LONDON — The death of Sir Frank Williams, the legendary founder and former team principal of Williams Racing, has prompted a wave of mourning from the racing world. He was 79.
Williams took his motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula One, overseeing 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.
“After being admitted into hospital on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family,” Williams Racing said in a statement.
Williams driver George Russell remembered Williams as a “genuinely wonderful human being.” Russell, who will move from Williams to become Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate next season, was one of many who reacted to the news on social media.
We are filled with the most immense and deep sadness at the passing of Sir Frank Williams
His was a life driven by passion for motorsport; his legacy is immeasurable, and will be forever part of F1
To know him was an inspiration and privilege
He will be deeply, deeply missed pic.twitter.com/48JhruQpLK
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 28, 2021
We have lost a true hero of our sport and an inspiration for so many beyond it. Sir Frank not only created a special F1 legacy but showed the power of human determination to overcome huge adversity. Thoughts with his family and the Williams team. pic.twitter.com/oVD73NkSKu
— Zak Brown (@ZBrownCEO) November 28, 2021
Goodbye Sir Frank Williams
What an honor it has been to have shared some conversations with you through the years. #rip #legend https://t.co/yi6SGZBAhv
— Romain Grosjean (@RGrosjean) November 28, 2021
Sad to see the news about Sir Frank Williams this morning. I’ve always been proud to say my Dad drove for @WilliamsRacing. Frank was incredibly kind to My Dad and I when I was racing in Europe as well. Made us feel like family. #RIP pic.twitter.com/Qo2zYDLUrP
— Conor Daly (@ConorDaly22) November 28, 2021
RIP Sir Frank Williams CBE, founder of Williams F1 Team. We had a very successful collaboration on a couple great drivers. @jpmontoya @lxznr. A Gentleman's Gentleman. Kindest regards to his family. @WilliamsRacing @CGRTeams
— Chip Ganassi (@GanassiChip) November 28, 2021
Today, we say goodbye to the man who defined our team. Sir Frank was such a genuinely wonderful human being and I’ll always remember the laughs we shared. He was more than a boss, he was a mentor and a friend to everybody who joined the Williams Racing family and so many others. pic.twitter.com/bWpFivpkmi
— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) November 28, 2021
RIP Sir Frank Williams. Such sad news 😔 A huge loss for our sport and our team. It’s been an honour to represent your name on the world stage and we will continue to push hard to take the team back up the grid 💙 pic.twitter.com/4UKiU3CzB4
— Nicholas Latifi (@NicholasLatifi) November 28, 2021
We’re saddened to learn the passing of Sir Frank Williams, a true pioneer of our sport.
We’d like to pass on our condolences to his family, friends and the Williams Racing Team. pic.twitter.com/uo7fMA4Kxq
— Haas F1 Team (@HaasF1Team) November 28, 2021
Williams’ life is all the more extraordinary by the horrific car crash he suffered in France that left him with injuries so devastating doctors considered turning off his life-support machine.
But his wife Virginia ordered that her husband be kept alive and his sheer determination and courage — characteristics that personified his career — enabled him to continue with the love of his life, albeit from the confines of a wheelchair.
He would remain in his role as Williams team principal for a further 34 years before F1′s greatest family team was sold to an American investment group in August.
Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born in South Shields on April 16, 1942 to an RAF officer and a headmistress. He was educated at St Joseph’s College, a private boarding school in Dumfries where he became obsessed with cars following a ride in a Jaguar XK150.
A traveling salesman by day, Williams fulfilled his racing ambitions at the weekend and launched his own team, Frank Williams Racing Cars, at 24.
— Valtteri Bottas (@ValtteriBottas) November 28, 2021
Four years later, they were competing in Formula Two, and with flatmate and closest friend Piers Courage behind the wheel, Williams graduated to F1 in 1969 using a second-hand Brabham.
But tragedy struck at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix.
Courage ran off the track, one of his front wheels hit his helmet, and his car burst into flames. Courage’s grizzly death in a car bearing his name left Williams devastated. Broke and with spiralling debts, he reluctantly sold 60 per cent of his team to Walter Wolf in 1975.
It's a sad day for our sport, Frank Williams will always be remembered as one of the heroes and #F1 icons.
My thoughts and prayers are with his family, especially his daughter, Claire Williams. #RIP🙏 pic.twitter.com/vSs7MUIUFO
— Sergio Pérez (@SChecoPerez) November 28, 2021
But Williams was not made to be a back-seat driver and, desperate for independence, he severed ties with the Canadian businessman.
He set up shop at an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, Oxfordshire and signed a promising young engineer named Patrick Head. The double act would go on to make grand prix history.
With Saudi Arabian funding and the hiring of Australian driver Alan Jones, Williams Grand Prix Engineering became a force.
The word legend is often used too freely. Sir Frank Williams will always be an F1 legend. Inspirational for so many for his vision, courage and endless determination. Today’s a sad day. https://t.co/xPguIh1Cnq
— Leigh Diffey (@leighdiffey) November 28, 2021
At the 1979 British Grand Prix, Jones registered Williams’ first pole position before team-mate Clay Regazzoni took the team’s maiden win a day later.
In 1980, Jones delivered Williams their first title. The team also won back-to-back constructors’ championships, while Keke Rosberg was crowned drivers’ champion in 1982. But, in 1986, Williams’ life would change forever.
Following a test at the Paul Ricard circuit in March, Williams set off on a 98-mile dash to Nice Airport in a rented Ford Sierra. Traveling through the windy roads at speed, Williams lost control and the car ended up on its roof following a 2.5-meter drop into a field.
Williams’ passenger, the team’s marketing manager Peter Windsor, escaped with minor injuries. But Williams suffered a spinal fracture that would leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“I was late for a plane which I didn’t need to be late for because I got the French time mixed up with the English time,” Williams later said. “The roads were very bumpy, the hire car was not the world’s best, and suddenly I was off the road upside down and with a broken neck.
“It was very unfair on my family, particularly my wife, because of how my circumstances changed. In hindsight, it was a careless and a selfish thing to have done. Life went on, and I was able to continue, but it has been a handicap in the true sense of the word.”
A poignant memory
Flashback to when Lewis Hamilton took Sir Frank Williams on a Hot Lap around his beloved Silverstone pic.twitter.com/tAChZOnHyN
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 28, 2021
Despite his life-changing injuries, Williams was back at the helm of his team within nine months. Over the ensuing 11 years, five further drivers’ championships — including those for Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill — as well as seven constructors’ titles, followed.
But there would be more heartache for Williams when Ayrton Senna was killed in just his third race for the British team at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Williams was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999 but his team was never able to replicate its heyday of the 1980s and 1990s. He stepped back in 2013, the year in which his wife died, allowing his daughter Claire to assume the day-to-day running of the team.
Sad to hear of the passing of Sir Frank Williams. One of the great pleasures in my career was to meet Frank and drive the @WilliamsRacing. RIP https://t.co/vrsAk1pxQX
— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) November 28, 2021
Williams fought off pneumonia in 2016, but he has been an irregular fixture in the paddock for a number of years.
And in September 2020 after the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, an historic sporting chapter was closed when the Williams family contested its 739th and concluding race after selling up to Dorilton Capital.
Williams is survived by his three children, sons Jonathan and Jamie and Claire, and grandchildren Ralph and Nathaniel.