Formula 1 Titan, Sir Frank Williams, Dies Aged 79

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RIP, Sir Williams.

Sir Frank Williams, the legendary founder of the Williams F1 team, died yesterday at 79. According to a statement released by his family, he died peacefully at home surrounded by his family.

Sir Williams started his career as a racer but realized early on that he did not have the talent to compete as a driver. So he began Frank Williams Racing Cars and entered drivers in F3, F2, and saloon car racing.

In 1969, Sir Williams purchased a used Brabham. His driver, Piers Courage, placed second at the Monaco Grand Prix and second again at the US Grand Prix. At the time, the US Grand Prix took place at Watkins Glen track. This angered Brabham, who was under the impression that the used car would not be used for F1 racing. As a result, Brabham was no longer an option, but the team's success attracted the attention of De Tomaso.

The resulting partnership delivered a non-competitive car that killed Courage in the fourth race of the 1970 season. Sir Williams and De Tomaso went their separate ways at the end of 1970. Sir Williams kept on racing various cars up until 1976, but with little success. The Williams F1 team, as most of us remember it, was only founded in 1977 when Sir Williams teamed up with automotive engineer, Patrick Head.

The time he spent running Frank Williams Racing was not wasted, however. It is said that Sir Williams learned many valuable lessons during this period. When he was low on funds and his home phone was disconnected, he operated his business from a phone box. It is also rumored that he kept a distance between himself and his drivers following the death of Piers Courage.

During its first year competing, Williams Racing still relied on existing designs, but by 1979, the team entered its first car designed and built in-house.

Williams F1 Team/Facebook
Williams F1 Team/Facebook
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The team's first victory was at the 1979 British Grand Prix. A win on home soil for Sir Williams. The team's 100th victory was scored by Jacque Villeneuve in 1999, also at Silverstone.

During this 20-year run, the team also won nine constructor's championships, placing it second behind Ferrari with 16. Even with their impressive run in recent years, Mercedes is still on seven. The closest rival is McLaren on eight.

Notable drivers include Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, David Coulthard, Jensen Button, Juan Pablo Montoya, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and, Ayrton Senna. The latter signed with the team in 1994. It was the same year the FIA banned all sorts of driving aids. Senna suffered a fatal crash at the Italian Grand Prix that year. What you might not know is that the Italian government charged Sir Williams with manslaughter. The team was acquitted in 1997, though legal proceedings continued until 2005 when the Italian government formally dropped the case.

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Drivers who won the F1 driver's championship behind the wheel of a Williams include Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, and Jacques Villeneuve. The latter won in 1997, which was also the final year Williams won the constructor's championship.

Williams continued with an impressive streak throughout the 2000s but never saw that coveted first place again. It famously partnered with BMW from 2000 to 2005, after which the team used Cosworth and Toyota engines. BMW used the "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" adage to great effect. During that time, it also sold its fantastic E39 BMW M5.

Williams currently uses Mercedes powerplants, but it is a shadow of its former self. Williams went public in 2011, and Sir Williams held the majority of shares until the company was formally sold to Dorilton Capital. Sir Williams' daughter was offered the job of team manager, but she declined.

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

To F1's younger audience (the average age of an F1 viewer is 32 these days), Williams is an also-ran team competing near the back of the grid. It is more than that, however. To us, it's an essential brand in F1, even though it has been relegated to a learning school for drivers entering F1. Lance Stroll was employed by Williams, and he now races for Aston Martin. George Russell currently runs under the Williams banner and will be Sir Lewis Hamilton's new partner next year. Williams is also the only F1 team to employ a female driver in Jamie Chadwick, who has been a development driver since 2019.

She's widely regarded as the most likely candidate to become the first modern female F1 driver. When she does, Frank Williams will have another posthumous record to brag about.

Sir Williams took his first steps toward retirement in 2012 when he stepped down as a member of the board of directors of Williams. His daughter, Claire, replaced him, who ran the operation just as fiercely as her father. Following the sale, the family has no involvement whatsoever.

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

We've read almost every F1-related book out there, and Sir Frank Williams is a constant. He rejected some drivers, made history with others, and kickstarted some careers. Almost all of these biographies mention that he was a complicated man, but looking back at his past and the loss of two prominent drivers, it's easier to understand why. He was a shrewd operator, successfully funding an F1 team for so long.

Our favorite Sir Williams story involves the banning of cigarette marketing on F1 cars. Since Rothmans was a big Williams sponsor, what was Sir Williams supposed to do? He sold the space on the car to a firm selling nicotine gum. What an absolute champion.

What makes his accomplishments even more impressive is that he had been wheelchair-bound since 1986. He crashed a hire car on the way to the airport and suffered a spinal injury. He required constant care but still managed the team during its glory years.

F1 would not be what it is today without the participation of Sir Frank Williams. He dedicated his life to the sport we love so much, and for that, we thank him.

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