Pitlane Biography: Sir Frank Williams – Formula One’s Great Survivor


(First published 14 March 2020)This weekend was expected to see the start of the 2020 Formula One Grand Prix season and, whilst many British fans will be willing Lewis Hamilton to maintain his form and unambiguously cement his place as an all-time great, many would willingly admit that they would rather see another team take the glory. Many of us hold a special place for the Williams team, the team that has most closely maintained an alignment to the traditional style of Grand Prix teams, done so for over 50 years in two iterations and achieved a level of success second only to  Ferrari and McLaren. Three times in the 1980s and 1990s, with different drivers and engines, the team dominated Formula One, it was one of only two teams to get near Ferrari in the Schumacher years and showed potential in the early hybrid years to do so again. Even now, after all the recent success of Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes-AMG, this team is second only to Ferrari in the league of Constructors’ Championships wins.

And for all that time, it was led, and is still led now, by the man with his name over the door, Frank Williams*.

Motor racing buffs talk about drivers such as Gilles Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ayrton Senna as being more interested in winning the race of the day rather than trying to build a strategic position in a Championship. They were race fan race drivers, and anyone who watched Villeneuve at Ferrari in the late 1970s could not disagree, and Frank Williams is the equivalent as a team owner and principal. He does it for a love of motor racing.

Frank Williams (formally, Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams CBE, and holder of France’s Legion d’Honneur) was born in 1942 in the north east of England, the son of an RAF officer.  Williams’ parents split when he was young and he was raised by an aunt and uncle, and was sent to a boarding school.  His early career was as a travelling salesman for a grocery business, and any spare income was spent trying to become a racing driver. Like so many, Williams realised he had neither the funds or that special talent to make the grade as a top level driver, so he directed his energies into becoming a racing mechanic, and trading in racing car spares. He started this path in the early 1960s.

In this period, Formula 1 was not the global sports behemoth it is now. Ferrari aside, it was essentially a space for private teams such as the Owen Racing Organisation, Rob Walker’s team and many others taking names from individuals, associated businesses or with a national twist who would buy cars from organisations such as Cooper, Lotus, BRM or Maserati, and in some cases a combination during a year. The only constructors entering with their own cars were Ferrari, Lotus, Cooper and BRM. This pattern continued through to the early 1970s with some building cars, like Cooper and BRM, Lotus, March and Brabham, others buying cars and adapting them as they could. Rather disparagingly, Enzo Ferrari referred to the English teams as garagistes, contrasting them with aristocratic sports car businesses that were Ferrari, Maserati or Mercedes-Benz. The shot above is from Watkins Glen in 1967, and gives a feel for the change in scale.

There were perhaps 10 Grand Prix a year, the drivers would often compete in other lower formulae at the same meetings and on “off weekends”, and even in very different disciplines, like saloon car racing, Le Mans and at Indianapolis. In this period, drivers like Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Mario Andretti became household names. All too often there was death as well, at the rate of at least one per year. As a measure of all this, in 1968, two time World Champion Jim Clark, to some the best ever, died in a Formula 2 accident at Hockenheim.

In 1966, aged 24, Williams formed his first company, Frank Williams Racing Cars Ltd, trading from small premises in Slough, a large industrial town west of London. By 1967 he was running a secondhand Brabham BT21 car in formula 3 (then two steps below Grand Prix) for driver Piers Courage, the heir to a brewery fortune, and stepped up to Formula 2 in 1968 as well.

And in 1969, he was running Courage in Formula 1, using a Brabham BT26A, and Courage achieved second at both Monaco and the USA Grand Prix. Creditable for a first season, but not enough for Frank Williams.

For 1970 Williams ran a de Tomaso chassis for Courage, who was tragically killed in an accident and resulting fire at the Dutch Grand Prix, an all too common event at the time. The partnership with de Tomaso ended, and 1971 Williams used a March chassis, a popular choice among private entrants at that time. Results were low key though. At this time, on occasion, Williams had to conduct business using a telephone call box, as the business was unable to pay the telephone company at anything like the regularity requested.

