Why the charming F1 boss Williams will be sadly missed
The first Formula 1 race I saw was the 1987 British Grand Prix. We all know the story – Nigel Mansell stops to change tires, continues Nelson Piquet, then dramatically overtakes him for victory, triggering an incredible crowd invasion.
This race made me an F1 fan, but it also made me a Williams fan. Of course, I was only three at the time, but over the next two years I started to recognize the names of Frank Williams and Ron Dennis in the Autosport magazines that would arrive with us in India.
The concept of a man in a wheelchair able to lead a team winning all of these races just seemed amazing to me. He planted this seed in my head that human beings can do anything if their minds and wills are strong enough.
Fast forward to 2002 and a mutual friend of ours, Iain Cunningham, who worked at Williams in the late 1980s and early 1990s, asked if I would like to go to Grove and meet Frank. Complete with a blazer borrowed from my father, I nervously walked into Frank’s office as he sat there with his headphones on, talking on the phone.
I quickly realized during that first conversation that Frank loved to talk about racing more than anything on the planet. It was obviously perfect for an F1 super geek like me! We sat there for almost an hour discussing my Formula 3 season, their current battle against Ferrari and Formula 1 as a whole.
This love for the sport never wavered, even in his later years. I remember several times when I had the opportunity to chat with Frank about racing, and I always thought he would make a hopeless poker player because he couldn’t hide his expressions. His face lit up whenever we spoke of Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Mansell or Juan Pablo Montoya.
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I remember chatting with him after driving the winning FW14B in 1992 at Silverstone, and he beamed with pride when he described the dominance this season.
Williams was joined by several of his former pilots and staff for a commemorative event marking the team’s 40th anniversary in 2017
Photo by: Motorsport images
Frank’s love and passion for the sport was only surpassed by his tenacity. Bernie Ecclestone tells a great story of Frank coming to borrow a few hundred pounds just to get to the next race.
“He always paid me back,” Bernie said. “But while he was paying me back, he was asking me if he could borrow a few thousand dollars. “
Frank was a clerk who slept on people’s couches, ran a business from a phone booth, and worked his way to sponsorship deals that ultimately made the team a world championship winner.
Like anyone with life-changing injuries, Frank’s life can really be split into two halves: before and after the 1986 car crash. One of the constants in both halves, however, was his wife Virginia, who supported him in the late 1970s when he scrambled to raise money, then kept him alive even when doctors often gave up in 1986.
Anyone who has read Virginia’s book Another kind of life will know which mountain they had to climb as a family just to keep him alive, let alone return to work after his accident.
Unlike Chapman or Dennis, who had ambitions of empires outside of F1, Frank’s goals always revolved around motor racing. He was a runner in the purest sense of the word, with no distractions to derail that focus
Over the years, I have become a very close friend of their son Jonathan and also got to know Ginny and their other children Claire and Jamie. Going to watch races with Ginny showed how much of a family business it was where they were all invested in the story. “Don’t worry boys, they’re talking about our cars,” Jonny and I were silent as if we were two children.
In 2019, Jonathan worked with the RofGO collection on the restoration of Frank’s first Formula 1 car, the Brabham BT26 which Piers Courage drove to second place in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1969. We kept it as a surprise for Frank and organized a day at Silverstone where all his family, including the grandchildren, came to watch the car run.
Chandhok cherishes the memory of testing the restored ex-Courage Brabham that Williams lined up in 1969, with the entire Williams family in attendance
The smile on his face when he saw the car was like a five year old on Christmas morning after Santa Claus arrived. The pride of having all of his family there to watch the moment made a cold and wet Silverstone look like the Bahamas. . The passion and love for motor racing has never wavered.
Alongside Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman, Ron Dennis and Ken Tyrrell, Frank was one of the old-fashioned team owners who lived their life for their racing teams. It is thanks to people of their generation who worked alongside (and sometimes against) Ecclestone that the sport is what it is today.
But unlike Chapman or Dennis, who had ambitions of empires outside of F1, Frank’s goals always revolved around motor racing. He was a runner in the truest sense of the word, with no distractions to derail that focus.
But he was also very quick to admit that he didn’t really know how to make racing cars fast. I have heard many stories about the brilliance of Patrick Head or Adrian Newey. He understood that without Patrick he could not achieve the success he wanted so much, and by extension that he had to form a team where the engineers want to work.
Just talk to people like Jock Clear, James Robinson or Geoff Willis and they’ll all tell you how good Williams was for an engineer to develop their F1 career.
Frank’s passing last weekend closed yet another chapter in F1’s storybook. Race wins and world championships are what the public will know. But it is the inspiring and charming leader with the mischievous smile that the world will miss.
Obituary: Sir Frank Williams
Frank Williams and Keke Rosberg in 1985
Photo by: Motorsport images