The first time I heard the name ‘Frank Williams’ mentioned was on race day Saturday of the 1972 South African Grand Prix – my first live attendance at a world championship round.
My host for the weekend was former saloon racer Frank Wingels, whose son – also Frank – and I palled up at school over our love for the sport. Senior raced a ‘works’ Volvo 122S with considerable success, making him a hero; crucially, he subscribed to (airmail) copies of British motorsport magazines, making him my F1 guru.
We sat in the top row at Crowthorne corner and, in lieu of a scratchy PA system, senior gave us running commentaries as cars came around, first in official warm-up, later during the race. When the lurid-green-helmeted Henri Pescarolo appeared in the (ultra) dark blue Williams-entered Motul March, 721, senior commented, “I’m surprised he’s here, I didn’t think Frank Williams could afford the trip.”
‘My’ Frank related how ‘that’ Frank was perennially cash-strapped, effectively racing hand-to-mouth, adding that he was known as ‘Wanker Williams’, and would never make it. How could I argue with my guru? History records that ‘my’ Frank was wrong, but so was virtually every other F1 observer at the time.
Within a decade Frank Williams came good, leading his team to its first world titles in 1980 and adding five more over the following seven years. Keke Rosberg, my idol driver at the time, scooped the 1982 title, the last for a normally-aspirated car before the turbos took over. Honda turbos powered Williams to the 1986 constructors’ championship, despite the life-changing injuries the team’s founder incurred during his car crash early in the year while returning from a test.
Today Williams, the third-oldest continuously present name on the grid after Ferrari and McLaren, boasts nine constructors’ titles and has taken drivers to the championship seven times.
In 1990 the team came to test at Kyalami, and I was asked by the circuit to assist the team in a liaison role. Frank was not there, but I recall the trepidation when the team called base to report that Thierry Boutsen crashed on cold rubber. “The guv’nor won’t take this well…” said my team contact, and Boutsen looked more shaken after taking a call – from Frank – than he had after his 240kph crash at Sunset Corner.
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Frank Williams was not to be crossed was my distinct impression; indeed, subjective opinions I had of him from TV shots ranged from dour through ruthless to ice-cold. His steadfast refusal to budge in the face of considerable media pressure after he ‘fired’ Nigel Mansell despite their 1992 domination reinforced my beliefs. Yet, nagging voices argued within me that here was a true racer merely doing the necessary.
Late in 1992 I was busy seeking a sponsor for a wannabe F1 driver aiming at racing in Formula Renault. In desperation I figured a call to Frank Williams was worth a shot – he was the archetypical racer, used Renault engines, was British and could only say “No”, if harshly so.
It was after hours, the best time to contact the top man in any company as the call is unlikely to be filtered by PAs, so nervously I dialled the Didcot number – I still have it listed – and asked to be transferred to Mr Williams in connection with a sponsor matter. It was only marginally true but did the trick, and within seconds the reigning world champion constructor was at the other end, albeit on speakerphone.
I (too) rapidly explained my business, adding £150,000 was but a drop in the £80 million ocean he (then) had as budget, that we would run in his sponsor colours and the team would have first option on the driver’s services. In retrospect it was incredibly naïve; equally, similar models are now used by junior teams. Whatever, I braced myself for a bollocking for wasting his time.
Instead, Frank charmingly explained why he declined my kind offer and wished me well with my search, adding, “Who knows, we may well meet one day…”
I should have been down after his rejection, yet was elated – here was a team boss who was actually human, had the common touch and courtesy to listen to my tale.
We met eventually, at Silverstone, a little over four years on – I had gained my first media accreditation and was in the Rothmans Williams hospitality courtesy of the South African arm of the cigarette brand and was introduced to Frank as a “South African journalist”. When he heard my name, his eyes lit up as though recalling it, even if circumstances were hazy. Years later I mentioned the call. “It was cheeky,” he smiled.
When I once related my experiences to a team member, he commented, “Of course he listened – there may have been gold at the end of the call,” adding, “but Frank would never put you down, regardless… and another thing: he never, ever forgets a name or face.”
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In 1999 Williams launched FW21 at the Autosport International, with Stewart unveiling SF3 thereafter. As I flitted from room to room I noticed the Frank, who had been honoured in the New Years’ List exactly a week earlier, being wheeled past Jackie Stewart in the corridor.
“Congratulations Sir Wanker,” the Scot, who would be knighted two years later, shouted after Sir Frank, who grinned as though it was the biggest compliment he’d been paid. His pleasure at having fought his way from ‘wanker’ to knighthood on his own terms was clear to see.
I saw more of Frank during the BMW-powered era when I was contracted to a Munich-based German website. Post-qualifying, Frank convened a select media session called by daughter Claire, then the team’s media officer. He’d start off solemnly, then spill the beans, at times particularly acidly about some or other paddock shenanigan. But always smilingly.
During the noughties paddock politics were rife – as could be expected within a tightly enclosed hectare populated by the likes of Max Mosley, Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt, Flavio Briatore, Ron Dennis and Frank, plus CVC heavies, who thought they owned F1 through investments in its commercial rights. Frank kept us up to speed on the stuff.
