Sir Frank Williams obituary: A Formula 1 icon & one of greatest team owners.
Sir Frank Williams, who has died aged 79, was one of the greatest Formula 1 team owners in history and a man who became an icon through his determination to compete at the highest level despite a severe disability.
Sir Frank, who first ran a team in F1 in 1969 and set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977 before launching into more than two decades of success, was a quadriplegic after breaking his neck in a car crash in March 1986.
Once he had come through months of recovery and rehabilitation, he launched himself back into F1, a sport he loved with a passion matched by very few, and went on to his greatest achievements.
His team won seven drivers’ titles and nine constructors’ titles, but in recent years had fallen to the back of the grid, and after racking up £13m losses in 2019 it was sold to an investment group in August 2020 and the family stepped aside.
Sir Frank Williams dies aged 79
Williams did not so much love F1 as was consumed by it. Although his health prevented his active involvement in the team for the last few years, he literally lived in the factory. The team he set up was his life – as it always had been.
A measure of his devotion to the sport was that he was prepared to put his own comfort second to the success of his team. When he faced a decision some years ago between building a wind tunnel that would help make the cars go faster and keeping the private plane that allowed him to attend the farthest-flung races, he chose the wind tunnel.
To those who had studied his career closely, this sort of decision was no surprise, for Williams had to endure a number of difficult and painful years of financial struggle before finally establishing himself in the sport.
Sir Frank Williams Cause of Death
From his first venture as a team owner in 1969, Williams went through several guises, all of them awfully uncompetitive and terribly financially insecure.
At one stage, so tight had money become, he was famously operating his business out of a phone booth, after losing the premises he was using.
The breakthrough came in 1977, when he teamed up with the brilliant engineer Patrick Head and became a trend-setter in finding money from the Middle East.
Helped by increased resources allowed by Saudi money, Head’s first car for the team, FW06, established them as serious contenders for the first time in 1978. And from the mid-point of 1979, with the new FW07 – one of history’s great F1 cars – Williams became the sport’s absolute pace-setters.
Poor reliability and an eccentric scoring system cost them the world championship in 1979, but they made no mistake in 1980, with Australian Alan Jones romping to the title.
Jones and his Argentine team-mate Carlos Reutemann both narrowly missed out on a Williams double in 1981 before both quit the sport. But the Finn Keke Rosberg took another title in 1982, albeit one based on consistency after the Ferrari team lost both its lead drivers, one killed and one seriously injured, in remarkably similar accidents, and the faster Renaults were let down by reliability.
As F1’s first turbo era took hold, a new partnership with Honda started slowly in 1984, with just one win, but gathered pace through 1985 until in 1986 Williams again emerged with a dominant car, the FW11.
But before the season even started, Williams’s very future was cast into doubt by its founder’s injury.
Racing his driver Nelson Piquet to the airport in hire cars after a pre-season test in the south of France, Williams turned his car over, and the impact broke his neck. Williams’s team manager Peter Windsor, now a journalist, was in the car with him and was unhurt.
“The car banged over a few times and I’m ashamed to say it was either the sixth or seventh rollover accident I’d had in my life,” Williams said.
“I remember the sharp pain in my neck. I thought: ‘Wow, rolling over isn’t supposed to hurt that much.’ The car finished upside down and I tried to reach for the safety belt to get myself out and I couldn’t do it.
“I knew I was going to have the big one but I couldn’t slow myself down.”
When Williams suffered his injury, he was 43. Doctors pointed out to those close to him that, based on the examples of other people with similar problems, he would be lucky to live another 10 years. It says a lot about his determination and single-mindedness that he managed more than three times that.
Williams had been a very active man and a keen runner, but he was determined to carry on despite the difficulties caused by the accident.