-year stint at Ferrari meant the team were ready for another title tilt in 1991. They fell narrowly short, Ayrton Senna and McLaren prevailing again.
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But in 1992 Frank Williams’ team reached stunning levels of dominance with the active suspension FW14B. It and its successor, the FW15C, were staggeringly technological leaps beyond what the opposition had devised, regularly whole seconds per lap faster than anything else. Mansell won the 1992 title at a canter, yet in bizarre circumstances both he and team mate Riccardo Patrese were gone at the end of the season, Williams having balked at the British star’s demands. Therefore Prost stepped into the Williams for 1993 and took his final title, accompanied by Damon Hill.
For 1994 Senna replace Prost but Williams faced a new threat as much of the technology they had perfected in previous seasons was suddenly outlawed. The introduction of in-race refuelling introduced a new tactical variable they were slow to master. Then at Imola came a deep shock to the team and the motorsport world: Senna speared off the track while leading the San Marino Grand Prix and was killed.
The tragic death of the sport’s greatest star in one of his cars was amplified for Williams as he and other members faced a series of legal cases over the crash, which continued in one form or another until 2005. Williams was acquitted; to this day the team’s cars carry logos in tribute to Senna. They added another constructors’ title in 1994, though Hill missed out on the drivers’ title following a controversial collision with Michael Schumacher. In 1996, while on his way to the title, Hill like Mansell discovered Williams’ unsentimental side, as he was shown the door.
The 1997 season saw the most recent championship success for Williams to date. Jacques Villeneuve resisted a late attack from Schumacher to clinch the crown. But with Newey off to McLaren and Renault departing the sport, the team’s form receded over the following years. Nonetheless, Williams had already made arrangements for the future, signing in 1997 a deal to use BMW engines from 2000.
The partnership began promisingly. Initially on the heavy side, the Munich engines soon proved astonishingly powerful, and in 2001 Williams ended their four-year wait for a win. Juan Pablo Montoya emerged as a title contender in 2003, but a controversial mid-season change to the tyre regulations forced Williams’ supplier Michelin into changes which played into the hands of Bridgestone-shod rivals Ferrari. While Schumacher and Ferrari extended their dominance the following year, BMW began to look elsewhere, and eventually bought into the Sauber team.
That marked the end for Williams as a works team, and in the years since they seldom recaptured their competitive highs. They nonetheless ushered several major names into the sport including Nico Rosberg, Valtteri Bottas and, latterly, George Russell, who is poised to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes next year. Though Pastor Maldonado, who brought significant sums from Venezuela to the team from 2011, would not be counted among them, he nonetheless achieved Williams’ most recent victory to date at the Circuit de Catalunya nine years ago.
That year Williams ceded day-to-day control of his team to his daughter Claire. In 2013 Williams’ wife Virginia passed away, having been diagnosed with cancer three years earlier. She helped finance his early forays into motor racing and wrote an account of the aftermath of the crash which paralysed him in her 1991 book A Different Kind of Life.
After an unsuccessful spell and facing growing financial challenges amplified by the 2020 pandemic, the team was sold to current owners Dorilton Capital early last year. its new owners wisely chose to leave in place a name which, to Formula 1 fans of the eighties and nineties, was associated with some of the most successful and dominant cars the sport as ever seen.
Sir Frank Williams, 79, passed away on November 28th 2021 and is survived by his children Jonathan, Claire and Jaime.