How motor racing's Frank Williams changed the face of Western sport

Coming up to 26 years in a wheelchair and a multiple grands prix winner, the inspirational F1 team principal is approaching the end of a defining era

Frank Williams was hanging around the offices of a London advertising agency one day in 1977, hoping to bump into someone who might bung him a few quid to sponsor his struggling grand prix team, when he was introduced to a chap from an airline. By the start of the following season, and after the transfer of £100,000 into his previously echoing bank account, a sticker advertising the state-owned Saudi Arabian airline was appearing on the rear wing of his Formula One car. If Frank Williams – now Sir Frank – had never done anything else, he might be credited with the initiative that unplugged the geyser of Middle Eastern oil money which has transformed the world of international sport.

It came at the right time. In his wife's words, Williams had acquired a bad reputations with banks. "He had spent 10 years bouncing cheques on people," she remembered many years later. "He had even bounced them on me, which meant that mine in turn had bounced." Before that hundred grand came along, she had taken to stuffing threatening letters from bank managers into the backs of drawers, unopened.

Luckily the new sponsorship was quite a success, with consequences none of them could have imagined. By the following year, when the Williams car won its first grand prix, they had become officially known as the Albilad-Saudi Racing Team, and a year later Alan Jones carried its colours to the world championship.

Now there are grands prix in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, and considerable Arab investment in the Ferrari and McLaren teams, while outside motor racing we find oil money taking possession of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, with a World Cup to come in Qatar, plus the traditional MCC versus the county champions match being staged in Dubai, Pakistan holding their "home" Test matches in the Emirates, golfers taking part in the Race to Dubai, tennis players flocking to courts laid out in desert kingdoms, African runners being induced to switch nationalities in order to compete for Arab states, and so on, seemingly without end, or at least as long as the oil keeps flowing.

The man whose fortuitous meeting with an airline executive could be said to have started the whole thing off will turn 70 next month, and last week he announced his decision to step down as a director of the team. He will retain his majority shareholding and the title of team principal, but other figures are taking control and his decision appears to signal the approaching end of an era.

He was one of a post-war generation of men who fell in love with motor racing and saw the chance to make it their lives. He was not one of the founding fathers of Britain's renaissance, who would include Colin Chapman and Charles and John Cooper, but he was one of the next wave. They came from all sorts of backgrounds – Williams was a public schoolboy, Ron Dennis of McLaren started as a mechanic – but they were united in a mission to build on the pioneers' achievements and make them stick.

A long partnership with Patrick Head, a brilliant engineer who also made a recent decision to step back from the front line, helped Williams to establish himself as a leading figure in Formula One: a master of the convoluted politics of the Ecclestone era and, as that initial Saudi coup suggested, a brilliant fund-raiser for his own team, despite enduring a hideous catastrophe along the way.

This Thursday marks the 26th anniversary of the day on which, while driving a rental car away from a test session in the south of France, Williams had the accident that left him permanently paralysed from the neck down.

Those unfamiliar with his personality would naturally have assumed that such a savage disability would mean the end of his career in so pressurised and competitive a sport. Those who knew him were of another opinion. Dennis famously remarked that the consequences of the accident would only serve to make him a more dangerous rival, because now all he could do with his time was to think.

In her spellbinding book on their life together, published in 1991, Williams' wife Virginia recalled his words when he came around after the resulting operation and they spoke for the first time since her arrival at the hospital in Marseille. "As I see it, Ginny," he said, "I've had 40 fantastic years of life. Now I shall have another 40 years of a different kind of life." Amazingly, his greatest triumphs were still to come: there would be another 81 grand prix victories to add to the 22 already racked up, plus world championships for Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve to go with those previously won by Jones and Keke Rosberg, and seven further constructors' titles.

Just as Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins inspired cancer sufferers, so the sight of Frank Williams in the pits at a grand prix, seated in his wheelchair at the back of the garage, fierce green eyes glued to the timing screens, demonstrated that even so profound a disaster – befalling, in this instance, a man whose other love was long-distance running – does not necessarily mean the end of some kind of participation in whatever you happened to be good at before fate struck its devastating blow.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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