Sir Frank Williams (1942-2021)/The History of Williams Racing

Shane Price | KJHK Sports

In 1977, Frank Williams and Patrick Head came together to enter a customized March into the 1977 Formula One season to compete, starting with the Spanish Grand Prix that year. The team failed to score any points and had their best finish of seventh at the Italian Grand Prix., a far cry from what lay in the future for this upstart team. The team had its roots in the Frank Williams Racing Cars team that raced in the 1969 Monaco and United States Grand Prix. Frank and Patrick designed the very first true Williams car in 1978, the FW06, scoring 11 points for a 9th place finish, with a podium finish in the United States Grand Prix. The driver, Alan Jones, was in his first season with the team, and the young team looked like a mid-tier team at the time. 1979 was different for Williams, they finished second, they had two drivers Jones and Clay Regazzoni, who formerly drove for Ferrari. A huge jump as Jones finished 3rd and Regazzoni finished 5th in the World Drivers Championship. They had something with the 1979 car, using the ground effect to boost the downforce in the car, giving the drivers more grip. They continued with the FW07 into 1980, a decision that paid off. 

Entering the 1980 season, the track in Argentina was breaking apart, almost undrivable at some points. After a driver’s protest, the track was repaired. The track fell into disrepair before the race could start, however, the drivers went with the race anyway. Alan Jones went off the track twice, had to make a pit stop to clear out the grass from the radiator, wins the first race of the season. That makes one win on the year, the sixth of his career. Skipping ahead to the Spanish Grand Prix, a confrontation between the organizers of the championship and the teams leads to the big teams boycotting the race, making it a non-championship race. Alan Jones gets the win, that makes two for the year. The next Grand Prix, the French Grand Prix, was the midpoint of the season now. The starting grid is dominated by the French teams, Renault and Ligier, as they try to give the home fans a nice sight to see.

They fail to get the win, Alan Jones makes his way around the French traffic after Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s transmission breaks. Jones wins again, third on the year. Brands Hatch, the two Ligier cars hold off Jones at the start of the race before both of them lose a tire and have retired. For the third race in a row, Alan Jones wins. Skipping ahead to the Canadian Grand Prix, Nelson Piquet in a Brabham needs a good finish to stay in the championship hunt. He fails to finish the race, Williams finishes in first and second, Alan Jones wins his fifth race on the year, and the 1980 Drivers Championship. Williams also wins the constructors title as well. Sir Frank Williams is on top of the world.

1986, Williams is the team to beat. Piquet left Brabham and made his way to Williams, Nigel Mansell; joining Williams the year prior; is his teammate. Truly a team to be feared, two legends of the sport in the making on the same team. However, before the season got to a start, disaster struck. Frank Williams and Peter Windsor were driving from Paul Ricard Circuit to the airport in Nice, France after watching his new FW11 car drive around the circuit. Williams was on his way to London to race in a half marathon the next day. He lost control of the car, crashing violently. Windsor is not seriously hurt and saves Frank from the car. He can’t move. Frank Williams is paralyzed, saved by his wife after urgently getting him back to London. The first horrible incident in the history of the team and sadly, not the last. The team recoups to win the Constructors title, and Piquet wins the championship the next season.

The 1994 San Marino Grand Prix is a day that lives in infamy in the history of Formula One. Rubens Barrichello is knocked unconscious after a crash on the first day. Roland Ratzenberger crashes in qualifying, he does not survive the crash. After the crash and death of Ratzenberger, the drivers create the GPDA, a union of sorts to fight for driver safety. Ayrton Senna, the new Williams driver for the season, offers his name to lead the association as the most senior driver there. He is already a multiple-time champion. The race gets underway, JJ Letho’s Benetton stalls, and a Lotus driven by Pedro Lamy slams into the rear end of Letho. Debris from the crash injures four in the stands. A safety car is called and remains on track for four laps. The race restarts at lap five, Senna pulls away from Michael Schumacher, leads for two laps. Lap 7 Senna turns into Tamburello, one of the fastest corners on the track, his car doesn’t turn. Ayrton Senna, three-time World Champion, one of the greatest drivers to ever breathe, passes away at age 34. Williams rebounds from this tragedy to win both the 1996 Drivers Championship with Damon Hill and the 1997 Drivers Championship with Jacques Villeneuve. 

