Before the road accident that changed his life at the age of 43, Frank Williams typified the breed of fast-living, almost pathologically competitive alpha males who had graduated from the mostly amateur world of postwar British motor racing to dominate the sport at its highest level.
When Williams, who has died aged 79, lost the use of all four limbs after crashing a rental car while speeding from a circuit in southern France to a nearby airport one evening in the spring of 1986, his career as the driving force of a championship-winning Formula One team appeared to be over.
For several days he hovered on the brink of death. But tetraplegia was to prove no match for the will of a man devoted to winning, often against the odds. Thirteen years later, having added seven more constructors’ world championships and five more drivers’ titles to the pair of each secured by his team before the accident, he was knighted for his services to motor sport. The men who won the world title at the wheel of his cars were Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve.
By that time his wheelchair, pushed by a carer, had become a familiar sight at the world’s racing circuits. Williams sat in the pits during the races and qualifying sessions, watching the computer screens that monitored his cars’ progress, his once expressive features now a largely inscrutable mask. The view of his rival team bosses was summed up in a remark attributed to one of them, Ron Dennis of McLaren, when it was announced that Williams would be returning to action despite the loss of physical functions: “Now he’s even more dangerous. All he can do with his time is think.”
Like Enzo Ferrari, Williams designed not a single nut or bolt of the cars that bore his name. Instead he functioned as a motivator, a strategist and a hustler who enjoyed making a good deal for his team almost as much as he loved seeing them triumph on the track. Eventually, in 2012, after the last of their 114 grand prix victories, he stepped back, handing over the frontline duties to his daughter, Claire, who had studied her father’s style and methods at close quarters for many years.
Williams was born in South Shields, now in Tyne and Wear, to Clare (nee McGrath), a teacher of children with special needs, and Owen Williams, who flew Wellington bombers in the RAF and left the family before his son was a year old. While his mother struggled to earn a living, much of the young Frank’s upbringing was consigned to his grandparents.
He was enrolled at St Joseph’s college, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Dumfries, where he was good at languages but spent most of his time studying motoring magazines. His mother had taken a job as a headteacher at a school outside Nottingham, and during his holidays Frank would often stay with a schoolfriend in Newcastle whose father was a car dealer. He learned to drive in the grounds of his mother’s school, taking the wheel of her Morris Minor before he was old enough for a provisional licence.
Earning a mere £3 10s a week in his first job, as a trainee with a vehicle distribution centre in Nottingham, he persuaded his mother to give him £80 to buy a hotted-up Austin A35 saloon with which, as a teenager, he entered his first races. It was while sitting on a trackside bank after rolling the car at Mallory Park that he struck up a conversation with Jonathan Williams, another young driver who had crashed at the same spot. Back in the paddock Jonathan introduced his new acquaintance to his friend Piers Courage, the Old Etonian son of the chairman of the Courage brewery.
After hitting a lamp-post and writing off the car on the way to the next event, at Oulton Park, Frank fitted some of the undamaged components into another Austin, an A40, and carried on racing. Dismissed from his day job after failing to attend a course, he worked briefly as a filling station attendant and as a trainee sales rep for Campbell’s Soup, which required him to wear a bowler hat when visiting clients.
His friendship with Courage and Williams drew him into a circle of ambitious young racers. Before long he was living at 283 Pinner Road in Harrow, north-west London, a house that had become a centre for their activities, where his penniless state meant that he frequently slept on a couch.
The group, who included Courage, Charles Lucas, Anthony “Bubbles” Horsley and Charles Crichton-Stuart, the grandson of the 5th Marquess of Bute, spent their summers hauling their racing cars from one continental circuit to another behind a variety of dilapidated vehicles and surviving on the starting money picked up from race organisers.
It was a picaresque apprenticeship in international motor sport, but Williams’s enthusiastic participation in the hedonistic life of the mid-1960s was balanced by an asceticism that encompassed his growing obsession with long-distance running and a lifelong avoidance of alcohol and tobacco.
A gift for deal-making enabled him to earn a living from buying and selling components for racing cars, and eventually complete cars. The proceeds subsidised not only his racing activities but also the Curzon Street haircuts, cashmere sweaters and Dougie Hayward jackets that belied his general impecuniousness. In 1966 he drove a Brabham in European Formula Three races, without great success, while Courage, competing in the same category, finished the season with 12 wins.
By the end of 1967 Williams’s business activities were turning a profit. Courage’s promising career, however, had stalled, and he was happy to accept his friend’s offer of a race at Brands Hatch in a prototype F3 Brabham. A win in their heat gave Williams his first victory as an entrant and established a partnership with Courage. The combination achieved respectable results the following year, although it was Jonathan Williams, taking over at Monza in Courage’s absence, who gave the team owner his first international win.
