Sir Frank Williams obituary: F1 team owner legend dies aged 79

The outpouring of affection for Sir Frank Williams, following Sunday’s announcement of his death at the age of 79, was a clear indication of the respect in which he was held around the world.

Sir Frank Williams obituary: F1 team owner legend dies aged 79

Former Williams drivers and people from all areas of motorsport united in expressing their admiration for a man who had achieved so much success over the decades, and yet remained at heart the ultimate enthusiast, always eager to see the next race or support the latest young star coming through the ranks.

He served as an inspiration to many, having overcome the dreadful road accident he suffered over 35 years ago to live a rich and fulfilling life against all the odds.

Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields on 16 April 1942. His father was an RAF bomber pilot who left when he was a baby, and his mother subsequently devoted her attention to Frank’s upbringing.

He was educated at a strict Catholic boarding school in Scotland, where he first developed a passion for cars and racing. He hitchhiked to circuits all over the UK from the special school his mother ran near Nottingham, and on leaving school he undertook a series of jobs to raise cash for his first racing activities with a humble Austin A35 in 1962.

At a Mallory Park club meeting that year he crashed the car, and clambering onto the grass bank he met the unrelated Jonathan Williams, who had gone off a few laps earlier. The two got talking, and through his namesake Frank would soon be absorbed into a wide circle of racing friends that included Piers Courage, Sheridan Thynne, Bubbles Horsley and Charlie Crichton-Stuart. Racing became his whole life, even away from the tracks.

In 1963 Jonathan Williams moved up to Formula Junior, and having run out of money Frank joined him on a European tour as mechanic and companion.

“There was a lot to see,” he recalled. “It was fun, always very enjoyable. It was a little bit of hand to mouth financially, and we really did sleep in-between the wheelbase of the car, either side, in Jonathan’s VW pickup.”

Frank acquired an old Brabham and in 1964 he tried to launch his own single-seater career in the new F3 category. He paid his way by buying and selling racing cars, engines and parts. He competed whenever he could, travelling to continental races with his tight knit group of friends, all of whom ran their own cars.

Piers Courage, Alec Maskell of Dunlop and Frank Williams in 1968

Piers Courage, Alec Maskell of Dunlop and Frank Williams in 1968

Photo by: Motorsport Images / David Phipps

He was one of many lodgers at an infamous west London flat where he was known to do anything to raise a buck, from selling tickets to slightly dodgy movie shows to streaking around the garden for a £5 bet.

Frank proved to be a good salesman, and his wheeling and dealing gradually took over from driving. Then at the end of 1967 he made his debut as an entrant, running Courage in an F3 race at Brands Hatch.

At that stage he was still trying to source the funding with which to resume his own racing career, but over the winter he made the momentous decision to focus on team ownership. In 1968 he ran an F2 Brabham for Courage under the Frank Williams Racing Cars banner from his small workshop in Slough. He showed a knack for delegating, hiring ace Kiwi mechanic John Muller – an ex-McLaren man – to prepare the dark blue car to a high standard.

After a solid F2 season with Courage in 1968 Frank decided to move straight into grand prix racing the following year, buying an ex-works Brabham BT26. For a while he had former McLaren designer Robin Herd as his engineer, before the Englishman headed off to form March with Max Mosley.

In that first season Courage scored stunning second places in Monaco and at Watkins Glen, and battled for the lead at Monza. Even for 1969 it was an impressive debut effort for a private team with a year-old car.

It set Frank on his way, and for 1970 he did a deal with Alejandro de Tomaso to run Courage in a brand-new chassis built by the Modena-based sportscar maker. The car was free but Frank had to find the budget to run it, and he had little real support from Italy, other than the technical skills of designer Gian Paolo Dallara.

Nicknamed the ‘Tomato’, the red car proved unwieldy at first, and it was just becoming more competitive when Courage was killed at Zandvoort. The devastated Frank had lost his driver and his best friend, but he carried on.

“No question about that,” he recalled. “I don’t mean I thought it through and said, ‘F*** it, why should I stop?’ It just never really entered my mind.”

At end of the 1970 season de Tomaso canned the F1 project, and Frank was back to square one. He managed to find a budget to run customer March chassis in 1971 and 1972, with Henri Pescarolo and Carlos Pace as his regular drivers.

