Too free a spirit for Ferrari

He started only one GP, but had a better track record than the wider world appreciated. This is our tribute to the unconventional Jonathan Williams, who always knew there was more to life than racing. He passed away recently
Writer: Adam Cooper

Given that he lived a quiet and low-key life in Spain, Jonathan Williams was always bemused by the ability of a certain group of people to track him down. Every now and then he would receive letters from autograph hunters – usually dealers masquerading as fans – and he struggled to work out how they had found his address.

“They are better than Interpol,” he recently told me, with a smile. “My theory is that somebody’s got it, and it gets sold along. I keep these letters, usually from Germany or Austria, and often I get one that’s a duplicate from two years ago. I got one from a girl who said she is in love with F1, and would I sign two or three of these pictures? And she said, ‘I will not sell them like the others do’. It had never crossed my mind – she spilt the beans!”

There was of course one enduring reason for the interest of these folk – Jonathan drove a works Ferrari in the 1967 Mexican GP, his one and only F1 start. At the time it hardly ranked as one of his most satisfying achievements. And yet over the decades, this modest and softly spoken man came to appreciate that his single season at Maranello, and status as a Grand Prix driver, was something of which he could be proud.

Jonathan passed away in Spain on August 31, aged 71, having spent most of the past 50 years outside the UK. That lifestyle choice was perhaps an unconscious reflection of the fact he was born in sunnier climes, but denied the chance to grow up there. It was no coincidence that the first song played at his funeral service was Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again.

In the years before WWII, Jonathan’s father was joint headmaster of the Anglo-Egyptian School in Cairo and his mother taught English to the daughters of King Farouk. Williams Sr joined the RAF when hostilities commenced, becoming a squadron leader. He returned to Cairo when leave allowed, and Jonathan was born there in October 1942. Everything changed for the family in 1944, when the British government demanded that all its subjects left Egypt – and thus toddler Jonathan found himself on a boat to Liverpool.

After the war his father gave up a promising career in intelligence at the Air Ministry to open a school in Colchester. It was there that he passed on his passion for cars. “We went regularly to Brands Hatch to see the 500cc racing,” Jonathan said. “There was a garage near Colchester where somebody had a Cooper, and I used to go and look at that. A trip to an F1 race at Silverstone was the big deal. I don’t think I slept the night before, I was so excited. We had seats at Stowe in a windy old grandstand. After that it just went from bad to worse – this is what I was going to do!”

Jonathan’s first road car was a Frogeye Sprite, but when he began to modify it with a view to going racing his father decided that the open car might be a little too quick as a starting point. It was quickly traded for a red Mini, and in late 1960 Jonathan took his first steps in motor sport.

By 1961 he had became part of a crowd of like-minded young enthusiasts, a group that included Sheridan Thynne, Piers Courage and Charles Lucas. At Mallory Park that summer he met another man who would soon become part of this motley crew – Austin A35 racer Frank Williams: “I was sitting on the bank at Gerards, having wrecked the Mini. I was watching an A35 and thinking, ‘He’s asking for it, and he’ll get it’. And he did, very close to me, so we both sat there very forlornly on top of this bank...”

Jonathan replaced the Mini in 1962 with a highly modified Austin A40. Single-seaters were the next step, and for ’63 he looked to Formula Junior, buying a locally produced Merlyn from Selwyn Hayward. Alas he had a huge crash in Monaco after the suspension failed.

“When I’d recovered Selwyn said, ‘Do you want another car or your money back?’ I took the money. Then Roy Thomas built me a Lotus 22. I had a VW pick-up, and Frank said he’d come around Europe with me, because he had no money, no job and no prospects. He drove the VW, looked after me and fettled the car.”

In 1964 Jonathan teamed up with Courage to tackle the new F3 category. They named themselves Anglo-Swiss Racing, and set off on a memorable trek around Europe. The following year Lucas started a team and ran them in a pair of Brabhams. The season proved to be a breakthrough, with both marking themselves as men to watch, although a huge crash at Reims – which left Jonathan with back injuries and broken legs – put him out of action for a while.

For 1966 he parted company with Lucas to join de Sanctis. Always preferring the continent to Brands and Silverstone, he lived an idyllic life in Rome and dominated the wild Italian F3 scene. His form did not go unnoticed.

“Towards the of ’66 Gioachino Vari, who was Ferrari dealer for the south of Italy, and had a showroom in Rome, called. He said, ‘I’m going to Maranello on Sunday, would you come with me? Mr Ferrari would like to talk to you...’

“We went up there and Ferrari had a contract all ready for me to sign. It was F2, plus sports cars where necessary, and F1 was mentioned as an outside possibility.

“Then, on the way out of the office, Ferrari said to me, ‘The next time you’re in England talk to Keith Ballisat of Shell, they’ll pay half your salary’. When I talked to Keith he tore his hair out and said, ‘We don’t have this in our budget, it’s absolutely untrue’. A week later he gave me a cheque for a thousand quid and said, ‘That’s all we can do’. So old Enzo shafted me before I’d driven a car!

“Ferrari couldn’t pay me at all, until I went abroad, for their tax purposes. So I was running out of money, living in a hotel in Modena, not racing cars because I hadn’t got one, not being paid a penny, and missing Rome like crazy because Modena wasn’t beautiful and Rome was! It was a grim situation...”

He finally made his Ferrari race debut at Sebring on April 1, farmed out to Brescia Corse to share a Dino 206S with Mario Casoni. They retired early and the same happened when he drove a works car in the Monza 1000Kms.

