Sir Frank Williams, who has passed away today at the age of 79, was truly a man who prevailed despite what should have been overwhelming odds.
To call him ‘driven’ would be to seriously sell the man short. Despite being rendered tetraplegic as the result of an horrific road accident in 1986, his innate determination to carry on leading the team which bore his name saw him do so with a remarkable verve despite being confined to a wheelchair from that point on.
The glory years for Frank and his comparatively small but devoted team were unarguably during the early to mid 90s alliance with Renault whose all-conquering V10 engines combined with Williams’ enviable engineering record to deliver World Championships for Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in succession, yet, sadly, also saw what turned out to be the darkest episode in the team’s history when Ayrton Senna died at the wheel of a Williams in 1994’s fateful Imola GP.
After Villeneuve’s World Championship in 1997 success for Williams was somewhat more elusive, yet he never gave up on pushing the family firm to give of their best, regardless of the result on a Sunday afternoon.
Frank finally bowed out of the F1 game in May 2020 prior to selling the team to foreign investors in September of that year, ending an association with the sport which had lasted 43 amazing years.
The Williams name still lives on in Formula 1 – for now at least – and even though my personal interest in the sport has rather waned of late I do hope that it will remain there for the foreseeable future, a fitting tribute to a remarkable man and his bloody-minded determination not just to survive, but to thrive.
Legend is an epithet oft used, and frequently abused, in the world of F1 where superlatives escalate as quickly as drivers’ salaries, but Sir Frank Williams, whose death at 79 has just been announced by the team which bears his name, certainly deserves that honorific in every sense of its use.
Most of us are allotted the biblical three score years and ten, but Sir Frank, following a near fatal road car crash in 1986, not only survived another 35 years beyond that awful day, but, despite being tetraplegic and wheelchair bound, returned within a year to resume control of the Williams team.
That surely marks him out as a survivor with the most extraordinary tenacity and sheer will to succeed.
And succeed he did with 9 Constructors’ Championships and 7 Drivers’ Championships to his credit in the 80s and 90s, more or less bookended by both titles being won with Alan Jones in 1980, and Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1996 and 1997.
All this came from a team owner who, in the early 80s, was so broke that he ran the team from a payphone when he couldn’t pay the rent and was locked out of the factory!
Nothing and nobody could stand long in his way, and, despite borrowing at times from most of the other members of the Piranha Club, and often from Bernie, everybody respected Frank… except perhaps Enzo Ferrari who sneered that Frank was a garagiste, a mere assembler of bits… ironic in that Frank in the early days, realising he didn’t quite have the skills to make it as a driver, earned his way buying and selling racing car parts and old cars.
Frank’s spectacular achievements in this toughest of sporting arenas is the measure of a man absolutely obsessed with F1, even in the despairing dark hours following the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994.
Frank’s talents and massive intelligence lay in management. He assembled a crack team including one of the best engineers in F1, Patrick Head… soon to become a partner… the rising star aerodynamicist and designer Adrian Newey, and a team of mechanics, PR people, and other team members that were fiercely loyal, fiercely protective of Frank’s privacy in his later years, and would stand by him as engine partners and funders deserted him in the lean years of the 2000s. However, Frank had earned his garage in the pit lane, his place on the grid, and, even as recently as 2012, he scored a remarkable win in Spain with Pastor Maldonado.
Our thoughts are with Claire and Jonathan who finally persuaded Frank to retire in 2020, selling the team to American financiers (who, to their credit, have been just as steely in running Williams with this year being their best season for many). Clearly Frank can go to his rest confident that Williams will once more appear on F1 podiums some time in the near future.
I met Frank a couple of times, but only managed to record an interview with him once. That interview revealed much of the style, skill and intelligence that kept Frank at the top of his game for over 40 years.
He will long be remembered in the annals of F1.