Sir Frank Williams remembered: The genesis of an F1 great

Sir Frank Williams, who passed away today, achieved tremendous success as a Formula 1 team boss. But it never came easy. For his early career was filled with battling against the odds, tremendous hard work, and the scorn of fellow competitors. On the day that the entire motorsport community paid tribute to him, we look again at Damien Smith’s fascinating insight in to the genesis of an F1 great.

Sir Frank Williams remembered: The genesis of an F1 great
Listen to this article

Officially, it all started 44 years ago - but that's not true at all. Within just two years of its founding, Williams Grand Prix Engineering was the shiny, new irresistible (down)force of Formula 1, but its rise begs the old question: 'how many nights does it take to be an overnight sensation?'

Eight long years of turmoil, tragedy, of missed and wasted opportunity, of false starts and disappointment - almost the same length of time as the current drought - preceded what was Frank Williams's last chance to really make his F1 ambitions stick as he'd always belligerently believed they would.

Frank had briefly raced himself before wisely recognising his strengths lay in the hustle of getting racing cars on to grids rather than away from them.

His first muse was good friend and brewery heir Piers Courage, who scored a promising second at Monaco in a smartly turned out blue Brabham in 1969 - only to lose his life in a horrifying accident at Zandvoort a year later, driving a de Tomaso born from a collaboration with talented Italian engineer Gian Paolo Dallara. So much promise, cruelly snuffed out in the Dutch sand dunes.

Most would have quit this violent game there and then, but racing people are wired differently - and oddly. Williams was devastated, of course he was - but there was no question of stopping. He knuckled down and went again.

Few in F1 took him seriously. To some, he was dubbed 'Wanker Williams', written off as a 'startline specialist' who at times was consigned to making business calls from a phone box when he couldn't pay the line bill from his base in Bennet Road, Reading.

By 1975, he was desperate - then old friend Dallara introduced him to Austro-Canadian oil tycoon (and eccentric racing nut) Walter Wolf. Here was a man with the means to help, and Frank was grateful to receive. To this day, Wolf maintains he never bought shares in Frank Williams Racing Cars, but Frank claims his investor ended up with 60% and paid off debts of £140,000.

Why? Simply, Wolf liked Frank, which is no surprise. Irrepressible, energetic and quick to smile, he was an easy man to like - and for some, to believe in (despite everything).

Frank Williams in the workshop with an ISO Marlboro IR01 Ford car

Frank Williams in the workshop with an ISO Marlboro IR01 Ford car

Photo by: Motorsport Images

But by 1976 Frank's beloved F1 cars were entered under the auspices of Walter Wolf Racing, the uncompetitive Hesketh 308C as a Wolf-Williams FW05.

Whether formally or otherwise, Frank was now an employee - and that was never going to wash. Time for one final throw of the dice.

But as he gambled and backed himself one last time, he made the most crucial - and best - decision of his life: he convinced a sharp, young engineer he'd hired to come with him. It was just as well that Patrick Head said yes.

Son of a military man who'd raced Jaguars in the 1950s, Head was another cocktail of apparent contradictions. After his own brief dalliance with the navy, he'd earned an engineering degree and set a rough path towards motorsport, earning his spurs at Lola.

Direct, fiercely logical but blown along by the creative flair of a free spirit, Head freelanced his way through the early 1970s until he was introduced to Williams by racer and ace sponsor hunter-gatherer Guy Edwards.

Williams spotted a kindred spirit, but Head's faith in his new friend was still remarkable. Having worked closely with Harvey Postlethwaite and made a significant contribution to the smart, new Wolf WR1, Patrick was turning his back on a well-funded team that had just hired Jody Scheckter - and would astoundingly win its first grand prix - for a man who had just taken a lease on a former carpet warehouse in Didcot, and had nothing to fill it.

To the F1 paddock, it seemed to be the same old 'Wanker Williams' when this apparent new entity pitched up at the 1977 Spanish Grand Prix with what was supposed to be a year-old March 761 for Belgian journeyman Patrick Neve.

As it turned out, March's smooth-talking co-founder, Max Mosley, had sold them a cast-off - orange paint under the bodywork's surface suggested Vittorio Brambilla's Beta Tools livery from 1975, but it might have been even older (imagine the Mosley smirk).