For 1971, Williams produced their car, the Politoys FX3 named after the sponsor, using the ubiquitous Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 engine. Sadly, the car was badly damaged on its first outing and the team had to switch back to the March. The FX3 was reworked for 1972, as the Iso-Marlboro FX3B, and made it through the season, albeit unremarkably.

For 1973, the FX3B was replaced by the IR, named after new partner Iso Rivolta. For 1974, Williams was effectively unsponsored, relying on pay drivers who achieved few results of note. Arturo Merzario and Jacques Lafitte achieved some modest success, with a fourth place in Italy. Life continued like this for 1974 and 1975, using the Williams built FW04, the first car to carry the now famous FW designation officially.

By the end of the 1976 season, Frank Williams Racing Cars was in severe financial straits. Canadian oil entrepreneur Walter Wolf invested in 60% of the company, leaving Williams himself with 40% and operational control of the team now named Wolf-Williams. Wolf also bought the remnants of the Hesketh team (which had won a Grand Prix with James Hunt in 1975 before going under) along with Hesketh’s designer Harvey Postlewaite. The car, although known as the FW05, was little more than a 1975 Hesketh 308C. The drivers were still mostly paying, and the results almost inevitably disappointing. Williams was looking like another midfield team, at best, running on an inevitable shoestring.

At the end of 1976, Wolf and Williams parted company. Williams left the company he founded, taking engineer Patrick Head with him into a 70%/30% partnership. A new start was made, in an old carpet warehouse in the Oxfordshire town of Didcot. Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd was in business.

The team competed in the 1977 championship with just one March chassis, and although the best result was 7th place in Spain, the sense was that something was happening. In 1978, now with their own car, the FW06 and Australian Alan Jones driving, a greater impact was made. Fourth place in South Africa was followed by a podium finish at the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Williams had also made a commercial innovation, obtaining sponsorship from the Saudi Arabian Saudia Airline, that was valuable enough to get top billing on the car and a ban on champagne on the podium.

Meanwhile, Head had been busy in the engineering office. The 1979 FW07 is now remembered as one of the great F1 cars of the modern era. It was small, simple, light and to some eyes a copy of the Lotus 79. It was the first car, outside Lotus, that made effective use of the ground effects principle, and Head and his team were able to keep developing, innovating in the use of the skirts around car, keeping them productive.


A major upgrade came for the 1979 British Grand Prix, and Jones qualified on pole position.

In the race, Jones suffered a water pump failure (Grand Prix were a lot less reliable then than now) but team mate Clay Regazzoni took the flag 24 seconds ahead of a Renault turbo. Cue much euphoria in Didcot even if there was no champagne, and well deserved. After 11 years, Frank Williams had won a Grand Prix, and done it at Silverstone, just 40 miles from the factory.

Jones went on to win in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Canada, and finished third in the championship. Williams were second in the constructors’ championship. 1980 looked set to be exciting.

And it was.  Jones became World Champion, the first (and so far only) Australian to do so since Sir Jack Brabham in 1966, taking five wins to Rene Arnoux’s three in the Renault. Jones’ new teammate Argentinian Carlos Reutemann was third and Williams made it a double with the Constructors’ Championship.

In 1981, Williams again took the Constructors’ Championship but Reutemann lost out narrowly to Brazilian Nelson Piquet in a Brabham, by just one point, with Jones third. Piquet became ultimately a three time champion but is sometimes overlooked, unfairly. You cannot overlook three times F1 Champions.

1982 was an epic season, with eleven drivers from seven teams winning races. We also lost Gilles Villeneuve and Ricardo Paletti to accidents, and Didier Pironi suffered career ending injuries as well. Amongst the tragedy (and politics, as this was a peak year for F1 politics), the racing was perhaps best for many years, before and since. Jones had retired, and his replacement Keke Rosberg (above with Williams) took the title, despite only winning one race in the FW07, a car that was now a four year old. The FW07 had shown again why it is one of the best remembered cars of the 1970s and 1980s.

