The history man

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Sir Frank Williams’s achievements in motor racing are great and well-known. But, as Rob Widdows discovers, he’s also passionate about military aircraft and possesses a deep knowledge of Wellington and the Napoleonic Wars

Frank Williams is principal of the sole surviving truly independent team in grand prix racing. For the last four decades, during which a steering wheel has become a console with more buttons than a PlayStation and budgets have kept on gathering noughts, he has fought to keep his team at the top.

Many people already know all this.

But Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams, CBE, has other passions in his life, namely military history and its aircraft. He takes a keen interest in politics, too, in life itself. A boyish enthusiasm for these things brings out the best in him, stokes that fire in his heart, polishes that sparkle in his eyes. 

Not so many people know this side of the man.

Approaching the Williams headquarters at Grove a road sign welcomes careful drivers. This is a message from the local council rather than from the racers who have settled in this rural community. More relevant perhaps would be ‘Grove Welcomes Real Racers’, the love of feisty drivers being a core ingredient of this team.

Inside, on a marble floor, sits FW07 chassis number two, the car in which Clay Regazzoni gave Williams its first Formula One victory: the 1979 British GP at Silverstone. Alongside it is a FW15C, the one with all the bells and whistles that gave Alain Prost a walk in the park in 1993. The green and white FW07, though, is the icon. With it, Frank’s new partnership with designer Patrick Head turned a corner and laid a foundation that’s allowed it to survive the constant dangers of the GP jungle. (Head says it’s because he and Frank don’t happen across each other very often!)

Upstairs, Williams waits in his understated office, his lair, overlooking neatly mown lawns in the spring sunshine. An Englishman in his castle, mug of tea on his desk, quietly getting on with the business of trying to win motor races. On his bookshelves are models of FW07 – of course – F15 and F22 fighter planes and a B52 bomber.

“I love talking about history,” Frank grins. “I was thinking, if you had a film of the battle of Waterloo, you’d have the world’s most watched film by a billion dollars.” History then, and a glimpse of the business brain ticking away.

“I failed to get into Sandhurst,” he continues, “and that’s always annoyed me. As a boy I wanted to go into the army, and I think that’s where my interest in military history began. And reading War and Peace, of course. You know, I was nine years old when the Korean War was on and I took a big interest. I was brought up to believe that English people are the best, a cut above the rest of the world, and I hated it when the British took a beating from the Chinese. There was a massive bombing campaign and I wanted to go out there and help them. I’ve always taken these things personally.

“I have this fascination with the military: the commanding officers, the soldiers, the uniforms, the discipline and the marching. I remember so vividly, as a young man, seeing the Irish Guards marching through London. I was driving along the Embankment and the police had stopped all the traffic. There they were, marching from A to B, and I was just goggle-eyed, I don’t know why. All those wonderful dark green greatcoats, perfectly in step, the precision, the orderliness, such a fantastic thing. I’m biased. I’m partisan, a patriot, maybe too patriotic, you could say, but I couldn’t care less what other people think,” he grins, animated by the subject. “But I’m not sure I would have got too far in the army. I’m probably too much of a free spirit. And, you know, those senior men, the colonels, the air chief marshals and the admirals, they are highly intelligent men.”

So his fascination with all things military had no bearing on his long and arduous campaign to bring his team to the pinnacle of the sport?

“Not really. Patrick comes from a military family, going back 200 years, some of them senior men. His great-grandfather fought at Waterloo. His sense of organisation and discipline is better than mine in many ways, so I looked after the business side.”

The last 200 years are the focus of Frank’s passionate thirst for knowledge. “Yes, the Duke of Wellington especially, that whole period. I love to see the great houses they lived in; they are so full of English social history. You can learn a lot from looking round these houses: the paintings, the furniture, the books, the clothes they wore, and the way they lived. This is history coming alive in front of you.”

He takes a sip of tea. “The movies are always so far from the truth, not like a good documentary, genuine footage, which gives you a real insight into the times and what went on. That’s why I watch a lot of Discovery Channel. The rest of TV is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.”

Frank is intrigued by the idea of a journey back in time, and thinks about where he might like to go.

“Well, not to Roman times, too barbaric,” he says. “If God would take me back, just for two weeks, and look after me when I got there, I’d have to choose the time of Wellington and Napoleon and all those bloodthirsty battles. The world was half-civilised by then. There was such a sense of pride and honour in your country. It was a more romantic time. So much romance has been driven out of life today. 

“The First World War fascinates me, too: how the soldiers lived and fought in those terrible conditions, so many men dying. It’s extraordinary, but going back a century or more, people went to watch the battles, sort of spectators. I’ve seen this in pictures of the fighting in Belgium in the Great War.”

