“The reason Williams is still here is because it is all Frank cares about. F1, this team and going racing,’” explains Sir Frank Williams’s daughter and the team’s deputy principal, Claire. She should know, having been born just a year before Williams formed the team that bears his name and which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. McLaren and Ferrari have been racing in Formula One for longer but no man has run an F1 team as long as Williams – it is the single-minded determination his daughter knows so well that has seen them through.
In early June, 35,000 fans turned up at Silverstone to enjoy a celebration of those 40 years, with a display of some of the cars that have become part of F1 history. At the British Grand Prix, a similar display is on show in the pitlane and the celebrated FW14B “Red 5”, with which former world champion Nigel Mansell dominated the 1992 season, will be on track. Times might have been lean for the team recently but they have every right to revel in their heritage. Williams has steered them to nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ titles and in doing so he has written a unique chapter in motorsport.
Few had predicted it when, after seven years of struggle with his first outfit Frank Williams Racing Cars, he restarted with Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977. It was a hand-to-mouth affair, as the superb, newly released documentary Williams recounts. Stories of conducting business from a public call box because the phone had been cut off, he has admitted, are true. Equally, it was his wife Virginia, who died in 2013 and was not only at the heart of the team – it was Ginny who insisted they sign Mansell – who in those days kept it going. “If it wasn’t for Mum, Williams wouldn’t exist because she was the one that bankrolled Dad for so many years,” recalls Claire. Not that Williams was profligate, his focus was always racing – sent out for fish and chips, he would return with spark plugs.
Some knew such strength of purpose would bear watching. The writer, Nigel Roebuck, recalls a conversation with Ken Tyrrell in 1974: “A lot of people don’t take Frank seriously, but I think they’re wrong,” said Tyrrell. “There’s no one in this paddock who wants to succeed more than he does and if he ever gets himself financially organised, watch out …”
Williams duly did get organised and, with his cofounder Patrick Head proving to be the perfect partner, foil and a formidable designer, they proved impossible to ignore. Alan Jones won four races in 1979 and the title a year later.
Claire Williams admits that her father’s dedication to his team came at the cost of some emotional detachment that has been reflected in perceptions of Sir Frank. “A lot of people see Dad and see the poker-faced team boss,” she says. “I’ve had people say to me: ‘That Frank Williams, what’s he like? He looks like a right bastard.’ I say: ‘Well that’s my dad.’ That’s Frank at work: focused, doing a job.”
He could also be ruthless, of course, most notably with drivers. “They’re only employees, after all,” he said. “All I care about is Williams Grand Prix Engineering and the points we earn. I don’t care who scores them.” Damon Hill was dispensed with summarily after taking the title in 1996 yet he, as with almost everybody who has been connected with the team, still has only admiration for Williams. “He is single-minded and has given his entire life to creating a team that every year tries to produce the best racing car,” says Hill. “That is his love and his passion and in that sense he is the closest we have to an Enzo Ferrari. Enzo was about the passion and the cars and Frank is absolutely as passionate about his team and his cars as Enzo ever was about his.”
In 1986, after the car accident in France that left him paralysed from the neck down, his strength of purpose was shown not only in coming back to lead his team but also in that they were robust enough to carry on while he recovered. At the Marseille hospital where he was being treated, doctors asked permission for his life support machine to be switched off. Ginny refused. Six weeks later he appeared in his wheelchair in the pits at Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix and was given a standing ovation.
“The greatest compliment I can give Williams and Sir Frank was the team they put together,” says Mansell. “The depth they had in the organisation when Frank had his accident – and it was devastating for everybody and we all thought the team was going to collapse – but everybody pulled together and the team solidified and became stronger.”
Nelson Piquet won the first race after the accident – the season opener in Brazil – and Williams took the constructors’ title that year. The team Frank had built survived the catastrophe, just as they would after Ayrton Senna’s tragic death in 1994. In the Grove factory, he and Head had forged a remarkable organisation. “It’s that consistent love of racing and that comes from Patrick and Frank,” says Paddy Lowe, the team’s technical director now enjoying his second stint with Williams having been integral to Mansell’s 1992 title.
“There are many, many engineers within the sport who began their careers at Williams and learned that spirit of racing from Frank and Patrick, including myself, Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey. Frank is obsessed with racing and all that it takes to win. That’s why we are still here after 40 years.”
Claire points out Williams remains in pain every day because of the accident. But inevitably he does not dwell on it. “I’ve always been a little boy, always enjoyed speed, that’s how I finished up in a chair – going too fast,” says Williams. Yet stepping away from the team has never been an option and he has remained just as committed even through the leaner years. Their last title was in 1997, the last win, Pastor Maldonado’s at Barcelona in 2012, and they will still be fighting for only the lead in the midfield at Sunday’s British Grand Prix. But Williams still burns with the desire to win. “He is 74 and he has no interest whatsoever in giving up his F1 team,” says Claire. “If he could take it and put it in his coffin with him I think he would. That’s just who he is.”
Which has defined the team that still bear his name above the door and is all he has ever wanted. “Aren’t you jealous of what I do – running a grand prix team? It’s a great privilege,” quips Williams with gleam in his eye.