Remembering Sir Frank Williams, 1942-2021

Rainer Schlegelmilch/Motorsport Images

Remembering Sir Frank Williams, 1942-2021

Formula 1

Remembering Sir Frank Williams, 1942-2021


A Formula 1 team is an exclusive entity. There are just 10 on the grid, and to run one is an enormous achievement for anyone. To set one up that bears your name even more so. For it to race for over three decades (and counting) and be one of the most successful of all time is simply incredible.

So when you can also boast being the longest-serving team principal in F1 history on top of all that? That’s where legendary status is not even up for debate.

Sir Frank Williams (pictured at left above in 1981 with Bernie Ecclestone — then a rival F1 team owner), one of the most astonishing people F1 has ever seen, has died at the age of 79. But what a legacy he leaves behind.

Born in South Shields, near Newcastle in northeast England, Williams was sent to boarding school in Scotland at the age of eight and attributed that experience — where there was a near 50-50 split in Scottish and English pupils — to his learning of what rivalries were. It would help develop a competitive spirit that would lead him eventually to the pinnacle of motor racing.

Williams was keen to race himself, starting out in an Austin A35 in the early 1960s, but struggled to do so financially and soon used his skills as a traveling salesman to expand his plans in motorsport as he started building a business selling racing cars and spares. That grounding had seen him become friends with other up-and-coming drivers of a similar age — including Piers Courage, with whom he would work as a mechanic for in Formula Junior — and after establishing Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966, progression to F1 was rapid.

Williams ran Courage in Formula 2 in 1968 and then purchased a Brabham to run Courage in F1 the following year.

With Courage finishing second in Monaco and the USA, the Williams outfit was making people sit up and take notice, to such an extent that Alessandro de Tomaso went into partnership with Williams, allowing the team to run a Gian Paolo Dallara-designed chassis for the 1970 season.

But tragedy struck when Courage crashed and died at Zandvoort that year. It hit Williams hard, but did not stop him racing and when the de Tomaso relationship ended after just one season he purchased a March chassis to run Henri Pescarolo in, before expanding to two cars in 1972 with Carlos Pace.

Williams married Virginia (Ginny) in 1974 and his wife became a huge part of the Williams F1 story, helping battle through the loss of team sponsors Marlboro and Iso that year. Williams had just built its own in-house chassis but was struggling financially, to such an extent that at times he had to carry out business from a nearby public phone box because the line to the factory had been cut off.

When he was introduced to Canadian billionaire Walter Wolf, it appeared Williams’ prayers had been answered as the funds were there to push the team forward. But after selling 60% of the team to Wolf, Williams essentially became an employee and following the arrival of Peter Warr as team manager, he made the decision to start afresh.

Selling his remaining shares to Wolf, Williams used that money to set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering in partnership with the supremely talented Patrick Head. From its creation in 1977 to its first world championship double — with Alan Jones driving the Head-designed FW07B — took just three years. and one of the most successful teams in F1 history was born.

Williams and Head were a formidable partnership, and won the constructors’ title again in 1981 before Keke Rosberg became drivers’ champion in the FW08 in 1982.

Patrick Head, Engineering Director, and Frank Williams, Team Principal, formed one of the longest-lasting and successful F1 management partnerships ever. Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

But as success became regular on the track, everything very nearly ended off it. In 1986, Williams was rushing from Paul Ricard to the airport after a day’s testing to catch the last flight back to the UK when he crashed his hire car and was paralyzed. Doctors in France asked Ginny for permission to turn off his life support machine, which she refused, and he was flown to London for further treatment, finally leaving hospital nearly three months after the accident.

Confined to a wheelchair as a tetraplegic, Williams was undeterred when it came to seeking domination in F1. He would see Williams become one of the biggest teams in the sport, winning the 1986 constructors’ title and the championship double the following year with Nelson Piquet ahead of teammate Nigel Mansell.

A huge run of success started in 1992 but Williams had another battle to face following the death of Ayrton Senna behind the wheel of one of his cars at Imola in 1994. After a number of years, Williams was acquitted of manslaughter charges, and the team would run an “S” for Senna on each one of its cars from that point onwards.

That logo was present on the cars taken to championships by Damon Hill in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, the latter being the latest success for the team and leaving it only second behind Ferrari in terms of constructors’ titles.

While competitive through the early 2000s, as an independent team Williams faded and in 2012 Sir Frank stepped down from the team’s board — to be replaced by his daughter Claire — but remained team principal, telling Motor Sport magazine in 2015 that: “The team is my life — absolutely my life.”

Claire took on more public responsibility in the role of deputy team principal, and the introduction of new regulations saw a resurgence as the team claimed a pair of third-place finishes in the 2014 and ’15 constructors’ championships.

2019 saw Sir Frank reach the incredible mark of 50 years as an F1 team principal — across two teams — but by then he had taken a clear step back from the sport due to his health and in 2020 he sold his team to Dorilton Capital, safeguarding its future following the signing of a new Concorde Agreement.

After being admitted to hospital on Friday he passed away peacefully on Sunday morning, surrounded by his family, and is survived by his daughter Claire and sons Jonathan and Jamie.