Almost unbelievably, this year marks the 47th consecutive season that Frank Williams has fielded a Formula 1 team. The first Grand Prix with a Williams entry on the grid was in Barcelona on May 4 1969. Ferrari and McLaren, as marques, can claim a longer history: but no single man has run his own F1 outfit for so long. Along the way his cars have racked up seven world championships for drivers and nine for constructors. Having received the CBE in 1987, Frank was knighted in 1999, made a member of the Motor Sport Hall of Fame in 2011 and is also a member of the French Légion d’Honneur.
For any man, this would add up to an extraordinarily full and successful life. But in Frank’s case it is something far greater. It has been achieved despite a cataclysmic road accident in 1986 that left him almost totally paralysed, and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. In the ensuing 29 years he has continued to run his team, continued to win Grands Prix, continued to earn world championships. He will say this is because he has been fortunate to have around him a superbly talented and highly motivated team: but none of it could have happened without his inspiring leadership. In fact, if you spend any time with Frank Williams, inspiring is the word that leaps to mind. He is an inspiration, not just within the self-obsessed, inward-looking world of F1, but to all of us in a wider world.
I got to know Frank even before his first impoverished steps into F1, during his early ramshackle days as a Formula 3 privateer. By 1968 he was running a Formula 2 Brabham for his friend Piers Courage, and the two of them were always good for a gossip in the paddock: Piers elegant, laid-back, already brilliantly quick in the cockpit; Frank razor-sharp, always on the look-out for a deal, always wanting to pick a journalist’s brains to learn who was doing what and to whom. Both of them were hugely entertaining, their schoolboy humour and sense of fun barely below the surface even when things weren’t going well. Yet both were serious, professional racers, and both possessed an indomitable will to win. And, strapped for cash though they were, that BT23C was invariably the most immaculately turned-out car on the grid.
Courage heads for second place in 1969 Monaco GP
It was run out of a lock-up that also had to house the second-hand racing car parts that Frank was buying and selling to keep body and soul together. Even his powerful ambition could surely not have foreseen that the lock-up would become the massive sprawling complex of buildings that makes up the Grove headquarters of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, housing a staff of more than 650 people. This is where I’m seeing Frank today and, although much has changed in the 50 years since we first met, his sense of humour has not. His voice is weaker now: sometimes speaking for long periods is an effort. But his eyes twinkle and his enthusiasm for racing bubbles out, as it always has. Soon we are laughing over his memories of F1 then, and his take on F1 now.
Frank’s first steps in motor sport have been oft documented. Aged 20 he was racing an Austin A35, which he destroyed comprehensively at Gerard’s Bend at Mallory Park. A couple of laps earlier the unrelated Jonathan Williams had done the same in his Mini. “I crawled out of the rear window of the wreck and heard a voice above me say, ‘I thought I’d meet you sooner or later’. That was my first meeting with Jonathan. He gave me a hand up onto the bank and we watched the rest of the race.” Back in the paddock Jonathan introduced Frank to a tall Old Etonian friend who’d come along to give him a hand: his name was Piers Courage.
The A35’s running gear was built into an A40 bodyshell, and Jonathan also bought an A40, so they raced against each other during 1962. Meanwhile Piers built up a Lotus 7 out of a kit and went racing in that. In 1963 Jonathan decided to move up to single-seaters with a Formula Junior Merlyn, and Frank threw in his job as a Yorkshire rep for Campbell’s Soup to become his acting unpaid mechanic, living a gypsy existence around the lesser European circuits. Somehow, by 1965, Frank had scraped together the funds to borrow an old F3 Brabham and race it himself. He slept on a sofa in that notorious flat in Pinner Road, Harrow, whose shifting population included fellow racers Charlie Crichton-Stuart, Charles Lucas, Piers, Jonathan, ‘Bubbles’ Horsley and, on occasion, Innes Ireland. A long book could be filled with stories about the itinerant friends struggling from race to race across Europe with increasingly battered F3 cars: at one stage, desperate to get to the next race for the starting money, Piers stood the bent chassis frame of his badly shunted Brabham against a wall and reversed his tow-car into it to get it a bit straighter.
