Formula 1 Chronicles: Frank Williams by Matt Jeffery
Frank Williams has been a name synonymous with motor racing for decades, his name first gracing a car in 1966 with ‘Frank Williams Racing Cars’. Williams is the epitome of sporting passion, his love for cars and racing carrying him through much success but also heartache. The fact the man is still involved with his beloved sport at such a high level almost 50 years after his entry is testimony to the love he has for it and the work he has put in.
Frank Williams was born in County Durham, now Tyne and Wear. He attended a private, boarding school, St Joseph’s College in Dumfries when his parents marriage broke down, he subsequently spent most of his younger years living with Uncle and Auntie. It is said that his love for cars and speed first came about when a young friend gave him a ride in a Jaguar XK150. Nobody knew the legacy that the young Williams was about to create…
Williams’ first taste of racing at the top flight was in the 1969 season. He gathered up enough money to purchase a Brabham chassis and Piers Courage drove it throughout the season picking up two second place finishes. In the 1970 season, Williams undertook a deal with chassis manufacturer De Tomaso and commissioned a car. This however ended in the tragic death of Piers Courage in the Dutch Grand Prix. This would be the first terrible surprise in Williams career. Two years later, the first Williams built car, designed by Len Bailey took to the race track, pioneered by Henri Pescarolo. In it’s first race, the Pollitoys FX3 chassis car crashed and was destroyed. Williams wouldn’t return to racing until 1976.
With two major sponsors not relaying money in time for the beginning of the season and a real want to put a car on track, Williams signed a deal with Austro-Canadian oil magnate, Walter Wolf. This meant Williams no longer owned the team but stayed on for the 1976 season as a mechanic, his original occupation in racing. Knowing this wasn’t his calling, Williams left and in 1977 along with Patrick Head, a previous employee at Williams. He registered the Williams Grand Prix Engineering company – a firm which still stands today under the ‘Williams F1’ banner.
Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s first win came in 1979, where one Clay Regazzoni drove the Williams FW07 chassis to victory at Silverstone, the team’s home Grand Prix. A year later, Alan Jones drove a Williams to win the driver’s championship and Williams won the constructors championship by 54 points. This was only the beginning with Williams winning 7 driver’s championships, 9 constructor’s championships and 113 races between 1979 and 1997. Since then, Williams’ success has be less concentrated but their presence in motor racing is still felt with full force.
Frank Williams is said to have changed revolutionised sport and in particular motorsport. In 1977 he took on a sponsor, a Saudi Arabian airline which payed him £100,000 for an advert appearing on the rear wing of his F1 car. He is said to be the originator in taking advantage of Middle Eastern oil money, a task which has changed the game in many sports to date, most notably football. This cash injection into the Williams team came after a few years of just scraping by, Williams driven by pure passion and ambition. You might say his work paid off…
In March 1986, Williams crashed a rental car driving from the Paul Ricard circuit in France to Nice airport. He suffered substantial spinal cord injuries and has since been wheelchair bound. This March marked 26 years Williams has had to spend in a wheelchair. To most, this sort of injury would have resulted in a massive loss of livelihood, misery and a restraint on what that individual could achieve. Not only is this not the case, Williams won 6 out of his 9 constructors championships post injury. This makes the point that Williams is a man with outstanding drive. Only during the past couple of years has Williams really stepped back from the frontline of Formula 1. Williams and Patrick Head have both now taken a back seat in terms of the decision making at Williams but the values they have brought will stay with the team long after they have gone.
The key to Williams successful and long-lived career seems complex, but he brings it down to a very simple idea: “Reinvigorate and rejuvenate your company every decade”. Frank Williams is an inspiration not only to those with a disability, but anyone who wants to make a name for themselves in their own arena. In his wife’s book Williams is said to remark “I’ve had 40 fantastic years of life. Now I shall have another 40 years of a different kind of life.” This shows a humble resilience that is often seen in inspirational persons, a realisation of life and a genuine gratefulness for the gifts bestowed upon them.
Williams will continue to be a big name in the motor racing world, with the engineering works providing the hybrid system that helped the Audi Le Mans team to its recent victory. The ethos that the team has means it has been able to maintain its status as one of the only independent F1 teams, in a sea of manufacturers teams, for a long time. The Williams legacy has evolved from a young mans love of cars to a worldwide brand of racing legends.
“I just love racing, I love speed, I love the noise.”