Racing in their DNA: Part V - Williams
This special edition takes a look back at the family who has racing embedded in their DNA.
The Williams Formula 1 team simply wouldn't exist without the dreams and ambitions of one man: Sir Frank Williams. In the 1970s, he took on the monumental task of birthing a Formula 1 team, sacrificing an incredible amount to make it happen. Whilst his early ventures were not as successful as he might have liked, Sir Frank didn't give up and over time, turned his team into one of the most successful teams in Formula 1 history. Here's the nuts and bolts of how he - and his family - did it.
After a brief career as a driver and mechanic, Frank founded Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966, funded by his work as a travelling grocery salesman. He ran drivers—including his friend Piers Courage—for several years in Formula Two and Formula Three. Frank purchased a Brabham Formula One chassis, which Courage drove throughout the 1969 Formula One season, twice finishing in second place.
In 1970, Williams undertook a brief partnership with Alejandoro de Tomaso after de Tomaso suggested that they co-develop a Grand Prix car for Piers Courage. After the death of Courage at the Dutch Grand Prix that year, Williams' relationship with de Tomaso ended. In 1971, he ran Henri Pescarolo with a chassis purchased from March Engineering. Then, in 1972, having “borrowed some money” from Bernie Ecclestone the first Williams F1 car was built, the Politoys FX3 designed by Len Bailey. The car was built in time for the British Grand Prix, held at Brands Hatch, where Pescarolo crashed and destroyed it on the opening lap of the race.
Franks’ early endeavours were not the successes he wanted and he haemorrhaged money, at one point being so short of cash that he conducted team business from a telephone box after being disconnected for unpaid bills. His wife, Ginny, later wrote in her book (Williams: A Different Kind of Life, co-written with Pamela Cockerill) that Frank bounced a number of cheques and she had even taken to leaving letters from the bank unopened.
In 1976, having earlier looked to Marlboro and Italian car company Iso Rovolta for sponsorship, with mixed results, Frank reluctantly took on Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolf as a partner. Although it kept the team afloat, theirs was not a successful pairing as the team no longer belonged to Williams and he left in 1977. Determined to set up his own operation, he took the initial step, to lure engineer Patrick Head, who he had hired when at Walter Wolf Racing, back from building boats to join him. They soon acquired an empty carpet warehouse in Didcot, before they then announced the formation of Williams Grand Prix Engineering. This same team and partnership still compete in Formula One, now based just outside of Grove, Oxfordshire.
In 1977 Williams entered F1, as Williams-Ford, racing a customer car from March Engineering, with little to show for their entry. 1978 was then the first year Williams entered as a constructor. The FW06 (numbers 1 – 5 not being used,) earned them ninth place in the Constructor’s Championship thanks to their sole driver, the Australian, Alan Jones.
Alan Jones and Frank Williams going for a run in 1979.
The beginning of the 1979 season didn’t look very promising as the team was late to enter its new car, the FW07. The previous years’ success had enabled the fledgling team to hire a second driver; Clay Regazzoni. For the first five events of the season the team ran the previous year’s vehicle. Finally, at the sixth race, the Belgian Grand Prix, the FW07 made its debut appearance. Unfortunately, both cars retired as drivers Alan Jones & Clay Regazzoni had electrical issues and a collision respectively. However, the next race in Monaco brought redemption as Regazzoni finished second. Then, at the following race in France, the Williams’ came home fourth and sixth. The FW07 was now a formidable threat; Frank Williams and Patrick Head were officially on the map as true contenders. With seven races left in the season, Williams won five of them! They ended the year having taken second place in both the Drivers and Constructors Championships, only losing out to the legendary Ferrari.
The team's first win came when Clay Regazzoni drove the Cosworth - powered Williams FW07 to victory at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Their first Driver’s Championship and Constructor’s Championship both came in 1980, with Alan Jones winning the drivers' title in the FW07B – a car which generated so much down force from its’ ground effect chassis that it could run with the front wing removed! In 1981 Williams won their second Constructor’s Championship, with driver Carlos Reutemann only losing the Driver’s Championship by one point. Between 1981 and 1997, the team went on to win six more drivers' championships and eight more constructors' championships.
For the 1986 season, Frank signed Nelson Piquet. He had carefully managed to keep the initial approach and subsequent signing so secret that even Patrick Head was not in the loop and, when Piquet went to tell his then Brabham team boss Bernie Ecclestone that he was leaving, Ecclestone stormed off in the direction of McLaren, as he thought Ron Dennis had signed him.
Williams has used a wheelchair since a car accident in France, in March 1986, rendered him tetraplegic. He was driving from the Paul Ricard Circuit to Nice Cote d’Azur Airport with team sponsorship manager Peter Windsor in a rental car when the incident happened. Williams had been at the circuit for testing of the new Williams FW11, but as a keen long distance runner, he was returning to the airport following the trials because he wished to compete in a fun run in London the next day.
On the drive to the airport, the car left the road before dropping nearly 10 feet (3.048 metres) and rolled into a field, landing on the driver’s side. Whilst Peter Windsor escaped with only minor injuries, Frank was crushed between his seat and the roof, suffering a spinal fracture. At the Marseille hospital where he was being treated, doctors asked permission for his life support machine to be switched off. Ginny Williams refused and as soon as possible after the accident, Frank was flown back to hospital in London where his recovery continued under the watchful eye of Professor Sid Watkins.
