R.I.P. Sir Frank Williams
My thoughts on one of motorsport's most important figures
If like me, your first exposure to Formula 1 was during the 90s, you'll know all about the Williams F1 Team and the man behind it. Back then Williams was one of the sport's top teams and Sir Frank Williams, the man in charge, was one of the biggest and most influential figures in motorsport. His passion and dedication to racing was always unmatched and, even though he was very physically disabled by the time I was first aware of him, it was very clear that he wasn't going to let that get in the way of doing what he loved. Now (at the time of writing) I've heard the very sad news that Sir Frank has passed away and, in light of that, I wanted to say a few words about how important I feel he is. Not just to Formula 1, but to motorsport as a whole.
Whilst Williams may be a shadow of what it once was, back in the day Williams really was a juggernaut of Formula 1. Williams had some of the sport's best drivers and best engineers, working together to create some of the best and most technologically advanced cars Formula 1 has ever seen. Hell, in the early 90s when electronic driver aids and active suspension were king Williams was nigh-on unbeatable. Sir Frank presided over it all, his great leadership and incredible passion for the sport creating the environment for this incredible run of domination to take place. For the fans who have come in through Drive To Survive it might seem unfathomable that Williams could be right at the sharp end of the grid, but for more time than not that's how it really was. Even during slightly less competitive years in the 00s and 10s the team could still fight for podiums and wins on merit.
One thing that Sir Frank always seemed to have was a really keen eye for talent. There are so many drivers who owe at least some of their F1 careers to Sir Frank taking a chance on them. Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost (in his final retirement run where he captured his fourth championship at the age of 38), Jenson Button, Nigel Mansell, David Coulthard, both of the Rosbergs, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ralf Schumacher, Mark Webber, George Russell and probably several others I can name given a bit more time. Several of these drivers have become world champions either driving for Sir Frank or after their time with him, or at least became big fan favourites.
It's not even just F1 drivers who fall into this too. Touring car legend Jason Plato got his start in the BTCC driving for Williams's BTCC outfit, driving a hilariously souped-up Renault Laguna back when the Super Touring era was in full effect. If it wasn't for Sir Frank taking a chance on the then young upstart Plato and giving him a test, who knows whether Plato would have enjoyed the amazing career he's had.
Perhaps more crucially though, it's Sir Frank's legacy of being one of the last of the privateers that makes him the true motorsport legend that he is. He stayed in F1 long after Eddie Jordan, F1's other legendary privateer team owner, decided to pack his bags and leave. His presence in the paddock was a constant reminder of a bygone era, where privateer teams led by passionate team owners was a common part of the sport and the only real manufacturer teams were teams like Renault and Ferrari. Yes, Haas is a privateer team too, but Gene Haas doesn't have the same kind of motorsport mojo that Sir Frank had. Gene Haas is just a manufacturing guy who has an interest in motorsport. Sir Frank Williams lived and breathed motorsport. It was his biggest passion and the only thing he wanted to do with his life. He wasn't a manufacturer who wanted to use racing for R&D and marketing reasons. He wasn't the head of some multi-national company who thought that racing would be a good and exciting money-spinner. He was a true, out and out racer.
That determination to be a true out and out racer never stopped after he had the horrible accident that paralysed him. If anything, it probably made him even more determined to carry on! His disability didn't stop him from getting as involved as he possibly could and translating his passion for motorsport to the wider world. He would still regularly turn up to races, sitting in the Williams garage in his wheelchair with his headphones on. Those countless images of Sir Frank going about his daily business in the paddock and pit garages in his wheelchair are something that to me is a huge part of my visual memory of the older days of Formula 1. It's a visual statement of a man who not only just point blank refused to give up, but he would carry on being successful and anyone who thought otherwise was wrong. If there's a bigger statement of pure determination like that, I don't know what is.
There isn't much I can say that hasn't already been said about Sir Frank. The amount of tributes that you can see online from drivers past and present, from other teams and from other legendary figures in the sport says more than enough. But what I will say is that I truly, truly believe that motorsport wouldn't be the same without him. His sheer passion for motorsport, his legendary status as a team leader and his ever-present eye for true talent has massively shaped motorsport as we know it. He brought Montoya and Villeneuve to Europe. He brought future world champions Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg into the world of F1. He's helped to nurture George Russell, one of the most promising young talents in Formula 1 right now. He gave Jason Plato his big break in touring cars, paving the way for one of the longest-lasting careers in BTCC history.
You'll be missed, Sir Frank. There'll never be another one of you and everyone, myself included, will miss you so much. Thank you for everything you've done, both as an amazing team boss and as a living embodiment of how a person can triumph through adversity. I'll forever be a Williams fan and a big part of it is down to you.