Frank Williams' fighting spirit

Sir Frank Williams, who died in November aged 79, was a chief protagonist in the Formula 1 story, building a racing team alongside engineer Patrick Head that would take nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ titles. As Nigel Roebuck recounts, Frank’s was a turbocharged career, soured by tragedy, yet he never lost sight of the goal – the need to win

Frank Williams with clipboard and headphones

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Back in the day, when life was in Technicolor and major companies were queueing to sponsor Formula 1 teams, Jackie Stewart used every January to organise a charity clay pigeon shooting event at Gleneagles. Most of the teams participated, and their backers gave handsomely to the cause. These occasions were savoured, not least because everyone involved – drivers and team owners included – was for once off duty, having fun.

Each year, sponsored by Ford, there was also a journalists’ team, of which I was a member. Everyone who attended has their memories of these get-togethers, and if mine are mainly of laughter and good fellowship, one from 1986 remains poignant. As my wife and I drove out of Gleneagles on Monday morning, Frank Williams was just starting his daily run, and waved as he passed by.

A month or so later we were in New York, meeting old friend Gordon Kirby for lunch, and he it was who broke the news that Frank was in hospital, paralysed after a terrible road accident. At the time his life hung in the balance, but wonderful work by his doctors, together with his own fierce determination, pulled him through, albeit for ever confined to a wheelchair.

His first public appearance came at Brands Hatch in July, where a huge British Grand Prix crowd stood and cheered him home. There was always a huge well of affection for Frank Williams, as apparent in the grandstands as in the press room. “If he lives 10 years, he’ll do very well,” Professor Sid Watkins told me that weekend. In the event, by the time we said good-bye to Frank, 35 had gone by.

Frank Williams with Nelson Piquet

For the 1986 season, Frank – wheelchair-bound since his accident in March – recruited Nelson Piquet, right, to partner Nigel Mansell


“He was always a very pragmatic character,” said Patrick Head. “In the old days when Frank didn’t have any money for engines, or whatever, his attitude was always, ‘How am I going to get out of this?’ He dealt with whatever was in front of him, that’s the point. He was never one to say, ‘It’s not fair’ – he was always able to cope with whatever he’d been presented with, and it was exactly the same with his accident.

“Of course at the time he must have had massive regrets – driving too quickly, rolling the car, having the roof cave in… But once it had happened, his attitude was, ‘OK, this is what I have left to me – how am I going to make the best of it?’ Frank was tough. He had astonishing self-discipline, and used it to get the best from the faculties that he had.”

The accident occurred at the end of a test session at Paul Ricard, and Williams, accompanied by Peter Windsor, was “rushing to catch a flight”. Facing his predicament, he never fell prey to self-pity. “There was no one else to blame – it was my own fault. Peter was unhurt, thank God – if it had been the other way round, with him the one injured… I’m not sure how I’d have coped with that.”

“Racing was a lot of fun in those days, like being on a high all the time. We seemed to have it made”

Almost never did Williams make any reference to his physical limitations, although I recall a conversation some years later, when he referred – almost as a slip of the tongue – to the accident as, “The day I topped myself”.

I remember, too, his response when I said to him, at the end of a successful season, “So you’re a happy man, Frank.” “Well, I’m not a happy man, Nige, because I’m sitting here, in this bloody thing! No, seriously, prior to the accident I was a lot more… up front, and there might well have been one clash of wills too many between Patrick and myself. As it was, my life changed, and in many ways, perhaps it worked out for the better…”

Williams began his Formula 1 adventure in 1969, somehow raising the cash to buy a Brabham, complete with Cosworth DFV, for Piers Courage to drive. They were close friends of long standing, these two, having competed together in the freewheeling, sometimes brutal, Formula 3 ‘continental circus’. “As a racing driver,” Frank said, “I was only too aware of my limitations, but Piers obviously had serious talent.”


Second place at Monaco in 1969 for Frank Williams Racing Cars, with Piers Courage driving


Even in the 1960s Courage was something of an anachronism, a throwback to the days of Tim Birkin. This eldest son of the Courage brewery chairman knew nothing beyond wealth, until deciding on a career in racing.