A seventh place at Monza was as good as it would get for Neve and whatever March he was actually driving. But all this was just to keep the ball rolling. Back at the warehouse, Head was cooking up the car that would really kickstart this remarkable story.

There was nothing particularly special about the FW06 of 1978, but as conventional F1 cars of the era go it was neat, tidy and logically conceived as a foundation upon which the team could build. Significantly, it also sported new colours.

Williams had sourced F1's first sponsor deal from the Middle East, as Saudia Airlines bought into Frank's vision. And just to complete the package, the team had a new driver for what was still a single-car entry. In Alan Jones, neither Williams nor Head truly realised what gold they'd just struck.

Alan Jones, Williams FW06

Alan Jones, Williams FW06

Photo by: David Phipps

Like Head, Melbourne-born Jones was the son of a moderately successful 1950s racing driver and couldn't have been a better fit for the team. Hell, he even looked like Patrick: if you didn't know, they could have been brothers.

Having scrapped his way to London, then wheeled and dealed his way into F1, 'Jonesy' had even scored a grand prix win, for Shadow in Austria in 1977. That form and his no-nonsense, straight-ahead Aussie approach raised the stakes for Williams and Head - and the trio quickly gelled. Shared outlooks helped forge a three-way axis of mutual respect.

In the year Lotus struck ground effects (black and) gold with the stunning Type 79, and Brabham's Gordon Murray lobbed in his fan car red-herring, Jones and the little FW06 were never going to shake up the F1 world - but still, there was genuine promise.

At the penultimate race at Watkins Glen, Jones started third, finished second to Carlos Reutemann's Ferrari - and beat Scheckter's Wolf (which must have been satisfying). Meanwhile, Head had been taking a good look at that incredible Lotus.

His FW07 for 1979 was the car Colin Chapman's Lotus 80 should have been. 'Copy' is a strong word in F1, as Racing Point would currently attest, but it's never been a secret that Head's creation was heavily influenced by Mario Andretti's 1978 title winner.

The harnessing of true downforce was also bolstered by recruitment: first, a straight-out-of-college Neil Oatley doubled the manpower in the design office, while another young chap by the name of Ross Brawn was busy learning, listening and working away in the machine shop. Then as the FW07 began to take shape in a newly-acquired quarter-scale windtunnel, another bright chap called Frank Dernie signed up.

Where first there had only been Frank and Patrick, now there was strength in depth. This was now a proper F1 team.

Jones began the new season still in FW06, but added a second podium finish at Long Beach before the new 07 tested away from prying eyes at Ontario Motor Speedway, California. For the driver, here the ground effects penny dropped.

Andretti had described his Lotus as "painted to the road"; at Ontario, Jones came in after his first run with his eyes wide open: "Bloody hell. Now I understand what Andretti and [Ronnie] Peterson have had. The car has so much grip I can't slide it."

It took a while to iron out new-car niggles, but once the Cosworth DFV-powered FW07 got into its stride Williams was almost unstoppable.

At Silverstone for the British Grand Prix - perfect timing, Frank - Jones hooked it up and stuck it on pole position, six-tenths quicker than Jean-Pierre Jabouille's turbo Renault, on a proper power circuit. Along the pitwall, all eyes turned to the Williams boys. Who was the 'wanker' now?

In the race, Jones scorched into a comfortable lead, only for a new weld on the water pump to crack, and the leak led to a piston failure. Still, by 1979 there were two Williams cars on the grid, Swiss veteran Clay Regazzoni having joined the team.

Once an F1 loose cannon, 'Regga' was now in the autumn of his career but picked up a final victory that day - and the first of the team's 114. "Bravo, Frank," purred Clay at the press gathering.

After Silverstone, Jones swept to four wins in five - Germany, Austria, Zandvoort and Montreal. It was too late, partly thanks to a convoluted points system, to stop Scheckter's Ferrari winning the title, but Williams had more than made its point - with a little help from circumstance. Instead of capitalising on his glorious 79, Chapman was busy shooting off down cul-de-sacs with ill-considered innovations.