            Post-Villeneuve, the team struggled to continue the form of success they achieved during the 80s and 90s. Designer Adrian Newey had left for pastures anew with McLaren, Damon Hill had left after winning his championship and was replaced with Heinz-Harald Frentzen after Hill’s shock move to Arrows, and Renault dropped out of Formula 1 entirely. Villeneuve himself struggled to maintain the form of his 1997 season in 1998 and left for the new BAR team. Hope began to sprinkle up for Williams after signing a deal with BMW, and another championship looked on the horizon for the team with driver Juan Pablo Montoya, however, nothing came of the partnership between Williams and BMW. Montoya left for McLaren before being dropped by them and heading to NASCAR, BMW bought Sauber out leaving Williams in the dust. Williams would fail to win a race until 2012 when Pastor Maldonado surprised the world and won the Spanish Grand Prix that year.

Williams continues to race to this day; however, Sir Frank Williams had stepped back from being fully involved with the team as he hired his daughter Claire Williams to be the deputy team principal in 2013, she assumes day-to-day operations of the team with Sir Frank Williams remaining with the team on race weekends as principal. In 2014, the team switched to Mercedes engines as whispers of a resurgence began to spring up yet again. Pat Symonds was hired on as Chief Technical Officer, Felipe Massa from Ferrari joined the team alongside Valtteri Bottas. Symonds would only last for two seasons after the team finished in 5th place in the constructor’s championship. The team would sharply decline, Paddy Lowe replaced Pat Symonds but the cars he developed disappointed. Williams would end up being the worst team on the track in 2018 and 2019, scoring just a single point in the latter season. 

Despite all of the decline that occurred to the team in the late 2010s, the team showed some positivity for the future, George Russell joined the team due to their partnership with Mercedes and had pace with his car with some surprising qualifying results in 2020. However, the team failed to score a point in 2020, with Russell not having the race pace compared to other teams, and rookie Nicolas Latifi failing to be anything but a backmarker the entire season. Alongside this negativity with failing to grab a single point during the short season, financial issues hit the independent team hard, still owned by Sir Frank Williams throughout all this time the money was just drying up. Frank sold his team to Dorilton Capital, ending the 43 year Williams legacy in Formula 1. Claire Williams stepped down, she would be replaced by Simon Roberts of McLaren; Jenson Button, a former driver for Williams, rejoined as an advisor, and the ruling of a budget cap in Formula 1 made the 2021 season one to look forward to for Williams.

Williams began the season as normal, bottom-half finishes in Bahrain, Latifi failing to finish in Imola with Russell being involved in a scary crash with former driver Bottas, as the season looked to be more of the same. Things began to truly look up in Austria, where Russell started at 8th position, yet finished with no points. Hungary brought the team its first points since 2019, Latifi and Russell finishing in 7th and 8th respectively. Then came the race at Spa, the rain was pouring down the entire time, Russell had the pace to make Q3 for the second time in the season. He did, and he didn’t disappoint when he made Q3. George Russell started the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix in second place. Then the rain got worse, the cars left the pits to go to the grid, a red bull car crashes before he could even make it to the grid. They won’t complete the full race, they won’t complete more than a single lap. Formula 1 makes the controversial decision to call the race and award half points. George Russell has given Williams F1 Team its first podium since 2017. Sadly, that would be the last time a Williams was on the podium during the lifetime of Sir Frank. Sir Frank Williams passed away at the age of 79, after creating one of the best racing teams in the world, surviving a car crash and becoming paralyzed, selling off his creation, and watching the rise of George Russell. Sir Frank Williams will be remembered as the last independent owner in F1, and as a true racing icon in the world.