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OBITUARY: Speed junkie Frank Williams was one of F1's great survivors

Sir Frank Williams, the Formula One giant who died today at the logic-defying age of 79, was one of sport’s great survivors.

From a swashbuckling, lean, fit young man who swept his great love, wife Virginia, off her feet, he later became the wheelchair-bound figure whose distinctive appearance won him instant recognition even among those with only a passing interest in the grand prix-racing milieu that entranced him to the end.

Believed to have been the world’s oldest quadriplegic, Williams led his eponymous team to nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ titles during their 1980s and 1990s heyday, either side of a terrible road accident.

Williams F1 team founder Sir Frank Williams has sadly passed away at the age of 78

Right up until 2020, Williams had been a near constant presence in grand prix racing going back to the 1960s. Above he is pictured at his team's former Didcot base where he started his own team Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1978

That occurred in 1986 while he was driving back from the Paul Ricard Circuit in the South of France, where pre-season testing had just finished. He had a case of what he called ‘get-home-itus’ (he was due to run a half-marathon on his return, a feat he could manage in about 1hr 20min) and put his foot to the floor, as was his wont.


He was a speed junkie, a bug he caught at school, St Joseph’s College, Dumfries, when he grabbed a ride in his friend’s Jaguar XK150. Later when his mother reluctantly lent him her Morris 1000, he rolled it.

Indeed, he rolled many of the cars he raced, earning a reputation for foolhardiness: quick but without limits. Virginia, who instantly fell head over heels for him three months before her own first marriage, called him a ‘suicide lane driver’.

Williams was born in 1942, pictured above is an early childhood picture of him sitting at a table

Even before starting his own team, Williams would enter his own private cars into F1 races for much of the 1970s. He is pictured left in the pit-lane at the 1974 Italian Grand Prix and right with driver Keke Rosberg in 1985. The Finn won the world championship in a Williams in 1982

So it was on the bright spring day of March 8, 1986 that he lost control of his rented Ford Sierra on a slight left-hand bend en route to Nice airport. He dropped 8ft and hung a few inches from the ground by his seatbelt, breaking his spine. His passenger, team PR Peter Windsor, was not seriously hurt.

Williams was taken to hospital first in France and then in London. He ‘died’ three times and lost the use of his body from the shoulders down for the rest of his life.

Learning of his untreatable condition, Williams did not cry. Unblinkingly, he told his wife, whose care and love helped keep him alive: ‘Ginny, as I see it, I have had 40 fantastic years of one sort of life. Now I shall have another 40 years of a different kind of life.’

He did. Always underpinned by Ginny, until her death of cancer in 2013, he refused to let his injuries dim his verve for life – a life essentially given over to motor racing.

Before starting the Williams team seen in Formula One today, Sir Frank had an earlier outfit set up under his own full name before selling it in 1976. Above is the team's garage ahead of the 1973 Swedish Grand Prix in Anderstorp

After starting a new team in Didcot in 1978, it took Williams (left) just two years to build a championship winning car driven by Australian Alan Jones (right) in 1980

His cars quickly became attractive to Formula One's  top drivers as he shares a discussion along with three-time world champion Niki Lauda in 1982 at the Belgian Grand Prix in Zolder

Frank Williams, who was born during the Second World War to a teacher mother and bomber pilot father in South Shields, Tyneside, took to motor racing as a driver and mechanic before founding Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966.

In those early days he struggled for money and was known as a wheeler-dealer, a charming salesman who pulled a few tricks to make ends meet.

His Eton-educated pal Piers Courage drove for him, finishing second in the Monaco and US grands prix in 1969. But the following year Courage died racing in Holland, causing a shaken Williams to hide behind a pillar after the funeral and, for once, cry.

Famously, his phone line was cut owing to unpaid bills. Many years later he staged a sponsorship event on the revolving floor of BT Tower. In his speech, he thanked his hosts for having him, noting it was generous given that he still owed them money.

Williams's heyday came in the 1980s and 1990s when Sir Frank and his technical director Sir Patrick Head (left) helped build one of the biggest and successful teams in F1

NIgel Mansell (left) and Nelson Piquet were Williams team-mates in the 1980s and were among the biggest racing stars of the decade as they duelled for championships in Sir Frank's cars

Having sold his business to Canadian oil magnate Walter Wolff, he found himself shut out of his own factory. This crushing blow left him depressed – though that was not a word this proud, almost repressed man, would ever have countenanced – and he spent six weeks in his pyjamas.

Along with star engineer Patrick Head, later knighted, he soon started up Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977, based first at Didcot and then at Grove, Oxfordshire. Wins and titles followed in a flood, first with Alan Jones in 1980 and then with men like Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and finally Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 – in all, a greater haul than any team other than Ferrari and McLaren.

Amid the joys came the horror of Ayrton Senna dying while driving a Williams at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994. Frank was charged with manslaughter in Italy, charges that were later dropped after years of fraught legal involvement.

A 1986 car crash left Williams quadriplegic but he refused to let it drive him away from leading his team as he is pictured alongside Mansell just months after the life changing incident

Williams was always busy around the team garage as he looks on at Damon Hill's car ahead of the 1993 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps 

Williams led his eponymous team to nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ titles. Above he is congratulated on his team's double success in 1996 by Prince Albert of Monaco (left) and by then F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone who prepares to award him the constructors' trophy

He said of the Brazilian’s death: ‘It hasn’t sunk in yet, the same slowness of realisation that helped me get over my own accident. I suppose that is why I am so calm about expressing the fact that he (Senna) is dead.’

Williams sat close to the coffin looking haunted at the funeral in Sao Paulo, as a nation honoured their much-loved son.

Loved, adored and venerated by his family, Williams was by no means a modern father. His three children, Jonathan, Claire and Jamie, went on annual holiday to Marbella with their mother, 32 times. Frank never once joined them, putting work firmly first. 

Three-time champion Ayrton Senna (left) was signed by Williams for the 1994 season where he would become team-mate to Damon Hill (right) who won the world title with the team in 1996

Williams was left haunted by the death of Senna following his fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino GP in his car, above he attends the Brazilian's statue unveiling at the Imola circuit 

In recent years, his physical and mental health declined and he was seen less often. The fortunes of the great team fell away too, their last race win coming through Pastor Maldonado at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.

The following year, in which Ginny died, he appointed daughter Claire deputy team principal, a move that caused a rift between her and brother Jonathan.

Claire gradually took full command, though ‘Frank’, as even she called him in public at least, remained team principal in name and repute until, struggling for funds, they sold up last September to American investment company Dorilton Capital for £136million.

The new owners pledged to keep the resonant Williams name above the door.

Williams watches the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix with his daughter Claire (left) and his wife Ginny who cheers with then shareholder Toto Wolff following the team's last race win in Barcelona

Claire Williams acted as deputy team principal to her father from 2013 up until the midway point of the 2020 season when the team was sold

Despite declining health in recent years, Sir Frank would still attend races when he could and was in the paddock for the 2019 British Grand Prix held at Silverstone (above)