Frank Williams and Patrick Head, Alan Jones, Williams

Frank Williams and Patrick Head, Alan Jones, Williams

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Ligier could have been a problem, but lacked the hard-edged consistency and solid engineering logic upon which Williams was built. As for Ferrari, its perseverance with the still-successful flat-12 would soon play against it, being the wrong shape to properly harness ground effects downforce, while Renault's turbo - the true indicator of what was to come - was still a grenade with a hair trigger. So 1980 would be Jones's year - although not without a fierce fight from another new force who would play his own significant role in the Williams story further down the line.

Nelson Piquet had enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Brazil. Life didn't have to be difficult, but to his credit he'd made it so by heading to cold and dreary 1970s England to make his name in Formula 3.

In 1980, his second full season with Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham, Piquet would prove that privilege hadn't made him soft. The kid was street-smart, hard-edged and fast. He and wheeler-dealer Jones were poles apart and yet remarkably similar. No wonder they couldn't stand each other.

Piquet led Jones by a point at the penultimate round in Montreal when the pair clashed at the first start. Forced to take his spare BT49 for the restart, Piquet charged into the lead - only for his engine to fail. Jones was champion, Williams having already tied up its first constructors' crown.

The FW07 would deliver another constructors' title in 1981, but what would become a familiar Williams trope would first raise its head as the team failed to properly manage tension between its drivers.

In 1980 Regazzoni had made way for Carlos Reutemann. The Argentinian was still a great driver but had endured a lacklustre time at Lotus and accepted clear number two status to Jones when he joined Williams.

The pair kicked off 1981 with a 1-2 in Jones's favour at Long Beach, but in Rio Reutemann ignored an order to cede his lead to the world champion and won in defiance. They hadn't got on before - now the atmosphere was poisonous.

Both would claim two victories each over the course of the year, but it was Reutemann who headed to the Caesars Palace finale in Las Vegas with the title within his grasp.

What really happened that day? Carlos started from pole, but simply disappeared in the race and slipped out of the points, complaining of a notchy gearbox (the team found nothing wrong). Jones won, but Piquet made sure of the fifth place he needed to be champion by a single point.

After one of F1's strangest title denouements, Reutemann went home having spoken barely a word.

This was a time of transition for Williams and its drivers. Jones had already shocked the team at Monza by telling them he intended to retire at season's end (Vegas was a fitting sign-off for its first and forever favourite talisman), leaving Frank and Patrick little time to find a suitable top-line replacement.

They had a performance test booked at Paul Ricard and chose Keke Rosberg to drive, with little thought of signing him. But Dernie reported back emphatically that here was the answer to their problem.

For cock-sure Rosberg, Williams was the career salvation he desperately needed. For the first time, the Finn's certainty about his gilt-edged F1 future had faltered after a miserable season at Fittipaldi. Until Jones dropped his bombshell, Keke had nowhere to go. Thus out of mutual necessity grew another key Williams partnership, and Rosberg emerged as the perfect successor to Jones.

Reutemann too would soon depart, from F1 entirely and for good. He was outqualified by Rosberg in the 1982 season opener at Kyalami, but finished second in the race, then outperformed by his team-mate at a controversial Rio grand prix (Keke finished second to Piquet, but both were disqualified for being underweight). And that was it. Reutemann quit and went home.

Frank Williams, Williams Team Owner with Ron Dennis, McLaren Team Owner

Frank Williams, Williams Team Owner with Ron Dennis, McLaren Team Owner

Photo by: Sutton Images

In the wider world, tensions between his country and the UK over sovereignty of the Falklands Islands would spill into a short but brutal war in April, and for Carlos it was all too uncomfortable.

F1's loss would be Argentina's gain as he embarked on a high-profile and successful career in politics.

Turbulence for Williams, then, but F1 itself was in greater turmoil over the course of a deeply troubled season. The FISA-FOCA war for control of the championship was the wider context that even led to a race boycott by the British 'garagiste' teams at Imola, then Gilles Villeneuve died in a senseless qualifying accident at Zolder and Didier Pironi was launched into a leg-smashing crash in the spray of Hockenheim.

Through the chaos and gloom, Rosberg kept his head as 11 drivers scored race wins, his single success at Dijon - plus an unforgettable near-miss after a fantastic chase of Elio de Angelis's Lotus in Austria - proving enough to clinch the title.

He'd done so in a tidy FW08 powered by a £7,500 off-the-shelf DFV against the growing force of the turbos - yet despite that remarkable achievement, Williams was all too aware which way the wind was blowing.

