Until this year, no team principal in the long history of Formula 1 has been at the helm of a team or teams for half a century. At the 2019 British Grand Prix, aptly forty years on from his first victory as a team boss there, Sir Frank Williams will celebrate this historic milestone with his eponymous teams – Frank Williams Racing Cars and Williams Grand Prix Engineering – the latter being known as Williams Racing as we are familiar with to this day.
That a team such as Williams exists in contemporary F1 given so many giants have come and gone through the years is remarkable in itself. That Williams himself is still at the helm of his team considering his horrendous injury sustained in a road car accident over 30 years ago is simply astounding. His determination to continue his dream through this injury, through debt and the death of drivers within his team showcases the resilience the man has shown.
Nowadays, deputy team principal Claire Williams – the daughter of Sir Frank – is the key person in charge of the team. Like her father, she too shows the passion and determination to succeed within F1. Unlike her father, she has adapted the team and how it operates to survive in the modern era – something that has proven challenging for some of F1’s juggernauts through the years as the DNA of the series evolves through time.
The first race for Williams – running a customer Brabham BT26A – came at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix. Of the other teams participating – only Williams, Ferrari and McLaren all exist today. The latter two – also eponymous teams named after their great founders – obviously are not run by those greats to this day.
Williams ran early in his career with rising star and friend Piers Courage. In the team’s second race, Courage found himself on the podium in Monaco. Another podium at the sweeping, undulating Watkins Glen followed before tragedy struck the following year.
Courage was killed in a fiery accident at Zandvoort, and all positive momentum was completely lost. The team struggled with finances and performance in the following years, which also featured a regularly rotating driver line-up. Despite this, some big names raced for the team at this time – Jacky Ickx, Arturo Merzario, Henri Pescarolo and Jacques Laffite to name a few.
With just a trio of podiums to the team’s name – Williams sold to charismatic Canadian businessman Walter Wolf for 1976. Williams stayed on as team boss, but after a single season with the rebranded Williams-Wolf Racing in which the team failed to score a single point, he was sacked. Was this the time to give up? No. Instead, Williams set up the Williams we know today, taking rising technical star Patrick Head and several other team members with him.
The Wolf team won on its debut with Jody Scheckter, while the new Williams team missed the opening races and arrived with a year-old March. Again, the team went without scoring a point, with Belgian driver Patrick Neve at the wheel. For 1978, the team hired Alan Jones from Shadow – already a grand prix winner in his own right. A year later, multiple-time race winner Clay Regazzoni joined the team.
Sponsorship from the Middle East came onboard, and Head made strides with understanding the nuances of ground effect. The FW07 was Williams’ first starring car – taking the team’s first pole (Jones) and win (Regazzoni) at Silverstone in 1979. To sweeten the deal, Wolf’s team was on course to secure a totally point-less season that year before falling out of F1 altogether.
That breakthrough paved the way for Jones to take four wins from the next five races himself that year. The car – along with the B and C variants – took a drivers’ title with Jones in 1980, nearly took the title with Carlos Reutemann a year later, and steamrolled the opposition to constructors’ titles in both seasons.
Despite running the dated-but-reliable Cosworth DFV in 1982, the team took its fourth title in three years – this time with Keke Rosberg at the wheel. It was the last title for the legendary engine, and a year later the team established a partnership with Honda and its turbocharged engine – who had entered that year with minnows Spirit.
The first Williams-Honda victory came on the streets of Dallas in 1984 with Rosberg in a typically measured drive when the track kept breaking up, but the following year the team would sign the driver arguably most synonymous with the team – British hero Nigel Mansell.
Rosberg set the first average qualifying lap at over 160 miles per hour at Silverstone in ’85 – while both drivers would take two wins each that year. At the end of the year, Rosberg left and in came two-time champion Nelson Piquet, and the FW11 was shaping up to be a genuine contender for the title in 1986.
But then Williams’ accident changed the course of history. Head was left in charge to manage the team, and despite having the strongest machinery – the pair of drivers squabbled regularly and dramatically missed out on the drivers’ title to McLaren’s Alain Prost. The constructors’ title was mere consolation in a year where Williams became a tetraplegic and had to adapt to this new challenge. Again, he would simply not give up on his dream, as is the case with all great racers.