“His background,” Frank said, “rather worked against him – people assumed he couldn’t be tough enough, and also that he had access to money, which wasn’t the case. He was like all of us – broke. He used to crash fairly regularly in the F3 days, and you’d doubt me if I told you we used to try and straighten out the chassis by pushing it against a wall with another car! But that’s what we did.”

The F1 venture began splendidly, Courage finishing second at Monaco and Watkins Glen in ’69, and the following year Williams ran a new Dallara-designed car from De Tomaso. “These days,” he said, “drivers are very…commercially minded, let’s say, but Piers didn’t view racing like that. For 1970 he got an offer from Ferrari, but he’d already agreed to drive for me, and never thought of going back on his word. For the drivers of today it would have been no contest.

Piers Courage at Monaco in Frank Williams De Tomaso

At Monaco in 1970, Courage raced a Williams-run De Tomaso. Weeks later he’d die at Zandvoort

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“The De Tomaso was terrible at first, but by mid-season we were becoming competitive. Racing was a lot of fun in those days, like being on a high all the time, and everything was coming along strongly. We seemed to have it made – here was this society golden boy driving for the team! Great-looking fellow, charming, beautiful wife, all that stuff.

“As it was, when Patrick Head joined me, night turned to day”

“I particularly recall one afternoon with him and Sally in Monaco. We were sitting in a cheap old café, with everyone stopping by to say hello, and I remember thinking that their life was almost too good to be true, and just couldn’t go on…”

In an accident at Zandvoort, three weeks after the death of Bruce McLaren, Courage was killed. “In every respect,” Williams remembered, “life got very tough the next day. I can’t say I considered getting out of the business, but after Piers died it was a matter of going racing for different reasons. I was devastated. Every one of his contemporaries came to his funeral, which says a lot about the bloke. In the ’60s and ’70s we buried a lot of drivers, didn’t we?”

For Williams, the first half of the 1970s were the days of scraping a living, and only he knew how the team survived. For several months in ’74, when the factory was on a trading estate in Reading, he was reduced to operating from a phone box – “Couldn’t pay the bloody bill!” – and came to rely on loans from Bernie Ecclestone, then increasingly taking control of Formula 1.

“I remember one occasion, when I hadn’t paid him back on the due date. A blue Transit arrived, and three blokes got out. They came into the factory, picked up a DFV, and carried it out. Not a word was said! I got the engine back four months later, when I paid Bernie…”

Frank Williams in gargae with Ford engine at 1974 Canadian Grand Prix

Frank at the 1974 Canadian GP


Financial stability arrived in the shape of Canadian Walter Wolf, who bought a majority shareholding in Frank Williams Racing Cars, at the same time acquiring the assets of Hesketh Racing, whose cars the team ran without success in 1976. It wasn’t a situation Frank enjoyed; at the end of the year he set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

Unkind as it sounds, most of us saw this enterprise as simply ‘more of the same’. Williams had been involved in F1 for some years now, with uncompetitive cars and a chronic shortage of cash. Most thought of the team as a sort of British Gordini, but I never forgot a conversation with Ken Tyrrell in 1974: “A lot of people don’t take Frank seriously, but there’s no one in this paddock who wants to succeed more than he does – if he ever gets himself financially organised, watch out.”

Jacques Laffite, Williams’ best driver in the hand-to-mouth years, was of the same opinion. “When I drove for Frank, it was very hard, but I really enjoyed my time with him. I never doubted that if he ever got proper backing, the success would come.”


A restless mind at the 1974 Spanish GP in an Iso-Cosworth.

Grand Prix Photo

As Williams parted from Wolf, so also – to Frank’s surprise – did a young engineer, one Patrick Head, who agreed to be part of the new enterprise. “I knew he was good, but I’d no idea he would progress so much – he was simply the best available. As it was, when Patrick joined me, night turned to day. This is his team as much as mine.”

After a stop-gap year with a March, the new team built its first car, the Williams FW06, and one winter morning early in 1978 we were invited to view it. At the time the company had 11 employees, one named Ross Brawn.