Without access to a turbo, the team was having to box clever - as usual. Development of a smart and potentially game-changing six-wheeler - four at the back rather than at the front like Tyrrell's 1976-77 P34 - was designed not only for improved traction, but more importantly for reduced drag to keep up with the turbos on the straights.

Realising this was no gimmick, the FIA moved quickly to ban four-wheel drive - then pulled the rug even harder in what seemed a wider-context politically motivated decision to ban ground effects, just months before the 1983 season. After picking its jaw from the floor (twice), the Williams team did what it had always done: knuckled down and went again.

New challenges lay before it - but for Frank, what was new? He'd already come an awful long way from those days in the Bennet Road call box.

Ayrton Senna, discusses his first run in the Williams FW08C with team owner Frank Williams

Ayrton Senna, discusses his first run in the Williams FW08C with team owner Frank Williams

Photo by: Sutton Images


Related video

Tributes paid to F1 legend Sir Frank Williams
Previous article

Tributes paid to F1 legend Sir Frank Williams

Next article

How Williams overcame its greatest F1 setback

How Williams overcame its greatest F1 setback
Can Hamilton produce another Singapore magic moment? Prime

Can Hamilton produce another Singapore magic moment?

The Singapore Grand Prix has, explains Ben Edwards, played an important role in Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 career. As the series returns to the Marina Bay Street Circuit for the first time in three years, he faces the latest challenge with an underperforming Mercedes car.

Why Sainz is key to Ferrari achieving its chairman's F1 goals Prime

Why Sainz is key to Ferrari achieving its chairman's F1 goals

Although Ferrari's chances of title glory in 2022 have evaporated, chairman John Elkann expects the team to have chalked up both championships by 2026. Both require drivers to play the team game and, having now become more comfortable with the F1-75, Carlos Sainz may be Ferrari's key to title glory

Formula 1
Sep 27, 2022
How its faltering first turbo car advanced a Williams-Honda glory era Prime

How its faltering first turbo car advanced a Williams-Honda glory era

Stuart Codling charts the development of the Williams FW09, the ugly duckling that heralded the start of the title-winning Williams-Honda partnership

Formula 1
Sep 25, 2022
The Moss-Ferrari farce that current F1 drivers are thankfully spared Prime

The Moss-Ferrari farce that current F1 drivers are thankfully spared

Recent moves within the driver market have reminded Maurce Hamilton of a time when contracts weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on…

Formula 1
Sep 24, 2022
The seven factors powering Verstappen's 2022 F1 domination Prime

The seven factors powering Verstappen's 2022 F1 domination

After a tooth and nail and, at times, toxic Formula 1 world championship scrap last year, Max Verstappen's march to a second consecutive title has been the exact opposite. But has he really changed in 2022? Here's a dive into what factors have played a crucial role, both inside the Verstappen camp and elsewhere, in the Dutch driver's domination.

Formula 1
Sep 23, 2022
The time lag of ideas that offers intrigue over F1's future fight Prime

The time lag of ideas that offers intrigue over F1's future fight

The pecking order in 2022's Formula 1 season may look pretty static as the season draws to a close, but the unique nature of the cost cap means that preparation for next season takes precedence. New developments are being pushed back to 2023, which could mask the technical development war ongoing...

Formula 1
Sep 22, 2022
The surprise biggest indicator of Ferrari's 2022 F1 points downfall Prime

The surprise biggest indicator of Ferrari's 2022 F1 points downfall

Looking back to the early races of 2022 and Ferrari’s challenge to Red Bull and Max Verstappen was going better than many expected. But it has lost so much ground a surprise rival can even pip Charles Leclerc to runner-up in the standings if given the chance

Formula 1
Sep 20, 2022
The F1 podium-finisher that gave Jordan stability in a year of chaos Prime

The F1 podium-finisher that gave Jordan stability in a year of chaos

The Hart-powered Jordan 194 gave the team hope that the good times were just around the corner. Its 1994 steed wasn’t the start of a move up F1’s pecking order - even if the car did earn the Silverstone team a first pole position. But, as STUART CODLING explains, it did provide a platform for Jordan to become a manufacturer-supported squad.

Formula 1
Sep 18, 2022