The support and passion showed by wife Virginia played a huge role behind the scenes in Williams getting back to where he felt he belonged – in the F1 paddock and at the forefront of his racing team. She would stand on the podium to receive the winning trophy at Brands Hatch in 1986 – Frank’s return to the paddock – as the team secured its first 1-2 finish of the season.
Piquet and Mansell continued to squabble in ’87 but both titles came easily. Piquet would become the teams’ third world champion after Mansell crashed heavily at Suzuka. After that, the team endured a difficult patch, as it started to work with Renault and its V10 engine in the post-turbo era. Three wins for Thierry Boutsen and one for Riccardo Patrese came in the first two years of the partnership.
Mansell – who had moved to Ferrari, famously announced his intention to retire at the end of 1990, but he was swayed back by Williams to partner Patrese for ’91. At this time, another rising technical star joined the team – Adrian Newey. The results were not immediate, but once Mansell hit a sweet spot, he was virtually unstoppable. Five wins came that year (plus two for Patrese), before Mansell and the team delivered one of the most crushing season-long performances with the active suspension-equipped FW14B in 1992. 10 wins were scored from 16 races – easing to the titles with several races to spare.
Alain Prost cruised to the title a year later and was partnered by test driver Damon Hill. Williams-Renault was the absolute dominant force of F1 in this period. Naturally, the standout driver of that period wanted to drive for the team. Ayrton Senna’s period with Williams before his untimely death at the wheel of the FW16B was brief, but he cemented himself in the team’s legacy enough such that his logo remains on the car in tribute to this day.
Court cases over Senna’s death followed, and despite the off-track distractions Williams still arguably had the car to have. In the highly controversial, political 1994 season, the team salvaged the constructors’ title and narrowly missed out on the drivers’ title with Hill. Despite arguably having the better equipment, the titles went the way of Michael Schumacher and Benetton the following year.
Hill, son of F1 great Graham, was partnered by another son of a great in Jacques Villeneuve. The FW18 was again one of the greatest cars of all time, and the team won all bar four of the races in 1996. Hill took the title but was ousted for Heinz-Harald Frentzen – who seriously struggled to adapt to the environment at Williams – for the following year. Villeneuve became the team’s fourth champion in six years at the end of 1997, which also marked the loss of Newey to McLaren and the team’s works Renault deal.
The pair of titles won in ’97 remain the most recent for Williams. There was a title push in 2003 with cult hero Juan Pablo Montoya and the stunning FW25, but that remains the only serious challenge since Villeneuve’s triumph. Between 1998 and today, Williams has won just 11 grand prix, compared to the 12 it won in its last true dominant year in ’96.
There were brief moments of resurgence – the rapid FW34 spectacularly won at Frank’s 70th birthday celebration at the Spanish Grand Prix with Pastor Maldonado, and with the immensely potent Mercedes power units at the start of the turbo-hybrid era, the team became a consistent podium threat once again.
By this point, the main responsibility of the team had become that of deputy team principal Claire’s. The team is currently in dire straits – the clear slowest machine on the grid and seemingly just there to make up the numbers. That is no place for a team with the heritage and legacy that Williams can boast.
However, it has a potential future world champion in George Russell – a driver who seems to fit the ‘modern’ Williams so well compared to someone like Jones, who was perfect for the team at the time when Frank was running the show full-time. With half a century of stories, success, resilience and passion behind it, and with constant rumours of a sale being brushed away, the Williams name is clearly here to stay in F1 for some time to come.
Whether it can avoid the fate of other great British teams such as Lotus, BRM, Brabham and Tyrrell is to be seen, but if so then what a substantial loss it would be to the series. Claire Williams is the natural fit for the team as a team boss and has played critical roles in what success the team can boast in the past few years. The nature of contemporary F1 makes it virtually impossible for a true privateer such as Williams to be winning races and championship.
As a team principal – the numbers speak for themselves. Frank Williams goes down as one of the greatest ever – if not, the greatest ever. As a human being, given the hardship he has faced, his story is even greater than any of those numbers.