With the excitement of this year’s Formula 1 season reaching unimaginable heights, as two of the best F1 driver’s on the current grid battle it out with two races to go, the world is also saddened by the passing of a legendary figure in the sport. Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams CBE, otherwise known as Frank Williams, has passed away on November 28th at the age of 79. Today, in a bit of a sad instalment of the Petrolhead Corner, we pay our respects to the man who helped shape the sport into what it is today and brought forth multiple championship-winning cars and drivers. This one is in honour of the late, great Sir Frank Williams.
Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams GBE was born on the 16th of April, 1942 in South Shields, England. The son of an active Royal Air Force officer as a father, and a school teacher as a mother, he hasn’t had the easiest of lives. A broken marriage between his parents resulted in an upbringing by an aunt and uncle and spending most of his childhood in private boarding schools. His love for all things car-related stems from a ride in a friend’s Jaguar XK150, sometime in the 1950s. From that moment on, his life would revolve around cars and racing pretty much non-stop.
After a short career as a racing driver himself, Frank Williams founded Frank Williams Racing Cars, realizing he had peaked behind the wheel by then. Harnessing his experience as a travelling salesman, Frank Williams started working behind the scenes in racing, enlisting multiple drivers in racing categories such as Formula 2 and Formula 3. Three years after starting his business, he entered the world of Formula 1, kickstarting a career that would span in excess of four decades.
The start would be troublesome though, as early on one of his best friends, the English driver Piers Courage, died behind the wheel of one of his cars in the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. It wouldn’t be the last time the team faced a disastrous turn of events. Struggling through the early years of competing in Formula 1, fate would have it Frank Williams would cross paths with Canadian oil millionaire Walter Wolf. Wolf, buying his way into the team for 60% and bringing along the remains of the Hesketh Racing team he also just bought, restructured the entire team ahead of the 1976 season.
Not happy with the results, Walter Wolf restructured the team yet again, with no real place for Frank Williams remaining. Williams sold his remaining shares to Wolf and set up shop as Williams Grand Prix Engineering with the young but brilliant engineer Patrick Head. That combination worked, and for every following season up till now, the Williams name has been present on the starting grid.
Ten years after first venturing into Formula 1, Frank Williams scored his maiden victory, with Clay Regazzoni behind the wheel. Four more wins followed in the 1979 season at the hands of teammate Alan Jones. A year later, the decade of hard work would pay off big time, with the team’s first double championship. Over the course of 43 seasons thus far, the Williams team would clinch 9 constructor’s titles, 7 driver’s titles and a massive 114 race wins.
The most successful era would undoubtedly be the 1990s. During that decade, where the team would race with Renault engines for 8 years straight, the Williams Racing outfit claimed 4 world driver championships, 4 constructor’s world championships and 61 Grand Prix victories. It would also be the decade that saw the team once again facing tragedy, as multiple world championship driver Ayrton Senna died behind the wheel of the Williams FW16B during the disastrous San Marino Grand Prix of 1994. It is one of the darkest race weekends in Formula 1 as not only Senna died, but Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger (MTV Simtek-Ford) died during qualifying and Brazilian ace Rubens Barichello spun off at a high-speed corner and heavily crashed, suffering multiple injuries but making it out alive.
Frank Williams was never the same after his friend Piers Courage died in the early days of his career as team manager, and he would distance himself from drivers not to become too personally attached. He worked his way through perhaps the most dangerous era of Formula 1 without too many life-threatening incidents. It was a time where almost every season one or more drivers would be killed in racing. Senna’s death would be the last Formula 1 driver to lose his life in a race until Jules Bianchi crashed out of the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and later passed away due to his injuries.
But Frank Williams didn’t only face tragedies on track, but also off track. Coming out of a testing session with the new Williams FW11 race car at the Paul Ricard race track in France, he had a huge crash in his rental car, flying off the highway and rolling over several times. He and sponsorship manager Peter Windsor both survived the crash, but a spinal fracture rendered Frank Williams a paraplegic. Nevertheless, after recovering from this horrific crash, he would return to his beloved sport and continue onwards with the team. A testament to the resilience Sir Frank Williams is known for.
During his amazing career, he worked with the greatest driver’s you can imagine. The team’s 7 world driver’s championships were won by just as many drivers; Alan Jones in 1980, Keke Rosberg in 1982, Nelson Piquet in 1987, Nigel Mansell in 1992, Alain Prost in 1993, Damon Hill in 1996 and lastly Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Other names of course include Ayrton Senna, but also Riccardo Patrese, Derek Daily, Jacques Lafitte, David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg.
Outside of Formula 1, Frank Williams would also start companies that would take Formula 1 technology and make it applicable for road use. He would also partner with BMW to develop the BWM V12 LM and V12 LMR, the latter winning the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans race. He flirted with Group B rallying, entered the British Touring Car Championship and collaborated with Jaguar on their first Formula E season.
In 2012 the announcement came that Frank Williams would step down as team principal, and his daughter Claire Williams would take over operations. The team struggled to make an impact and score any titles, wins, or some seasons even points. Come 2020, the team was acquired by Dorilton Capital, which would lead to Claire Williams stepping down as well. Fortunately, the Williams name lives on as the new owners have assured to keep it for the coming years. And with the team slowly finding its way back to the top, who knows we one day might see the Williams dynasty claiming the top step once more! That would be a truly fitting salute to a legendary man like Sir Frank Williams.
Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams GBE was administered to a hospital on the 26th of November, and passed away two days later, at the age of 79. Goodbye Sir Frank!