Sir Frank Williams
Frank Williams in 2007, still Team Principle and focused as ever. © Williams Archives

Sir Frank Williams: Racing First

If you think you’re a “real racer” or dedicated fan to the sport, ponder this: just moments after getting married, Frank William’s best friend David Brodie offered to pay for a celebratory lunch. Frank declined the offer and left his newlywed and friends to celebrate on their own; after all, there were cars to work on! Dedicated and/or fanatic, you decide. And such was the mind of Frank Williams, a man who once said “I just love racing, I love speed, I love the noise.” Frank passed at the age of 79 on November 28, 2021.

The facts will be forever be embossed on the story of Formula 1: Williams’ team would produce 7 drivers’ championships, 114 victories, and 9 constructor titles. Versus today’s politically rich sport steered by executives in glass-walled board rooms, Frank’s achievements came from an era where a team’s survival and performance could be traced to few individuals’ tireless commitment and passion. 

Financial doom, marital problems, two driver fatalities and the eventual car accident that left Frank a paraplegic, none were too big to dampen his ambition.

Frank started his career as a car-crazy teen buying and selling race car parts. Surrounding himself with wealthy peers, he was able to experience the world of racing reserved for those with means. Sure, he got behind the wheel himself and raced an Austin A35 to prove he was fast, but ultimately his reckless nature would deem he was better off outside the car than in. 

Alan Jones, Frank Williams and Saudia-Williams car designer Patrick Head
Alan Jones, Frank Williams and Saudia-Williams car designer Patrick Head, are recieving their reliability award at Montreal, Canada in 1980.

Successful parts sales led to the buying and selling of used race cars. In 1966, he established Frank Williams Racing Cars Ltd. and began running both Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars on shoestring budgets.

Three years later in 1969, he acquired a used Brabham chassis and made his F1 debut at the Spanish Grand Prix where his driver Piers Courage qualified 11th but did not finish. Off to Monaco for round 3 where Piers qualified 9th and fought his way to second place finish. Earning 6 world championship points on his second F1 outing, the 27-year-old Williams was heading up, but not for long. The following year, mechanical failure would result in Piers Courage running off course at Zandvoort and being killed. Soon the joke in the paddock was “If you want to ruin your career, drive a Williams”.

As has been stated many times before, “If you want to make a little money in racing, start with a lot.” By 1976, Frank had exhausted all financial avenues including using money made from selling his wife’s flat (townhouse). A “deal with the devil” was made with oil tycoon Walter Wolf, and after a terrible season, Frank was forced out of his own company. Salt on the wound came just months later when his driver Jody Scheckter drove the Williams car, now rebadged as a Wolf, to a win in the Argentine GP. 

After months of depression, Frank partnered with Belgian beer company Belle Vue, and created Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd.  An old factory was found, and the team went to work with Patrick Head, known to be a bit of a bully but a genius with race cars.

Frank Williams and Alan Jones
Frank Williams discusses strategy with driver Alan Jones © Williams Archives

Two years later in 1979, F1 victory would finally be bestowed upon Frank when at the British GP when Clay Regazzoni took the chequered flag. Teammate Alan Jones would go on to win at Germany, Austria, Holland and Canada, resulting in 3rd overall for driver’s points. Many more Drivers and Constructors titles would follow in the early 1980s; Williams could do no wrong.  

But in the instant of a moment, Franks life would be turned upside down; literally. In 1986, Frank flipped a road car after leaving a pre-season test session in France. Paralyzed from the neck down and requiring assisted breathing, the hospital requested he be taken off life support. After his wife “Ginny” arranged for a flight back to England, he was transferred to a hospital where he had a tracheotomy. Recovery was slow, and he eventually regained some limited use of his shoulders. 

Sir Frank Williams monitoring his team's racing performance on screen
At the 2009 Italian Grand Prix, Sir Frank Williams monitors his team during practice. © Photo: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

With Frank “being Frank”, he returned to work the following season in 1987, only now restricted to a wheelchair. More determined than ever, Williams Racing would win that year’s Driver and Constructor’s titles. 

Proving it wasn’t just a fluke, Williams would go on to win both the Constructors and driver’s titles in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997. The team’s last victory, now with daughter Claire as the team principal, took place in Barcelona Spain in 2012. In 2015, the British government knighted frank for his accomplishments in motorsports. 

A man of conviction beyond what most of us can imagine, the Sports Car Digest family expresses is remorse in losing such a motorsport icon. Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams.   16 April 1942 – 28 November 2021.

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