Frank Williams obituary: A racing motivator, strategist and hustler

Williams produced a stream of world-beating cars to lead Formula One

In 2012 after the last of their 114 grand prix victories, Williams stepped back, handing over the frontline duties to his daughter. Photograph: EPA/Gerry Penny

In 2012 after the last of their 114 grand prix victories, Williams stepped back, handing over the frontline duties to his daughter. Photograph: EPA/Gerry Penny

 

Frank Williams
Born: April 16th, 1942
Died: November 28th, 2021

Before the road accident that changed his life at the age of 43, Frank Williams typified the breed of fast-living, almost pathologically competitive alpha males who had graduated from the mostly amateur world of post-war British motor racing to dominate the sport at its highest level.

When Williams, who has died aged 79, lost the use of all four limbs after crashing a rental car while speeding from a circuit in southern France to a nearby airport one evening in the spring of 1986, his career as the driving force of a championship-winning Formula One team appeared to be over.

Like Enzo Ferrari, Williams designed not a single nut or bolt of the cars that bore his name

For several days he hovered on the brink of death. But tetraplegia was to prove no match for the will of a man devoted to winning. Thirteen years later he had added seven more constructors’ world championships and five more drivers’ titles to the pair of each secured by his team before the accident.

By that time his wheelchair, pushed by a carer, had become a familiar sight at the world’s racing circuits. Williams sat in the pits, watching the computer screens that monitored his cars’ progress, his once expressive features now a largely inscrutable mask.

Like Enzo Ferrari, Williams designed not a single nut or bolt of the cars that bore his name. Instead he functioned as a motivator, a strategist and a hustler. Eventually, in 2012 after the last of their 114 grand prix victories, he stepped back, handing over the frontline duties to his daughter.

Williams was born in South Shields in the UK, now in Tyne and Wear, to Clare (nee McGrath), a teacher of children with special needs, and Owen Williams, who flew Wellington bombers in the Royal Air Force and left the family before his son was a year old. Much of the young Frank’s upbringing was consigned to his grandparents.

He persuaded his mother to give him £80 to buy a hotted-up Austin A35 saloon with which, as a teenager, he entered his first races. It was while sitting on a trackside bank after rolling the car at Mallory Park that he struck up a conversation with Jonathan Williams, another young driver who had crashed at the same spot. Jonathan introduced his new acquaintance to his friend Piers Courage, son of the chairman of the Courage brewery.

In August 2020 Williams bowed to the inevitable and sold the team to a US investment firm, Dorilton Capital, for $152 million

In 1969 the team they had formed moved up to Formula One. The following year Courage was in seventh place in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort when he crashed and was killed. Williams considered giving up the sport, but instead finished the season with other drivers. In 1974 he married Virginia (Ginny) Berry who had left her husband, another racing driver, to be with him.

At the end of 1975 Williams partnered with Patrick Head, a young engineer and the two men subsequently formed a new team, Williams Grand Prix Engineering. In 1978 the first Head-designed Williams made its debut in the hands of the team’s new driver, a pugnacious Australian named Alan Jones. The following year, renamed Albilad-Saudia, the team won four grand prix races and in 1980 Jones became world champion and the team took the constructors’ title. A string of further titles followed.

World-beating cars

Once Williams had returned from his accident, Head and his assistants produced a stream of world-beating cars. In 1994, the triple champion Ayrton Senna switched over from McLaren. The Brazilian was leading his third race at Imola, when he left the track, hit a wall, and was killed. It would be several years, and a journey through the Italian legal system, before Williams and Head were cleared of blame for an accident.

Williams and Head shared a view of drivers best summarised in the former’s words to the author Gerald Donaldson: “The best of them are driven, motivated, pushy, won’t-accept-second-best, immensely competitive people. This is what makes them good – because they’re bastards.”

Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 title, would prove to be their last and the team gradually declined. In August 2020 Williams bowed to the inevitable and sold the team to a US investment firm, Dorilton Capital, for $152 million (€134 million).

Ginny died of cancer in 2013. While recovering from his accident, her husband had told her: “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.”

Williams is survived by their three children, Jonathan, Claire and Jamie, and two grandchildren, Ralph and Nathaniel.

– Guardian

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