Frank Williams is no longer with us. On 28 November the last true legend of F1 passed away, someone who since the early 70’s worked with everyone with a name in the sport he loved and was one of its most respected personalities. Motorsport was Frank’s life-long passion from the day back in the 50’s when a friend gave him a ride in his Jaguar XK 150, but unlike many others who spent their life in F1, for many years he didn’t have the money to support the dream. In fact, at that beginning he had no money at all. With that as starting point, how he made it to a career including nine constructor championships and seven driver championships is a true wonder and a great story that I’m happy to tell today in memory of the great man!
Frank’s mother was a teacher and his father an RAF pilot, but his parents divorced early in Frank’s life. His mother did however still manage to scrap together enough money to send him to a posh boarding school where he learnt some social skills that would serve him well later. Outside of school the only thing on Frank’s mind was racing and he worked every week to have enough money on the weekends to go and watch the races on the emerging British racing scene. His initiatives notably included selling Campbell soup and vegetables and fruits from a van, but he also worked as a mechanic and got the opportunity here and there to drive a race, enough to show that although ambitious, he would never make a career as an F1 driver. And then he met Piers Courage, heir of the Courage Breweries, full of money and a far more promising driver than Frank.
With Piers’ money and with him as driver, Frank organized a team that raced first in F3 and then in F2. Courage moved on to F1 but being a bit accident-prone, it didn’t take long until no team wanted him as a driver. Frank had stayed in F2 but came to Piers’ rescue by organizing second-hand F1 cars that allowed him to claim two second places in Monaco and Watkins Glen in 1969. Unfortunately Piers would be killed in 1970 racing a Williams car. This devastated Frank but at the same time he had now entered F1 for good, and he was not about to give up on his dream. It was however without much success that he would scrap by in F1 until the mid-70’s without neither money nor success.
In 1975 two decisive things happened. First Frank found some money again, this time through the oil man Walther Wolf. Second, he met Patrick Head, at the time working at Lola. Head was a gifted designer but also an engineer and thereby the profile Frank had been missing. When Walther Wolf decided to take over Frank’s whole team in 1976, the only thing the heavily indebted Frank could do about it was to leave, and so he did. He set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering the following year and shortly thereafter convinced Patrick Head to join him. Frank didn’t know it yet, but with new sponsor money coming in, this time from Saudi Arabia, things were about to look up.
Willams’ period of glory started there and then and only ended around 20 years later. The team became the leading team in F1’s and made world champions of drivers including Keke Rosberg, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. Nelson Piquet won his third title in a Williams and next to the drivers, the team was also the starting point for other well-known names in F1, including Ross Brawn, later the technical director of both Benetton and Ferrari, and Adrian Newey, today the Chief Technical Officer of Red Bull. All these and others passed through Williams, all of them witnessed Frank’s energy, passion and deep-going love for the sport. Under Frank’s leadership, the Williams team would win nine construction and seven drivers’ championships, and a total of 114 races.
It wasn’t all happy days however and as so often in F1, success and tragedy are never far apart. Ayrton Senna, a driver Frank worshipped as a God, was in a Williams when he was killed at Imola in 1994. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Frank was charged personally for manslaughter and was only acquitted several years later. Eight years before that the tragedy had also hit him personally when on an inspired drive back from testing at Paul Ricard in France he lost control of his car, broke his neck and spent a few weeks fighting for his life in a French hospital. To everyone’s surprise Frank was back in the paddock only a few months later but spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair as a tetraplegic. In 2012 Frank’s daughter Claire formally took over as head of the Williams team, but Frank was never far away.
His personal involvment with the Williams team completely ceased in September 2020 when the team was sold. As we know Frank didn’t like working for other people as employers, but he loved working for his people, not only the drivers but everyone in the team. In Frank’s eyes, everyone was as important.
With Frank William’s passing, F1 has lost a great champion and the last true representative of the golden era of F1. It’s a privilege to have lived through that era of the sport growing up, and it wouldn’t have been the same without Sir Frank Williams!