Remembering Sir Frank Williams

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Recently departed F1 boss was frankly inimitable.

Which Williams Formula 1 car is your favourite? Granted, it has been a while since there has been a good one – but the back catalogue of this special team, which this month mourns the loss of its blessed founder Sir Frank Williams, is rich with grand prix gold.

Some of you might choose a Nigel Mansell car: perhaps the FW11 from 1986-1987 or his title-winning wonder of 1992, the FW14B. How about Damon Hill’s FW18 from 1996? Or Juan Pablo Montoya’s sharp-edged 2001 FW23, powered by BMW’s monster of a V10? Keke Rosberg remains a cult hero, in the Cosworth DFV-propelled FW08 or with ferocious Honda turbo-boost in the FW10, the car in which the moustachioed Finn lapped the old Silverstone at 160mph on a banzai qualifier in 1985. Reel them off and images come thick and fast.

But for me, first thoughts tend to fly way back to the early years, when Frank and the kindred spirit he had discovered in Patrick Head first made their mark. The pair forged Williams Grand Prix Engineering in their own no-nonsense image in 1977: Frank found a new source of money from the Middle East in the form of the Saudia airline and Head laid the foundations of all that was to come with the neat little FW06 – then blew the F1 doors off with what remains, for me, the ultimate Williams: the FW07.

The first winner

Why the FW07? It was the first Williams winner, for a start, beginning a line of victors that would rack up nine constructors’ titles, seven more for the team’s drivers and 114 grand prix wins. But more than that, it represents the perfect expression of the Frank and Patrick double-act at its most effective. And in Alan Jones, the team found a muse in the cockpit that every driver who followed had to live up to. Not many did. In fact, in the straight-talking, tough Australian, Williams found its ideal F1 driver at the first time of asking. Hell, he even looked like Head! They could have been brothers.

The FW07 served Williams in three seasons of evolution, from 1979 to 1981, scoring 15 wins and the teams’ first two constructors’ titles, and delivered Jones to the drivers’ crown in 1980. But it’s that first race win that stands head and shoulders for me, largely because of what it meant and represented to Frank. That Williams should win its first F1 race on home soil, at Silverstone on 14 July 1979, near the end of a generally torrid decade for the boss that would surely have sunk anyone else, was scripted to perfection.

Early knocks

Frank realised early on that he was much better at putting cars on grids than accelerating away from them. By 1969, he had transitioned from just another hopeful racing driver into a team patron, entering a smart blue Brabham for his close friend, the brewery heir Piers Courage, who finished second for Frank at Monaco. A year later, Courage died in a horrendous crash at Zandvoort. Frank, of course, was heartbroken. But there’s something hardwired into such competitive people. Instead of folding, he pushed on from one poorly financed F1 project to another, at times using a phone box to run his business when he couldn’t pay the bills for the line at premises he ran out of in Reading.

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The FW07 served Williams in three seasons of evolution, from 1979 to 1981, scoring 15 wins and the teams’ first two constructors’ titles, and delivered Jones to the drivers’ crown in 1980. But it’s that first race win that stands head and shoulders for me, largely because of what it meant and represented to Frank. That Williams should win its first F1 race on home soil, at Silverstone on 14 July 1979, near the end of a generally torrid decade for the boss that would surely have sunk anyone else, was scripted to perfection.

Early knocks

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Frank realised early on that he was much better at putting cars on grids than accelerating away from them. By 1969, he had transitioned from just another hopeful racing driver into a team patron, entering a smart blue Brabham for his close friend, the brewery heir Piers Courage, who finished second for Frank at Monaco. A year later, Courage died in a horrendous crash at Zandvoort. Frank, of course, was heartbroken. But there’s something hardwired into such competitive people. Instead of folding, he pushed on from one poorly financed F1 project to another, at times using a phone box to run his business when he couldn’t pay the bills for the line at premises he ran out of in Reading.

Williams was always popular, because of his boundless energy, wide smile and wicked sense of humour. But in the mid-1970s, some unkindly called him “W***er Williams”, the “start-line specialist” who would run anything and anyone to make a dime.

It was meeting Head that changed all that – and Patrick saw a fire in his new friend that convinced him to bet everything on Frank for what had to be the last Williams F1 throw of the dice. My, how it paid off.

“Bravo, Frank”

Head openly admits that his FW07 was a, ahem, homage to the Lotus 79 that swept to the 1978 titles with Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson. Now, as Colin Chapman pushed the ground-effect aerodynamics that his team had pioneered to the edge and over it with the Type 80 ‘wing car’ flop, Head watched, learned and produced something close to what Lotus had moved away from – but engineered to his own exacting standards. The FW07 wasn’t innovative, but it was the near-perfect expression of the ground-effect generation. And Jones loved it.

The penny dropped when he tested it away from prying eyes at Ontario Motor Speedway after Williams had raced the FW06 at the Long Beach GP in April 1979. This thing had so much grip. Now Jones understood what Andretti meant when he said his Lotuses were “painted to the road”. Teething troubles held Williams back at first, but by the summer at flatout Silverstone, the FW07 was ready to make its mark. Jones took pole position, by 0.6sec from Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s turbocharged Renault. Now all eyes down the pit lane turned to Frank: who was the w***er now?

A wrinkle in Williams’ history means it was Clay Regazzoni, not Jones, who claimed that first win. A new weld on a water pump cracked, the ensuing leak causing a piston failure in the Aussie’s Cossie. But again, here was serendipity. ‘Rega’ was way past his prime and hadn’t won a GP since 1976, yet here he was delivering the breakthrough. “Bravo, Frank,” he purred in the midst of the gathered press as the boss savoured his sweetest moment.

After Silverstone, Jones swept four of the next five races, only his slow start to the year and a convoluted points system standing between him and a surprise world title that went instead to Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter. But Williams was up and running, its energetic leader pushing from the front. Even a neck-breaking car accident in 1986 couldn’t hold Frank back. He was a force of nature – and grand prix racing will never see his like again.

Damien Smith

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