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Sir Frank Williams: The motor-racing mastermind who took his team to F1’s summit

Sir Frank Williams: The motor-racing mastermind who took his team to F1’s summit
Williams became the longest-serving team boss in Formula One history.

Sir Frank Williams was one of the most remarkable figures in British sport.

Williams took his motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula One, overseeing 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.

Williams’ story is made all the more extraordinary by the horrific car crash he suffered in France which left him with injuries so devastating doctors considered turning off his life-support machine.

Sir Frank Williams during qualifying day for the 2013 Italian Grand Prix at the Autodromo di Monza in Monza (David Davies/PA)

But his wife Virginia ordered that her husband be kept alive and his sheer determination and courage – characteristics which personified his career – enabled him to continue with the love of his life, albeit from the confines of a wheelchair.

He would remain in his role as Williams team principal for a further 34 years before F1’s greatest family team was sold to an American investment group in August 2020 for £136million.

Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields on April 16, 1942 to an RAF officer and a headmistress. Educated at St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries, it was there where he became obsessed with cars following a ride in a Jaguar XK150.

A travelling salesman by day, Williams fulfilled his racing ambitions at the weekend and, aged just 24, he launched his own team, Frank Williams Racing Cars.

Four years later, they were competing in Formula Two, and with flatmate and closest friend Piers Courage behind the wheel, Williams graduated to F1 in 1969 using a second-hand Brabham.

But tragedy struck at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.

Williams, left, then the owner of the world championship-winning Saudia Leyland grand prix team, shakes hands with Frank Andrew, sales and marketing director of Leyland Vehicles Ltd (PA Archive)

Courage ran off the track, one of his front wheels hit his helmet, and his car burst into flames. Courage’s grizzly death in a car bearing his name left Williams devastated. Broke and with spiralling debts, he reluctantly sold 60 per cent of his team to Walter Wolf in 1975.

But Williams was not made to be a back-seat driver and, desperate for independence, he severed ties with the Canadian businessman.

He set up shop at an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire and signed a promising young engineer by the name of Patrick Head. The double act would go on to make grand prix history.

With Saudi Arabian funding – including from the Albilad hotel chain owned by Mohammed Bin Laden, the father of Osama Bin Laden – and the hiring of Australian driver Alan Jones Williams Grand Prix Engineering became a tour de force.

At the 1979 British Grand Prix, Jones registered Williams’ first pole position before team-mate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s maiden win a day later.

In 1980, Jones delivered Williams their first title. The team also won back-to-back constructors’ championships, while Keke Rosberg was crowned drivers’ champion in 1982. But, in 1986, Williams’ life would change forever.

Australia’s Alan Jones lifts the winners trophy after victory in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch aboard his Saudia Leyland Williams (PA)

Following a test at the Paul Ricard circuit in March, Williams set off on a 98-mile dash to Nice Airport in a rented Ford Sierra. Travelling through the windy roads at speed, Williams lost control and the car ended up on its roof following a 2.5-metre drop into a field.

Williams’ passenger, the team’s marketing manager Peter Windsor, escaped with minor injuries. But Williams suffered a spinal fracture which would leave him in the wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“I was late for a plane which I didn’t need to be late for because I got the French time mixed up with the English time,” explained Williams several years later.

“The roads were very bumpy, the hire car was not the world’s best, and suddenly I was off the road upside down and with a broken neck.

“It was very unfair on my family, particularly my wife, because of how my circumstances changed. In hindsight, it was a careless and a selfish thing to have done. Life went on, and I was able to continue, but it has been a handicap in the true sense of the word.”

Despite his life-changing injuries, Williams was back at the helm of his team within nine months. Over the ensuing 11 years, five further drivers’ championships – including those for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill – as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.

Williams never truly got over the tragic death of Ayrton Senna (PA)

But there would be more heartache for Williams when Ayrton Senna was killed in just his third race for the British team at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Speaking to the PA news agency on the 25th anniversary of the Brazilian’s death, Williams’ daughter, Claire, said: “Frank never spoke to anyone about it. But you can see the pain in his eyes every time he thinks about the accident.

“In the Williams film (released in 2017) there is a scene where Frank is at Ayrton’s funeral, and I have never seen my dad look like that. There is an extraordinary line where he is asked how he felt that day, and he just says: ‘Far from well’.

“I think that says it all. I am sure he felt far from well for many, many, many years, and still today he won’t talk about him.”

Williams was knighted in 1999 but his team were never able to replicate their heyday of the 1980s and 1990s. He stepped back in 2013, the year in which his wife died, allowing Claire to assume the day-to-day running of the team.

Claire Williams chats with her father Sir Frank (David Davies/PA)

Williams fought off pneumonia in 2016, but he has been an irregular fixture in the paddock for a number of years.

And, at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza last year, an historic sporting chapter was closed when the Williams family contested its 739th and concluding race after selling up to Dorilton Capital.

“Frank has been in Formula One a whole lot longer than most people in this paddock,” said Claire.

“My dad leaves an incredible legacy on this sport. We will always remember that and we will always be proud of that.”

Williams, whose death was announced on Sunday, was 79. He is survived by his three children, sons Jonathan and Jamie and daughter Claire, and grandchildren Ralph and Nathaniel.