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The British Racing Drivers’ Club joins the motor racing world in mourning the death of Sir Frank Williams CBE who passed away peacefully yesterday (28/11/2021) after being admitted to hospital two days earlier. He was 79 years old. In 1986 Sir Frank was made a CBE which was followed by a Knighthood in 1999. Initially elected to the BRDC as an Associate-Patron Member in 1971, Sir Frank became in due course a Life Member and Vice-President.

Sir Frank was born in South Shields in the northeast of England. His father, an RAF officer who flew Wellington bombers, left Frank’s mother, a schoolteacher, shortly after his birth. Despite no family background in motor racing, by the time he was 10 Frank was devouring every copy of The Autocar and The Motor on which he could lay his hands. He discovered motor racing and hitch-hiked at every available opportunity to race circuits. He could recall making it to the 1958 British Grand Prix at Silverstone to witness Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn finish first and second in their Ferrari Dinos, little thinking that 21 years later a car bearing his name would win the very same race when ‘Clay’ Regazzoni gave the Wiliams FW06 the first of 114 victories for Frank’s team.

Frank’s first laps in a racing car were in 1961 at the wheel of a Speedwell Austin A35 previously raced by future World Champion Graham Hill whose son Damon would become World Champion driving a Williams-Renault in 1996. A lamp post in the middle of Salisbury brought about the demise of the A35, the salvageable mechanical parts from which were installed in an Austin A40 with which Frank enjoyed some success in club races in 1962. At the end of the following year Frank had the chance to drive a Formula Junior Lotus 20 in the Eifelpokalrennen on the Nurburgring Sudschleife. The two-year old car was tired and uncompetitive in the international entry but it was enough to convince Frank that his future had to be in single-seater racing. From then on every waking minute was dedicated to raising the funds to enable him to race.

Via another ex-Graham Hill car, a year-old Formula 2 Cooper T71 converted to F3 specification, Frank acquired a new F3 Brabham BT15 for the 1965 season and joined the travelling circus of impecunious drivers who raced round Europe from March to November existing on start and prize money. Although he won a race at Sweden’s Skarpnack circuit, Frank came to realise that his talents lay more in the business of motor racing than in the cockpit. He had set up Frank Williams (Racing Cars) Ltd which, thanks to his tireless efforts, had become the first port of call for drivers looking for racing cars or parts of racing cars.

At the end of 1967, Frank’s close friend Piers Courage, who was highly regarded as an emerging young star and already had F1 commitments as a BRM ‘junior team’ driver, proposed that they undertake a full season in the European Formula 2 championship. Ironically, the highlight of the year was victory in the Monza Lotteria although, in the absence of Piers on F1 duty, it was Frank’s great friend and fellow Austin A40 driver from 1962, Jonathan Williams who did the honours. It was not until the last race of the year, three days before Christmas in the final round of the Argentine F2 Temporada, that Piers took his first win. The following year, Frank’s passion, determination, and enthusiasm together with his personal charm and knowledge of the motor racing business, led to his first season in Formula 1 with a Brabham BT26 for Piers to be run alongside a full F2 season in a new Brabham BT30. Before the European season was under way, Frank arranged for Piers to race in the Tasman Series with a Brabham BT24 which produced a mixture of race wins, accidents, and mechanical problems. Frank’s small privateer team showed what was possible with immaculate preparation on limited resources in Formula 1 when Piers finished second in the Monaco Grand Prix to reigning world champions Graham Hill and the Lotus 49B. In the penultimate race of the year, the United States GP at Watkins Glen, Piers was second again, this time to the Lotus 49B of Jochen Rindt.

The two friends embarked on a full F1 season in 1970 with the De Tomaso 505 but, after an encouraging beginning in the Daily Express BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, in which Piers finished third in both parts, two months later he perished in the flames of the car after a crash during the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. It was a devastating loss for Frank. He saw out the season with another De Tomaso and Brian Redman and Tim Schenken as drivers but there were problems in every race.

