LONDON — Frank Williams, the founder and former team principal of Formula One’s Williams Racing, has died. He was 79.
Williams took his motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula One, overseeing 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.
“After being admitted into hospital on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family,” Williams Racing said in a statement Sunday.
Williams driver George Russell remembered Williams as a “genuinely wonderful human being.”
Williams’ life is all the more extraordinary by the horrific car crash he suffered in France that left him with injuries so devastating that doctors considered turning off his life-support machine.
But his wife, Virginia, ordered that her husband be kept alive and his sheer determination and courage — characteristics that personified his career — enabled him to continue with the love of his life, albeit from the confines of a wheelchair.
He would remain in his role as Williams team principal for a further 34 years before F1’s greatest family team was sold to an American investment group in August.
“Frank was one of the old-timers who went back an awful long way,” former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone told Britain’s Press Association. “One wonders that, if people like Frank had not been around in the early days, whether Formula One would have survived today. He was one of the people that built Formula One. It’s the end of an era.”
Frank Williams’ rise to the top of Formula One
Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields, England, on April 16, 1942 to an RAF officer and a headmistress. He was educated at St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries where he became obsessed with cars following a ride in a Jaguar XK150.
A traveling salesman by day, Williams fulfilled his racing ambitions at the weekend and, aged just 24, he launched his own team, Frank Williams Racing Cars.
Four years later, they were competing in Formula Two, and with flatmate and closest friend Piers Courage behind the wheel, Williams graduated to F1 in 1969 using a second-hand Brabham.
But tragedy struck at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.
Courage ran off the track, one of his front wheels hit his helmet, and his car burst into flames. Courage’s grisly death in a car bearing his name left Williams devastated. Broke and with spiraling debts, he reluctantly sold 60% of his team to Walter Wolf in 1975.
But Williams was not made to be a back-seat driver and, desperate for independence, he severed ties with the Canadian businessman.
He set up shop at an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire, and signed a promising young engineer named Patrick Head. The double act would go on to make grand prix history.
With Saudi Arabian funding and the hiring of Australian driver Alan Jones, Williams Grand Prix Engineering became a force.
At the 1979 British GP, Jones registered Williams’ first pole position before teammate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s first win a day later.
In 1980, Jones delivered Williams their first title. The team also won back-to-back constructors’ championships, while Keke Rosberg was crowned drivers’ champion in 1982. But, in 1986, Williams’ life would change forever.
Following a test at the Paul Ricard circuit in March, Williams set off on a 98-mile dash to Nice Airport in a rented Ford Sierra. Traveling through the windy roads at speed, Williams lost control and the car ended up on its roof following a 2.5-metre drop into a field.
Williams’ passenger, the team’s marketing manager Peter Windsor, escaped with minor injuries. But Williams suffered a spinal fracture that would leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“I was late for a plane which I didn’t need to be late for because I got the French time mixed up with the English time,” Williams later said. “The roads were very bumpy, the hire car was not the world’s best, and suddenly I was off the road upside down and with a broken neck.
“It was very unfair on my family, particularly my wife, because of how my circumstances changed. In hindsight, it was a careless and a selfish thing to have done. Life went on, and I was able to continue, but it has been a handicap in the true sense of the word.”
Despite his life-changing injuries, Williams was back at the helm of his team within nine months. Over the ensuing 11 years, five further drivers’ championships — including those for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill — as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.
But there would be more heartache for Williams when Ayrton Senna was killed in just his third race for the British team at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Williams was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999 but his team was never able to replicate its heyday of the 1980s and 1990s. He stepped back in 2013, the year in which his wife died, allowing his daughter Claire to assume the day-to-day running of the team.
Williams fought off pneumonia in 2016, but he had been an irregular fixture in the paddock for a number of years.
And, at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, an historic sporting chapter was closed when the Williams family contested its 739th and concluding race after selling up to Dorilton Capital.
Williams is survived by his three children, Jonathan, Jamie and Claire.
“Sir Frank Williams was one of the kindest people I had the pleasure of meeting in this sport,” defending F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton tweeted. “What he achieved is something truly special. Until his last days I know he remained a racer and a fighter at heart. His legacy will live on forever.”