Frank Williams, founder of Formula 1 team Williams Racing, dies at 79

Sir Frank Williams, the founder and former team principal of Williams Racing, has died. He was 79.

Sir Frank took his motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula 1, overseeing 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.

“After being admitted into hospital on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family,” Williams Racing said in a statement.

Williams driver George Russell remembered Sir Frank as a “genuinely wonderful human being”.

Sir Frank’s life was all the more extraordinary because of the horrific car crash he suffered in France that left him with injuries so devastating doctors considered turning off his life-support machine.

But his wife Virginia ordered that her husband be kept alive and his sheer determination and courage — characteristics that personified his career — enabled him to continue with the love of his life, albeit from the confines of a wheelchair.

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He would remain in his role as Williams team principal for a further 34 years before F1’s greatest family team was sold to an American investment group in August.

Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields on April 16, 1942 to an RAF officer and a headmistress.

He was educated at St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries where he became obsessed with cars following a ride in a Jaguar XK150.

A travelling salesman by day, Sir Frank fulfilled his racing ambitions at the weekend and, aged just 24, he launched his own team, Frank Williams Racing Cars.

Four years later, they were competing in Formula Two, and with flatmate and closest friend Piers Courage behind the wheel, Williams graduated to F1 in 1969 using a second-hand Brabham.

A racing car speeds down a straight with a driver wearing a helmet and goggles.
Piers Courage, who drove Formula 1 for Williams Racing Cars, was killed in a crash at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970.(Getty Images / Grand Prix Photo)

But tragedy struck at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.

Courage ran off the track, one of his front wheels hit his helmet, and his car burst into flames. Courage’s grizzly death in a car bearing the Williams name left Sir Frank devastated. Broke and with spiralling debts, he reluctantly sold 60 per cent of his team to Walter Wolf in 1975.

But Sir Frank was not made to be a back-seat driver and, desperate for independence, he severed ties with the Canadian businessman.

He set up shop at an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire and signed a promising young engineer named Patrick Head. The double act would go on to make grand prix history.

With Saudi Arabian funding and the hiring of Australian driver Alan Jones, Williams Grand Prix Engineering became a force.

At the 1979 British Grand Prix, Jones registered Williams’ first pole position before teammate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s maiden win a day later.

A Formula One team owner talks strategy with one of his drivers.
Keke Rosberg (right) was one of seven drivers to win a Formula 1 world driver’s title for Williams Racing.(Getty Images: Paul-Henri Cahier)

In 1980, Jones delivered Williams their first title. The team also won back-to-back constructors’ championships, while Keke Rosberg was crowned drivers’ champion in 1982. But, in 1986, Sir Frank’s life would change forever.

Crash in France changes Sir Frank’s life

Following a test at the Paul Ricard circuit in March, Sir Frank set off on a 157km dash to Nice Airport in a rented Ford Sierra. Travelling through the windy roads at speed, Sir Frank lost control and the car ended up on its roof following a 2.5 metre drop into a field.

His passenger, the team’s marketing manager Peter Windsor, escaped with minor injuries. But Sir Frank suffered a spinal fracture that would leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“I was late for a plane which I didn’t need to be late for because I got the French time mixed up with the English time,” Sir Frank later said.

“It was very unfair on my family, particularly my wife, because of how my circumstances changed. In hindsight, it was a careless and a selfish thing to have done.”

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Despite his life-changing injuries, Sir Frank was back at the helm of his team within nine months. Over the ensuing 11 years, five further drivers’ championships — including those for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill — as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.

But there would be more heartache for Sir Frank when Ayrton Senna was killed in just his third race for the British team at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Sir Frank was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999 but his team was never able to replicate its heyday of the 1980s and 1990s.

He stepped back in 2013, the year in which his wife died, allowing his daughter Claire to assume the day-to-day running of the team.

Sir  Frank fought off pneumonia in 2016, but he has been an irregular fixture in the paddock for a number of years.

And, at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, an historic sporting chapter was closed when the Williams family contested its 739th and concluding race after selling up to Dorilton Capital.

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Sir Frank is survived by his three children, sons Jonathan and Jamie and Claire, and grandchildren Ralph and Nathaniel.

AP

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