What we saw that day was a svelte car, to be driven by Alan Jones. At the time regarded as a good professional rather than a potential world champion, still his signing gave the team’s image a lift, and a further one came from new sponsor, the airline Saudia – whose representatives arrived by helicopter. As we left Didcot, we were all of a mind that this time Frank had something serious going.

Jones and FW06 made a fine impression in 1978, their best finish a second at Watkins Glen, but the ’79 car reset the Williams team’s standing in F1. FW07, a true ground effect car, was on the pace from the start, and Clay Regazzoni, brought in to partner Jones, gave Frank his first grand prix win, at Silverstone. Tears are rarely shed in an F1 press room, but I noted some that day.

Afterwards, in those simpler times, there was an informal press conference – in a tent, I remember – where Clay shook his boss’s hand. “Bravo, Frank,” he said quietly, and it was an emotional moment for everyone present. Williams himself could hardly speak, and barely – as a lifelong non-smoker and teetotaller – knew what to do when someone pressed a scotch and a cigar into his hands. To the end of his life, this remained his most treasured racing memory.

After that, the dam really burst, and Jones went on a tear, winning the next three races: for the balance of the year FW07 was the car to beat, not quite stealing the championships from Jody Scheckter and Ferrari, but close.

The following year there was no stopping Alan, and as he became world champion, so the team won the first of its nine constructors’ titles. For Williams, Head and Jones these were the happiest of times.

Alan Jones celebrates at the end of 1980 British Grand Prix

Alan Jones salutes at the close of the 1980 British GP, Brands Hatch

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Over the years it was always a pleasure to interview Frank – and Patrick – because they resolutely said what they thought. Consider Mr Head’s response at Monaco a few years ago during a discussion of the high-degradation tyres then prevalent in F1. The suggestion was that this was requested by the powers-that-be, seeking to improve ‘The Show’, but Patrick offered an alternative explanation: “Has it not crossed anyone’s mind that these might just be the best tyres Pirelli is capable of making?”

Frank ditto. Although in his later years, as the stranglehold of PR tightened, he became less irreverent in his utterances for public consumption, most of the time he didn’t hold back. “The first thing to remember,” he cheerfully said to me one day, “is that all the really great drivers are bastards. They might come across as nice guys, and quite often they are – until the other nice guy beats them! I don’t hold that against them – it’s the way they’re made, and what makes them great: they must win.

“The thing is, we’re in this to win, too, so – as you can see from some of the drivers we’ve employed – I’d rather have a quick guy who’s a pain than a nice one who’s a second off the pace, even if that doesn’t make life easy.”

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When Kazuki Nakajima joined Williams in 2008, Frank, eyes twinkling, expressed optimism that he had the right attitude. “On his debut, in Brazil [in the final race of 2007], he came into the pits a bit too quickly, and knocked down one of the mechanics. Later he set the fifth-fastest lap – and never once got on the radio to ask if he’d hurt anyone. I thought that was a bloody good sign!”

Back to Jones, and the end of a Williams era. When Alan decided to retire at the end of 1981, informing his boss at Monza, very late in the day to find a top-level replacement, Frank didn’t hide his displeasure when I visited him just before Christmas.

“I don’t think Alan’s late decision was deliberate – it’s just that he’s a very inconsiderate person. You have to be realistic about drivers, to accept that most of them are in it to make as much money as they can – and as soon as they’re satisfied… gone, right? We’ve had problems with him and Carlos (Reutemann) this year, and to be honest I just found that very boring. They’re only employees, after all. All I care about is Williams Grand Prix Engineering, and the points we earn – don’t give a toss who scores them…”

Even in the old days, you didn’t get quotes like that from other team owners. No surprise that we loved the Williams team like no
other. When flashy new car launches were fashionable, it was always the trip to Didcot that we anticipated with most pleasure, because the ambience would be informal, because Frank and Patrick treated us like friends, and had the confidence to be honest. Dry wit counted for rather more than dry ice. Then they’d go off and win the first race.

