Frank Williams: 50 Years At The Pinnacle Of Motorsport
The recent British Grand Prix weekend marked a major milestone for one of the motorsport worlds icons. 2019 sees five decades at the top for Williams Grand Prix founder Frank Williams.
Sir Franks story is one of triumph and remarkable fortitude. A man that has achieved so much, let’s take a look back at the remarkable Williams story.
Born in South Shields in 1942 Frank Williams was the son of a Royal Air Force officer and teacher. Initially growing up away from cars it's said that Franks interest in cars was first stirred when an early friend introduced him to a Jaguar XK150. Subsequently, Frank tried his hand at driving and became a mechanic.
The Williams story was born properly in 1966 as Frank Williams Racing Cars were born. An outfit born to compete in the Formula 2 and Formula 3 junior categories, the team competed in these championships for several years before a Formula One chassis was purchased from Brabham.
These formative years stood to build the foundations of what was to come next. Initially funding his outfit by his work as a travelling grocery salesman, come the turn of 1969 everything was about to change for Frank Williams and his team as Formula One beckoned.
1969 marked the first of 50 successive years in Formula One and in that first season, Frank ran Piers Courage in the revised and rebranded ex-Brabham chassis. It was to prove to be a successful debut season as Courage picked up stellar second-place finishes in both the Monaco and US Grand Prix on his way to a solid 8th place finish in the driver's championship.
After a successful debut, the subsequent years were challenging for Williams and his team. Whilst working with some highly regarded names such as Alejandro de Tomaso and Henri Pescarolo, Frank witnessed early tragedy after he lost driver Piers Courage in an accident at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.
Short on cash, the next few years would prove to be a story of survival for Frank and his team and at one time it is documented that Frank Williams was operating his team out of a phone box before he being disconnected for unpaid bills. The dire financial situation facing the team naturally led Frank to try and find urgent sponsorship.
Looking for a sponsor he approached several companies to secure the financial future of his team. Unfortunately for Frank, funding didn’t materialise and this led to a financial deal with Canadian Oil businessman Walter Wolf.
Whilst this partnership secured some financial backing for the team, it came at a price. The team was no longer in Frank Williams control and ultimately, this led to the departure of Frank from the team and with him went an important name for the future, Patrick Head.
This moment is significant in the history of Williams Racing as this is the moment Willams Grand Prix engineering was born. With Frank at the helm and Patrick Head, an acclaimed designer, penning the designs for the cars, the team operated out of a humble factory in Didcot, Oxfordshire. The foundations were set for decades of success.
It wasn’t long before Williams Grand Prix engineering first tasted champagne on the Formula 1 rostrum. Two seasons of building in 1977 and 1978 ultimately led to delivering the teams first win, rather fittingly, at the 1979 British Grand Prix with Clay Regazzoni at the wheel of the teams Williams FW07.
Overall championship glory in the drivers and constructors championships quickly followed in 1980 before the team went on to achieve huge success over the next 17 years as they collected a further 6 drivers titles and 8 constructors crowns.
Frank Williams was at the peak of his career, however, the next decade was to see two tragic career-defining incidents that would affect the rest of his and teams lives.
In 1986 whilst returning to Nice Côte d'Azur Airport after a day of testing at Paul Ricard, Frank Williams was driving a rented Ford Sierra when he lost control and subsequently rolled the car. The resulting crash left Williams tetraplegic as the accident caused a devasting spinal fracture. Sir Frank would never walk again, but against the odds, continued to lead the team that drove his life.
Sadly Williams was to experience further tragedy. Whilst running Ayton Senna in 1994, Senna lost control of his Williams after a safety car restart in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Ayrton crashed heavily at the fast Tamburello corner. The impact would ultimately claim the life of the three times World Champion. Much has been documented about the incident and the Grand Prix is regarded as one of the darkest weekends in Formula One history as the event also witnessed the death of Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger.
Whilst the events of that fateful weekend rocked the team, Williams recovered to win titles with Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill in both 1996 and 1997.
These would be the last titles to date for the team. A rise in manufacturer teams and the recent switch to hybrid engines have seen works teams dominate whilst Williams, a team that is fiercely independent continues to fight on for championship honours. A last serious title challenge came in 2003 with Juan Pablo Montoya before a further two victories came in 2004 and 2012 respectively.
Today Williams remains one of the most successful and longest-serving teams in the history of Grand Prix racing. All of this success can be attributed to the passion and determination from Frank Williams and his team. The last of the true independents, Williams continues to fight on and it’s only fitting that this 50th-anniversary milestone is celebrated.
Congratulations Sir Frank here’s to another 50 years of the Williams name at the top of motorsport.
Williams Grand Prix racing record:
Constructors Championships: 9
Drivers Championships: 7
Pole Positions: 128
Fastest Laps: 133