The founder and former team principal of Williams, Sir Frank Williams CBE, has died at the age of seventy-nine. Sir Frank was one of the sports longest-serving and most successful team principals having founded the Williams team predecessor Frank Williams Racing in 1969, before stepping down in August 2020.
During his time as a team owner and principal alongside Sir Patrick Head created the most successful teams in the sport’s history, winning nine constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ titles, and dominated much of the 1980s and 1990s. Sir Frank suffered a spinal injury in 1986 which left him paralysed.
A statement released by the team on Sunday said Williams was admitted to hospital on Friday, according to a statement issued by the team, and died peacefully on Sunday morning surrounded by his family.
The Williams team said: “It is with great sadness that on behalf of the Williams family, the team can confirm the death of Sir Frank Williams CBE, founder and former team principal of Williams Racing, at the age of 79.
“After being admitted into hospital on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family. Today we pay tribute to our much loved and inspirational figurehead. Frank will be sorely missed. We request that all friends and colleagues respect the Williams family’s wishes for privacy at this time.”
Sir Frank had in recent years before the team was sold to US investors had taken a step back from running the team on a day-to-day basis, although he remained team principal up until last years Italian Grand Prix.
F1 president and chief executive Stefano Domenicali paid tribute to Williams, whom he described as “a true giant of our sport”. Domenicali added: “He overcame the most difficult of challenges in life and battled every day to win on and off the track. We have lost a much loved and respected member of the F1 family and he will be hugely missed.
Frank was born during the second world war in South Shields and was raised by his maternal aunt and uncle in Jarrow, after the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. His love of cars began in the late 1950s when he was at school.
His first entry in 1969 was awfully uncompetitive and terribly financially insecure. At one point operating from a phone box after losing his premises. The breakthrough was teaming up with engineer and later business partner Sir Patrick Head.
Williams’s career was set with tragedies, 1970 saw Piers Courage killed at Zandvoort. 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 his name, left Williams devastated.
It also led to the collapse of his original team which he sold to Walter Wolff in 1975. He then found the Williams team with Sir Patrick Head and backing from the Bin Laden’s, saw the family become a force in F1.
The money from Saudi was a turning point by the late 1970s the teams had become one of the sports leaders. 1979 saw the team become the pace setters, but poor reliability saw them lose the championship.
In 1979 at Silverstone Alan Jones took the teams ‘ first pole position before team-mate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s maiden win a day later. 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.
Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann saw Frank achieve the dream of winning the teams first drivers and constructors. Keke Rosberg followed that with the 1982 championship, after a season of tragedy for main rivals Ferrari who lost both its lead drivers, one killed and one seriously injured, in remarkably similar accidents, and the faster Renaults were let down by reliability.
His accident in 1986, made him an icon beyond motorsport because of his determination to compete at the highest level despite a severe disability. Williams was given ten years to live after breaking his neck, but his recovery was yet a sign of who he was.
He had always been very active man and a keen runner, but he was determined to carry on despite the difficulties caused by the accident. His wife Lady Ginny, who died in 2013, described in her book how he talked about it very little, and simply said that they had had several good years of one kind of life together and now they just had to get used to a different one.
Frank took his disability as ‘it was his own fault he ended up that way so he had better just get on with it.’ In a 2011 BBC interview, he opened by saying, “I’ve had a wonderful life – wouldn’t dream of changing anything, truthfully.”
Despite his life being changed forever, he was back running his team for the following year. It saw a beginning of a golden era, with the team going on to win that years drivers and constructors. Over the following decade, five further drivers’ championships, including those for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.
But one of his deepest regrets was the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, they had been friends since Frank gave him his first test in 1983, though he wouldn’t sign for the team. Senna did join the team for 1994 to crash and be fatally injured while leading the San Marino Grand Prix.
Senna’s death led to a lengthy legal process in Italy in which Williams, Head and Newey all faced manslaughter charges, but were ultimately acquitted.
Williams was knighted in 1999, but the beginning of the new century saw Williams struggle to replicate the success of the 1980s and 1990s. Sir Frank stepped back in 2013 allowing Claire to assume the day-to-day running of the team.
Williams fought off pneumonia in 2016, but he has been an irregular fixture in the paddock for a number of years.
His devotion to his team saw him choose to build a wind tunnel to help progress his team rather than his plane which allowed him to attend races. But his final years in charge saw it record its worst results following the 2017 regulation changes, this lead to financial difficulties compounded by the pandemic last September the team was sold to Dorilton.
Sir Frank had three children Jonathan and Jamie and daughter Claire, and grandchildren Ralph and Nathaniel.