Frank Williams knees beside his driver Henri Pescarolo in 1971

Frank Williams knees beside his driver Henri Pescarolo in 1971

Photo by: Motorsport Images / Rainer Schlegelmilch

He knew that he had to build his own car in order to forge a long-term future, and in late 1972 the first bespoke Williams appeared – though it was named the Politoys FX3 after the Italian model car company that provided vital funding.

For 1973 Frank again signed a deal with an Italian sportscar manufacturer, this time Iso. He also managed to attract support from Philip Morris, leading him to name his cars Iso-Marlboros. Over the next couple of years a multitude of drivers came and went, but only rarely did the team score points, and funding was always tight. When the phone was cut off he operated from a nearby public call box.

His greatest supporter was wife Virginia. They met in 1967 and were married in 1974, and ‘Ginny’ had to make great sacrifices over the years as she brought up their three children while Frank inevitably focused his attention, and their money, on the business.

It was in 1974 that the ‘FW’ initials appeared in the Iso’s name for the first time, but it was only in 1975 that the cars were officially given the Williams identity. It was another tough year, and yet somehow Jacques Laffite earned a surprise second in Germany with the FW04. However endless engine problems, and the resultant Cosworth bills, ruined the season.

At the end of the year Frank hired a young ex-Lola engineer called Patrick Head, sowing the seeds of the partnership that would forge motorsport history.

However, by now Williams had huge debts – so he began looking for an investor. After seven years of endless financial struggle, he teamed up with wealthy Canadian oil entrepreneur Walter Wolf, to whom he’d been introduced by Dallara.

Wolf paid for some of Frank’s engines in 1975, and had subsequently acquired the cars and assets of the defunct Hesketh team. The ex-James Hunt 308C was rebadged as the Wolf-Williams FW05 for 1976, while Jacky Ickx was hired to drive. Harvey Postlethwaite came with the chassis as chief engineer, and Head stayed on to become his number two.

It was to be a disastrous season, and the reworked second-hand cars were not competitive. At the end of 1976 Wolf brought in ex-Lotus man Peter Warr as team manager. Frank, used to running his own show, was moved sideways to a position of sponsorship finder and general odd job man.

When the renamed Wolf team took its new WR1 to Argentina in January 1977, he was not present. Jody Scheckter duly won the race, and Frank was heartbroken at no longer being his own boss, at the centre of the action. He decided to quit and start all over again.

Frank Williams and Patrick Neve at the 1977 Dutch GP

Frank Williams and Patrick Neve at the 1977 Dutch GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images / David Phipps

He had nothing, having lost his hard won Formula One Constructors’ Association membership in the Wolf deal, and he had to create a new company, which he called Williams Grand Prix Engineering. Belgian driver Patrick Neve brought sponsorship from a brewery concern, while Frank found a modest sum from Saudia Airlines. The cash enabled him to buy a second-hand March and a stock of Cosworth engines, while a former carpet warehouse in Didcot was found as a base.

He also had an ace up his sleeve. Head had initially stayed with the Wolf team, but the ever-persuasive Frank convinced him to join his start-up operation, offering him the challenge of designing a new car from scratch for the following season.

In 1977 Neve scraped into the top 10 four times, earning a lucky seventh at Monza, but he did little to capture any headlines.

“I'd got nowhere on my own the first time round,” Frank would recall. “But I was given the opportunity to start again, and I took it. I think 1969 can't be forgotten and played its part, but the main thing was 1977. It was very difficult, but it was fun, it was worthwhile, and we were convinced that we'd get there.”

The March was just a stop-gap. In the background Head and his colleagues, now including young engineer Neil Oatley and mechanic/fabricator Ross Brawn, had been working quietly away on what became the Williams FW06. It was a continuation of type number series from the ex-Hesketh FW05 of 1976, and proof at the time that Frank did have one eye on his past.

Frank put a £350,000 budget together and persuaded Alan Jones, winner of the 1977 Austrian GP with Shadow, to come on board for 1978. The no-nonsense Australian gelled perfectly with Head and Williams, and he was to play a key role in establishing the team.

“He was a great guy,” Frank recalled. “We were at the right age, and we enjoyed each other’s attitude to life at that stage. On the track he was a swashbuckling racer – he gave no quarter, and he expected none. He really hung it out. He never had an off day.”

