In the ranks of Formula One team bosses, there is one person who occupies a special place: Frank Williams. He was team boss of his Formula One team, Williams F1, for 43 years. The Williams team won seven drivers’ world championships and nine constructors’ world championships under Frank Williams. This makes the team one of the most successful teams in Formula One history.
The early days of the Williams F1 Team
Together with race engineer Patrick Head, Frank Williams aimed to enter Formula One as an independent constructor at the end of the seventies.
In 1978 the team Williams Grand Prix Engineering was founded – Frank Williams himself and the race engineer Patrick Head were involved. Williams signed up Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni and Australian driver Alan Jones for the 1979 Formula One season.
It was Clay Regazzoni who won a Grand Prix for the first time in a Williams car on July 14, 1979. This victory heralded a winning streak for Frank Williams: Regazzoni’s teammate Alan Jones won four of the remaining six races of the 1979 season.
The secret behind Williams F1
As early as the following year, the 1980 season, the Williams team dominated: within two seasons, the team achieved a rise that has remained a rarity in the history of Formula One to this day. What was the secret behind Williams’ sudden success? Part of the success was the developed racing car Williams FW07: The racing car, which celebrated its premiere at the 1979 Spanish Grand Prix, was constantly developed in the following seasons: There was an FW07B, FW07C and an FW07D. It was high-speed racetracks in particular on which Williams scored points: From a technological and aerodynamic point of view, the Williams FW07 in all its variations was ahead of other race cars.
First constructors’ title
In the 1980 Formula One season, Alan Jones managed to win the first world championship title for Williams: Alan Jones won the drivers’ world championship and Williams won the constructors’ title. Jones dominated the points and his team partner Carlos Reutemann triumphed in a wet race in Monaco in 1980: that was one of the reasons why Williams driver Reutemann was later one of Ayrton Senna’s role models.
After another Constructors’ World Championship victory in 1981, it was time for further development: the new FW08 was a technological innovation in 1982. At the same time, the FW08 was the last Williams car with a naturally aspirated engine.
The Williams-Honda era
For the 1983 season, Frank Williams faced a challenge: The era of naturally aspirated engines in Formula One had come to an end – the era of turbo engines was on the horizon. Frank Williams managed to strike a deal with Honda: The Japanese engine manufacturer provided the engines for the Williams team between the fall of 1983 and 1987. The first Williams turbo car, which was the result of English-Japanese collaboration, made its debut at the 1983 South African Grand Prix.
In 1986 a tragedy occurred in the life of Frank Williams. Shortly before the season opener in Le Castellet, France, at the Circuit Paul Ricard, Frank Williams was involved in a car accident on a local track. The result of the accident was a paraplegia – from then on Frank Williams was confined to a wheelchair. After he had recovered, he resumed the management of his racing team: Williams did not let his paralysis prevent him from continuing to pursue his passion: In Frank Williams’ life, there was nothing that captivated him as much as motorsport.
Although 1986 was marked by a personal tragedy for Frank Williams, the 1986 Formula One season was extremely successful for the Williams team: Nelson Piquet, who had previously driven for Brabham, joined the team. His teammate was Nigel Mansell. The Williams FW11 race car was clearly superior to the other cars on the track – this secured the constructors’ world championship for the team in Frank Williams’ fateful year of 1986. There was a lot of competition between the two Williams drivers – both were eager to win the drivers’ world championship with the superior FW11. In the end, Alain Prost won the drivers’ world championship.
Williams-Renault: Back at the top
The beginning of the nineties heralded a decade of success for the Williams team: Frank Williams struck a deal with French engine manufacturer Renault that lasted until 1997. But initially, it was another Formula One team that dominated the racing circuit at the start of the nineties: McLaren. It wasn’t until 1992 that the McLaren team’s dominance was broken: Williams driver Nigel Mansell set a record by winning the first five races of a season. Early in the season, Mansell secured the drivers’ title, followed shortly afterwards by the first constructors’ title for Renault.
In 1993, the success scenario repeated itself for Williams: with Alain Prost as driver, Williams won both the drivers’ and constructors’ world championship.
After Alain Prost left Formula One in 1993, Ayrton Senna took the opportunity to take Prost’s place with the Williams team: Ayrton Senna, a Williams driver for the first time, was killed at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Ayrton Senna’s death was another tragedy in the life of Frank Williams: from then on, every Williams race car bore the Senna-S as an inscription.
At the top one last time
Despite the tragedy caused by the death of Ayrton Senna, Williams won the Constructors’ World Championship in 1994. The Williams team managed to do this only two more times under the leadership of Frank Williams: in 1996 with Damon Hill as the drivers’ world champion and in 1997 with Jacques Villeneuve as the world champion. To date, the 1997 Formula One season was the last season in which Williams won a constructors’ or drivers’ title.
A passionate motorsport enthusiast
“I’m a motorsport enthusiast. I even drive when no one is watching me, when no one watches but myself. I was born that way, I die that way.”
That’s how Frank Williams once put it. In the life of Frank Williams there was only motorsport – his wife Virginia Williams’ book about the life with her husband Frank Williams proves this. Although the Williams team’s great moments seem to lie in the past, the Williams F1 team is still a household name today: The team that the Englishman founded out of “the dirt,” as he himself put it, is one of the most successful Formula One teams ever.
On November 28, 2021, Frank Williams died at the age of 79. Shortly after his accident in 1986, doctors gave him ten more years to live: his will to live and, in particular, his passion for motorsport prevented Frank Williams from surrendering to such a bleak prognosis.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: from left to right: Patrick Head (race engineer and co-founder of Williams F1), driver Carlos Reutemann and Frank Williams in 1981, taken from Wikimedia Commons
Main sources: The English and German Wikipedia articles on Frank Williams, the book “A Different Kind of Life” by his wife Virginia Williams and numerous Formula One statistics.