Frank Williams was a colossus of Formula One, but lurking beneath all the success the British racing legend’s life was touched by tragedy.
Williams, who died on Sunday aged 79, was left a tetraplegic and confined to a wheelchair after a road accident in France in 1986.
The courage, energy and determination with which he dealt with this cruel roll of fate’s dice drew admiration from his family, friends, colleagues and the wider public.
With technical guru Patrick Head he created, from scratch, one of the greatest Formula One teams of all time.
Williams captured seven drivers’ titles, the last claimed by Canadian Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, while the team’s nine constructors’ crowns places Williams second only to mighty Ferrari.
His noted dry wit and charm, indefatigable spirit and resilience served him well on his journey from being a trainee sales rep for Campbell’s soup earning £10 a week, to the pinnacle of the high-octane world of F1.
Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields in northeast England on April 16, 1942.
In his early days in motor racing, he had to conduct business from his local red telephone box when cash wasn’t flowing.
He established Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966, competing in F3 and F2, and F1 with a borrowed chassis from 1969.
The death of his first driver Piers Courage, driving for Williams at the Dutch GP at Zandvoort in 1970, was said to have marked him for life.
The first all-Williams built F1 car had an inauspicious start, when with Henri Pescarolo at the wheel, it was destroyed in a crash in 1972.
With funding an ever-present problem and having lost control of his company he left, with Head, to set up the team that is still racing today, in 1977.
Clay Regazzoni drove a Cosworth-powered Williams to its first F1 success, fittingly at the British Grand Prix, in 1979.
Australian Alan Jones won the team’s first drivers’ title the following season. Williams also collected the constructors’ championship that year.
– ‘Life has to go on’ –
Keke Rosberg took the 1982 title, with five more captured in a golden period between 1987 and 1997, all after Williams’ ill-fated 1986 dash to catch a flight in France that led to the car crash.
“I was late for a plane I didn’t need to be late for, I got the French time mixed up with the English time,” he was to recall.
Williams lost control of the rental car, causing it to leave the highway and drop 2.4 metres into a field. Williams suffered a spinal fracture between the fourth and fifth vertebra after being pressed between his seat and the crushed roof.
Williams was consigned to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“But life has to go on,” he said. “I was able to continue in the business I was already in, but generally speaking it’s been a handicap in the true sense of the word.”
At the height of their powers, Ayrton Senna, who had won three titles with McLaren, came on board for the 1994 season, only to perish in a horrific high-speed crash at Imola.
Williams had a deep connection with the Brazilian great and was never able fully to come to terms with his death.
“Frank had a love affair with Ayrton,” his daughter Claire, who would later head the team, told The Sun newspaper in 2019.
“He got into his heart, got into his mind, and he always wanted to put him in his race car. Dad’s wish then came true, but it ended in the worst possible way.”
Not for the first time personal anguish failed to diminish Williams’ single-mindedness to succeed, with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve capturing the 1996 and 1997 world championships. He was knighted in 1999 and became Sir Frank.
“It’s been a great journey, one I’d love to do again if I was younger. I wouldn’t try and do anything different except try and avoid the accidents,” Williams told the BBC in 2010.
His death comes after his family ended 43 years of involvement in the team in September 2020, following its sale to Dorilton Capital.
Former Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone told AFP shortly before the sale that the team had lost its raison d’etre when Williams stepped down from the board in 2012.
Both of them were among the co-founders of the Formula One Constructors’ Association in 1974.
“Dear old Frank had to work so hard to make sure the team competed and that happened,” he said.
“Frank was hands-on in the way he managed the team.
“He could get things done.”
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