Fitness, Spitfires and Beethoven: what fired up Frank Williams away from the F1 track


The man who led Williams to become one of F1's greatest teams had several passions outside racing. Matt Bishop recalls how Beethoven brought his father and Sir Frank Williams together in an emotive Royal Albert Hall performance

Frank Williams cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting in 1980 picture

Mischievous, patriotic, and with plenty of interests away from F1: Frank Williams in 1980

Hock Zwei via Getty Images

If you are reading these words on the day they were posted – Tuesday April 16, 2024 – you are doing so on the 82nd anniversary of the birth of Francis Owen Garbett Williams, who was therefore born in 1942, midway through the Second World War, in South Shields, Tyneside. During that awful conflict, that hardy seaside town in the north-east of England was repeatedly attacked by the Luftwaffe, because the shipbuilding industry there had been turned over to the war effort, as the phrase then went. Those German bombing raids resulted in extensive damage and caused many civilian deaths, particularly in 1941, 1942, and 1943. It is not perhaps therefore surprising that Sir Frank, as he was known after his knighthood in 1999, was not only an intensely patriotic Englishman but also maintained a lifelong devotion to the Supermarine Spitfire, the fast, agile and elegant fighter plane that had played a critical role alongside the slower, clumsier and bulkier Hawker Hurricane in winning the Battle of Britain in 1940. Indeed, believe it or not, he asked his friend Robert ‘Robs’ Lamplough, an aviator and former racing driver, who owned a Spitfire, to fly it low and noisy over the Williams Formula 1 factory at Grove, Oxfordshire, when a senior BMW executive team visited it in 1999 to sign an engine supply and sponsorship contract for the following year. Frank was mischievous as well as patriotic.

He fell in love with fast cars in 1959, at 17, when an older friend took him on a rapid joy-ride in his Jaguar XK150, the 3.4S version, which was the hot variant powered by a 3442cc triple-carb double-overhead-cam straight-six good for 250bhp. That year Motor put one through its paces and recorded a 0-60mph time of 7.8sec and a maximum speed of 132mph, making it the fastest fixed-head coupe that the magazine had road-tested theretofore.


Henri Pescarolo (in cockpit), drove Frank Williams Racing’s March-Ford in the 1971 F1 season


From that day on, young Frank set his heart on devoting his life to motors — and, above all, motor sport. He entered a few races in touring cars and even Formula 3 cars — but, although he was sometimes nippy and always brave, he soon realised that he did not have what it took to compete with the properly brisk boys, particularly in F3. He tried to be a mechanic – but he found that he was not very good at that, either. So, in 1966, aged just 24, and pretty skint, he founded Frank Williams Racing Cars. Many fine books have been written about what happened next, so I will not attempt even a potted history of how Frank Williams Racing Cars became Williams Racing, the team’s current moniker, other than to say that as Williams Grand Prix Engineering it began to win F1 grands prix in 1979, and F1 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships in 1980; it continued to do so at a prolific rate until 1997 (F1 world championships) and 2012 (grand prix wins); and it lies fifth on the all-time grand prix win table, with 114, behind only Red Bull (116), Mercedes (125), McLaren (183) and Ferrari (244). Even more impressive, it sits second on the all-time constructors’ world championship table, with nine, behind only Ferrari’s 16.

More remarkable still, the team’s purple winning patch was not impeded when in March 1986 Frank lost control of a Ford Sierra hire car as he was tearing flat-out, as he usually did when driving on public roads in those days, from the Paul Ricard circuit to Nice airport, sustaining spinal injuries in the ensuing accident that left him tetraplegic.

He was then 43, and was uncommonly fit. Indeed, he was due to run a half-marathon in London on the day after that dreadful car crash, and, when charity running races had been arranged for F1 drivers and personnel in the 1970s, which had not been rare, for indeed they had at one time become officialised as Grand Prix Running Association events, he had usually won them, beating even the faster runners among the drivers such as James Hunt and David Purley.


Sir Frank insisted on a light wheelchair that he could push, to maintain his fitness

Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty

It is perhaps a little-known fact that one of the reasons why Frank lived on for more than 35 years after sustaining his life-changing injuries, eventually becoming the world’s oldest surviving tetraplegic, was that he remained a fitness fanatic despite his disablement. He was incredibly careful about his diet, he was determined to remain lean in spite of his immobility, and he eschewed sophisticated and expensive motorised wheelchairs in favour of a modest and above all light model that he had to propel himself, for he had some movement in his arms if not his hands. Every day he would “go for a push”, as he used to describe it, an exercise that required enormous effort, and, almost to the end, he used to instruct Williams’ travel clerks to book him into hotels whose corridors and/or lobbies had wood or linoleum flooring, where he would go for a push, energetically and indefatigably weaving his way through the lines of people waiting to check in or out. Carpets were no good to him, for his wheels would dig into them, rendering going for a push impossible.