Frank’s passion for aircraft has its roots in the military, too, not from his father who was an RAF officer, but from a friend in the United States Air Force. “No, I didn’t really know my father, so it wasn’t his background at all,” explains Frank. “But I can truly say that one of the greatest thrills of my life so far was when a friend of mine, a colonel in the USAF, took me to see his F15E Strike Eagle squadron at the time of the first Gulf War. We went to his base in California, and there they were, four of them, lined up on the runway. The F15E was state of the art at the time, a pure two-seater fighter plane. He took me right up to the planes in an old Chevy truck and we watched them take off, two by two. He was in radio contact, asked me if I wanted to see an afterburner take-off. Of course I did!” That boyish grin is back. “The pilots saluted, the ground shook, a jerk forward as the brakes were let off, and they were away, rocketing upwards and out over the Pacific Ocean.” He looks at the ceiling. “Sheer power, muscle and noise, just the biggest turn-on. I will be babbling about it when I die. Now the F22 is a generation ahead of anything else on the planet. Only the Americans can support the cost of such a sophisticated aircraft.”

Frank recalls watching the Farnborough Airshow while he was in hospital in 1986, and feeling proud of the RAF and its prowess. “Yes,” he says, “it was not long after I’d broken my neck. I watched a lot of TV then. I remember the old Eurofighter cruising in for a few seconds, and then it was gone. Its rival, the French Rafael, then performed a brilliant display of 9g turns and other spectacular manoeuvres which put the Eurofighter to shame. A very embarrassing moment.”

But it hasn’t only been a spectator sport. 

“I went for a ride in a Gloster Meteor with Mac Daghorn, a Rolls-Royce test pilot [and racing driver]. That was pretty good. When we rolled out of the cloud, upside down, that was amazing. I never saw the [English Electric] Lightning for real, but I saw the Royal Navy Phantom jets at Yeovilton – that was my first taste of the sheer power and excitement of these aircraft.”

We pause for breath and reflect upon more recent history. Frank has devoted a huge part of his life to creating his own little chapter in history. A microcosm maybe, but nonetheless a remarkable achievement. But how much longer can he remain independent in a global village squeezed ever smaller by merger and acquisition?

“As long as there is the will to do so, that’s quite straightforward,” he responds instantly, “and both Patrick and I have the will to do so for a long time to come. 

“The main challenge is finance. We simply cannot afford all the experiments and development of the bigger teams and they have all got some very clever people. We have to finish all the races, which we abysmally failed to do last year, and try to be competitive at all the circuits. That’s not easy but it’s not impossible, and it all has to be financed. We get power from our people who work for us, and as long as they enjoy what they do, we will keep going.

“Last season wasa disaster and it hurt. But things change. Life is full of ups and downs. We don’t know what lies five, or 10, years ahead, but the world is more corporate and more profitable, and that’s good for us as more people are therefore able to support F1.”

 Frank is very much in touch with reality. He is keenly aware of the growing unrest over climate change and the gathering pace of the environmental movement. He is not alone in his concerns for the future prosperity of the business in which he has a major interest.

“Oh, I would rather go back to talking about history,” he grins, “but, yes, I’m conscious of the environmental movement. I do not fear it, as we have a robust defence. We have to deliver leaner, cleaner and more efficient engines, and we have to use greener fuels. I believe that Max Mosley and the FIA are taking the sport in the right direction, and we have extraordinary people like Bernie Ecclestone who is a very clever man. 

“The pace of development in this area is becoming faster and faster. And nothing drives research and development quicker than F1, which is why the major manufacturers stay involved. They want to fast-track this technology, they need to sell cars, and I think the manufacturers will be with us for a long time yet.”

He sees a need for change, a social responsibility, and more than most of the big players in the game he can put this into context. “Maybe there are too many political loons. I mean, we can’t all walk to work, and there is no single solution. Putting taxes on people’s holiday flights is not the answer. We have to be ready with an answer, yes, but it has to be the correct response. You will never take away man’s innate desire for mobility, and if you accept that you have to accept that the car will be around for several more decades, at least. 

“In Formula One, as an adjunct to the motor car industry, we have to deliver changes, and those targets for greener engines and green energy are already in place from 2008. It will be very expensive, but we all, especially our major manufacturer partners, need to ensure that our responsibilities are executed.”

History is the hobby. F1 is the business, and very much the future, for the racer who, against odds that would have beaten most, has done much to keep the British flag flying in the most cut-throat of sports. Sir Frank would surely have found a soulmate in the Duke of Wellington. Different times and different battlefields, but there’s the same intense patriotism and will to win. 

A famous anecdote from June 18, 1815, illustrates the phlegm required by this type of man. One of the last cannon balls fired during the battle of Waterloo hit the Duke of Wellington’s right-hand man, Field Marshal William Henry Paget, who had led the charge of the heavy cavalry. Turning to Wellington, he said, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg.” To which the ‘Iron Duke’ is reported to have replied, “By God, sir, so you have.”

Sir Frank Williams is a man who knows a thing or two about courage, a quality he admires in others, not least those who race his cars. As he sends his FW29s into battle this year, another chapter of his motor racing history will be written. And you can be sure that nobody at Grove will be resting on the laurels won in previous chapters.