FRANK WILLIAMS – 50 YEARS IN FORMULA 1
Earlier this year we featured The Williams Team and their search for new ownership. In light of the news this week that they will be acquired by US based investment firm Dorilton Capital, we felt that it was timely to make the August 2020 Spotlight Feature all about the man whose name the team has proudly worn for over 40 years, Sir Frank Williams CBE.
Frank Williams was born and grew up in South Shields, County Durham to an RAF officer father, and teacher mother. Following the break-up of his parents’ marriage, he spent time living with his mother’s sister and her husband before being sent to boarding school at St Joseph’s College in Dumfries.
After leaving school Williams worked in a number of different jobs. He funded his early racing driving career in saloon cars by dealing in cars and racing spares as well as driving and hiring himself out as a jobbing mechanic to team owner Charles Lucas. It was clear to Frank that while driving was his ultimate passion, he didn’t have the raw talent needed to forge a successful career as a driver, and so committed his future to team ownership. Money earned as a Grocery Salesman eventually gave him his first experience as a team owner when he launched Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966. Like many others, his focus in the early days was not on ground up car design but making the best of “off the shelf” racing cars available to buy and modifying and tuning them.
In the following two years he ran cars in the lower formulae with drivers such as Tony Trimmer before reuniting with Piers Courage in 1968 for a season in F2. Courage was the heir to the famous brewing dynasty and had first met Frank when they were both driving for Charles Lucas. Courage had gone on to drive for Colin Chapman’s Lotus team as well as BRM and was building a reputation as a potential future world champion. Williams and Courage had in that time become good friends and when Frank decided to step up to Formula 1 in 1969, his friend Courage was the obvious choice to pilot his car.
Running a Brabham, their first season was successful with second place finishes at both Monaco and notably Watkins Glen where Courage finished behind winner Jochen Rindt and ahead of John Surtees in third. Courage had completely out driven both works Brabham’s piloted by Jack Brabham and Jacky Ickx. Brabham was rumoured to be furious with Williams as he’d originally sold Frank the car on the understanding that it would not be raced in Formula 1.
For 1970 Frank decided to work with DeTomaso, building a car to race in Formula 1 that season. The car proved to be heavy, slow, and unreliable, and as they headed to the fifth race of the season at Zandvoort, Williams and Courage were hoping for a change in fortunes. The race started well but midway through the race tragedy struck with the car suffered a front suspension failure causing the car to veer off the track at high speed hitting one of the circuits trademark sand dunes. The car burst into flames and, fuelled by the chassis’ magnesium construction, burned ferociously with Courage perishing inside the car.
The death of his friend hit Williams hard personally and Frank has been quoted on many occasions saying of Courage, “He was a great character. He had superb manners and taste. Losing him was a major loss. When I went to the funeral, all the drivers apart from one were present – and there were no dry eyes.”
The accident caused irreparable damage to Williams relationship with DeTomaso and in 1971 he raced with driver Henri Pescarolo in a chassis purchased from March. The team by this time had little money and the fabled story of Frank operating out of a public phone box as the office phones had been disconnected has passed in to F1 folklore.
For the 1972 season, Williams ran a new March car while the team also built its first ground up F1 car, part funded by Motul, the French oil business, and Italian toy firm Politoys. Hopes were high for the season but were immediately dashed when new Williams was badly damaged at the British Grand Prix in its first outing. The car was rebuilt but proved uncompetitive.
Frank refused to be beaten and even when his funding from Motul and Politoys was lost he kept pushing forward securing new backers for 1973 in ISO, the Italian car manufacturer, and tobacco giant Marlboro.
Between 1973 and 1975 the team went through a series of drivers, some saying it was almost like a revolving door, with 8 different drivers taking to the Williams car in 1973 alone. The team suffered further financial problems losing both ISO and Marlboro as sponsors mid-way through the in 1974 season. However, it was during this season that we saw the first of the Williams “FW” nomenclature, which survives to this day.
In all this motorsport mayhem Frank had been supported off the track by his long-term partner Virginia Berry and in 1974 Virginia and Frank were married.
With funds running out in 1976 Frank made the difficult decision to sell the team to Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf. Under the new name of Wolf-Williams Racing, Frank stayed on for a year before he found it impossible to continue working for Wolf and left the team taking designer, Patrick Head with him.
