Sir Frank Williams has been a cornerstone of Formula 1 for five decades as the driving force behind the successful team that bears his name. Williams Grand Prix Engineering has won the drivers’ World Championship on seven occasions and constructors’ title nine times.
Upbringing and early career
Born in South Shields in the northeast of England, he was the son of an officer in the Royal Air Force and a teacher. Williams was educated at St Joseph’s College in the Scottish Borders and he began racing an Austin in 1961 when funding his passion by working as a grocery salesman.
He moved to London where he shared a flat in Pinner with Charlie Crichton-Stuart, Bubbles Horsley and Jonathan Williams. He struggled to raise the money to continue his own racing career so he worked as Jonathan Williams’s mechanic in Formula Junior before finally giving up his own racing ambitions in 1966.
Frank Williams Racing Cars
He rented premises in Slough and formed Frank Williams Racing Cars and entered a Brabham BT23C-Ford for another friend, Piers Courage, in the 1968 European Formula 2 Championship. Courage won the final race of that year’s Temporada in Argentina and Williams acquired an ex-works Brabham BT26-Ford to step up to F1 in 1969. Courage finished second in the Monaco and United States GPs during a promising season for the privateers.
A new De Tomaso chassis was commissioned for 1970 but Courage was killed when he crashed during the Dutch GP and the Italian marque withdrew at the end of a disastrous campaign. Williams struggled on running customer March chassis and pay drivers for the next two years with his first proprietary chassis – named a Politoys due to sponsorship considerations – introduced in mid-1972. However Henri Pescarolo crashed the new car on its debut and it did not start another championship race.
The team moved to Reading at the end of the year and attracted a moderate budget from Marlboro and the Iso-Rivolta car company. It was a struggle in the midfield but Jacques Laffite scored a morale-boosting if surprise second-place finish in the 1975 German GP.
Williams sold 60 per cent of his team to Walter Wolf in December 1975 and acquired the Hesketh 308C project when the English Lord withdrew from F1. Designer Harvey Postlethwaite arrived as part of the deal and Patrick Head joined from Lola. It was a difficult campaign and Williams finally left his own team at the end of the year.
Williams Grand Prix Engineering
Williams and Head formed Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977 with headquarters in a former carpet warehouse in Didcot. Patrick Nève drove an old March 761-Ford that year and Commercial Director Crichton-Stuart attracted additional sponsorship from Saudia Airlines.
That allowed Williams to enter a single car throughout the 1978 World Championship with Alan Jones hired to drive Head’s new Williams FW06-Ford. A most promising campaign concluded with a fine second-place finish in the United States. Williams expanded to a two-car team in 1979 and the introduction of the ground-effect FW07 transformed the team into pacesetters. Clay Regazzoni scored the team’s first victory in the 1979 British GP and Jones won another four races as Williams finished as runners-up in the constructor’s standings.
Jones then won five times during 1980 to withstand Brabham’s increasing challenge and record Williams’ first World Championship. Reliability thwarted Jones’s title defence in 1981 and team-mate Carlos Reutemann challenged before a strangely lacklustre performance in the Las Vegas decider. Constructors’ champions for a second successive year, both Jones and Reutemann retired from the sport so it was new recruit Keke Rosberg who clinched the 1982 title despite only winning one race.
Williams switched to turbocharged Honda engines during 1983 and it was the quickest combination by the end of 1985. Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were testing at Paul Ricard on March 6 1986 when Williams was paralysed in a road accident on his way to the airport.
Mansell and Piquet traded victories and took points off each other during 1986. Mansell lost the title to McLaren’s Alain Prost when his tyre punctured in Adelaide and Piquet narrowly defeated his team-mate in a bitter campaign in 1987. Williams was awarded the CBE in the New Years’ honours list at the start of 1987.
Constructors’ championship in 1986 and 1987, Williams lost its Honda engine supply in 1988 and Renault became its engine partner a year later. Both Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese won races as Williams-Renault finished as runners-up in the 1989 World Championship. Mansell re-joined in 1991 and he dominated the following season in Adrian Newey’s active ride FW14B. Prost won the 1993 title during a single season with the team and Ayton Senna signed for the 1994 campaign. Clear pre-season favourites, the Brazilian was killed when he crashed at Imola’s Tamburello corner during the San Marino GP.
Final championship wins
Former test driver Damon Hill had scored breakthrough victories during 1993 and he lifted the team following Senna’s death. He challenged Michael Schumacher in both 1994 and 1995 and finally clinched the world title in 1996. The Englishman was surprisingly dropped at the end of the season and it was team-mate Jacques Villeneuve who scored Williams’s most recent world title in 1997.
Renault withdrew from F1 at the end of 1997 and Williams endured two seasons without works support or a race win. There were further honours off the track for Williams was knighted at the start of 1999.
BMW supplied engines from 2000 and Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya restored the marque to the top step of the podium during 2001. A title challenge was expected but that failed to materialise and the partnership dissolved at the end of 2005 when BMW decided to buy its own team. Montoya won the last race of 2004 and it was eight years before Williams won another race. That was the 2012 Spanish GP where Pastor Maldonado translated pole position into a surprise victory on the weekend that Sir Frank Williams celebrated his 70th birthday.