LONDON — Frank Williams, the founder and former team principal of Formula One’s Williams Racing, has died. He was aged 79.
Williams took his motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula One, overseeing 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.
“After being admitted into hospital on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family,” Williams Racing said in a statement Sunday.
Williams driver George Russell remembered Williams as a “genuinely wonderful human being.”
Williams’ life is all the more extraordinary by the horrific car crash he suffered in France that left him with injuries so devastating that doctors considered turning off his life-support machine.
But his wife, Virginia, ordered that her husband be kept alive and his sheer determination and courage — characteristics that personified his career — enabled him to continue with the love of his life, albeit from the confines of a wheelchair.
He would remain in his role as Williams team principal for a further 34 years before F1’s greatest family team was sold to an American investment group in August.
“Frank was one of the old-timers who went back an awful long way,” former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone told Britain’s Press Association. “One wonders that, if people like Frank had not been around in the early days, whether Formula One would have survived today. His name was on the list of those who helped to build Formula One. It’s the end of an era.”
Frank Williams’ rise to the top of Formula One
Francis Owen Garbett Williams, a headmistress and RAF officer, was born April 16, 1942 in South Shields. He was educated at St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries where he became obsessed with cars following a ride in a Jaguar XK150.
Williams was a salesman who traveled by day. He fulfilled his racing goals at weekend, and at just 24 years old, Frank Williams Racing Cars was established.
After four years, Williams and Piers Courage were already competing in Formula Two. In 1969, Williams and Piers, their best friend and flatmate, graduated to F1 with a used Brabham.
Tragic events took place at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.
Courage ran off track and one of his front wheels struck his helmet. His car burst into flames. Courage’s grisly death in a car bearing his name left Williams devastated. In 1975, Walter Wolf purchased 60% of Williams’ team after he was broke and had spiraling debts.
Williams, however, was not built to drive in the backseat and, driven by independence, severed all ties with the Canadian businessman.
The young, promising engineer Patrick Head was signed by him and he set up his own business at Didcot’s old carpet warehouse. This double act would make history by winning grand prix.
Williams Grand Prix Engineering was born through the support of Saudi Arabia and the hire of Alan Jones (Australian driver),
At the 1979 British GP, Jones registered Williams’ first pole position before teammate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s first win a day later.
Jones won Williams’ first title in 1980. The team also won back-to-back constructors’ championships, while Keke Rosberg was crowned drivers’ champion in 1982. But, in 1986, Williams’ life would change forever.
After passing a March test at Paul Ricard Circuit, Williams took off in a Ford Sierra rental car for a 98 mile dash to Nice Airport. Williams was speeding along windy roads and lost control of the vehicle, which ended up on the roof after a 2.5-metre fall into a field.
Williams’ passenger, the team’s marketing manager Peter Windsor, escaped with minor injuries. Williams was left in a wheelchair due to a spinal injury.
“I was late for a plane which I didn’t need to be late for because I got the French time mixed up with the English time,” Williams later said. “The roads were very bumpy, the hire car was not the world’s best, and suddenly I was off the road upside down and with a broken neck.
“It was very unfair on my family, particularly my wife, because of how my circumstances changed. It was selfish and careless to do this. Life went on, and I was able to continue, but it has been a handicap in the true sense of the word.”
Williams returned to the team’s helm in nine months, despite his life-altering injuries. Over the ensuing 11 years, five further drivers’ championships — including those for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill — as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.
Williams would feel even more pain when Ayrton Sena, the third racer for the British team in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix was lost.
In 1999, Williams was made a knight by Queen Elizabeth II. However, his team never managed to recreate its glory days of the 1980s or 1990s. His wife, Claire died in 2013. He returned to the fold in 2013 and allowed his daughter Claire the responsibility for the day-today management of the team.
Williams was able to fight off pneumonia in 2016. However, he has been an infrequent fixture of the paddock over many years.
After selling to Dorilton Capital, the Williams family won its final race, the 739th, in Monza’s Italian Grand Prix.
Williams was survived by three of his children: Jamie, Claire and Jonathan.
“Sir Frank Williams was one of the kindest people I had the pleasure of meeting in this sport,” defending F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton tweeted. “What he achieved is something truly special. His spirit was always a racer. His legacy will live on forever.”