'Frank Williams captivated a generation of '90s kids with F1 heroics'

If you were a British F1 fan growing up in the 1990s, then your love of racing probably began with Williams. For a certain generation, it will forever be the dominant team of Mansell and Hill, writes Chris Medland

Damon Hill wins the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix

Damon Hill wins for Williams in Hungary '95

Jean-Loup Gautreau/AFP via Getty Images

The team that carries his name will race on, but an enormous link to Formula 1’s past was lost yesterday when Sir Frank Williams passed away at the age of 79.

It was poignant enough when he sold the team last year, but you just knew he’d be watching every race with the same desire to see Williams making progress and competing with some enormous names as he had when he was still in charge. Now he won’t be with us to witness the next stage of the Williams journey, but I really hope it’s an exciting one.

Because to me, a Williams car is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about falling in love with Formula 1.

I can’t pretend to have been around as he cut his teeth in the early ’70s with Frank Williams Racing Cars or for that stunning rebirth of his F1 dream in 1977 when Williams Grand Prix Engineering was formed, but the team that Sir Frank built is forever etched in my mind as my first memories of the sport.

I’m not sure how much longer I can claim this, but I’m one of the younger members of the press room, so my introduction to F1 came in the 1990s. I didn’t really know what F1 was or who was who when Ayrton Senna died – I was only five – but I do loosely remember not being allowed into the living room to watch the TV that day.

Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher crash at the 1995 British Grand Prix

Hill-Schumacher clash at Silverstone left the way clear for Johnny Herbert to win

Bongarts/Getty Images

The bits I do remember is Johnny Herbert winning at Silverstone after Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher collided, and thinking Johnny was a baddy because drove for Benetton and not Williams (sorry Johnny). And then being in Monaco in 1995 when the Italian Grand Prix was on – again to be won by Herbert – and buying a t-shirt with all of that season’s F1 cars on it. At the top was one of Sir Frank’s.

And by then I was hooked. The clearest memory I have of watching a full race came at the start of 1996 when I was so excited to be up in the middle of the night watching the Australian Grand Prix from Melbourne, and that beautiful Rothmans-liveried FW18 dominated.

Only, one of them wasn’t so beautiful as Jacques Villeneuve – leading – starting spraying oil over Hill in second and Damon’s rear wing was getting dirtier and dirtier. So when Williams told Villeneuve he needed to let his team-mate through and nurse his car home, as a seven-year-old I was more than happy to see the British driver winning in a dominant British team.

Jacques Villeneuve leads Damon Hill at the 1996 Australian GP

Pristine rear wing of Villeneuve’s Williams contrasted with the rapidly yellowing one of Hill in Melbourne

Pascal Rondeau / Allsport

And as I’ve grown up and become lucky enough to work in Formula 1, the scale of that achievement and what it meant has only grown on me.

Millions of people the world over are captivated by Ferrari, and the romantic pull of Italy’s team. And for me as a kid, Williams had the same impact. Because both teams were products of their founders’ love of racing and immense passion that was so infectious other people wanted to be a part of it.

That aspect was already starting to be lost in the mid-90s, with Team Lotus folding and Tyrrell struggling, showing just how hard it was to help an F1 team survive, let alone lead the way.

And it’s no exaggeration to admit my interest waned a little bit in 1998 and 1999, because without Williams in the fight I just wasn’t quite as hooked. As a child I struggled to warm to McLaren under Ron Dennis for a while, and Ferrari still felt like Italy’s version of Williams, but of course both were moving to the front again for a significant spell, off the back of supercar brands and growing budgets.

Frank Williams with Jenson Button in 2000

Williams signed Button in 2000

Mark Thompson/ALLSPORT

It was Williams signing a fellow Somerset boy in Jenson Button that re-grabbed my attention, as did the improving performances in partnership with BMW. Of course, as I got older I could then appreciate a lot more about F1, but the magic of Williams never left me.

When I was in my final year at uni, I requested an interview with Sir Frank for a TV piece I was making on the difficulty of getting into F1 and staying there as a new team. It might have been a long time ago, but he’d done it twice, and had then seen what it took to keep the team there through massive highs and crushing lows.

I don’t mind admitting (again) that I was a little disappointed when I was offered Adam Parr instead. I couldn’t say no, of course, and Adam was great with his time in answering what I needed, but Sir Frank was a hero that I so wanted to meet.

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Just arriving at an F1 factory for the first time was slightly overwhelming, and I was so excited to walk through the doors that had the Williams name written above them. I even got a short tour after the interview where I was shown where Sir Frank’s office as, but he wasn’t in. And I left feeling slightly deflated in the sense that I’d been so close to meeting such a giant of the sport, not knowing if I’d ever achieve a career that allowed me to again.

Fortunately for me, I did, and in that career I quickly learned so much more about the incredible stories that run throughout the paddock. But Sir Frank’s was one that was never topped.

You could feel the buzz within the team whenever he was at a race, the energy it brought to have him there, as he had been for so many years and so many wins and championships.

Frank WIlliams with 1985 European Grand Prix trophy at Brands Hatch

Frank Williams with the winning trophy from the 1985 European GP

Allsport UK via Getty Images

The professional barriers he’d overcome to establish his team was one thing, but the personal ones that hadn’t stopped him turning it into one of the most successful the sport has ever seen was quite another. And it clearly resonated with so many people in both the team and the wider paddock, whether they’d been there from the start or were a relative newcomer like me.

Even though the sport moves on so quickly that Williams is currently one of the smaller teams on the grid and eighth in the constructors’ championship would represent cause for celebration, no matter where the team is sitting it will forever be the team that delivered seven world champions, countless stunning cars and iconic moments that hooked many other F1 fans in their own way.

And for that, all I can say is thank you, Sir Frank.

Sir Frank Williams, 1942-2021