How Williams overcame its greatest F1 setback

The biggest challenge of Sir Frank Williams’ life struck in early 1986 when he suffered terrible injuries in a car crash on his way to the airport following a test at Paul Ricard. But with the kind of steely determination that characterised his whole approach to F1, Williams never let the disabilities hold him back – and he certainly never let it impact his team. In a tribute to the late F1 team boss, we revisit Damien Smith’s piece on how Williams recovered from that difficult period.

How Williams overcame its greatest F1 setback

For his first 44 years he lived one life, then since 8 March 1986 he lived another. That's all Frank Williams tended to say publicly about the devastating accident that forever changed his daily existence, because as far as he was concerned what else was there to say? To the rest of us, his resilience in the face of such severe physical disability made him a figure of dumbfounding awe.

To the man himself, it was just the reality he found himself living through. Self-indulgence, self-pity? Not likely. After the accident, the only option was to press on regardless. That is the Williams way.

The road accident that so very nearly killed him occurred just as his team was returning to dominance, when the same purity of engineering that had made it a winner for the first time in 1979 and a champion by 1980 was harnessing and unleashing the full potency of Honda's increasingly super-powered V6 turbo.

But we pick up the story on yet another occasion when Williams found itself backed into a corner, still propelled in 1983 by an outdated and underpowered normally aspirated V8 among the gathering turbo forces - and we'll pause five years later, in 1988, with a team having travelled full circle. These were years of extremes, fortunes proving at times almost desperate, at times simply sensational, at times traumatic - and always utterly compelling.

The mid-1980s are why the F1 world loves Williams.

The FIA's rug-pull late in 1982 by effectively banning ground effects and insisting upon flat-bottomed F1 cars led to a season of unsettling compromise in 1983, most teams running heavily revised versions of year-old cars. Already severely hamstrung by the lack of a turbo engine, Williams knew its short-sidepod Cosworth DFV FW08C would leave Keke Rosberg literally powerless to defend his surprise world title already won against the odds during the previous season.

Then almost on the eve of combat, here was another curve-ball. The Sunday before the first race in Rio, Patrick Head received a phone call from Rosberg, who was already down in Brazil for testing. Keke read out a list of lap times, but they were not his own.

Instead they were those of Nelson Piquet in his new delta-shaped Brabham BT52, set on a varying range of fuel loads. Gordon Murray had once again pulled a fast one: Brabham was about to reintroduce refuelling to grand prix racing - and Rosberg knew every team on the grid would have to follow its lead to stay in the game.

Head's response? By Tuesday night a hastily devised rig made from an aluminium beer barrel and an aircraft refuelling connector was loaded into cargo on a flight bound for Rio.

Keke Rosberg, Williams FW08C Ford

Keke Rosberg, Williams FW08C Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Against the run of expectation and form, Rosberg qualified on top in Rio - the last of the DFV's 131 pole positions - and ran second to Piquet until Keke stopped for a refill from that beer barrel. But loosened bolts on the fuel hatch caused a leak and a frightening flash fire briefly engulfed the cockpit. Rosberg shot out, without a second glance. But the fuel tank remained undamaged and he was invited to resume.

Not likely - but Head pressed a little harder with those inimitable words: "Keke, get back in the fucking car!" "But I have burnt my fucking 'moostache'" was the response...

Nevertheless, he did as he was told and proceeded to drive magnificently, rising from ninth upon resumption to finish second to Piquet - only to find himself disqualified from a Rio grand prix for the second successive year. To get Keke going again, the team had given him an illegal push-start.

Opportunities, as expected, were few and far between through the rest of 1983. There was a narrow victory for Rosberg in the final non-championship F1 race, the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch.

But it was the Monaco Grand Prix, where refuelling was banned and the DFV's deficit counted for much less, that offered the most reward - and Keke grabbed it with a career-defining virtuoso performance. He'd qualified fifth behind the turbo Renaults and Ferraris, but a spot of rain played directly into his hands. Gambling on slick Goodyears, he took the lead from Alain Prost on lap two and was never seen again.

Years later his son Nico would win in Monaco three times in successive years for Mercedes. There must be something in the oily harbour water when it comes to Rosbergs in the Principality.

Manufacturer turbo power finally arrived late in 1983 and full-time for '84 with a lag only matched by that of the Honda V6 itself, as first seen powering the small Spirit team. Coupled to the ungainly-looking FW09, Rosberg and popular French teammate Jacques Laffite were little better off than they had been in the neat and tidy FW08C.

