Sir Frank Williams Obituary: Legendary F1 figure passes away aged 79

The motorsport world mourns as legendary team boss Sir Frank Williams passed away aged 79, well-remembered for his lead at Williams Racing.

Motorsport legend and F1 icon Sir Frank Williams passed away today aged 79. The racer-turned-influential team principal became a totemic figure within the F1 paddock as he, alongside Patrick Head, dragged the upstart Williams F1 team from the bottom to the very pinnacle of motorsport.

Williams even battled severe illness and disability to lead his company as Formula 1 rapidly developed from a boys club to a global sports behemoth. A horrific car crash in 1986 left Williams paralysed from the head down as damage to his spinal cord consigned him to a wheelchair.

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The accident brutally intersected Williams’ career as team principal of the Oxfordshire outfit. By 1986, the Williams team had become a powerhouse in the sport. After launching the team in 1977, Williams quickly clawed their way up the grid. Williams’s relentless work ethic and business acumen, alongside Head’s engineering prowess, quickly yielded success.

It took Williams two seasons to win their first F1 race. Driver Clay Regazzoni led the FW07 over the finish line at Silverstone. The team quickly followed that initial success up with a one-two finish at Hockenheim. The Patrick Head and Frank Derne alliance was paying dividends in the design office, and the team had its eyes set on more glory.

Championship Success

A year later, Australian Alan Jones would pilot his Williams to world championship glory in 1980. In three years, Williams had gone from newbies to world champions. More championship success followed in 1982. Jones’ retirement paved the way for the maverick machismo of Keke Rosberg. Sir Frank loved drivers, and he loved drivers that raced with as much attitude as Rosberg. The long-haired Finn became Finald’s first world champion that included a famous win in Monaco.

Williams’ excellent business skills saw him broker a deal with Honda for an engine supply while he signed blue-chip sponsors. Blue-chip drivers would follow, and the mouthwatering pair of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell brought the team more attention and drama. The duo’s relationship nearly broke down, although Williams still enjoyed success. Piquet scooped up the championship in 1987 amidst a deteriorating relationship with Mansell.

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The year before, Mansell nearly won the title before a tyre failure on the streets of Adelaide robbed him and the team of another title. ’86 was a trying year for the team as Williams had a horrifying car crash that left him in a wheelchair. Doctors performed a tracheotomy on Williams as they drained his lungs and tried to save his life. The team principal survived and courageously returned to the paddock as soon as he could. The reaction up and down the pitlane demonstrated the respect that people held Williams in.

The F1 paddock is a viper pit, as everyone sees in 2021. But, for one moment, the bickering and in-fighting stopped, and everyone stopped to see Frank. It is not surprising to see competitors like Ferrari and McLaren tweet out their respects and offer their condolences.

The late ’80s saw the balance of power swing towards McLaren. However, Williams didn’t rest on his laurels. He restocked his technical team by adding fresh faces like Adrian Newey, Ross Brawn, and Paddy Lowe. As F1 left the garagistes behind for a more corporate, manufacturer-led world, Williams’ sharp mind and appetite for success would bring F1 to its knees.

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Signing a works deal with Renault for engines and the technical innovations from the design team propelled Williams to championship success in 1992, 1993, 1996, and 1997. Nigel Mansell finally got his paws on the world championship before Alain Prost returned from his sabbatical to win it all in 93. Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve triumphed in 1996 and 1997.

Only Michael Schumacher’s twin victories in 1994 and ’95 interspersed Williams’ run of championships. Laced with the tragedy of Imola and Ayrton Senna’s death, Williams galvanized and led his team to newer heights.

The Winning Drought

And 1997 signaled the end for Williams in terms of winning championships. A near miss in 2003 would be the closest Williams would ever come to getting on top of F1. More manufacturer-backed teams, the big budgets of Ferrari combined to send Williams down the pecking order. Nevertheless, Sir Frank Williams’ spirit and love for racing never wavered. In fact, as Williams declined on the track, the love from everyone for Sir Frank and his team grew.

Enigmatic South Americans Juan Pablo Montoya and Pastor Maldonado thrilled and exasperated in equal measure. Young guns like Nico Rosberg, Nico Hulkenberg, and Valtteri Bottas cut their teeth in F1 while veritable veterans Alex Wurz and Felipe Massa found a new home and a new family in Grove.

Williams would eventually crater in the last part of the 2010s. At the onset of the turbo-hybrid era, a brief resurgence gave way to subsidence as Williams propped up the constructors’ table in 2019 and 2020. The Williams family sold last year to Dorilton Capital, and the last self-made F1 man was gone. The cars still race under the Williams name, but the family and Sir Frank exited stage left.

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An Everlasting Legacy

It’d be naive to try and wage a debate over the greatest team principal in F1 history. Ken Tyrrell, Colin Chapman, Enzo Ferrari, Ron Dennis, Bernie Ecclestone, and Toto Wolff could all claim the mantle. Frank Williams is almost certainly in that conversation. From humble beginnings battling to survive and lure cash to actually having to survive for real, Frank Williams displayed integrity, tenacity, and a desire to win. Mix that with an unquenchable love for F1 racing and a penchant for being honest. Fans adored him.

Nowadays, the Williams outfit is one of the most beloved outfits in all of sport. Their HQ in Grove is a gleaming beacon, and under new ownership, the team is starting to rebuild. Through adversity and the genuine threat of death, Frank Williams persevered and built an iconic legacy. His love for drivers and the wry grin he would offer TV interviewers will live long in the memory.

F1 is infamous for infamous situations and firsts. The championship will exist for another 71 years, and there will never be another Sir Frank Williams.

Sir Frank Williams: 1942-2021

Everyone here at the Last Lap offers our sincerest condolences to the Williams family and the extended motorsport community.