"One wonders that if people like Frank had not been around in the early days, whether Formula One would have survived today.” So go the words of Bernie Ecclestone to PA News Agency in memory of Sir Frank Williams, the motorsports icon who passed away on Sunday, November 28 this year.
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“He was one of the people that built Formula One,” continues Ecclestone. “It’s the end of an era.” Since his passing, the tributes to the Williams Racing Formula 1 team founder have been flowing in. Lewis Hamilton wrote not just of his racing prestige, but of his humanity. “Sir Frank Williams was one of the kindest people I had the pleasure of meeting in this sport. What he achieved is something truly special. Until his last days I know he remained a racer and a fighter at heart. His legacy will live on forever.”
Considering the fact that Williams suffered an injury that left him paralyzed all the way back in 1986, it’s no overstatement for Hamilton to call him a fighter.
Just imagine the strength of spirit required from Williams to keep on pushing through physical challenges to build not just one of the world’s best known racing teams, but to help shape Formula One into the cultural behemoth it is today. Before even considering his achievements in the racing world, to simply live until the age of 79 as a tetraplegic beggars belief. A fighter.
It’s almost poetic that Williams would sustain his injuries behind the wheel of a car. While rushing to make the airport in time for a flight out of Marseilles, France, Williams crashed his rented Ford Sierra into a wall.
Though his passenger Peter Windsor came away unhurt, Williams was trapped – the time spent under the crushed car exterior almost killing him. He spent six weeks on life support, during which the medics attending to him implored his wife Virginia, often known as “Ginny” to give in, to allow the machines to be switched off, but she refused.
Just six weeks later, the “fighter at heart” was given a raucous ovation when he showed up for the British Grand Prix in his wheelchair.
Williams appeared completely undeterred in his work despite his physical ailments – in fact his resolve was only steeled by the incident in ‘86. He wasn’t long returning to work, keen to innovate and commit to glory. The Williams team went on to claim more victories than it ever had from ‘86 through the 90s. Behind the wheel of his cars, names like Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Alain Prost and Jacque Villeneuve were inscribed in the history books.
Frank Williams was born to an RAF pilot and a teacher in South Shields in 1942, though his parents break-up led to him being raised by his grandparents.
At boarding school in Dumfries in Scotland, it became apparent that young Frank was more enamoured with cars than textbooks – the lust for speed rammed home when he drove in a Jaguar XK150 as a teenager. When he left school, he took up a sales job for the Campbell’s Soup Company, and wouldn’t you know, his company car didn’t last too long.
Williams’ daring seemed better suited to the race track, and so he climbed into an Austin 40, stepped on the gas on track day, and quickly climbed the ranks to Formula Three. Crash after crash came, until he was eventually convinced to step up into management. Always determined to succeed no matter the job description, he founded Frank Williams Racing in 1967, and entered Formula One just three years later – with little but an old Brabham and some Cosworth engines.
Piers Courage was the driver in those days, a close friend of Williams’, who was courageous by name and nature alike. Tragically, Courage died in the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970.
Success came slowly for Williams – no head starts ever given or earned. Even when help seemed to appear, he always went his own way. Call it stubbornness, or call it vision. His team had been sold to the Canadian oil baron Walter Wolf in 1976, and Williams took his leave – no outside interference welcome.
He founded Williams Grand Prix Engineering and began from scratch with the help of revered designer Patrick Head. The two innovated and worked for marginal gains everywhere, and once Saudi Airlines agreed to sponsor the team, they were ready to thrive.
The Argentine Grand Prix was their first foray, in 1978, and a first win came soon after at Silverstone with the now legendary Clay Regazzoni behind the wheel.
Intermittent success followed through the 1980s, with constructors' championships as well as Alan Jones’ drivers’ title in 1980. Then came Keke Rosberg in ‘82, and another constructor’s championship in ‘86. 1986, you’ll remember, was the same year William’s life would change irrevocably, one day in Marseilles.
Those post-crash years of Mansell, Prost, Hill et al came thick and fast. The success was heady. But they weren’t without their heartbreaks.
In 1994, one year after Prost’s world title and two before that of Hill, the San Marino Grand Prix was the scene of one of racing's greatest tragedies – the death of Ayrton Senna.
He was a three time world champion, and the ace in the William’s pack. On lap seven, he hit a wall at a fatal 265 km/h. He didn’t stand a chance. One of the world’s best loved racers was gone, and the blame was placed by a local prosecutor squarely at the feet of Williams, Head and designer Adrian Newey.
It would take three years for each to be acquitted of any crime. Throughout this time, the Williams team continued to honour their leading driver – with every Williams race car displaying a Senna logo from 1995 until 2012.
After coming through the trials and tribulations of the Senna Trial, after battling his paralysis for over a decade, after elevating the sport at one of its lowest ebbs, and after forging one of the world’s most successful Grand Prix teams at a time when Ferrari and McLaren were also on top of the world, Frank Williams became Sir Frank Williams in 1999. His legacy had been written.
In 2012, Sir Frank Williams finally stepped away from his role on the board of the Williams Racing Team, and was duly replaced by his daughter Claire.
The name will live on. Always.