But in what would prove to be a one-off race on a crumbling street track in Dallas, Rosberg produced some magic to score a first Honda-powered grand prix win since Monza 1967. But here was a new experience for Williams: for the first time it had a manufacturer engine partner, with a matching ambition to win. How was this going to work out?

Keke Rosberg, Williams FW10 Honda

Keke Rosberg, Williams FW10 Honda

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Momentum built in 1985, as a new team dynamic developed thanks to the bloke with the red number five on the nose of his FW10. It was clear during 1984 that Laffite's time was up, so who should Williams choose to join Rosberg?

Top-liners such as Prost and Piquet weren't available, so a contender from the second tier seemed the best bet. It could so easily have been likeable, no-nonsense Derek Warwick, who appeared to have all the hallmarks of a hard-working Williams driver. But 'Del Boy' chose to stick at Renault - how history would read differently had he chosen to twist for Williams.

Instead, they plumbed for another 'moostache'... the chap from Lotus about whom Peter Warr had said: "That man will never win a grand prix as long as I have a hole in my arse."

Nigel Mansell was quick, of that there had never been doubt, but was he ever going to amount to more than a journeyman? Colin Chapman had faith, but without the Lotus founder's protection following his death at the end of 1982, Mansell only really kept his drive because title sponsor John Player Special wanted a Brit.

In 1984 he had a car in the 95T with apparent race-winning potential, but even with the breakthrough in his grasp at Monaco he'd thrown it away on a wet white line on the run to Massenet. Warr's vulgarity, in such teeth-gnashing circumstances, was perhaps understandable.

Rosberg was less than amused when he heard who Frank and Patrick had signed, especially with Elio de Angelis describing his old Lotus teammate as "poison". Why unsettle team harmony with an obvious disruptor?

To Keke's eternal credit, he'd admit to a change of heart once the season got underway. They'd never be bosom buddies, but a degree of mutual respect grew between the pair across a largely untroubled season. Anyway, on track Rosberg remained the clear team number one - for now - stubbing his cigarette out at Silverstone to qualify at a ferocious 161mph with a slow puncture, then adding a final two wins (both on street tracks) in Detroit and at the first Australian GP in Adelaide.

By then it had long been known Rosberg was done with the team that had made him, eyeing a final one-season fling with McLaren before retirement. Over four swashbuckling seasons, he'd proven the perfect successor to the team's first champion, Alan Jones, his place in Williams folklore secure.

As for Mansell, Warr's damnation was marked null and void at Brands Hatch for the European GP in October when, at the 75th time of asking, Nigel won. Already aged 27 when he'd made his F1 debut in 1980, now 32-year-old Mansell's slow burn was about to explode. Having won at Brands, he immediately doubled his tally with pole position and a victory at Kyalami.

For Williams, 1986 was beaming with promise. Two-time world champion and old nemesis Piquet had approached Frank to join an increasingly confident Mansell as Rosberg's replacement, the cars sported a healthy rash of sponsors and they were powered by a Honda V6 now the class of the field, Williams having won the final three races of 1985. To cap it all, it had the FW11 on the blocks, a beautifully conceived masterpiece. Then Frank had his accident.

His Ford Sierra hire car left the road on his return to the airport after a test session at Paul Ricard that had confirmed 1986 was going to be a big year for his beloved team. Passenger Peter Windsor emerged almost unscathed, but Williams was left facing the biggest battle of his life.

Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11 Honda

Nelson Piquet, Williams FW11 Honda

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Two weeks after the accident, Piquet scored a maiden victory for Williams in Rio, surely one of his most significant, at least in terms of what it represented for his new team. This was business as usual.

By this stage, Head was already in charge of day to day operations, Frank taking the role of emblematic front man and skilled sponsor gatherer - the heart and soul of Williams Grand Prix Engineering. And with most deals, including those of his drivers, running over into '87 his absence in recovery wasn't about to thwart the full realisation of that dominance.

Head has described Piquet and Mansell as like "oil and water", but at this stage there was relative harmony at Williams as the team knuckled down to make the most of FW11. It soon emerged that Piquet vs Mansell was now the new F1 reality at the sharp end, the Englishman famously beating his supposed team leader at Brands Hatch when Nelson fluffed a gearchange.