But Frank had higher ambitions. He managed to buy a second-hand Cooper of his own, and then a new Brabham, funding it by buying and selling bits and pieces among his fellow F3 racers. Then he graduated into dealing in single-seaters, calling himself Frank Williams (Racing Cars) Ltd. Piers had developed into by far the most talented driver of their crowd, and Frank decided to set aside his own efforts as a racing driver to go halves with Piers on a new F2 Brabham for 1968. Their budget was tight and there were retirements and accidents, but Piers invariably showed great speed. Then Frank found enough sponsors to buy one of the ex-works Brabham F1 cars and a couple of 2.5-litre Cosworth engines to do the Tasman Series. Against works Lotuses and Ferraris, Piers won the Teretonga International in New Zealand, and finished third in the series behind Chris Amon and Jochen Rindt.
Chatting to world champion Alan Jones in Brazil 1981
Now Frank was determined to go Grand Prix racing, somehow. “I wanted a current Brabham BT26 chassis, the same as the works cars. Ron Tauranac wouldn’t sell me one, of course, but I found he’d flogged one to a British club racer called David Bridges, on the understanding that it would be converted to F5000. I got myself up to Lancashire and persuaded him to sell it to me. Ron was absolutely livid, because I now had a chassis that was the same as the works cars.” Despite a desperate lack of funds BT26/1 was immaculately prepared, and Piers was immediately quick. In their second Grand Prix, Monaco, he finished runner-up to the Lotus of reigning world champion Graham Hill, only 17sec behind after 80 laps: an extraordinary performance from a little privateer team.
“Formula 1 was very different then, in those pre-Bernie days. Seven of us went to Monaco: me, three mechanics, the truckie, Piers and his wife Sally. Sally did the timekeeping. I was paid £900 to turn up with one car, and £900 didn’t go very far in Monte Carlo, even then. I had to borrow money from Piers to pay the hotel bill.” But that second place meant that the F1 establishment now had to take Frank and Piers seriously: even more so when Piers repeated it at Watkins Glen.
For the 1970 season Frank was approached by Alejandro de Tomaso, who wanted to move into F1 with a car designed by the talented Gian Paolo Dallara. De Tomaso provided three chassis, but Frank had to come up with funds to pay for the engines and the running of the team. Meanwhile Piers, having been one of the sensations of 1969, was offered a well-paid works drive by none other than Ferrari. Unhesitatingly Piers said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He wanted to stay with his good friend Frank. The first De Tomaso chassis was badly overweight, but the second chassis was lighter, and Piers worked intelligently with Dallara to improve the car.
Typically Frank and Piers referred to the car (which was turned out in Italian racing red) as the Tomato, and Frank still does. “The Tomato could have been very good. Dallara was clever, and Alejandro was married to an American named Isabelle Haskell, who was related to the Ford family. He was trying to get Ford in Detroit interested in F1, and if that had happened a lot of money would have come our way to go into the programme.”
In the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort Piers was running strongly, and had worked up to seventh place by quarter-distance, when he got off-line in the 140mph sweeps at the back of the circuit. The Tomato hit the bank, overturned and at once became an inferno. The primitive fire facilities meant Piers couldn’t be reached, but he was almost certainly killed instantly, for his crash helmet had been torn off during the accident.
“After that everything collapsed, and de Tomaso walked away. I adored Piers. We had a very close friendship, and when he died it was hurtful in many ways. I was 28 years old, and I wasn’t used to something like that blowing up in my face. So to keep going after that was hard work. But it never occurred to me to stop. We missed the next Grand Prix out of respect, and then we plugged on with our remaining chassis. Brian Redman drove for us, and then Tim Schenken. It was a terrible year with Bruce [McLaren, killed in testing at Goodwood], and then Jochen [Rindt, killed at Monza]. I was very close to Jochen, ever since our F3 days. I first met him at Wunstorf, one of those airfield races with straw bales forming the layout. In practice I watched this guy in a year-old Cooper and I thought, ‘I have never seen car control like that.’ He was just spectacular. Then when he came to England to do F2 races we’d travel around together. I became his biggest fan.”