“Forghieri told me, ‘The engine’s not going to last, be in the lead when you blow it up’. So I was in front of Rindt, and he couldn’t do a thing about it! Then after 45 minutes, boom...”

Next stop was the Targa Florio, where he finished fourth in a Scuderia Nettuno-run Dino: “That got the points that won Ferrari the world title, and fourth was pretty impressive.”

Despite testing all the works entries at Modena, Jonathan was not invited to race at Le Mans. However, the Dino 166 F2 car he had been expecting finally appeared at Rouen in July. He qualified 13th in a field packed with star names, but retired early with clutch failure: “It was a beautiful little car, chassis-wise, but it just didn’t have any grunt.”

After that the F2 project was put on hold. Back in sports cars Jonathan didn’t start at Mugello after co-driver Günther Klass was killed in practice, and then at the end of July he finished sixth in the BOAC 500, sharing a P4 with Paul Hawkins. In October he was dispatched to the USA to drive a works P4 in the Can-Am series.

“Chick Vandergriff, who had Hollywood Sports Cars on Sunset Boulevard, gave me a 275GTS to drive around in, and I had this groupie girl who latched onto me. The living was easy, I could take lots of that!”

He finished eighth on his debut at Laguna Seca. The next race was a fortnight later at Riverside, and Jonathan expected to enjoy a leisurely break with his new lady friend.

“The Ferrari guys were off to Mexico for the GP, and Franco Lini said, ‘Come with me’. I said, ‘No. I’m good here.’ He said, ‘You’re coming...’ Reluctantly I parked the Ferrari and the girl, then went to Mexico. And Lini had said, ‘Bring your Nomex rompers with you’.

“They had two cars. There was about half an hour of practice left and Franco said, ‘Jump in’. It was the one Chris [Amon] didn’t want. We were not the same shape at all, so they put loads of foam rubber in, and then it was ‘off you go’. I’d never been around the track, and never sat in the car. It took me about three laps to knock the nose off, and they used gaffer tape to repair that. Then practice was over and I was very ashamed, as I was near the back.”

He eventually finished eighth: “I stayed on the road to the end, while Chris ran out of petrol. So the record shows I beat him! I was getting quicker every lap, I was learning how to do this. It was a lovely car, easy to drive. Given time I would have been quick, it had no vices.

“It was very much a disappointment, the way it was presented. Lini needed permission from Ferrari, and Ferrari said, ‘OK’ because he would then get starting money for two cars. He wasn’t giving me my break, he was just getting £500 more than if he didn’t let me drive! It was very anti-climactic.”

After a few days off with Amon in Acapulco, Jonathan headed back to the USA for the Riverside and Las Vegas Can-Am races, neither of which brought much joy. On his return to Europe things went quiet until Ferrari asked him to conduct an F1 test at Modena.

“I was very fast until I lost it and knocked three wheels off – I booted it coming out of the chicane and went into the hedge. That’s when the phone stopped ringing. When the mechanics came to drag it to the pits, none of them looked me in the eye. They knew I was doomed...”

Jonathan believed that day might have cost him an F1 race seat in 1968 – a season when the 312 was fast enough to earn Amon three poles and Jacky Ickx a GP victory. It’s worth recalling, too, that even with those guys on board Ferrari gave Derek Bell a chance.

“I think if I’d stayed on the road they would have told Jacky he was too expensive. But I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now, because I think I would have got good, and cocky. When you get good you think you can walk on water. It’s a very magical feeling, and you wonder why everyone else is slow. And then you kill yourself...”

In 1968 Jonathan joined Abarth with a view to driving the company’s planned F1 car, but it never turned a wheel. He kept himself busy with a series of F2 guest appearances. For the Monza Lottery he replaced Courage – committed to the Dutch GP – in Frank Williams’s Brabham. Always an ace in slipstreamers, he scored a superb win.

At the end of the year he drove a Tecno for Alejandro de Tomaso in the Temporada series, which led to some races with de Tomaso’s own F2 car in 1969. He also raced a Serenissima sports car that year, and found time to qualify as a pilot after an intensive course at a Florida flying school. He’d been turned on to planes by former Ferrari team-mate Mike Parkes.

Jonathan spent much of the second half of 1970 working on Steve McQueen’s Le Mans movie, having driven the Solar Productions Porsche 908 camera car in the race itself. However, everything was overshadowed by the death of his close pal Courage at Zandvoort: “That more or less made my mind up – when the time came, I would stop.”

The 1971 Targa – in which he finished seventh in a Lola T212 – was his last significant outing. His heart was simply no longer in it.

By then he had already started a new career as a pilot, having gradually added to his qualifications with a commercial licence. He spent many years flying wealthy businessmen around, before eventually calling it quits. In 1997 he bought a small motorhome and lived a nomadic but satisfying life, driving around the coasts of Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, initially in company with then-girlfriend Linda, and their dog Zack. He made friends with people he met along the way, listened to the 1960s/70s music he loved – mostly American – and occasionally wrote articles about his past.

After Jonathan and Linda split up he continued on his own, although they remained friends. Indeed, when she moved overseas Jonathan based himself at her flat, in a small seaside town between Malaga and Gibraltar, to look after the now ageing Zack.

This was supposed to be temporary, but Zack proved to be resilient and, after a while, Jonathan reluctantly sold the motorhome. He was heartbroken when the much-loved mutt died earlier this year but, facing health issues of his own, he postponed his plan to buy another camper and resume his travels.

In the end, sadly, he ran out of time.