Politics

Frank Williams, a motor racing mastermind


Sir Frank Williams was one of the most remarkable figures in British sport, a man who had to deal with tragedy and personal trauma as he carved out his Formula One legend from a wheelchair.

Williams, whose death at the age of 79 was announced on Sunday, took his famous motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula One.

He oversaw 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, all while becoming the longest-serving team boss in a cut-throat sport’s history.

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

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 working from a wheelchair.

He was Williams team principal for a further 34 years before F1’s greatest family team was sold to an American investment group in August 2020.

Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields in the north-east of England on April 16, 1942 to an RAF officer and a school headmistress.

Educated at St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries, it was there he became obsessed with cars following a ride in a Jaguar XK150.

A travelling salesman by day, he fulfilled his racing ambitions at the weekend and, aged just 24, 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 when Courage suffered a grizzly death in a crash which left Williams devastated.

Broke and with spiralling debts, he reluctantly sold 60 per cent of his team to Walter Wolf in 1975 but, desperate for independence, severed ties with the Canadian businessman and set up shop at an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

With a promising young engineer Patrick Head, Saudi Arabian funding and the hiring of an 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 teammate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s maiden win a day later.

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

But, in 1986, Williams’ life would change forever.

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, the car ended up on its roof following a 2.5-metre drop into a field and he suffered a spinal fracture which would leave him in the wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“It was very unfair on my family, particularly my wife, because of how my circumstances changed,” he said later.

“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.”

Remarkably, Williams was back at the helm within nine months and over the ensuing 11 years, five further drivers’ championships as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.

But there was 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.

Williams’ daughter, Claire, said: “You can see the pain in his eyes every time he thinks about the accident.”

Williams was knighted in 1999 but his team couldn’t 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.

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

Williams is survived by his three children, Claire and sons Jonathan and Jamie, and grandchildren Ralph and Nathaniel.



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