In 1977, Williams and Head found an empty carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire, and launched Williams Grand Prix Engineering.
Around the same time, Frank became aware that a Saudi Arabian consortium was looking to sponsor a Formula 1 team. With Saudi Royal Family backing the funding was potentially game changing. Williams was ahead of the game and flew to the Middle East to secure the deal. He returned with a multi-million dollar contract in his pocket before many teams had even got wind of the Saudi Arabian interest. The deal meant the cars would officially be entered as Saudia-Williams and the team renamed Saudia-Williams Racing team, while the company retained its name as Williams Grand Prix Engineering. The cars would also carry the FLY SAUDIA slogan prominently on the car.
Up until this point the team had been using modified March cars, but with the infusion of cash, Patrick Head could get down to designing the first of his many successful designs.
This coincided with the hiring of Australian driver Alan Jones. It’s widely acknowledged that aside from his close friend Piers Courage, Jones is Frank’s favourite Williams driver to this day. Their fully committed style was a feature of both drivers and one which perfectly exhibits all the qualities that the Williams team would become renowned for.
By the end of 1977 the FW07 was finished and ready for the 1978 season. The Saudi’s had high expectation and wanted to see their money well spent so turned up at the Didcot factory to see the car in all its Saudi liveried glory. Frank’s marketing genius came to the fore as he ordered the car to be fired up to the delight of the visitors looking on with their logos emblazoned across the car.
As the 1978 season progressed, Frank worked tirelessly to secure further funding. By this time his relationship with the Saudi’s had developed and other Middle Eastern businesses came aboard. With Alan Jones driving, the team were placing well but not winning and their sponsors were getting impatient. At Watkins Glen they got a timely boost when Jones drove to second place in the US Grand Prix.
By 1979 the money was flowing steadily into the team which enabled Frank to bring on a second driver, Clay Regazzoni, as well as more design resources. The team’s first win came when Regazzoni drove the Cosworth-powered Williams FW07B to victory at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. This would be Regazzoni’s last race win in Formula 1, being replaced by Carlos Reutemann for the 1980 season. His teammate Alan Jones went on to win four of the remaining six races of the 1979 season, keeping their Saudi backers happy and making him a firm favourite for the 1980 season.
The 1980 season saw the Williams team come of age. Alan Jones, was hot favourite to win the team’s first world title and with five wins and five further podium finishes he took the drivers title and Williams the constructors title.
Throughout the 80’s Williams cemented it’s reputation for building consistently competitive cars with three more constructors titles, and drivers world titles for Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet.
A key part of the winning was continued strong funding. This was built on Frank’s ethos that if you ask someone to sponsor your team you mustn’t just take the money and run. It’s also about building relationships after they have signed the cheque. Throughout his time working with his Saudi backers and afterwards he always made a point of proactively visiting them personally on multiple occasions during the year to provide updates and develop the partnerships. This became a cornerstone of the Williams Team’s success up to 1986 when everything in Frank’s life changed.
In early 1986, returning from pre-season testing at Paul Ricard, Frank was involved in a car accident. He was driving with his then team sponsorship manager Peter Windsor to Nice Airport when the incident happened. The car left the road rolling over and causing Frank to collide headfirst with the roof of the inside of the car. The impact on his spine caused spinal cord damage leaving him paralysed from the neck down. Williams had been at the circuit to watch the testing of the team’s new Williams FW11, but was returning to the airport to fly to London to compete in a fun run in London the next day.
The paralysis immediately hampered Frank’s ability to build relationships with his partners in person as he had previously done, but in his characteristic way he refused to be defeated and remained at the helm of the business and the team.
The team continued to dominate the 1986 season winning the constructors championship and very nearly the drivers title as well until Nigel Mansell suffered an iconic tyre blowout in Adelaide at the final race of the season.
1986 also brought the first of his two honours when he was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s new year honours list.
In 1991 Frank pulled another masterstroke that kept Williams at the front of the grid and at the forefront of the technology race too. Williams had a customer relationship with Max Mosley’s March Team during the 70’s and had a lot of respect for their technical department.
Between 1988 and 1990, under the new team name of Leyton House, the team on very modest budgets had developed a number of cars that had pace to compete with the front runners. The technical department was led by Adrian Newey.
