A true Formula 1 legend that overcame adversity to win
Those of us that follow Formula 1 woke up to the news today that Frank Williams, the namesake of the Williams Grand Prix Engineering Formula 1 team, has passed away at the age of 79.
Working out of a former carpet warehouse, Williams Grand Prix Engineering was born in 1978 after the financial struggles and near bankruptcy of his first attempt at Formula 1, Frank Williams Racing Cars. After being bought out by Candian Walter Worf in 1976, he left the team in 1977 with Patrick Head, his chief engineer, and formed the now legendary team with little more than a bank loan and promises to pay from winnings and sponsorships to cover the loan. Less than a year later, Clay Regazzoni drove an FW07 to victory at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
1980 saw the team win the drivers and constructors’ titles, supporting Alan Jones in a modified FW07. Between 1981 and 1997, WGPE went on to field some of the most technically advanced cars the sport had ever seen, such as the FW14B which introduced computer-controlled active suspension, in doing so powering six more drivers to the drivers’ championship and winning the constructors championship eight more times. However, not everything would go to plan during these wild years of success, as tt was during this time period that the day that changed Frank Williams’ life forever occurred.
On the 8th of March, 1986, Williams had been at the Circuit Paul Ricard in the South of France to watch the FW11 chassis undergo high-speed testing, but was registered to run in the London Half Marathon on the 9th of March. As such, after the testing had finished, Williams, with team sponsorship manager Peter Windsor, drove a Ford Sierra 1600 car at speed to get to the Nice Cote d’Azur Airport when he lost control on a left-hand bend, went over a low stone retaining wall, and landed in a field 8 feet below the road on the driver’s side. Williams suffered a spinal fracture just below his neck and partially severed his spinal cord, rendering him a tetraplegic. He nearly died a few times in the tense 48 hours after the accident, but after urgent repatriation and an emergency tracheotomy in the UK, he survived.
Frank Williams ultimately oversaw 114 grand prix wins as team principal. He was active with both the F1 team and the business side of Williams until 2012, when he stepped down from the board of directors and nominated his daughter Claire for the vacancy. From 2013 to 2020, he was a co-team principal with Claire, running more of the engineering side of things while his daughter oversaw the drivers and business delivery side. When Williams Grand Prix Engineering was bought out by Dorilton Capital Group in 2020, both Frank and Claire stepped down, ending the Williams family tenure of the team.
Ultimately, Frank Williams oversaw 50 years of competition as a team principal, and his team and company dominated the sport for nearly two decades. He survived bankruptcy, he navigated the politics of Formula 1 with skill, grace, and determination, and he didn’t let the fact that he was tetraplegic get in the way of his desire to push for every win, and have the best of the best drive and engineer for him and the team. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1986 after his recovery from his accident, and was made a Knight Commander of the OBE in 1999.
Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams, CBE, born April 16 1942, will be sorely missed, and left a lasting legacy in the sport he loved so dearly.
Comments and Honours by teams and drivers on hearing of his passing:
Official Formula 1:
We are filled with the most immense and deep sadness at the passing of Sir Frank Williams
His was a life driven by passion for motorsport; his legacy is immeasurable, and will be forever part of F1
George Russell, the last driver personally signed to the team by Frank Williams:
Today, we say goodbye to the man who defined our team. Sir Frank was such a genuinely wonderful human being and I’ll always remember the laughs we shared. He was more than a boss, he was a mentor and a friend to everybody who joined the Williams Racing family and so many others. pic.twitter.com/bWpFivpkmi