Sir Frank Williams: 50 years as a Team Principal
“It is a competitive sport and I am a competitive person. Above all it is the need for speed.” Sir Frank Williams is a remarkable individual who has gone from grocery salesman to the longest-serving Team Principal Formula 1 has ever seen – and it’s been quite an extraordinary journey in between…
At a boarding school in Dumfries in the late 1940s and early 1950s, you will have found a young boy totally and utterly obsessed with motor racing. “I used to run around pretending I was a racing car – that sort of nonsense,” says Frank, speaking in a documentary celebrating his F1 achievements on Sky Sports F1 this weekend. He attempted a racing career himself, but “was always going off the road” so swapped the cockpit for tools and became a mechanic. The next step for him was obvious – he wanted his own team.
Using cash from his work as a grocery salesman, Frank created Frank Williams Racing Cars. After competing competitively in Formula 2 and Formula 3, he bought a Brabham chassis, signed his friend Piers Courage and entered F1 in 1969, twice finishing second. The next season, though, Courage died in a crash in the Dutch Grand Prix. “It was a major loss,” says Frank. “I went to the funeral, and I can say of all those present, there were no dry eyes.” Courage’s death hit Frank hard. But he pushed on with his racing team.
Times were tough, or rather money was short. It even got to the point where he was making business calls from a phone box, as his office line had been cut off because of unpaid bills. His wife Ginny would often put her own money into the team, just to keep things ticking over. Eventually, he had to relinquish control, with oil magnate Walter Wolf stepping in. Frank tried to stay on as employee, but it wasn’t for him. So he left. But that wasn’t the end…
Did you know? Frank describes Jochen Rindt as the “fastest human I’ve seen in a racing car”. Rindt, who won six races, was killed in an accident at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix. He’s the only driver to have been posthumously awarded the F1 world title.
F1 for Frank was unfinished business. So he started from scratch again. He needed an engineer and a chap called Patrick Head was recommended to him. They joined forces as co-founders for Williams Grand Prix Engineering, basing themselves in an old carpet factory. Little did they know at the time, but this was to be the start of something special. Head’s arrival was, as Frank puts it, “significant” as he was “a very clever and hard-working man”.
Their first win came in 1979, aptly at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, with Clay Regazzoni seeing the chequered flag, as Head’s new ground-effect FW07 hoisted the team into contenders. A year later, they were world champions in the constructors’ with Alan Jones taking the drivers’ title.
It was a remarkable ascent for Frank, who just three years previously was forced to sell-up his first F1 operation. The team were on the up and more success followed. They began to assert themselves at the sharp end – but then disaster struck.
Did you know? Frank puts much of Williams’ success down to “the intellect and energy” of Patrick Head, who this year has returned to the team as a consultant. “He was a great guy. He gave me lots of bollockings, but they were well worth it!”
Frank crashed when driving back to the airport from a test at Paul Ricard, sustaining a spinal cord injury that rendered him unable to walk. Looking back on it now, Frank’s sense of humour shines through. “It was inconvenient, wasn’t it?” At the time, though, it was incredibly hard on his family. His wife Ginny was “exceptional”, nursing him through his recovery while looking after their three kids – Jonathan, Claire and Jaime – and making sure the racing team was in good shape, too.
Frank had no intention of going anywhere. He wanted to be back, running his team again. “Certainly after the accident, [the team] gave Frank something to live for, as much as his family did,” says Claire, who took over the running of her father’s team in 2013, having risen through the ranks starting as press officer.
“Williams is what kept him going, which is why he refers to F1 as his oxygen. He lives and breathes for it, and continues to do so today. Dad has so many qualities, but his strength and resilience to come back from the accident and be as dominant as he was is a powerful message”.
Did you know? Frank kept the approach and signing of Nelson Piquet for 1986 so secret, that when the Brazilian went over to tell then Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone in the pit lane that he was leaving, Ecclestone stormed off in the direction of McLaren, as he thought Ron Dennis had signed him, before Piquet shouted after him that he should head the other way to Williams.
Success and heartache
Between 1979 and 1997, Williams won seven drivers’ championships and nine constructors’ titles and secured a total of 113 wins. It was a level of sustained dominance rarely seen in sport, let alone Formula 1, and culminated in the Queen knighting Frank in 1999. He’s also one of the few non-Frenchmen to have been made a Chevalier of France’s Legion d’honneur, following the team’s partnership with Renault for engines.
All this success came on the back of Frank’s accident, which could have destabilised the project. Instead, it galvanised the team, with his wife Ginny playing a key role in keeping everything going, ready for when Frank was able to make decisions again. But during that rich period, there was more heartache for Frank.
Having long dreamed of having Ayrton Senna pilot one of his cars, it became reality for the 1994 season. But in only the third race, Senna lost his life when he crashed during the San Marino Grand Prix. “I know much Dad adored Ayrton,” says Claire. “He had wanted for many years to get him to drive for Williams and then the unthinkable happened a few months later. For Dad, that was heart-breaking. When you compare it to what happened to Dad in his accident, he wouldn’t see it as comparable – he’s alive.”
Did you know? Between 1992 and 1997, Williams won five out of six constructors' titles, finishing second in the other year. In total, they won 113 races in their first 18 years. In the following 22 campaigns, they have scored only 11 further victories.
The next chapter
Since 1997, times have been tougher for Williams. In the following 22 years, they have won just 11 races, the last of which Pastor Maldonado's triumph in the 2012 Spanish GP. And on the personal side, more tragedy struck. Ginny, who proved to be such a rock throughout, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in March 2013. Frank has remained at the helm throughout but he started reducing his workload in 2012 when he stepped down from the Williams board, with Claire taking over as the family representative.
A year later, she was appointed Deputy Team Principal, looking after the day-to-day running, and while Frank calls it “her team” when they speak about racing frequently, she insists it remains his baby and she’s just looking after it. Frank spent some time in hospital in 2016 recovering from pneumonia and has since stopped travelling to races – although he will make a rare appearance at this weekend’s British Grand Prix as the team that bears his name celebrates his momentous achievement.
It will be tough to watch his cars struggle at the back of the field – but he is determined to stick and around to see them bounce back. “We will keep on fighting,” says the 77-year-old, whose competitiveness is highlighted by the fact he is keen to outlive his father who lived to 94. “I’m not going anywhere yet.”
Did you know? While Claire runs the F1 team, her brother Jonathan is in charge of Williams’ Heritage division, which involves running a collection of the team’s historic cars, while Jaime is not involved at all, instead living in London where he runs a small record company.