Sir Frank Williams is an eponymous legendary figure of F1. His legacy goes beyond the team on the grid today running in his name.
While the Williams team is currently in a long-term project to the front of the grid, the outfit has a long and illustrious history in F1. Third on the all-time list of top constructors, Williams’s accolades are legendary. 9 Constructors titles, 7 drivers titles and 114 victories.
Fans of a certain age all have a Williams memory. Anyone who watched F1 in the late 1980s and early 1990s can recall special moments. Nigel Mansell’s tyre blowing out at Adelaide in 1986, or winning the championship in the famous “red five” FW14B in 1992 are etched into F1 lore.
Then there is Damon Hill crossing the finish line in 1996 to win the title. Hill is only one of two sons of a World Champion to win the title himself.
Even in its less successful years, the fights between Ralf Schumacher and his brother Michael in his Ferrari in the early 2000s were gripping viewing. Juan Pablo Montoya is considered one of F1’s greatest-ever drivers, despite not winning the title. Later years may have produced less silverware, but the team never lost its roots or its ambition to stay fully independent.
At the heart of the operation that fielded all of these iconic drivers and memories, was Sir Frank Williams. A pioneer who ran the same team for over fifty years, his team was directly run by both the legend himself and his family.
Sir Frank’s determination showed on and off the track, including triumphing in the face of life-threatening adversity. This is the story of Sir Frank William’s iconic and eponymous team and an insight into the great man himself.
A man whose legacy will live on in the sport forever.
After a series of smaller failed ventures in the early 1970s, Williams entered officially in 1977. A solid foundation season saw the team with a best finish of P7 but with no points.
Williams would see a one-two finish the following season in Germany, its ground effect car proving to be quick in the second half of the season. The FW07 proved so fast that the team would end up with three consecutive victories, with another before the end of the season. Sir Frank’s outfit had leapt from P10 in the Constructors championship in its inaugural year to P2 in its second. No fully new team in the modern era of F1 has made a similar gain.
Sir Frank would achieve even higher accolades in 1980. Unbelievably, after arriving on the scene just two seasons previously, Williams would win both titles that year. Alan Jones took the honours in the drivers’ championship, becoming the first Australian to do so. The scale of the advantage held by the FW07 saw the title won by 54 points,
The team would win the constructors championship again in 1981, with charge Keke Rosberg (father of Nico) winning the drivers championship in 1982. A switch to Honda engines from Ford in 1983 saw a period of mediocrity, but the accolades of the previous years showed that Sir Frank and Sir Patrick Head had developed a phenomenally efficient machine.
1986 to 1987: peril leads to triumph
The 1986 F1 season is remembered mostly for Nigel Mansell’s tyre blowout at the final round in Adelaide. Former Team Manager Dickie Stanford told the FormulaNerds in our “Nerdy V10’s” series that almost nothing was said when Mansell arrived back at the garage. The disappointment in the team was palpable, to lose out on a title in such a way was frustrating for Sir Frank.
But it was off track that Sir Frank would see the biggest and life-threatening challenge. At the start of the year, both he and Sponsorship Manager Peter Windsor left Circuit Paul Ricard in a hire car and headed for the airport. During the journey, Sir Frank lost control and fell into a ditch, rendering him paralysed.
Further complications saw him need to be flown back to the UK for emergency treatment. Doctors drained his lungs of fluid, caused by breathing in fumes from the fire that engulfed the hire car.
Not deterred from his passion and life’s work, the legendary team owner returned to the paddock in a wheelchair, which he would remain in for the rest of his life. His aim remained unchanged, to win more titles.
After the near-tragic incident of 1986, the team returned to winning ways in 1987. The FW11B proved to be the class of the field, winning the Constructors championship, Nelson Piquet taking the driver’s title. The season was not without issue for Sir Frank as Nigel Mansell grew disgruntled with his car’s endless performance issues, choosing to walk away before the final race.
Sir Frank proved his negotiating tactics and persuaded Mansell to return to the sport. 1992 would be the year Mansell and Williams had redemption for the failure of 1986. The FW14B is one of F1’s all-time great cars, powering Mansell to 9 wins in 16 starts, both championships long secured before the final round.
However, as had become customary by this point, driver drama threatened stability. Rival Alain Prost had walked away from Ferrari at the end of 1991 and had retired. Sir Frank wanted him in one of his cars, causing a conflict. Mansell did not want Prost as a teammate and was locked into negotiations with Williams over continuing past 1992.
The 1993 FW15B proved to be just as dominant as its predecessor, with Prost and Williams cruising to the title. In a nearly identical situation, Ayrton Senna was available for 1994 after becoming disillusioned with McLaren, offering to Sir Frank drive for free. Prost still recovering from their bitter rivalry refused this, and walked away, bringing in Senna.