A measure of his standing – and trust in us – was that he not once said “off-record”, yet never did we compromise him by publishing the more poisonous stuff. Occasionally he asked that one or two of us remain behind; the first time it happened I thought I was in for a bollocking over something I’d written, or, worse, an indiscretion. Instead, during those chat he unpacked all the more.
That slightly mischievous smile would mask his deep annoyance over whatever the issue of the day was, such as when Mosley planned to permit customer cars – Prodrive were keen on cutting a deal with McLaren – which was not only in breach of the Concorde Agreement, but also of prevailing regulations. Frank was clear: customer cars were not F1 and threatened legal action. He won.
When I pointed out, though, that Williams started as a customer car operator and run then as recently as 1977, Frank countered – charmingly – that it had been an early (but legal) convenience due to the state of his finances, but that he had been party to the original Concorde Agreement because F1 was, in his opinion, for constructors only. Full stop.
Some sessions coincided with a Formula 3000 rounds – the distant forerunner to F2 – and Frank would stop mid-sentence, watched some opening laps, then resume exactly where he had left off. When I once asked whether he, as championship-winning team boss, still enjoyed junior series racing the look that accompanied his, “Of course, it’s motor racing,” told me off in no uncertain terms. It was a silly question…
As age and his disabilities caught up so Frank’s grand prix attendance reduced, particularly after he sold the private jet that made longer trips more bearable to fund a new wind tunnel. That tells you all you need to know about his priorities
The off-record chats were badly missed. Still, whenever Frank was present I’d pop in to greet him, gently shaking a finger. Each time he made me feel as though I was the very person he’d been waiting for.
I’m sure all who visited received the treatment, but the fact is Frank had ways of making folk feel special. That trait enabled him to charm money out of the many companies that bought into his enormous enthusiasm for and unrelenting commitment to Formula 1, coupled with a steely determination that doggedly enabled him to survive the various trials and tragedies that life hurled at him.
Over the years I got to know Michael Waldher, the Austrian nurse who was Frank’s personal carer from 2010-16 and, although Michael is clearly unwilling to discuss details for ethical reasons, he recalls Frank’s unstinting gratitude and courtesy. Frank could have, for example, demanded that Michael, a paid employee bring a cup of tea be brought immediately.
“Instead, it was a polite, ‘Michael please bring me a cup of tea’ and always a ‘thank you’ afterwards,” he recalls fondly. As a qualified nurse he knows more than most how demanding the care of para-and tetraplegics can be and how those affected by it can understandably become bitter about their lot. Yet Frank was precisely the opposite: Many of his close associates said they’d never heard a word of complaint from him.
Waldher smiles as recalls what he considers to be one of the happiest day of Frank’s life during the six years they were inseparable: The podium scored by Valtteri Bottas, in 2014 at the Red Bull Ring. It was the first since the 2005 split with BMW save Pastor Maldonado’s fluke 2012 win, by a driver who had been ‘discovered’ by Williams.
As Michael pushed Frank to the car park, he persuaded Claire to sit on his lap – a rare demonstration of familial emotion from Frank, who was, though, often at his most content when in the company of the numerous cars that bore the ‘W’ on their nose, preferably in the factory that has his name on the door.
Employees tell of Frank being wheeled between rows of machines and autoclaves during night shifts, stopping here to check something, there to question a process. He knew them all by name, too – primarily because most were Williams lifers, such was the loyalty he instilled in them. “They all felt they were doing it for him,” says Michael.
Of course, the team’s slump to last in the rankings in recent years hurt, but F1 had changed and Frank had not, could not. The sport he knew and loved had become a corporate circus, and he never was a good corporate clown –he once told me he was unemployable. The primary reason for Williams’ success – apart from his own attributes, of course – was an uncanny ability to recruit and retain the right people when it counted most.
He did so in the beginning with Patrick Head, who joined as an inexperienced, junior engineer but was given all the tools to create products that did the company name – Williams Grand Prix Engineering – immensely proud on a global stage. And he did so in the end: the team was saved by having the right people at the helm when all seemed lost.
Four independent teams changed hands over the last five years after losing the unequal fight against the corporates, with one folding completely: (Genii) Lotus, Sauber, Force India, Williams and now-defunct Manor. The first three underwent extremely messy sales, while Williams was neatly packaged and put up on the market in a professional manner rather than being seized. Frank had put that management team in place for just such an eventuality.
I did not know Frank as well as I would have liked to, nor as well as those who were in the paddock long before I gained entrance. But of all the people I have met in F1 the one I was always most pleased to see was Frank. His mannerisms and love for the sport were simply infectious, and he richly deserved every one of his considerable achievements – most if not all won against all odds. Indeed, Lord Williams of Didcot would have been more suitable.
In the must-see movie simply titled ‘Williams’ Michael Waldher speaks the last words: “Frank will stop [racing] when his eyes close.” For once I disagree with a man who knew him better than most and certainly better than I: Frank has not stopped racing for the simple reason that he cannot; Sir Francis Owen Garbett Williams has simply found another racetrack elsewhere…
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