Frank bounced back for 1971 to run March cars in F1, principally for Henri Pescarolo, and F2 for amongst others Derek Bell and Carlos Pace. Henri won the opening European F2 race of the year at Mallory Park while Carlos won at Imola. Best F1 result was fourth place for Henri in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and victory in the first part of the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup. Both Henri and Carlos continued in 1972 as Frank put Formula 2 behind him to concentrate on F1 but the March 721 was generally uncompetitive and/or unreliable. It was now that Frank became a constructor in his own right with a car designed by Len Bailey, the car being called the Politoys FX3 in deference to one of Frank’s loyal sponsors. The car made its debut in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch only to be crashed early in the race by the hapless Henri Pescarolo. At the end of the year, Henri retired from F1, so Frank had to find fresh sponsorship for his cash-strapped team. A combination of Politoys, Iso Rivolta and Marlboro kept Frank’s team afloat. With the heavily revised cars required by the new regulations, the resulting Iso-Marlboro FX3B and its successor the IR achieved little although Tony Trimmer finished fourth in the early-season Brands Hatch Race of Champions. Through 1974 the one bright spot was Arturo Merzario’s fourth place in the Italian Grand Prix. Jacques Laffite signed up for 1975 and just about saved the team from extinction by taking second place in the German Grand Prix behind Carlos Reutemann’s Brabham BT44B, a result which not only earned the team some much needed prize money but also assured it of continued membership of the Formula One Constructors’ Association for 1976 and all the financial benefits that that entailed.

Despite the desperate state of its finances, Frank’s team was about to turn the corner. Through Gian’Paolo Dallara he met Walter Wolf, a very wealthy oil entrepreneur who agreed to pay off all the liabilities of Frank Williams (Racing Cars) Ltd in exchange for a 60% shareholding in the company. Although Walter Wolf was as good as his word, a combination of factors meant that Frank became increasingly unsettled by the loss of control of the company which he had created. Looking for a way out he met up with Patrick Head, who had recently joined what had become Walter Wolf Racing and was working as assistant to chief engineer Harvey Postlethwaite. Frank and Patrick left Walter Wolf Racing amicably to set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering. For the 1977 season the team ran an adequately funded March 761 for the Belgian driver Patrick Neve while Patrick Head created the Williams FW06 which in the hands of Alan Jones increasingly became a force to reckon with, culminating with second place in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

For 1979 Alan was joined by Clay Regazzoni as team-mate. It seemed only a matter of time before the new Williams FW07 won a Grand Prix and the momentous day came at Silverstone courtesy of Clay after Alan had retired with a minor but terminal water pump failure. This was the beginning of the rise of WGPE to become one of the greatest Formula 1 teams in history. AJ became Drivers’ World Champion in 1980 to be followed by Keke Rosberg (1982), Nelson Piquet (1987), Nigel Mansell (1992), Alain Prost (1993), Damon Hill (1996) and Jacques Villeneuve (1997). Frank’s and Patrick’s team won the Constructors’ Championship in 1980, 1981, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997 with engines courtesy of Cosworth/Ford, Honda, and Renault. The Renault association also led to success with the Renault Laguna with which Alain Menu won the 1997 British Touring Car Championship. From 2000 to 2005 BMW supplied the Formula 1 engines for the Williams team and, with drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, some very good results were achieved; in both 2002 and 2003 WGPE finished as runners up in the Constructors’ Championship. The combination of Williams and BMW were also successful in a different arena when a Williams-built BMW V12 LMR won the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours in the hands of Yannick Dalmas, Pierluigi Martini and Jo Winkelhock.

Amidst all the success, there was tragedy for Frank who suffered a broken neck in a road accident in France in 1986 which only his willpower and physical fitness enabled him to survive. He had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life but remained very much involved in the running of the team, attending most Grands Prix, until standing down as a Board member in 2012, the year in which Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado gave Williams the last of its 114 victories to date. In 1994, with his team at the peak of its powers, Frank achieved his ambition of securing Ayrton Senna as his number one driver, but it all went disastrously wrong when the great Brazilian crashed fatally while leading the San Marino Grand Prix in only his third race for the team. Only Frank’s extraordinary resilience enabled him to withstand the protracted Italian legal procedures and court case which ensued.

Whereas in the 1990s the sponsorship and support from engine suppliers was such that Frank and Patrick could afford to sign up the best available drivers, in recent times spiralling costs and diminishing success meant that they could no longer pick and choose while less funding meant that the team’s cars could no longer compete at the front as they had in the 1990s. Frank remained as Team Principal until standing down in 2013 and handing over the reins to his daughter Claire until the decision was taken to sell the team to Dorilton Capital in the middle of last year. The new owners have confirmed that there will be no change of name which should ensure that Frank Williams will never be forgotten so long as Grand Prix racing exists. The spirit of ‘Team Willie’, motivated by Frank’s belief that ‘Excellence is not quite good enough’, will surely live on.

The BRDC extends its deepest condolences to Frank’s daughter Claire and to his sons Jonathan and Jamie.   

The Club regrets to report on the death of Neville Hay, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1993
The Club regrets to report on the death of Alan Minshaw, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1984
The Club regrets to report on the death of Ray Thackwell who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1957
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