Frank Williams: Legendary Formula One racing boss

Frank Williams: Legendary Formula One racing boss
In spite of an accident in 1986 that left him paralysed, Williams continued to preside over what became a hugely successful motor-racing team

Few men have made such a distinctive contribution to motor racing as Sir Frank Williams, who has died aged 79. Successfully emerging from the world of post-war British motor sport, he went on to become the longest-serving principal in Formula One history, despite facing considerable physical challenges. Able to attract the very best designers and the finest engineering talents, his independent team claimed sixteen titles, nine constructors’ awards and seven drivers’ championships between 1980 and 1997. Only Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes can boast more. Drivers Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve all won world crowns when at the wheel of a Williams car.

A native of the northeast, Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields, his father a wartime RAF pilot who flew Wellington bombers, his mother a special needs teacher. He was brought up by his grandparents following the break-up of his parents’ marriage. Educated initially in Liverpool, he later boarded at St Joseph’s College in Dumfries. Williams was a keen long-distance runner in his youth, and even at that time, car magazines tended to take precedence over his school books. This early passion for all things mechanical was confirmed when he was given a ride in a Jaguar XK150 by a Scottish bookmaker, the parent of a school friend. Leaving school aged 17, he had a variety of jobs. While working briefly as a salesman for Campbell’s Soup, he crashed his company car – not for the last time.

Williams began his own racing career in a tiny souped-up Austin A40 saloon, quickly progressing to Formula Three. However, as the accidents kept occurring courtesy of his fearless approach, he was persuaded that perhaps his future lay more in management than on the track. He formed Frank Williams Racing in 1967, initially competing in Formula Two and Formula Three. Two years later, having bought a second-hand Brabham and some off-the-shelf Cosworth engines, Williams entered the world of Formula One. In the cockpit was the debonair Old Etonian, son of the brewery family and perhaps the closest friend Williams ever had, Piers Courage. After taking two second places, one at Monte Carlo, Courage was tragically killed in June 1970 while competing in the Dutch Grand Prix.

Williams as team director before the United States Grand Prix West at the Long Beach circuit in California, in 1981

Williams was devastated by the tragedy but determined to carry on. Results, however, remained stubbornly poor, his cars regularly starting races from the rear of the grid. At the beginning of the 1976 season, the team was sold to the Canadian oil millionaire Walter Wolf, the cars now racing under the banner of Walter Wolf Racing. Williams found himself increasingly uncomfortable in this new corporate environment, and 12 months later he founded Williams Grand Prix Engineering, based initially in a derelict warehouse in Didcot and then in Grove, Oxfordshire. Joining him as his second in command was designer Patrick Head, whose input and expertise would prove pivotal in the coming years. After years of financial struggle, Williams also landed a much-needed sponsorship deal with Saudi Airlines.

Twelve months later, having made their debut at the Argentine Grand Prix in 1978, the team took a first win in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone courtesy of Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni, whose Australian counterpart Alan Jones completed four victories during the second half of the season. Double success came in 1980, when Alan Jones won the drivers’ title as the team claimed their inaugural constructers’ championship. Success continued in 1982, with Keke Rosberg claiming the individual title. After a couple of fallow years, having moved to turbo-charged V6 engines made by Honda, Williams were again a force to be reckoned with, ending a five-year wait to claim the 1986 constructors’ championship.

Nigel Mansell (R) with Williams in 1986

Amid all this success, Williams’s life would change irrevocably during that year. A mix-up over flight times saw Williams driving his Ford Sierra hire car from the Paul Ricard motor circuit to Marseille airport. He failed to negotiate a corner and hit a wall, rolling the car over and into a field. While his passenger, Peter Windsor, emerged unscathed, Williams was trapped under the crushed roof and was paralysed from the neck down. Doctors sought his wife’s permission for his life-support machine to be switched off. She refused. Six weeks later he appeared for the first time in his wheelchair at Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix, and was given a tumultuous welcome.

Williams during the Qantas Australian Grand Prix in 1999 at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne

Never displaying a trace of self-pity despite battling unimaginable physical difficulties, Williams was soon back at work, now directing operations from his wheelchair at the rear of the pits. He proceeded to become perhaps the oldest living tetraplegic, disability proving no match for the iron will of a man still more than capable of displaying an awesome intensity of purpose. The Williams team claimed more world titles after his accident than before it, coming to dominate the sport, particularly during the 1990s, capturing the constructers’ cup in 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997. The individual crown was brought home by Nelson Piquet in 1987, Nigel Mansell in 1992, Alain Prost in 1993, Damon Hill in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997.

Williams was decried by many as a man of flat-pack emotion, while to others he appeared aloof and remote. Like Hitchcock with his actors, Williams gave the impression of merely admiring his drivers rather than liking them. In 1994, this was put into tragic context when disaster struck his eponymous team. On 1 May that year, his lead driver, three times world champion Ayrton Senna, was killed on the seventh lap of the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, crashing into a wall at 165 mph. Senna’s death brought years of uncertainty for Williams, his partner Patrick Head, and car designer Adrian Newey. With the local prosecutor indicting each on manslaughter charges and seeking jail terms, the path to their eventual acquittal proved a difficult and tortuous one.

Williams was knighted in 1999. His wife, Virginia, universally known as Ginny, was for many years a familiar figure by his side at race meetings worldwide. They married in 1974, and early in their marriage she sold her flat to help keep the bailiffs from the door and her husband’s racing dream alive. She would later make headlines with an acclaimed book, poignantly titled A Different Kind of Life, in which she chronicled their life together. Two of their three children, Jamie and Claire, joined the family business, with Claire eventually taking over the reins from her father, keen to restore the team back to their early Nineties zenith. However, rising costs in an era now increasingly dominated by manufacturer-backed teams saw the company eventually sold to a New York investment house, Dorilton Capital, in 2020.

Virginia died in 2013. Williams is survived by his three children, Claire, Jonathan and Jamie.

Sir Frank Williams CBE, businessman and founder of the Williams Formula One team, born 16 April 1942, died 28 November 2021