How Formula One pioneer Sir Frank Williams faced adversity

Asia's Tech News Daily

At 43, Sir Frank Williams had a serious road accident while speeding to an airport in France. He lost the use of his body below the shoulders.

A lesser man would have been destroyed.

Actually, a normal man would have been destroyed.

But Williams had a will that was abnormal in its strength.

The Formula One pioneer and team founder slowly absorbed the enormity of his accident – that he would never, ever be able to stand again, for one, with old-school stoicism. He said to his wife, Virginia, “As I see it, Ginny, I’ve had 40 fantastic years of life. Now I shall have another 40 years of a different kind of life.”

He fell short by just a few summers. Sir Williams died on November 28, 2021, at 79. It’s a testament to his inner steel that he lived that long, and rather well, because tragedies and business setbacks kept assaulting him throughout his life.

Passionate about racing and speed, Williams set up his team in 1966, after having worked, variously, as a mechanic, race-car driver and a grocery industry professional. Just four years later, he lost his friend and promising driver Piers Courage in a race accident in Holland. The event affected Williams emotionally and professionally. Without Courage, the fledgling Williams team was again in need of drivers.

In 1986, Williams had his own near-fatal accident while driving in characteristically reckless fashion from an engagement in France to the airport. The indefatigable Williams was to participate in a half-marathon back home in the UK later that day.

Eight years later, his blue-eyed boy at Williams, the great Ayrton Senna, died during the Italian GP.

Williams loved driving fast. “I’ve always been nuts about speed, since when I was a boy, I’d drive around pretending I was a driver – that sort of nonsense,” he once said. But his insistence on flying by the seat of his pants on public roads was not wise, as his fate proved. To be yourself is one thing, to brazenly disregard risks and the safety of others is another.

With his unnecessary accident, Williams paid a heavy price for his passion. But the passion also helped him carry on in his life. The father of three remained motivated about running his team.

Within weeks of his accident, he was back being active in Formula One, just that now he was in a wheelchair, rolling in and out of paddocks and meetings. His wife and children went on 32 annual holidays to Marbella. Williams was present at none of those, prioritising work. Ron Dennis, the boss of rivals McLaren, reportedly said this when he learnt that Williams would return to action after his accident: “Now he’s even more dangerous. All he can do with his time is think.”

How did Williams face so many ordeals?

Leaving his own accident out of the answer, Williams offered a clue in an interview with Talksport, “The worst things that ever happened are, of course, the deaths of Piers Courage in 1970 and then Ayrton in 1994. They are major catastrophic events and it’s hard work getting around them – structurally, financially and, of course, emotionally. But life goes on, as they say – easy words, but it is the case. One has got to keep one’s head down and not get involved emotionally, and fight to come back.”

Bernie Ecclestone, the former F1 CEO, summed up his friend’s nature and his contribution after his death.

“I wonder if people like Frank had not been around in the early days whether Formula One would have survived today,” said the 91-year-old Ecclestone, another of F1’s ageless wonders. “He was one of the people that built the entire thing. We knew this day (Williams’ death) would happen. But Frank never complained. He never whined or grizzled. He got on with things the best he could. He was a fighter. Frank was just Frank. He gelled with everyone, and everyone liked him.”

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