Remembering Frank Williams, The Last Of An F1 Generation

Williams served as a team principal longer than anyone else in F1.

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Photo: Allsport UK (Getty Images)

Sir Frank Williams spent a formidable lifetime in Formula One. After five decades as a Team Principal — the longest tenure of any Team Principal in the sport’s storied history — Williams carried with him a thread of F1 history. He was the last privateer, family-based owner of a team, the last of those owners whose passion for racing saw them build cars from the ground up. And with his death at age 79, Williams has also signaled the end of a beloved era of F1 history.

Williams’ passion for motorsport led him to enjoy a brief career as a mechanic and a driver before he realized his true passion: Owning and running a Formula One team.

That, even back in the late 1960s, was one hell of a monumental task, and so Frank Williams Racing Cars started out running cars in the Formula Two and Formula Three series with soon-to-be iconic drivers like Piers Courage. At the time, those lower-tier formulae weren’t just a feeder to the big leagues of F1; F1 teams and drivers often competed in F2 and F3 for extra money, meaning aspiring talent had a chance to cut their teeth with some of the sport’s icons.

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Williams’ transition to F1, though, could have been the end of the team. His partnerships fell apart, and his longtime friend Courage died. Short on money, Williams took over a public telephone box to conduct his business because he’d been unable to pay the bills on his personal phone. He tried to partner with oil magnate Walter Wolf, who essentially bought the team in 1976. A year later, Williams took Patrick Head and funded Williams Grand Prix Engineering — the team that has lasted to the present day.

It wasn’t long until Williams proved itself against the icons of the era. In 1980, the team took both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships — the first in a long line of wins that would follow. It fielded drivers like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Damon Hill, Juan Pablo Montoya, Keke Rosberg, and Jacques Villeneuve. It took nine total Constructors’ Championships and seven Drivers’ Championships. It won 114 races and took 313 podiums. It broke rules, developed iconic cars, and helped shape the sport of Formula One as we know it today.

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But perhaps most impressively, Williams did so even after its team owner crashed on the drive back from a test day in France in March of 1986. A spinal fracture left Williams near death and without the use of much of his body; as he recovered, he was medically deemed a tetraplegic and used a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

From that moment on, the once fiercely independent Frank Williams required constant care. The one thing he could control, though, was his race team — and that is perhaps what brought it decades of success and strife.

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Williams’ legacy is surrounded with the kind of complexity we don’t often see from titans of motorsport. After his near-fatal crash, Williams’ wife Virginia (known as Ginny) penned an autobiography to share her side of the story. Her reasoning, she said in its introduction, was that she didn’t believe her husband had ever attempted to even consider what she had gone through as a wife, a caretaker, a nurse, a stand-in team principal, and a mother while Williams recovered.

“A lot of people probably don’t know the instrumental role my mum played in Williams,” Claire Williams told F1.com in 2020. “If it wasn’t for her money in the beginning, my dad would never have achieved his dream and this team wouldn’t have gone on to achieve what it did. She was always there behind the scenes.”

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In the Williams documentary, Claire Williams struggles with a similar feeling. After listening to the tapes her mother recorded to write her autobiography, Claire expresses a kind of sad frustration that her father never once attempted to consider that his injuries had impacted his loved ones.

This note isn’t to paint Frank Williams as a bad person but to highlight the complexities — both positive and negative — that contributed to Williams’ longstanding tenure in a wildly expensive form of motorsport. In many ways, there wasn’t time for Williams to consider the human aspect of things, how his personal pain could have had a ripple effect on everyone around him. Society wasn’t as attuned to mental and physical health as we are now, and Williams used his team as a way to motivate himself during his recovery.

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That we can have such a full picture of Williams, as a man and a team owner, is a rare and beautiful thing. His legacy will continue to show us the sheer dedication it requires to pour one’s life into winning races and World Championships, the toll it can take and the sheer bliss is can provide. There will never be another man quite like Frank Williams, and the racing world is all the better for his longstanding presence in the sport.