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In memoriam: Sir Frank Williams, an F1 icon in every sense of the word
Williams F1

In memoriam: Sir Frank Williams, an F1 icon in every sense of the word

28-11-2021 16:53 Last update: 17:02


Former Formula 1 team principal Sir Frank Williams, whose team became one of the most successful in the history of the sport, passed away Sunday morning at the age of 79. We look back at his very successful, but also eventful career in Formula 1. 

Williams discovered an interest in fast cars at a young age

Williams was born in South Shields, England. His father served as an officer in the Royal Air Force, while his mother worked as a schoolteacher. Williams was partly raised by his uncle and aunt in Jarrow, after the breakdown of his parent's marriage.

He spent much of his later childhood at a private boarding school in Dumfries, Scotland. In the late 1950s, a friend took Williams for a ride in his Jaguar XK150, which sparked his interest in fast cars.

Start in Formula 1

After a brief career as a driver and mechanic, Williams founded Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966. He financed this through his work as an itinerant grocery salesman. He competed for several years in Formula 2 and Formula 3 with Piers Courage and others. He then bought a Formula 1 chassis from Brabham, with which Courage finished second twice in 1969.

In 1970, Williams teamed up with Alejandro de Tomaso, who would provide the team with a newly designed chassis. This proved to be unreliable, resulting in the fatal accident of Courage at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort later that year. After this Williams ended the cooperation with Tomaso.

Another attempt in Formula 1 with historic Williams team

In 1972 Williams raced for the first time with a self-built car, but driver Henri Pescarolo crashed with the car in his first race. In the following years, Williams faced financial shortages. He was forced to do his business from a phonebox after his own phone line was cut off due to unpaid bills.

In 1977 Williams left his team, taking engineer Patrick Head with him. Together they bought a vacant carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire, and announced the formation of Williams Grand Prix Engineering. That same team is still active in Formula 1 today.

Williams' first Formula 1 win

Their first victory came at the 1979 British Grand Prix, where Clay Regazzoni drove the Cosworth-powered Williams FW07 to victory. In 1980, Williams won the drivers' and manufacturers' championship for the first time with driver Alan Jones.

Ayrton Senna

In the early 1990s, Williams became one of the most successful Formula One teams on the grid and were keen to sign both Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Prost was first however and had a condition in his contract that Senna was not allowed to be signed at the same time.

That veto was only valid for one year, and at the end of the 1993 season, Senna was announced as a driver at Williams. Around the same time, Prost decided to call it a day and the Frenchman retired.

In May 1994, after Senna's death at Imola, Williams and Head were charged with manslaughter in Italy. This was because of the modifications made to the steering column of his car on the night before the race, but the case was later dropped. Since Senna's death, every chassis since the Williams FW17 has had a tribute in the form of a small Senna logo on the front wing.

Success in the Nineties

In the years following Senna's death, the team continued to be successful. Williams, with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, won the drivers' championship in 1996 and 1997, and the constructors' championship in 1994, 1996 and 1997.

Williams and acquisition

In March 2012 Williams announced that he would step down from the Williams F1 board and be replaced by his daughter Claire Williams, although he would still remain with the team in the role of team principal. His daughter largely took over his duties as deputy team principal.

In the following years, the team went downhill. Results failed to materialise and the team fell back to the tail end of the field. In addition, the company was in serious financial difficulties. In September 2020 Williams announced the sale of the team, after which all involvement of Frank Williams stopped.

Personal life and misfortune

Williams was permanently confined to a wheelchair after a car accident in France, on March 8, 1986. This left him with a spinal cord injury that paralysed all four of his limbs. He was travelling with Peter Windsor, who was working for the team as sponsorship manager at the time.

During the drive to the airport, Williams lost control of the wheel on a slight left-hand turn, hitting a low brick wall. The car went off the road and took a 2.4-metre fall, before rolling over onto the driver's side. Williams remained conscious but was immediately aware that he could not move.

He suffered a spinal fracture between the fourth and fifth vertebrae after being squeezed between his seat and the shattered roof. Windsor, who suffered only minor injuries, removed Williams from the vehicle while he waited for emergency services to arrive.

Williams' wife Virginia flew to the French hospital with Patrick Head and feared her husband was dying. She organised his urgent return to England, where doctors performed a tracheotomy. In the process, fluid was removed from his lungs, almost certainly saving his life. Virginia Williams was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and died on 7 March 2013 at the age of 66.

Sir Frank Williams died on November 28, 2021 at the age of 79.

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