Keeping an eye on rookie Nico Rosberg’s FW28 in 2006
The next few seasons were very tough for Frank, endlessly searching for supporters and sponsors to add a little to the pot in return for a sticker on the cars. In 1971 and ’72 he ran Marches: in F1 for Carlos Pace and for Henri Pescarolo, who brought Motul money, and in F2 for Pescarolo, Derek Bell and others. He first became a constructor in his own right in 1973, with a car designed by Len Bailey and engineered by a freelancing Ron Tauranac. Sponsorship came first from Politoys and then from Marlboro and the Italian Iso Rivolta company, the cars now being called Iso-Marlboros. From 1974 the chassis were given type numbers FW01, FW02 and so on. Drivers included Howden Ganley, Nanni Galli, Arturo Merzario and Jacques Laffite.
Always financial disaster was kept barely at arm’s length. A story that did the rounds at the time was that Frank had to carry on his business from a public call box, because the phone at the factory had been cut off. Frank ruefully admits that this was true for a while. But, ever inventive, he usually managed to find some way of robbing Peter to pay Paul and keep one step ahead of the bailiffs.
By early 1975 things were desperate. That was when Gian Paolo Dallara introduced Frank to the brash, ebullient oil millionaire Walter Wolf, who gradually fed money into the team. As Walter told me recently (Lunch With Walter Wolf, December): “I agreed to buy him an engine, and by the end of that season I had bought him 11 engines.” He went on to buy 60 per cent of the team, in return for paying off all the debts, and he also took over the Hesketh assets, so that the Hesketh 308C became the FW05. “I was financially exhausted when Walter turned up. He was a tough businessman, but now there was enough for us to pay the bills as we went along.”
But while Frank remains grateful to Walter, he did not enjoy being essentially an employee – especially when Peter Warr was hired as team manager. At the beginning of 1977 he decided he had to leave and start afresh. He sold his remaining shares in the team to Wolf, and on the proceeds Williams Grand Prix Engineering was born. And, in a move that was to prove the best deal of his life, he persuaded a young engineer he’d hired before the Wolf takeover to come with him. That young engineer was Patrick Head.
“Now things began to be different. Before we’d just been bumbling from one technical crisis to the next, because I’d never managed to find a decent engineer. In those days there didn’t seem to be many fully qualified university graduate youngsters around. Patrick was part of a new wave, and whatever he did was driven by engineering logic. We went on to benefit from that logic, and from his dedication and his design flair, time and time again.”
Their partnership was to endure for 35 years, and a succession of seminal and winning F1 cars flowed from Patrick’s drawing board.
Smiles weren’t a constant with Jones and Reutemann in 1981
Even when he left Williams Grand Prix in 2012, it was to devote his energies to a subsidiary company, Williams Hybrid Power. Frank is quick to acknowledge Patrick’s massive contribution to the team’s success: “The two of us were complementary. We had separate tasks, and we got on well. He pushed himself very hard, but he was a bit bossy. I’m never bossy, I’ll always give a bit. He is a strong character, and he’s a great bloke. I’m still full of admiration for him.”
That 1977 season was a stop-gap year, with Frank running a March for Patrick Neve while Patrick designed the FW06. In another smart move Frank signed as his singleton driver the talented young Australian Alan Jones, who had already won the Austrian Grand Prix for Shadow.
“Alan was a tremendous asset to the team. They don’t make them like that any more, sadly. He and Patrick understood each other, they needed each other to get the best out of themselves. There was a lot of mutual respect there.” Now there was decent sponsorship from Saudia Airlines, and the neat, light FW06 was strong straight out of the box, invariably qualifying well. In 1978 niggling problems meant there was only one podium, second at Watkins Glen, but for 1979 Clay Regazzoni joined to bring Williams up to a full two-car team, and the FW07 was supremely competitive. “Thanks to Patrick we found ourselves with a very superior car, and we pretty much blitzed everybody.” Jones won four out of the last six Grands Prix of 1979, with Regazzoni taking the first victory at Silverstone after Jones was stopped by water pump failure, and the team was second to Ferrari in the constructors championship. In 1980 Jones won five rounds, Regazzoni’s replacement Carlos Reutemann won one. Jones was world champion, Williams was champion constructor. And it was barely five years since Frank had been running his team from a public phone box, with the bailiffs hammering on the door.