Piquet was ruffled by Mansell's evolution into a genuine frontrunner and pointed out that Frank had promised him number one status - but it didn't say so in his contract. He joined Head for a visit to see the boss once Frank was properly conscious. Barely able to speak, Frank nevertheless confirmed to his partner that Nelson should be treated as number one, and from then on the spare car should always be set up for him. But the drivers had equal equipment and both continued to make the most of it.

By season's end, a third constructors' crown was in the bag - always a quietly spoken priority for Frank and Patrick - but the drivers' title would come down to a gripping finale in Adelaide. Just to complicate matters, that persistent aggravation in the Dayglo-and-white McLaren had somehow also kept himself in the hunt. Prost was smack in the middle of the Williams duo.

Through the season, strain had developed with Goodyear following worrying tyre failures. The supplier hadn't been hugely helpful, responding that no other teams had suffered such trouble, Williams coming back with the point that no other team was generating as much downforce and power as the FW11-Honda combination.

And on the streets of Adelaide that backstory exploded on to the front pages, along with Mansell's left-rear slick tyre. He'd been 19 laps from the third place that would have secured him the world title; instead Head now faced one of the biggest calls of his career: leave Piquet out there and risk his life in the hope a repeat failure wouldn't follow - or do the right thing and call him in.

As usual, he did the right thing. Piquet pitted and Prost became champion for a second time, after a race that had been pure F1 theatre.

Nigel Mansell, Williams FW11

Nigel Mansell, Williams FW11

Photo by: Sutton Images

As for Frank, he'd made a flying return to F1 via Bernie Ecclestone's helicopter at Brands Hatch, receiving a standing ovation from an admiring crowd. But heading into 1987 he and Patrick now faced challenges to their hard-earned dominance. Infighting had cost them a drivers' title and it wasn't about to get any better as hostilities increased between Mansell and Piquet, the latter too often lowering the tone by making his insults personal.

From a professional perspective, the Brazilian was wound up that he'd work hard on perfecting a set-up - against the lazy stereotype too often levelled against him - and that Mansell would then reap the benefit at the races.

Of greater concern was the potential loss of Honda. The turbo V6s were now being supplied to Lotus too, although a lightly refined FW11B was more than a match for the 99T, superior aerodynamics and better packaging keeping the Williams ahead of the game even with Ayrton Senna still working wonders in Camel yellow.

But Senna was working hard to take the Japanese engines to McLaren, forming a formidable super-team with Prost. For McLaren boss Ron Dennis, his team's successful partnership with the Porsche-built TAG turbo was beginning to run out of steam - and the stars were aligning.

On track, the 1987 constructors' title was never in doubt, and neither this time was a safe drivers' crown. But which of the two disgruntled teammates would it be? Piquet's edge was blunted by a huge crash at Imola's flat-out Tamburello - some say he was never quite the same again - and he lost out to Mansell on pole positions (eight versus four) and on race victories (six versus three), including that unforgettable day when 'Our Nige' sold him the mother of all dummies at Silverstone's Stowe corner.

But seven second places and Mansell's eventual undoing in a practice crash at Suzuka ensured Piquet of his third world title. Shades of Niki Lauda in 1984 perhaps, but those who claim he was undeserving do him an injustice.

But here the Williams domination would end - for now. Honda had demanded Japanese journeyman Satoru Nakajima as replacement for Mansell, despite the Englishman's fine form.

By now back at the helm, Frank consulted with his partner Head and they shared a concern about becoming a second-string team to McLaren. Instead, Nakajima was placed at Lotus and Piquet joined him, taking the number one plate with him as he did so.

Mansell's Williams drive was safe, but in the final year of turbo power before F1 switched back to normally aspirated engines he would be propelled by a relatively humble V8 supplied by respected privateer engine builder John Judd. The four-year Williams partnership with Honda that had harvested two constructors' titles, a drivers' title for Piquet and a remarkable 23 grand prix wins was over.

In 1988 Mansell managed a solitary, if rousing, second in his own backyard at Silverstone, then bolted for a future in Ferrari red. But Frank, still adapting to his new life, wasn't concerned. He'd faced worse. Time once more to rebuild, with a new engine partner, an alliance with which Williams would hit its zenith. The best was yet to come.

Nigel Mansell, Williams FW12

Nigel Mansell, Williams FW12

Photo by: Sutton Images

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