Frank Dernie, Frank Williams and Alan Jones at the 1981 San Marino GP

Frank Dernie, Frank Williams and Alan Jones at the 1981 San Marino GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images / Rainer Schlegelmilch

The new FW06 proved to be competitive, at least with other non-ground-effect machines. Head observed the successful Lotus 79, and for 1979 he tried to take the ground-effect concept to the next step with the FW07. Meanwhile Frank continued to find extra funding, helped by old F3 pal Crichton-Stuart. It allowed him to hire Clay Regazzoni and expand the entry to two cars.

It took a while to fully exploit the FW07’s aero package, but the car became the pacesetter and, after Jones retired, Regazzoni scored a memorable first win for the team in the British GP. Jones would go on to win four races that year. Williams was on its way, propelled by the combination of Head’s technical leadership and Frank’s sheer determination to succeed.

For 1980 Carlos Reutemann replaced Regazzoni, and Williams became firmly established as a frontrunner, with Jones beating Brabham’s Nelson Piquet to the team’s first titles. Williams took the constructors’ crown again in 1981 and Reutemann could have won another drivers' title, but he lost out to Piquet at the final race.

MORE: F1's fastest and slowest: Williams's rollercoaster ride

Jones retired at the end of that season, and was replaced by Keke Rosberg. After Reutemann unexpectedly walked away early in 1982 the Finn went on to earn the team’s second drivers’ title, despite winning only one race with the FW08.

By now the turbo cars were dominating, and Frank knew that the days of the trusty Cosworth were numbered. He pulled off a coup when, after an introduction from Ron Tauranac, he concluded a deal to run the new Honda V6. It appeared in the back of a Williams for the first time at the end of 1983.

Alas the Honda proved unreliable and uncompetitive in 1984, although Rosberg did at least manage to win the Dallas GP. Williams and Head made it clear to Honda’s management that the company had to step up its game, and the 1985 version was a vast improvement. Rosberg and new recruit Nigel Mansell became increasingly competitive as the season went on, and between them they won the last three races.

With momentum building and Piquet replacing the McLaren-bound Rosberg, the Williams team looked set for a great season in 1986. However, everything changed in March when Frank was involved in a road accident on the way to the airport after a Paul Ricard test.

He suffered a broken neck, and came close to death. His sheer determination and supreme level of fitness – he had always been a keen runner – allowed him to pull through. However, life would never be the same again, and a man who always had such boundless energy would thereafter be confined to a wheelchair.

Nigel Mansell with his team boss Frank Williams at the 1986 British GP

Nigel Mansell with his team boss Frank Williams at the 1986 British GP

Photo by: Sutton Images

As he began his rehabilitation Head took the reins. Frank watched from afar as Piquet and Mansell dominated the 1986 season, only for Alain Prost to steal the title in Adelaide. By 1987 Frank was able to return to a frontline role. If anything his new situation allowed him to focus even more keenly than before on running the team.

That year Piquet earned the team’s third drivers’ title with the FW11B, which also scored Williams’s fourth constructors’ championship. But the relationship with Honda came to an end – essentially because Frank did not want to be dictated to on driver choice.

PLUS: The genesis of an F1 great

Williams then endured a difficult year with customer Judd engines in 1988. As ever, though, Frank was building for the future, concluding a deal with Renault to run a new V10 for the start of the normally aspirated era in 1989.

A new period of Williams domination was on the way, but it took two more pieces to fall into place – the arrival of Adrian Newey as chief designer in 1990, and the return of Mansell the following season after a two-year spell at Ferrari.

Newey’s FW14 challenged McLaren’s supremacy in 1991, and in 1992 Mansell was utterly dominant with the technically advanced FW14B. By now everyone wanted to drive for Williams. Frank hired Alain Prost for 1993 – and amid much acrimony Mansell departed to the USA. Not for the last time the team boss found himself at the heart of a driver choice controversy.

“There are more stories to be recounted about Nigel Mansell within Williams than anyone else,” Frank recalled. “He was just one helluva racer. Whenever he went racing the horns came out and the fangs popped out of his jaw – upper and lower – and he was off. He was fantastic, but difficult to deal with sometimes. But there are great memories.”

Prost strolled to the 1993 title before retiring, while new boy Damon Hill proved a quick team-mate, and soon began winning races.

For 1994 Ayrton Senna came on board, rekindling a relationship that began when Frank gave the Brazilian his first F1 test in the summer of 1983. After a difficult start to the season Senna was killed on a dark weekend at Imola – it was a crushing blow to Frank and the team.