Keke Rosberg with Patrick Head and Frank Williams

Keke Rosberg was Williams’ second world champion

Williams Racing

For all his saying that they were ‘only employees’, Williams always had a reverence for racing drivers, in particular those who were natural chargers – Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Juan Pablo Montoya, overwhelmingly Ayrton Senna.

“That was something I shared with Enzo Ferrari,” Frank said. “I never admired him, as such, because he had such a disruptive influence on motor racing, but I deeply admired his success. The only other thing we had in common was our esteem for Margaret Thatcher – Enzo told me how he wished she could rule Italy.” A framed photograph of Maggie hung on the wall in Frank’s office: “The last politician who said what she was going to do, and did it.”

“Ayrton came to Williams and in three races everything crumbled”

If Williams and Head – ‘Frank and Patrick’, as they were in the paddock – remembered the Jones era as their favourite time, it was merely the beginning of a long period in which the team was at the forefront of F1, invariably competitive, sometimes dominant. Rosberg was their second world champion, in 1982, followed over time by Piquet, Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.

Relationships within the team were sometimes difficult: “If I think back to 1987, when we had Mansell and Piquet,” said Williams, “we’d finish 1-2, and the loudest noise afterwards would be the moaning of the guy who’d finished second…”


Nigel Mansell is delighted with his pole at Monaco in ’92 – a golden season for Williams with Mansell the title winner and Patrese runner-up

Grand Prix Photo

Occasionally, too, decisions taken – notably to fire Hill at the end of 1996 – were not easy to fathom. “Damon disappointed us in ’95, and that was when we decided that, at the end of his contract, we would go with Heinz-Harald Frentzen instead. As it was, Damon transformed himself in ’96 and won the championship, after which we got nowhere with Frentzen! Not our shining hour…”

Overwhelmingly, of course, the low point in the team’s history came at Imola in 1994, when Ayrton Senna was killed.

It was in a Williams, at Donington 11 years earlier, that Senna first experienced a Formula 1 car, and from the first Frank was a committed fan.

“I should have signed Ayrton on the spot, but at the time we were pretty embedded in a policy of going only for experienced drivers. As soon as he was into F1, though, I regretted that I hadn’t taken him – it was obvious he was something very special.”

Frank Williams with Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill

Ayrton Senna joined Williams in 1994 as team-mate to Damon Hill


Over time the two men kept in contact. “Sometimes it was twice a week, sometimes a couple of months apart, but we never lost touch. Ayrton just loved to talk motor racing – get him on the phone, and you couldn’t get him off it. I used to love those chats, and I was thrilled when he eventually agreed to join us.

“We had a difficult car at the beginning of 1994, and yet he was on pole position at each of his three races. Quite remarkable. Everyone in the company was truly shattered by what happened at Imola. At the end of the day the fact is that Ayrton Senna died in a Williams car, and that’s an enormously important responsibility. Quite apart from anything else, I feel embarrassed that Ayrton never got a fair crack of the whip at Williams. He’d come from McLaren, after six years… brilliant career there, massive achievement… came here, and in three races everything crumbled…”

Never a man to spare himself, Frank Williams. How, I wondered, had he contrived to focus on the fact that, whatever else, Monaco was only a few days’ hence?

“It comes naturally, I suppose. Ayrton was clever, shrewd, focused, tough – all the things I admired – and, as with Piers, I remember
a great sadness, but I don’t remember any particular difficulty in going to work, or turning up at Monaco. You’ve got to do it.”

Frank Williams portrait

And do it he always did. Williams lived Formula 1, and that never changed, even when his team’s great years were long in the past. After Montoya’s victory at Interlagos in 2004, eight years would go by before Pastor Maldonado put another on the board at Barcelona, the last race attended by Frank’s beloved wife, Ginny, who died of cancer in 2013. Without her, he always said, he would never have made it.

Over time the state of his health kept him from going to the races, so that his occasional appearance in a paddock was greeted with pleasure by all those who loved him. Frank Williams had a greater passion for Formula 1 than anyone else I have known, as I remember from all those Sunday phone calls, when he – of course – was in the factory, and just wanted to talk racing. “The perfect Formula 1 car? Easy – 1000 horsepower, and no downforce!” There was no one like him, nor ever will be.