Formula One will endure but it will surely never see the like of Sir Frank Williams again. Williams forged a racing legend, a team like no other, and did so against the odds. Single-minded, determined and on occasion ruthless, Williams bent F1 and life to his will, overcoming the greatest challenges, enjoying huge success and tragic loss, professional and personal. His death is marked by great sadness across the sport because for so many Williams embodied the very spirit of racing.
The tributes paid after Williams’ death, aged 79, on Sunday recognised with fondness and respect one of the most successful figures in F1 and one of most remarkable. The team he built from a warehouse in Didcot went on to win nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ titles. Only Ferrari have won more constructors’ titles and only Ferrari and McLaren have entered more races. Williams’ warehouse garagistas fashioned a place in the pantheon of the sport.
Williams’ exceptional achievement was to build this mighty outfit from such inauspicious beginnings and take it to extraordinary heights. In 2017, long after the team’s 80s and 90s heyday, 35,000 fans came to Silverstone just to see Williams’s cars put in some laps on the 40th anniversary of the team’s formation.
At the track that day former driver Damon Hill, who won the title with Williams in 1996, summed up why the team was so admired. “He has given his entire life to creating a team that every year tries to produce the best racing car,” said Hill. “That is his love and his passion and in that sense he is the closest we have to an Enzo Ferrari. Enzo was about the passion and the cars and Frank is absolutely as passionate.”
That passion was palpable, it drove him. He was an astute businessman, but that was only to serve the end of going racing. After seven years of struggle with his first team, Frank Williams Racing Cars, he started from scratch with Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977. The stories of the hand-to-mouth existence of the team in its early days are made more romantic by the contrast to the corporate behemoths of modern F1.
Williams confirmed later that he did conduct business from a public phone box after being cut off and his daughter Claire, who went on to take over the day-to-day running of team in 2013, remembered how, sent out for fish and chips, Williams returned instead with spark plugs.
Ken Tyrell, who enjoyed huge success with his own team in the 1970s, recognised something special. “There’s no one in this paddock who wants to succeed more than he does,” he said in 1974. “And if he ever gets himself financially organised, watch out …”
With the engineer Patrick Head on board as co-founder and a formidable designer, Williams proved him right. Alan Jones won their first title in 1980, followed by further constructors’ championships in 1982 and 1986. Having already defied the odds Williams would then do so again with much more at stake. In 1986, after the car accident in France that left him paralysed from the neck down, the doctors requested permission to switch off his life support machine. His wife Ginny refused, believing in her husband’s will to go on, and indeed he was far from finished.
Undaunted, he would never allow his disability to prevent him from racing with the same fierce competitive drive. Six weeks after the accident he was with his team, in a wheelchair, at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Nigel Mansell was driving for them at the time and would go on to win the title for Williams in 1992. He recognised that what Williams had created went beyond mere machinery and money, here were people inspired by their leader and he credited that with the team managing to continue to compete after the accident.
In those days the team struck a chord with a generation of F1 fans. They may not have been able to identify many team principals, but they all knew Williams. They also knew how uncompromising he was in pursuit of victory, not least with his drivers. Hill’s fondness remains despite being dropped by Williams after winning the title.
“They’re only employees, after all,” Williams said of his drivers. “All I care about is Williams Grand Prix Engineering and the points we earn. I don’t care who scores them.”
His daughter later said that Williams remained in constant pain after the accident. He also suffered great emotional tragedy through the death of his close friend, the driver Piers Courage, in an accident in 1970. Later, the death of Ayrton Senna in a Williams in 1994 was a burden Claire believes he carried for the rest of his life.
Yet he endured, fought on and raced on. The family sold the team in 2020 but Williams’ legacy will live long. He was impossible not to admire. Even as age and coping with his disability weathered him, Williams was often still in the paddock. His sharp eyes would be scanning timing screens and data still searching for the edge with which he and his team had not only defined an era of F1 but in a fashion that will always be singularly Williams.