Ayrton Senna with Frank Williams at pre-season testing in Portugal in 1994

Ayrton Senna with Frank Williams at pre-season testing in Portugal in 1994

Photo by: Sutton Images

Bernie Ecclestone brokered a deal for Mansell to return and make guest appearances, but it was Hill who helped pull things together. He came agonisingly close to winning that year’s title, losing out after a controversial clash with Michael Schumacher at the Adelaide finale.

After a difficult 1995 season Hill bounced back to win in 1996, just pipping his rookie team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. But Frank had already decided to replace the Englishman with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, again sparking controversy. Newey also left towards the end of the 1996 season, joining rival McLaren, and his loss would be felt in the years to come.

In 1997 it was Villeneuve’s turn to win, the Canadian surviving controversial contact with Schumacher in Jerez to claim the team’s seventh drivers’ world championship. No one could imagine at the time that it would also be the last to date.

Renault stopped its works involvement at the end of that season. As with Honda’s departure Frank had already found a solution, agreeing a deal with BMW, although the new relationship would not start until 2000. In the interim the team endured two largely fruitless seasons with customer Renault engines. On the plus side Frank’s earlier successes earned him a knighthood in 1999, while that year BMW won Le Mans with the Williams-built V12 LMR.

At the start of the first BMW F1 season in 2000 Frank again made news with his driver choice – this time in a positive way by plumping for F3 graduate Jenson Button as team-mate to Ralf Schumacher, although the seat was only available for a year before Juan Pablo Montoya arrived.

The team won four races in 2001, but only one in 2002, as the Schumacher/Ferrari/Bridgestone package proved dominant. However, the FW25 of 2003 was very competitive and for a while the title appeared to be within reach, only for the team’s challenge to fade in the latter part of the season. The relationship with BMW was strained, with Frank refusing to sell a shareholding or give up his independence, and the German manufacturer left after 2005 to pursue a new relationship with Sauber.

The loss of its works partner signalled a dip in fortunes for the team. Over the next few years it flitted from Cosworth to Toyota to Cosworth to Renault, always on a customer basis. With unfortunate timing the team fell as low as ninth in the 2011 world championship, the year that the company went public as Williams Grand Prix Holdings.

Claudio Steffenoni, Toto Wolff, Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adam Parr

Claudio Steffenoni, Toto Wolff, Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Adam Parr

Photo by: Williams

The team then somehow scored a freak win in Spain with Pastor Maldonado and the FW34 in 2012, its first since 2004, and the most recent to date.

That year Head left his frontline role with the team, and much more was to change in 2013. In March Frank’s wife Ginny, his rock and greatest supporter, passed away. Shortly afterwards it was announced that his daughter Claire would be promoted from the commercial department to the deputy team principal job, a role that would see her take increasing responsibility. Meanwhile former Jaguar man Mike O’Driscoll became group CEO, a further sign that the days of Frank as a one-man band running the show were over.

For the start of the hybrid era in 2014 Williams agreed a deal with Mercedes, and it proved to be an inspired choice. The team was able to take advantage of the Brixworth’s power unit’s initial superiority to become a serious contender once more, with the cars looking good too in a Martini livery. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas took a string of podiums, and the team earned third in the championship in 2014 and 2015, before slipping to fifth in 2016 and 2017 as rivals improved.

Then in 2018 Williams tumbled to the bottom of the table. Prize money was thus drastically reduced and, with insufficient sponsorship coming in, the team found itself in a spiral of debt, and struggling to improve an uncompetitive car. With budgets rising and teams increasingly owned by manufacturers or corporations it was becoming ever harder for Frank to survive as an independent, albeit one with partners and shareholders.

In August 2020 Frank and Claire finally accepted the inevitable, and the team was sold to Dorilton, signalling the end of the family’s involvement after 43 years. Fully respecting the team’s heritage, the new owners agreed to retain the Williams name.

The team lies fourth on the all-time list with 114 Grand Prix victories having also earned seven drivers’ championships and nine constructors’ titles. It’s a remarkable legacy.

“Frank and I were a good pair,” Head recalled recently. “Would I have started a GP team? No, I never would have done so on my own. Frank had the blind confidence. He was a person who put his head on the pillow and went to sleep and slept 10 hours every night. And I was a worrier, completely opposite. But we were a pair that worked well together.”

Frank Williams at the 2018 British GP

Frank Williams at the 2018 British GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images / Jerry Andre

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