Where no such hotels were available, he would improvise – sometimes intrepidly. One evening, I cannot remember what year, having driven back from the Hungaroring to the Kempinski Hotel, Budapest, I pointed my hire car into its underground car park and nearly ran Frank over, for he was going for a push down there, in near darkness, all on his own. I screeched to a halt, lowered my window, and apologised profusely. Frank responded with the impish grin that never left him, and rasped, “No problem, a good bit of braking, that.” That’s what you call stiff upper lip.

Frank was patriotic, as I say, and he was right-wing too, but he was never nationalistic or jingoistic. Indeed, he loved Italy and he astonished Giancarlo Fisichella, whom he nearly signed for the 2005 season, by conducting their negotiations in fluent Italian. At that time, since I was chummy with Fisico, and he had been grappling with mediocre Saubers and Jordans for the previous three seasons, I was very much hoping that Frank would hire him, once it had become clear that an FIA Contract Recognition Board ruling would prevent Jenson Button’s leaving BAR for his F1 alma mater, Williams. Frank had lost both his 2004 drivers – Juan Pablo Montoya to McLaren and Ralf Schumacher to Toyota – and his engine partner BMW insisted that Schumi Jr be replaced by another German. Nick Heidfeld duly got the gig.

Jarno Trulli was also on his way to Toyota for 2005, leaving a vacancy at Renault alongside Fernando Alonso, and in the end that is the drive that Fisichella bagged for himself, allowing Mark Webber to join Heidfeld at Williams. That was probably the better outcome for Giancarlo, in all honesty, for he won a grand prix for Renault in 2005 and again in 2006, and he probably would not have managed that at Williams, whose star was by then beginning to fade.

Nick Heidfeld with Mark Webber and Antonio Pizzonia in 2005 Williams F1 team shot

Williams opted for a Heidfeld (left) and Webber line-up for 2005, with Antonio Pizzonia (right) as reserve

Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty

If Frank loved Italy and Italians, and he did, the music that he enjoyed most was classical German and Austrian. In the early evening of the Sunday on which had just been run the 2003 Monaco Grand Prix, which Montoya had won brilliantly for Team Willy, as Frank liked to call it, beating Kimi Räikkönen’s McLaren by 0.602sec and Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari by 1.720sec, in a fabulous display of flat-out street racing by all three fearless and brilliant aces, I walked into the Williams motorhome to congratulate the main man. He was all smiles, as he always was after a race victory, especially one as exceptional as that, and we chinwagged awhile. For some reason that I cannot now recall, our chat moved from racing to the subject of classical music – and Beethoven in particular.

“Ah, Beethoven,” I remember saying at one point, “my dad’s speciality.”

“What do you mean?” Frank asked.

“Well,” I said, “my father, Stephen Kovacevich, is a concert pianist, as I think you know, and his specialities are Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Bartok, and, yes, Beethoven.”

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Frank was silent for a moment, then said, “Stephen Kovacevich is your father? No, I certainly didn’t know that.”

“Oh, well, yes, he is,” I replied. “He was born Stephen Kovacevich, then his mother changed his surname to Bishop when she divorced his father, Nicholas Kovacevich, and married her second husband, Murray Bishop, who became my dad’s stepfather. Dad started his piano-playing career as Stephen Bishop, and he married my mum when he was using that surname. Then, some years later, he changed it back to Kovacevich out of loyalty to his actual father and because there was by that time a popular singer-songwriter also called Stephen Bishop.”

“Well I never,” said Frank. “I listen to your dad all the time. I love his Beethoven recordings.”

And so it was that I arranged for Frank to attend my father’s next Prom, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which took place on the evening of Friday August 8, 2003. It was a struggle to get him into his seat, because that large, glorious, elliptical, domed, Italianate auditorium was decidedly wheelchair-unfriendly in those days; but, together, puffing and blowing, Frank’s chauffeur and I managed it. My dad played Beethoven’s tranquil yet thunderous Concerto No1 in C Major, Opus 15, accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and, although I am of course biased, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it was a stupendous performance. We lugged Frank back-stage afterwards, and he and my father enjoyed a short but lovely chat.

Nearly 21 years on, that evening remains a precious memory for me and indeed also for my dad, who is 83 now and still plays concerts. When, on November 28, 2021, I called him to share the news that Frank had just died, he was very sad to hear it. Thousands, perhaps even millions, felt the same way. I still do.