Williams and Patrick Head both saw the potential that Newey’s designs with the right funding could bring to the team, and prised him away from Leyton House to become their lead designer. The decision proved to be the correct one as under Head and Newey’s technical leadership the team enjoyed further success with four Drivers’ and five Constructors’ Championships and Newey’s designs earned the team a reputation as innovators second only perhaps to that of Lotus in the 60’s and 70’s.
Frank had long wanted to see Ayrton Senna in one of his cars and in 1994 following Alain Prost’s retirement he got his wish. However, the banning of Williams’ technological advancements left the FW16 a tricky car to drive. Sadly, Senna’s time in the car ended prematurely just 4 races into the season at Imola, the tragedy of his death having a devastating impact on the team.
The car was impounded by the Italian legal authorities, subject to further investigation. There was criticism as to how the medical staff treated Senna at the scene and much debate as to the cause of the crash including negligence on the part of the Williams team. This caused Frank and other members of the team to be entangled for many years in Italian criminal court proceedings after prosecutors instigated manslaughter charges against them.
On 16 December 1997, Frank and five others were acquitted of the charges, as it was concluded that steering column failure was the probable cause of Senna’s crash; however, there was no proof of negligence on the part of the team.
To this day every Williams F1 car has carried a Senna ‘S’ on its livery in his honour and to symbolise the team’s ongoing support of one of Senna’s charities, the Instituto Ayrton Senna.
Further constructors’ championships were delivered in 1996 and 1997 as well as driver titles for Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. These wins further demonstrated Williams engineering consistency and ability to return to winning ways.
The end of 1997 also punctuated Williams’ period of success with the departure of both Renault as an engine supplier, and Adrian Newey leaving the team for McLaren.
In 1999 Frank was recognised again for his contribution to motorsport when he was awarded a Knighthood.
Away from the circuit in 2010 Frank suffered what some considered his greatest trial when Virginia, his wife of 36 years, was diagnosed with Cancer. Frank was with her for a further 3 years until her death in 2013 at just 66 years old.
In March 2012, Williams announced that Frank would be stepping down from the board of Williams F1 and would be replaced by his daughter Claire Williams, although he would still remain with the team in the role of team principal. This is a role he still holds to this day.
In 2019, Frank Williams celebrated 50 years in Formula 1 and his character and contribution to the sport are probably best summarised by him and has family marking the landmark in their own words.
Sir Frank Williams: “Fifty years in Formula One. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it very much. I can’t say I’ve loved every minute of it, because moments have been very difficult – I’ve lost my wife, I’ve lost drivers. But Formula One has been very good to me. I’ve always been nuts about speed, since when I was a boy, I’d drive around pretending I was a driver – that sort of nonsense. Patrick Head joining was significant, he was key in making this company what it is. We’ve had great success but there’s a well-known expression in F1: ‘You’re only as good as your last race.’ We will keep on fighting – and I’m not going anywhere yet.”
Jonathan Williams: “Dad is nothing if not determined. His accident was dramatic, life changing for all of us. We, as a family, had to adapt. Mum had to adapt but also rebuild Dad and around him. She was exceptional. Dad’s determination to return to Formula One never waned. He is a racer – and he’s always looking to the next race. His competitive nature is as strong as it’s ever been. What he has achieved is a great legacy for our family, for his grandchildren and for the fans. But the story continues – he’s not done yet.”
Claire Williams: “Dad has the most extraordinary tenacity and resilience, but I think it all comes down to his passion. He just loves F1, it’s his life. When he came out of boarding school, and that was quite a lonely period for him growing up, Formula One gave him a community. Certainly after the accident, it gave him something to live for, as much as his family did. Williams is what kept him going, which is why he refers to F1 as his oxygen. He lives and breathes for it, and continues to do so today.”
Jaime Williams: “I wouldn’t say it’s important for Dad to be the longest serving team boss in Formula One. He isn’t a man who dwells on his achievements. He will be thinking about what happens next, about the next grand prix. Dad’s strength is his perseverance. The things that he has managed to achieve in the face of adversity are extraordinary. It takes a special person to be able to keep going regardless of the things that life has thrown at him over the years. He kept going and he achieved great things because he did.”
(Quote sources: williamsf1.com)
Once the dust has settled at Williams we will be following up with a feature to see how the team will evolve under their new ownership.
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