The season-by-season story of Williams Grand Prix from then on is familiar, and in my conversation with Frank his memories are of people rather than individual races. “We won the constructors championship again in 1981, although Nelson Piquet, who was at Brabham then, beat Carlos to the title by one point. In 1982 Keke Rosberg won the title for us. Keke always had massive self-confidence, he came at you with a swagger, a bit pompous. But what Patrick and I liked about him was that he told it to you straight, even if that sometimes meant a bit of aggro. And he was very quick.”
Neither were they with Mansell and Piquet in 1986-87
Bernie Ecclestone, then owner of the Brabham team, had formed the Formula One Constructors’ Association in 1974 with Colin Chapman of Lotus, Teddy Mayer of McLaren, Max Mosley of March, Ken Tyrrell and Frank. Eventually he sold Brabham to concentrate on his FOCA role. Frank has nothing but good to say about Bernie. “Until he arrived, F1 was just another European motoring activity, but he was the one who realised that it was seriously under-developed commercially.
He saw the opportunity. The team bosses never thought Bernie was getting too big for his boots, because his brilliant negotiating powers were able to secure very good deals for us for each and every Grand Prix. He is hugely clever, which everybody knows, but people on the outside don’t realise that he also has a fantastic sense of humour. Bernie came down from heaven: you can quote me.
“By 1982 the turbos were turning up, and we had a time in the wilderness, but by the end of 1983 we had our first turbo from Honda. The relationship with Honda wasn’t always easy. It was their engine, and they seemed to think they were superior to us, it was as though they were stooping to help us. Patrick and I resented that. Later when we were with Renault it was very different, chalk and cheese. But the Honda V6 turbo was superb in its day. Honda was ferocious about winning, and loved Formula 1 as much as we did. So in a way we were fellow travellers.” The Williams-Honda wins did not start to come regularly until 1985, but for 1986, with the engine/chassis relationship fully sorted and Mansell and Nelson Piquet as drivers, it looked as though Williams was on its way back to the top.
On Saturday March 8 1986, after a quick flight down to the Paul Ricard circuit to watch the final pre-season test for the new Williams-Honda FW11, Frank was driving a Ford Sierra hire car back to the airport in Marseilles when he went off the road. His passenger Peter Windsor, an F1 journalist but at the time sponsorship manager for the team, was only slightly hurt, but Frank sustained dreadful spinal injuries. In the Marseilles hospital the doctors asked Frank’s wife Ginny to give her permission for the life support machine to be switched off. Of course she refused: knowing Frank as she did, she believed that if his brain was uninjured, and if he could still communicate, whatever his physical condition he could still run his racing team. She was right.
Frank was flown back to England, and in the ensuing weeks at the London Hospital, as his condition fluctuated, he came close to death on several occasions. Only his indomitable determination, and the fact that he had been ferociously fit and a seriously competitive daily runner, saved his life. Twelve weeks after the accident he went home, and six weeks after that Bernie arranged for Frank, with Ginny and a nurse, to be flown to Brands Hatch for the first day of practice for the British Grand Prix. When the crowd saw his wheelchair appear in the pits they gave him a standing ovation.
Celebrating Keke Rosberg’s victory in Australia’s first world championship GP, 1985
Sitting 29 years later in Frank’s office at Grove, his accident is not mentioned. Frank doesn’t think it’s a topic worthy of discussion: he lived the first 45 years of his life one way, and since then he has lived it another. And his accident did not compromise the success of the team: during that 1986 season Nigel and Nelson won nine Grands Prix between them. Williams was the dominating constructors champion once more, even if the rivalry between its two drivers split the points almost equally between them, allowing Alain Prost to win the drivers title for McLaren by two points from Nigel. In 1987 it was a similar story, nine victories again, but although six of them were Nigel’s, Nelson’s better reliability earned him the title. Of their in-fighting Frank merely says: “Of course there was rivalry between them. If you don’t like your team-mate, if you’re a bit tetchy with each other, a little bit of needle can be helpful, and spur you on to greater things. It’s when it affects things out of the cockpit that it can get out of hand.
“Nigel raced for us for six seasons, with a two-year gap in the middle when he went to Ferrari. In all he won 29 Grands Prix for us. He was runner-up in the drivers championship twice in the Honda period and once when we were with Renault, and then of course in 1992 he dominated everything.” Without that dramatic tyre blow-out in the final round of the 1986 season in Adelaide, Mansell would surely have been champion that year also.