1983 was a transitional season, as Williams developed a car around a Honda engine, the FW09 which came out for the 1984 season. It was not a great success winning only one race. 1985’s FW10 was the first carbon fibre Williams, and with Britain’s Nigel Mansell partnering Rosberg the team won four races and came third in the championship. This year also saw the introduction of the famous blue, yellow and white Canon camera (and whatever else) livery, and Rosberg recorded a lap of Silverstone at over 160mph, for the first time.

1986 was perhaps a seminal year for Williams and British motorsport. At the last race in Australia, Mansell only needed to finish third to claim the championship, but he suffered a spectacular rear tyre failure on lap 64, at 180 mph. In the unlikely event you’ve not watched it before, you’re about to now.

McLaren’s Alain Prost duly took the title, but Williams were the Constructors’ Champion, with nine wins in sixteen races. Mansell’s turn would come eventually, and thanks again to Williams.

But despite the on track drama and success, 1986 is remembered for something else. In March that year, driving back from a test session at Paul Ricard circuit in southern France, Frank Williams lost control of his hire car on a mountain road, which rolled into a deep drop alongside the road. Williams was rescued, but suffered spinal cord injuries such that he has been tetraplegic (or quadriplegic) for 34 years, and inevitably requires 24/7 care. He was away from the pitlane for a year, but you just know retiring or passing on the baton were not considered.

This picture is from the British Grand Prix in 1986, won by Nigel Mansell from Piquet. Williams himself was in the paddock for the first time since his accident, and the expression on Virginia Williams’ face tells you all you need to know about the significance of the afternoon.

Piquet took the title in 1987, with Williams as Constructors’ Champion, and Mansell was second. For many British fans the season highlight was Mansell winning the British Grand Prix. A British win in every sense.  The final overtake is a piece of British motorsport legend, and you can enjoy it now.

Never mind that Mansell’s fuel forecast was reading -2.5 laps for the last 10 laps and his engine actually blew on his slowing down lap, he had won the British Grand Prix. That went down well, locally.

Despite the local pride, this race any another effect. By jeopardising a 1-2 finish for a 1-2 finish, Mansell had helped seal Honda’s intention to move to McLaren for 1988, and Williams had to switch to an off the shelf Judd engine for the 1988 season. But for 1989, they had a plan.

The Williams Renault partnership, from 1989 to 1997 was one of the most fertile ever in F1. For over 40 years, Renault has (and still does) maintained strong support of F1, first as a constructor, innovating with the turbo cars from 1977, then as an engine supplier and championship winner with Williams and Benetton, and now as a constructor again. Only Ferrari, Honda, Ford, through support for the Cosworth engine, and, more recently, Mercedes-Benz can be considered in the same league.

Statistically, 1989 was not that special – but two wins, in Australia and a 1-2 in Canada put down a marker. 1990 saw another two wins and 1991 saw the return of local hero Mansell to the team. Mansell won five races, including four in a row, of the seven won by the team, and came second in the championship behind Ayrton Senna’s McLaren, and Williams were a tight second to McLaren in the Constructors’ trophy. McLaren’s team principal Ron Dennis has been quoted as saying Williams’s accident in 1986 was not good news for the other teams, as it gave him more time to think. It was not intended as anything other than respectful, but it seems perceptive now, in the light of these results.

The 1992 season is one the British fans remember. The 1991 FW14 had been successful, but not as successful as Williams and Renault had hoped. It was time to unleash Patrick Head’s game changer, the FW14B. The big step change in the FW14B was the use of active hydropneumatic suspension, alongside the automated manual gearbox, traction control and anti-lock brakes. (F1 regulations consistently change, so while these aids may now be illegal, in 1992 they were not.) Put these with Adrian Newey’s aerodynamics package, and here was a car that out qualified Ayrton Senna’s McLaren at Silverstone by nearly 3 seconds and had Mansell installed as Champion by August, and the team as Constructors’ Champions. This car was good enough to allow Williams to not use the FW15 that had been planned for 1992, instead using that car in 1993. This car was completely, unambiguously, state of the F1 art and Patrick Head’s masterpiece, and is remembered as another of the all time great F1 cars.

Alain Prost won the Championship in the FW15 in 1993, and Williams won the Constructors’ title. Prost was driving alongside Damon Hill, son of the former World Champion Graham Hill.

