Frank Williams obituary - the 'Garagiste' who defied all odds to conquer Formula 1

Frank Williams founded an independent Formula 1 team that amazingly went on to win 114 races, 9 constructor's titles and 7 driver's titles.

Frank Williams in a file photo. (Twitter: @AlphaTauri)

On Sunday (November 28), news broke that Frank Williams, the man behind the epynomous Williams Formula 1 team, had passed away. Naturally, the news led to a wave of trubutes from the world of F1 and motorsport as a whole.

Williams, in many ways, was the last of a dying breed. In the sport’s early days, it was mostly car manufacturer’s who dominated, winning driver’s and constructor’s championships.

However, in the early to mid-1960s, a flurry of independent British teams cropped up across the grid. This included the likes of Lotus, Cooper, British Racing Motors (BRM) and later the likes of Williams and McLaren.

That all of these teams enjoyed varying degrees of success was something the manufacturer teams did not like. Enzo Ferrari, whose Ferrari team were frontrunners in the sport, was especially derisive of these newer teams.

Ferrari, who was never shy of voicing his opinions, dubbed these teams ‘garagistes’ or garage teams. It wasn’t an entirely inaccurate description; these teams were mostly run out of small sheds or garages.

However, these smaller teams outdid the bigger manufacturer teams with technical and engineering innovations that produced quicker cars. And while many of these teams came and went, Williams stayed.

This is despite plenty of obstacles that the team had to face, both on and off the track. Frank Williams himself had to overcome personal and physical pains to keep his team alive.

Yet, throughout all that, the team remained successful – and relevant. That changed towards the late 2000s, which is why the team was sold to Dorilton Capital.

But that doesn’t take away from the success the team had in the face of all adversity.

Frank Williams – The early days

Frank Williams was born on April 16, 1942; his father served in the Royal Air Force and his mother was a school teacher. He was, however, partly raised by his uncle and aunt after his parents’ marriage broke down.

His childhood was spent in St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in the city of Dumfries, Scotland. There a friend of his drove him around in his Jaguar XK150. That piqued Williams’ interest in racing cars as a whole.

He briefly raced and served as a mechanic, but his true ambition was always to own a team of his own. In 1966 his dream came true; he founded Frank Williams Racing Cars, funding the team with his work as a grocery salesman.

The team raced in Formula 3 and Formula 2 before making the move into Formula 1. In 1969, the team used a second-hand chassis purchased by Williams from the Brabham team.

The car built from that chassis was driven by Piers Courage, who twice managed second-place finishes that season. However, tragedy struck a year later at the Dutch Grand Prix.

Courage suffered an accident that saw his car burst into flames, and he would pass away due to the injuries. Williams was devastated at the loss of the driver, but that wasn’t his only issue; his personal finances were a mess and the team’s debt had him running things from a phone booth, as he was disconnected for unpaid bills.

He would eventually sell a 60% stake in the team to Canadian businessman Walter Wolf in 1975. However, rather than take a backseat role, Williams chose to start a new team.

Williams F1 team – the rise of a giant

Along with Williams, the other member of the team who left was a young engineer by the name of Patrick Head. The two would acquire an empty carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire and thus began Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

Williams acquired the services of Australian driver Alan Jones and secured funding and sponsorship money from Saudi Arabia.

Fun fact – the sponsor in question was Albilad hotels chain founder Mohammed Bin Laden who is, as you probably guessed, the father of Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden.

Anyway, the Williams team didn’t have to wait too long to find success. They scored no points in their debut season in 1977, but Jones took things a step further in 1978 with some points finishes and a podium in the United States GP.

In the 1979 British GP, Jones took pole position and the race was won by his teammate Clay Regazzoni. Thus, Williams had their first race win. And their first title came only a year later.

Fittingly, it was Jones who won the world driver’s championship to give the team their maiden title. They also won the constructor’s championship, scoring nearly double the points of second-placed Ligier.

They would again claim the constructor’s championship that year, even though Nelson Piquet would win the first of his three world titles in 1981.

Williams would win their second world driver’s championship in 1982 with Keke Rosberg, although their car was far from ideal and they finished fourth in the constructor’s championship.

1985 would bring a third world title with Piquet at the wheel, but more success followed in the 1990s. Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost would win back-to-back titles with Williams in 1992 and 1993.

The same thing happened in 1996 and 1997, with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve winning the titles for Williams.

The downfall

However, Villeneuve’s triumph would be the final world championship they would ever claim.

In the late 2000s, they got the occasional podium and were consistent point finishers. However, the emergence of Red Bull and later Mercedes pushed them further down the pecking order.

By 2013, it was clear a new engine supplier was needed. From 2014 onwards, the team began using Mercedes engines and did taste some success at first.

In 2014 and 2015, the team managed third-place finishes in the constructor’s championship. A team of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas was seen as a strong one for the side.

However, Bottas joined Mercedes from 2017 and Massa retired at the end of the 2017 season. The new team of Sergey Serotkin and Lance Stroll did little to impress in 2018, although they were significantly hampered by a car well off the pace.

For 2019, Williams dropped Serotkin and Stroll left for Racing Point (now Aston Martin). In came 2018’s F2 champion George Russell and the returning Robert Kubica.

However, the car for the season was not ready on time – and they missed two days of pre-season practice as a result. As a result, their car was comfortably the slowest on the grid and they struggled all season, only getting one points finish.

Things would improve very slightly in 2020 but they still remained among the backmarkers. To make matters worse, the team was put up for sale ahead of the delayed 2020 season.

The team was eventually bought out and, with daughter Claire Williams refusing to remain in charge as team principal – she held the role after Frank relenquished it – the team is now no longer in any way affiliated to the Williams family.

Of course, they still race under the name Williams Racing.

Frank Williams – the legacy

As F1 grew in popularity and winning titles required more and more money, success would eventually return to teams that had massive corporate backing.

Williams was, in many ways, the antithesis to that. For many fans, they were the team that they connected to simply because of a shared love of racing.

And Williams the team owner was not just passionate, but a determined businessman too. After suffering an accident that left him paralysed from the neck down in 1986, he returned to the paddock after 6 weeks.

Doctors wanted to turn off his life support but his wife fought hard against it, believing his will to live would win out. And she was right.

He was in constant pain throughout the rest of his life, and even carried emotional scars caused from racing. After Piers Courage, Ayrton Senna too tragically passed away while in a Williams car.

Claire Williams believed he carried that hurt with him throughout his life. Yet it never stopped him from taking part in racing, or wanting to win titles.

He was the last of the garagistes, with most other independent teams from that era having folded or sold out. And his death sees the world of F1 and motorsport mourn the loss of a man whose passion for racing, tenacity and determination to be the best defined him.

Shayne Dias

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