Formula One founder Frank Williams dies at 79
London Frank Williams, founder and former manager of the Williams Formula 1 racing team, has died at the age of 79.
Williams took his motorsport team from an empty carpet warehouse to the top of Formula 1, where he oversaw 114 victories, and 16 world championships for drivers and constructors, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.
“After being hospitalized on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning among his family,” Williams Racing said in a statement on Sunday.
Williams driver George Russell recalled that Williams was a “really amazing human being”.
Williams’ life became so extraordinary due to his horrific car accident in France that left him with such devastating injuries that doctors considered turning off his life support.
But his wife Virginia was ordered to keep her husband alive and his sheer determination and courage – traits that embodied his career – enabled him to continue the love of his life, albeit in a wheelchair.
He will remain in his role as Williams manager for another 34 years before F1’s biggest family team is sold to a US investment group in August.
“Frank was one of the seniors to go back a very long way,” former Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone told the British Press Association. “One wonders if people like Frank had not been around in the early days, Formula 1 would have survived today. He was one of the people who built Formula One. It’s the end of an era.”
Francis Owen Garbet Williams was born in South Shields, England, on 16 April 1942 to a Royal Air Force officer and school principal. He was educated at St. Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries where he became obsessed with cars after riding in a Jaguar XK150.
A street vendor by day, Williams fulfilled his racing ambitions in the weekend and, at just 24 years old, launched his own team, Frank Williams Racing Cars.
Four years later, they were competing in Formula Two, and with roommate and best friend Piers Courage behind the wheel, Williams graduated to Formula 1 in 1969 with a used Brabham car.
But tragedy occurred at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.
Guts ran off the track, one of his front wheels crashed into his helmet, and his car caught fire. A brave death in a car bearing his name wreaked havoc on Williams. After mounting debts exploded, he reluctantly sold 60% of his team to Walter Wolff in 1975.
But Williams wasn’t made to be a back seat driver, desperately in need of independence, and severing ties with the Canadian businessman.
He set up shop in an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire and signed up with a promising young engineer named Patrick Head. The double act will continue to make Grand Prix history.
Funded by Saudi Arabia and hiring Australian driver Alan Jones, Williams Grand Prix Engineering has become a force.
At the 1979 British Grand Prix, Jones scored first for Williams before teammate Clay Rigazzoni took his first team win the following day.
In 1980, Jones handed Williams his first title. The team also won the back-to-back constructors’ championship, while Keke Rosberg was crowned drivers’ champion in 1982. But in 1986, Williams’ life was changed forever.
After a test at Circuit Paul Ricard in March, Williams set off on a 98-mile dash to Nice Airport in a rented Ford Sierra. Traveling across windy roads at speed, Williams lost control and ended up with the car on its roof after landing 2.5m in a field.
Williams’ rider, team marketing director Peter Windsor, survived with minor injuries. But Williams suffered a spinal fracture that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“I was so late for the plane that I didn’t need to be late because I mixed up French time and English time,” Williams later said. “The roads were very bumpy, the rental car wasn’t the best in the world, and suddenly I was off the road upside down and my neck was broken.
“It was unfair to my family, especially my wife, because of my changed circumstances. In hindsight, it was a negligent and selfish act. Life went on, and I was able to go on, but it was a hindrance in the truest sense of the word.”
Despite his life-changing injuries, Williams returned to lead his team within nine months. Over the next 11 years, five other drivers’ championships – including Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill’s – as well as seven constructors’ titles followed.
But there will be more grief for Williams when Ayrton Senna was killed in only his third race for the British team at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Queen Elizabeth II knighted Williams in 1999, but his team was not able to repeat its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. He went way back in 2013, the year his wife passed away, allowing his daughter Claire to take over the team’s day-to-day running.
Williams battled pneumonia in 2016, but has been a fixture in the ring for a number of years.
And at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, a historic sporting chapter was closed when the Williams family competed in the 739th race and concluded after being sold to Drillon Capital.
Williams is survived by his three sons, Jonathan, Jamie, and Claire.
Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton tweeted, “Sir Frank Williams was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet in the sport. What he achieved is something really special. Until his last days, I knew he was a racer and a fighter at heart. His legacy will live on.” forever “.
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