At the end of 1993, Prost retired, as a four time World Champion and his place was taken by Ayrton Senna, surely the greatest driver ever to drive for Williams. Senna had been trying to secure a Williams drive for a long time, seeing it as the best car and the one to help him cement his reputation and fulfil his ambition for a fourth and more titles. Sadly, tragically, it was not to be.

The FW16, as the 1994 car was formally named, proved to be a difficult car to set up and drive. The active suspension had gone, as had some of the electronic aids like traction control and anti lock brakes. Senna had two difficult races in Brazil and Japan, before the season came to Europe at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. Here, at one of the worst weekends in Grand Prix history, Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed in practice and, after a confused start, there was a collision amongst back markers on the grid, and the safety car was deployed. Senna was then leading, having qualified on pole ahead of Michael Schumacher.

After five laps the safety car was called in and the race restarted. On the next lap, Senna crashed at high speed at the Tamburello Corner, and died in hospital later that afternoon. Without doubt, the darkest day in Grand Prix racing for many years, and the darkest day in the Williams history. The cause of the accident has never been fully defined and agreed upon. An Italian court decided it was due to a failure of a welded modification in the steering column, others suggest a tyre failure or puncture (attributed to running through carbon fibre debris after the earlier collision) or even driver error. Williams, Head and Newey were formally charged, but only Williams was cleared, of manslaughter. Eventually, in 2005, Head and Newey were formally cleared. But the affair inevitably casts a shadow over the Williams story. Go past Williams’ factory on 1 May and you will see the tributes left by fans, every year, and all Williams cars now carry a Senna style “S” logo.

The season played out as a tight competition between Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher in the Benetton-Ford, with Schumacher eventually winning by the tightest of margins after a controversial collision in Adelaide, but Williams took the constructors’ title.

Schumacher did the double, winning again in 1995 and Benetton, now also with a Renault engine, took the constructors’ title.

For 1996, Williams signed Jacques Villeneuve, son of the legendary Gilles Villeneuve, who came with a widely agreed potential. Schumacher moved to Ferrari, and the title was judged to be between Hill and Villeneuve. With eight wins to Villeneuve’s four, Hill took the title with Villeneuve second, and Williams took another constructors’ trophy. The team was truly at their peak and the peak of F1. Perhaps this was marked in 1997 by the team winning its 100th Grand Prix, at Silverstone.

Incidentally, it is easy to overlook Damon Hill, one of the more thoughtful and understated individuals to become World Champion, and perhaps the last of a generation drivers. Despite his family links, he had to work his way up from a motorcycle courier to F1 driver, didn’t sit in an F1 car until he was 30 and didn’t race one until he was 32, in 1992. He was somewhat unexpectedly selected by Frank Williams to race alongside Alain Prost in 1993, and took over the team leader role when Senna was killed. But few would have spotted a potential champion when he was a test driver for Williams in 1990.

Villeneuve took the title in 1997, after a long tussle with Michael Schumacher ultimately decided by a collision in the last race in Spain, and Renault considered it “job done”. Four driver’s titles and five constructors’ titles in five years, and Williams-Renault’s place in motorsport history was assured. Frank Williams was knighted in 1999 and also awarded the Legion d’Honneur by President Chirac of France.

Alongside the F1 work, Williams also developed and ran a team for Renault in the British Touring Car championship, using the Renault Laguna family hatchback from 1995 to 1999, winning the team trophy in 1995 and the drivers’ and team trophies in 1997.

Renault celebrated by producing the Renault Clio Williams hot hatch.

From 1998 and 1999, Williams were using Renault engines, albeit without the Renault name and inevitably drifted backward in the results. But 1999 was a major step.

Williams had signed with BMW for long term deal to supply engines, and also a Le Mans attempt. Le Mans was won in 1999, at the second attempt.

From 2000 to 2005, BMW and Williams secured a further nine race victories and second place in the constructors’ championship twice. A creditable showing, but not quite what Williams and BMW might have expected.

Lead drivers during this period were Ralf Schumacher, younger brother of Michael, and the enthusiasts’ favourite Joan Pablo Montoya.