Six weeks later, at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, he appeared in the pits in his wheelchair, where Mansell went on to win the race. It was Ginny who took to the podium to receive the winner’s trophy.
It was an incredibly difficult period for his family, though Frank has since commented that Ginny was “exceptional,” nursing him through his recovery while looking after their three kids and making sure the racing team was in good shape, too.
To many, suffering such an accident and the subsequent disability would mean the end of their career in any field and more so in the pressurised and competitive sport that is Formula One. Those who knew Frank before the accident knew he was a different kind of person – Ron Dennis remarked that the consequences of his accident would make him a more dangerous rival, because now all he could do with his time was to think.
Buoyed by his recovery, the team, guided by Patrick and Ginny in Frank’s absence, won the constructors' title in 1986 and 1987.
In order to attend races after his recovery, Frank allowed himself the luxury of a specifically adapted private jet. This was no indulgence on his part though as it was found that travelling on commercial airlines, even in first class, was awkward and uncomfortable due to his mobility limitations. Later, when the team needed to update their wind tunnel, Frank had no hesitation in selling the jet to put money into the team.
For the 1992 season, Nigel Mansell drove the FW14B – arguably the most advanced race car in F1 history, which featured semi-automatic transmission, active suspension, traction control and even anti-lock brakes, making it a strong package. It was so successful that its’ planned successor (the FW15), despite being available from mid-season was never used. On his way to the Championship that year, Mansell won nine races (a record at the time).
The famous FW14.
Frank had watched the career of Ayrton Senna and dreamed of having the Brazilian drive one of his cars. After many years of trying to get him to drive for Williams, it became reality for the 1994 season. But in only their third race, Senna lost his life when he crashed during the San Marino Grand Prix.
In May 1994, following the death of Ayrton Senna in the Williams FW16 at Imola, Frank Williams (together with Patrick Head and Adrian Newey) was charged with manslaughter. It wasn’t until 2005 that the case would be closed and the three cleared of any charges. Following Ayrton's death, every chassis since the Williams FW17 has carried a tribute in the form of a small Senna logo on or near the front wing supports. Frank is also one of the official advisers to the Ayrton Senna Foundation.
Frank 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”.
Williams announced he would be stepping down from the board of Williams F1 and would be replaced by his daughter Claire Williams, although he would still remain with the team in the role of team principal.
Williams received the Wheatcroft Trophy in 2008, in recognition of his significant contributions to motorsports. Sir Frank Williams is the longest surviving tetraplegic in medical history.
Williams won their last Grand Prix in Barcelona back in 2012 with Pastor Maldonado winning the race for them. They initially looked like Championship contenders again at the beginning of the Hybrid Era of Formula 1 in 2014 when they were quite competetive on track. Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa locked out the front row of the grid at Austria that year with Bottas finishing the race in third. Williams got six third place finishes that year and ended the year in third place in the Constructor's Championship, over a hundred points ahead of Ferrari.
2015 was also a solid year for them where they again finished third in the Championship, this time comfortably beating Red Bull instead of Ferrari. They got another four podiums that year, all of which were for third place positions. 2016 saw them only get on the podium once, in Canada, and they slipped down to fifth in the standings overall. This was to be the beginning of the end for them unfortunately. Azerbaijan in 2017 would see Williams get their final podium as a family run team with Lance Stroll finishing the race in third for them, just pipped by the Mercedes of Bottas for second place.
In 2018, they slid down to the bottom of the Constructor's Championship and have remained there since then. The last time they got a point to their name was the 2019 German Grand Prix with Robert Kubica. The time before that however was a ninth and tenth place finish at Monza in 2018. In 2020, George Russell has been able to drive their car into Q2 on a number of occasions now which is a good sign of the team making progress. At the final race to feature the Williams family, the team missed out on a points finish by just one place, a real shame, but with any luck and a lot of hard work, it won't be too much longer for both us and them to wait before they are regularly back in the points again. Williams also has a solid driver program which includes Jamie Chadwick - who many tip to become the first modern day female F1 driver. Maybe she'll accomplish this with the Williams team.
But now that Williams have been bought by Dorilton, both Sir Frank and Claire Williams will be stepping away from the team in an official capacity. This went into effect following last weekend's Italian Grand Prix at Monza. It truly is the end of an Era for an awesome team. Whilst the Williams name will live on in Formula 1, it won't be the same without Frank and Claire being there. It is hoped that the investments Dorilton can put into the team will enable Williams to climb back to the top of the standings very soon where they belong. I know I want to see Williams being competitive again with George Russell fighting for race wins alongside the likes of Norris, Ricciardo and Hamilton. It's just a shame that it had to come to this to try and make that possible.
Over their time in Formula 1, the likes of Alan Jones, Clay Regazzoni, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas have all driven for them. They've had 739 race starts, 7 driver's title, 9 constructor's titles, 114 wins, 128 pole positions, 243 podiums, 33 one/finishes, 133 fastest laps and have accumulated a total of 3561 points. That's not a bad Formula 1 record.
And who knows, we might see the Williams family back in Formula 1 one day - never say never right? But for now, it's a fond farewell to them. It's been a blast.
What do you think of the Williams team? What do you think their legacy will be in Formula 1. Let me know in the comments below.