In 1969 the team moved up to Formula One, running a Brabham with financial support from Dunlop and Castrol. Early in the season a second place behind Graham Hill’s Lotus in the Monaco Grand Prix earned them both prestige and $20,000 in prize money. That would be the season’s best performance, but by the end of the year Williams had made a deal to run Courage in a car built by the Argentinian wheeler-dealer Alejandro de Tomaso.
After the car had performed poorly in the early races, Courage was in seventh place in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort when he ran wide in a fast bend and hit a bank. The car overturned and caught fire, trapping the driver, who died in the blaze. Badly affected by the death of a friend in a car that he had entered, Williams considered giving up the sport, but instead finished the season with other drivers. The next four years were a story of struggle and failure with a variety of cars, drivers and backers, the only bright note sounded when Jacques Laffite finished second in the 1975 German Grand Prix.
To keep the team going, at a time when his telephone line was regularly cut off, Williams borrowed money from many sources, from Bernie Ecclestone – then the owner of the rival Brabham team – to his girlfriend, the former Virginia Berry, who had left her husband, another racing driver, to be with him. When Frank and Ginny were married at a register office in 1974, both were skint and a friend stumped up £8 for the licence. The loans from Ecclestone cemented a relationship that would prove useful to both men in later years.
At the end of 1975 Williams entered into two partnerships. The shorter of them was with Walter Wolf, a Canadian with a fortune from the oil industry. The other, which would last several decades, was with Patrick Head, a young engineer. The new Wolf-Williams car, a modified Hesketh, was a disappointment, and Williams was humiliatingly eased aside.
He decided to leave completely, taking Head with him to start afresh under the name Williams Grand Prix Engineering. So allergic to bankers that he hid when a man from Barclays came with what turned out to be the offer of a £30,000 loan and an overdraft, he raised similar funding from a representative of Saudi Arabia’s national airline; the slogan “Fly Saudia” on the rear wing of their March car represented the first significant incursion of Arab oil money into sport.
Poor results did not deter the Saudis, and in 1978 the first Head-designed Williams, the FW06, made its debut in the hands of the team’s new driver, a pugnacious Australian named Alan Jones. The following year, renamed Albilad-Saudia, the team won five grands prix: the first at Silverstone, where the victorious FW07 was driven by Clay Regazzoni, followed by four for Jones.
Starting the 1980 season with a win from pole position in Buenos Aires, Jones took four more victories in the FW08 on the way to becoming world champion, the team taking its first constructors’ title barely a couple of years after Williams had been dodging bank managers. A further constructors’ title came the following year, and in 1982 Rosberg became Williams’s second world champion driver.
Once Williams had returned from his accident, Head and his assistants produced a stream of world-beating cars bristling with technical innovations. The active suspension, traction control and automated manual transmission of the Renault-engined FW14B – designed by Adrian Newey, a new addition to the technical team – allowed Mansell to become the first driver to win nine races in a single season on his way to the 1992 title.
Williams was now the team every driver wanted to join. In 1994, having watched his great rival Prost cruise to the previous year’s title in the FW15, the triple champion Ayrton Senna switched over from McLaren. The Brazilian was leading his third race in the FW16, at Imola, when he left the track, hit a wall, and was killed. It would be several years, and a journey through the Italian legal system, before Williams and Head were cleared of blame for an accident that forced F1 to reconsider its attitude to safety.
Williams and Head shared a view of drivers best summarised in the former’s words to the author Gerald Donaldson: “The best of them are driven, motivated, pushy, won’t-accept-second-best, immensely competitive people. This is what makes them good – because they’re bastards.” The no-nonsense Jones was their beau idéal, but their judgment was far from flawless. They gave Damon Hill, who had steadied the team after Senna’s death, his notice midway through 1996, the season in which he became champion, in order to replace him with the lacklustre Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Jacques Villeneuve’s 1997 title, won the year after the team moved to new headquarters in the Oxfordshire village of Grove, would prove to be their last. The rejection of Newey’s request for the technical director’s role and a stake in the company led to the departure of a brilliant man who went on to design title-winning cars for McLaren and Red Bull. That decision prefaced the team’s gradual competitive decline, although engineering collaborations with Renault, BMW and others bolstered the company’s finances. In August 2020 he bowed to the inevitable and sold the team to a US investment firm, Dorilton Capital, for $152m, effectively severing the family’s connection with the sport.
Ginny died of cancer in 2013. While recovering from his accident, her husband had told her: “As I see it, Ginny, I’ve had 40 fantastic years of life. Now I shall have another 40 years of a different kind of life.”
Williams is survived by their three children, Jonathan, Claire and Jaime, and three grandchildren, Ralph, Nathaniel and Celeste.
• Francis Owen Garbutt Williams, grand prix team owner, born 16 April 1942; died 28 November 2021