For 2007 the engines came from Toyota, then in 2010 Cosworth as Toyota pulled out, then Renault in 2012. 2012 saw the last victory for Williams, when Pastor Maldonardo won the Spanish Grand Prix.

The current hybrid era started in 2014, and Williams have Mercedes-AMG power units, as used by the leading Mercedes-AMG team, and for four years raced as Williams Martini Racing, wearing the distinctive Martini stripes. With a budget of perhaps a third of Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari, to achieve third in the Constructors’ Championship twice is a pretty creditable showing.

Recent seasons have been tough. Budgets limits have led to the necessary recruitment of emerging drivers rather than top established stars and the development budget is significantly behind the main manufacturers. Sir Frank’s daughter Claire (seen above with Alan Jones) has taken day to day control of the racing team as deputy Team Principal, but Sir Frank remains as Team Principal.

The British Grand Prix of 2019 was partly a celebration of Williams’ 50th anniversary, and the 40th anniversary of that first win. Rightly, Sir Frank’s achievements were commemorated, not least by Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG. Quite a birthday present.

Alongside the motorsport activities, the company has developed a significant engineering capabilities. Williams Hybrid Power (WHP) was established to take the hybrid technology from Formula One into the commercial world, and did significant work on composite flywheel based energy recovery systems used successfully on the Audi Le Mans cars from 2012 and which are now appearing on buses as well.  WHP was sold off in 2014 to engineering giant GKN.

Williams Advanced Engineering is an engineering consultancy and development business working in automotive, defence and aerospace, and has done work for Jaguar (it built the Jaguar C-X75 concept electric supercar), has a partnership with Singer Design and another with Nismo, as well as the battery system used in Formula E.

Patrick Head (above with Williams), the designer of two of the greatest F1 cars ever, was closely associated with WHP and WAE. His role in Williams’s success should not be overlooked, and nor should his contribution to British motorsport generally. He led the design of every Williams from the FW06 of 1978 to the FW34 of 2012. Engineers he has spotted, trained and mentored include Adrian Newey, Ross Brawn and Paddy Lowe, who between them have had great successes with McLaren, Ferrari, Benetton, Mercedes-AMG and Red Bull.

Williams also developed the MG Metro 6R4 Group B rally car back in the mid 1980s for Austin-Rover, which showed strong promise until the regulations were changed after a series of tragic accidents.

Williams success has helped develop and maintain a dominance from Britain in Formula 1 and motorsport generally. Of the ten current Grand Prix teams, all the front runners, except Ferrari, are based in the UK, including Mercedes-AMG (cars and engines) and Renault, and most are within 40 miles of Williams, now in a large campus site in Grove, Oxfordshire. In September 2020, the Williams family sold ou

Sport does not get many knighthoods, compared with industry and the arts. Motorsport has just Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Stirling Moss, had Sir Jack Brabham, and has two others – Frank Williams and Patrick Head. No other Grand Prix team principals or engineers have been knighted.

Let’s just say Williams is not operating out of a telephone box now. Not even the one on Sir Frank Williams Parkway, Didcot. Nor is there any mention of garagistes. And many British (and other) F1 fans will be rooting for Williams for a long time to come.

Drivers’ Championship wins – 7 – 1980 (Jones), 1982 (Rosberg), 1987 (Piquet), 1992 (Mansell), 1993 (Prost), 1996 (Hill), 1997 (Villeneuve)

Constructors’ Championship wins – 9 – 1980 (Jones, Regazzoni), 1981 (Jones, Reutemann), 1986 (Mansell, Piquet), 1987 (Mansell, Piquet), 1992 (Mansell, Patrese), 1993 (Prost, Hill), 1994 (Hill, Senna, then Coulthard and Mansell), 1996 (Hill, Villeneuve), 1997 (Villeneuve, Frentzen)

Grand Prix wins – 114

* Update January 2021 – in September 2020, the Williams family concurred with the sale of the Williams Grand Prix Engineering business to Dorilton Capital, who have committed to continue the name and the Oxfordshire base. The family have now left their roles in the business.