Sir Frank although a shrewd negotiator, was tough and always acted in the interests of his team, even if this was not popular. Williams had always wanted Senna to join, but sadly their partnership would be tragically short.
1994: tragedy strikes
History will show that Sir Frank Williams’s team won the Constructors championship in 1994. It sadly also shows its new charge, the legendary Ayrton Senna was killed at the third round at Imola.
This had a profound impact on Sir Frank. Not only were the team charged with manslaughter in Italy, but a new driver had to be found. Sir Frank and Sir Patrick Head would eventually be acquitted of all charges. David Coulthard filled the vacant seat.
Speaking in 2020, daughter Claire Williams admitted that Sir Frank never spoke of Senna’s death. Speaking to nine.com, she stated her father idolised the three-time World Champion:
“Frank had a love affair with Ayrton. He got into his heart, got into his mind, and he always wanted to put him in his race car. Dad’s wish then came true, but it ended in the worst possible way.
“Frank never spoke to anyone about it. He internalises and keeps it all in. That is how he has been brought up, but you can see the pain in his eyes every time he thinks about the accident.
“He will talk about what a great man Ayrton was and what a great driver he was, but nothing to do with the accident.”
All Williams cars carried a Senna logo on the nose from 1994 to 2022. Senna’s legacy in the sport is unrivalled. Despite driving for only three races with the team, the association is iconic.
1996 to 1997: the last championships and a grave error
After losing out on both titles in 1995, the legendary design genius Adrian Newey designed two of the greatest F1 cars for 1995 and 1996. Damon Hill won in 1996 from new teammate Jacques Villeneuve, with the latter winning the title in 1997.
German Heinz-Harald Frentzen replaced Hill in 1996. Sir Frank had decided to remove Hill at the end of 1995 following the British driver’s disappointing performance. An unpopular decision for some, but Williams continued to be the benchmark in F1.
Around this time Sir Frank made the mistake that the team has never recovered from. Both he and Sir Patrick Head held the majority shares in the team and took major decisions. Adrian Newey wanted to enhance his stake in the team, having designed multiple championship-winning cars. Sir Frank refused, and Newey walked away. Williams has not won a title since 1997.
Speaking in 2012, he admitted this was a mistake. As reported by ESPN at the time, the legendary team owner confirmed that shares were the issue that caused Newey to depart in mid-1997. He wanted some shares that I didn’t want to give to him at the time. [That] was arguably, with hindsight, a mistake. Adrian is quite a remarkable individual.”
1998 to 2020: sliding down the order
Sir Frank and Williams struggled as the 2000s approached. Dethroned as F1’s peak team, it would never enjoy the success it saw in the 1990s. The arrival of BMW in 2000 gave birth to a brief renaissance. Juan Pablo Montoya’s speed kept him in contention for the title until the penultimate race.
Further contract disputes ensued in 2004. Jenson Button became embroiled in a battle over his services. Departing the team at the end of 2000 to make way for Montoya, Button had a contract to return. As reported by GPBlog, Sir Frank pushed hard and Button had to pay in the region of $30 million to buy his way out of his deal. Even in challenging times, Sir Frank continued to show how powerful an influence he still had.
2006 to 2012 were some of the team’s darkest years. Unable to move out of the midfield, the occasional lucky podium is the best the team could hope for. It is a testament to Sir Frank that the team continued despite its struggles, and was still able to attract title sponsors. Engine deals with Toyota and Cosworth failed to move the team forward, but in 2012 the team moved back to Renault power.
2012: the last victory
Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish Grand Prix of 2012, in a race that saw the team garage catch fire after the race. In a show of respect and unity, rival teams rushed down to Williams to extinguish the fire. There were thankfully no fatalities.
The team slumped in 2013, finishing P9 in the standings. Sir Frank at this point chose to hand the reigns of his now legendary team to his daughter Claire.
The team designed the third-fastest car for the start of the new turbo hybrid regulations of 2014 and enjoyed a strong year. This led to a strong finish of P3 in 2014 and 2015. The team slipped down the order in the following seasons. Sold to Dorilton Capital in 2020, a team held by one family for over forty years suddenly had new ownership and a new chapter.
Death and Legacy
His health beginning to deteriorate, Sir Frank was rarely seen in the paddock again after 2013. He was admitted to hospital in November of 2021 and died two days later aged 79.
A true privateer, Williams is a team steeped in history. The Williams Museum showcases its championship winners in a hall of fame that is both iconic and a reminder of a team at the height of its power. All originating from one man.
Williams has a long way to go to return to the front of the grid. But the determination of its original owner to stay independent is what enshrines the team in F1 legend. An irreplaceable figure, there will be no owner or Team Principal that can rival Sir Frank Williams. A true legend, gentleman and shrewd negotiator, he will never be forgotten.