Focus - Frank talking 28 Nov 2003
Journalists will tell you there are days when you go to interview Frank Williams and he will be distantly courteous while telling you nothing. Fortunately this is not one of those days.
Williams is even up for an effusive chat on the subject which bores him the most - his quadriplegia. It is impossible not to lapse into amateur psychology mode when examining Williams' life since his habitual "hooligan driving" caused the crash in France which resulted in his paralysis 17 years ago. He is a fascinating case study. Certainly A Different Kind Of Life, written by his wife describing their lives after the accident, is an unforgettable book to anyone who has read it. The irony, though, is that Ginny Williams wrote it for one person only and that person will never read it.
"By far the most important reason for writing the book is Frank himself," she recorded. "I'm sure that if I had asked him, he would have said he did not want me to write it. Yet I truly hope he reads it. His memory of the early days after the accident is blurred and vague, he has never asked me what it was like in France or in the London Hospital or what it has been like for me these past few years. Now he will know."
But Williams does not know. He specifically does not wish to. He famously loathes the very mention of the book. That fact elliptically encapsulates one of the foundation stones of his character - his total immunity to celebrity. Fame, whatever that might be, means nothing to him. The idea of being known, and the need therein to volunteer emotional details about himself to a goggle-eyed public, is anathema to him. That his wife was the author, or that the story is astonishing and might help others, makes it no more appealing. But then, anything emotional has him twitching with discomfort.
Yet this very lack of introspection may in a sense have saved him. One can only guess at the mental processes which might follow the advent of lifelong quadriplegia. But the most forthcoming on-the-record answer Williams has ever given when asked how he felt about being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life was as fearless as it was frightening: an unrepeatable "I don't give a ... "
True fearlessness is not an appealing characteristic in human beings. After all, fear has its function too. But you wonder if Williams is afraid of anything. To the foolish outsider it seems that the catastrophic loss of privacy and independence entailed by his condition would itself be terrifying, but putting this to him elicits literally no response at all. He cannot even form a politely uninformative answer. He simply glazes over in neon-lit boredom and his eyes wander off as if there was no one in the room but him.
Only the practicalities of his condition have ever been worth his time. The "unbearable frustration" of requiring almost two hours to get up, washed and dressed typifies what he sees as the worst burdens of his quadriplegia. Maurice Hamilton's 1998 eponymous biography of Williams revealingly disclosed that he was completely uninterested in rehabilitation exercises after his crash. His friends were perplexed because physical fitness had always consumed him, but Williams simply saw no point in striving for months on end to attain what he viewed as marginal improvement. Instead it was logical to him to get on with life as it now was. And that was exactly what he did.
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on Frank Williams. It is available exclusively in the December issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)