End of an era at Wil­liams

Fa­ther and daugh­ter hand reins to US pri­vate eq­uity firm Sir Frank de­fied odds on and off track to win 16 world ti­tles

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Oliver Brown

The Wil­liams fam­ily is cut­ting its ties with the Bri­tish team founded 43 years ago by Sir Frank Wil­liams. Claire Wil­liams, who has acted as the de facto chief since 2013, will be de­part­ing her role as deputy team prin­ci­pal. Wil­liams, win­ners of seven driv­ers’ cham­pi­onships and nine con­struc­tors’ ti­tles, was sold last month to Amer­i­can in­vest­ment firm Do­ril­ton Cap­i­tal.

Claire Wil­liams could barely find the words to con­vey her sor­row. “A re­ally hard de­ci­sion,” she said, with some un­der­state­ment. “The Wil­liams fam­ily are step­ping away from For­mula One.”

Nor­mally so adept at putting gloss on the bleak­est of can­vases, she had lit­tle chance to sugar this par­tic­u­lar pill. The team that her fa­ther, Sir Frank, had taken from an empty car­pet ware­house to the pin­na­cle of mo­tor­sport, was be­ing re­lin­quished to US pri­vate eq­uity. For all that it would still bear the name, the cre­ation en­trusted to her care was gone.

The fault was far from hers alone. Myr­iad fac­tors, from the com­pany’s cum­ber­some struc­ture to the eco­nomic car­nage un­leashed by Covid-19, forced her hand. The team’s lam­en­ta­ble per­for­mance on track, from third in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship in 2014 to last for two years run­ning, scarcely helped.

Even af­ter their sale last month to Do­ril­ton Cap­i­tal, for £136 mil­lion, Claire ex­pressed hope that she could re­tain a pres­ence, but the pur­chasers were not per­suaded. For her, as the cus­to­dian of the pa­ter­nal legacy, it was a chas­ten­ing mo­ment.

For Sir Frank him­self, the sense of loss could only be guessed at. At 78, he is in de­clin­ing phys­i­cal health and played lit­tle role in the team’s day-to-day af­fairs towards the end. But his totemic stature in the sport is se­cure.

It was not sim­ply that he had the chutz­pah, as a for­mer trav­el­ling gro­cery sales­man, to try to gate­crash the closed shop that was the For­mula One pad­dock. It was that he would go on to be the longest­serv­ing prin­ci­pal in F1 his­tory, col­lect­ing 16 world ti­tles in all, while de­fy­ing se­vere paral­y­sis.

His pas­sion for rac­ing had been catal­ysed in the late Fifties, when he hitched a ride in his friend’s Jaguar, but it was as a car dealer that he would ce­ment his name. He made a break into F1 in 1969, cour­tesy of a

Break­ing ties: Claire Wil­liams said the de­ci­sion to leave F1 was a ‘re­ally hard’ sec­ond-hand Brab­ham chas­sis, pro­pelled by his driver Piers Courage. The team be­lied their mea­gre ori­gins, fin­ish­ing on the podium in only their sec­ond race in Monaco, but their progress was trag­i­cally thwarted when Courage was killed in a crash at Zand­voort.

They were sold, even­tu­ally, to Cana­dian oil mag­nate Wal­ter Wolf, but Wil­liams was un­de­terred in his dream of a team that could flour­ish at the high­est level. So it was that in 1977, with the sup­port of his chief en­gi­neer Pa­trick Head, Wil­liams Grand Prix Engi­neer­ing was born. A first F1 en­try fol­lowed, and soon a maiden vic­tory at the 1979 Bri­tish Grand Prix, with Switzer­land’s Clay Regaz­zoni at the wheel.

But just as his pride and joy was poised for great­ness, all that he had built was thrown into the gravest doubt when on March 8, 1986, he lost con­trol of his rented Ford Sierra in the south of France, suf­fer­ing a se­vere spinal frac­ture that ren­dered him a tetraplegi­c. His wife, Ginny, was given the op­tion of turn­ing off his life sup­port. She re­fused, and he re­solved in­stead to find some way to lead his team back to the sun­lit up­lands. As Head has put it: “He will al­ways look at what­ever sit­u­a­tion is in front of him and work out how to make the best of it.”

The feats over which he later presided, from his wheel­chair at the back of the Wil­liams garage, are to­day in­scribed in F1 folk­lore, es­pe­cially world ti­tles for Bri­tish driv­ers Nigel Mansell and Da­mon Hill.

“I re­mem­ber driv­ing the car that Mansell had,” Lewis Hamil­ton said yes­ter­day, with an af­fec­tion echoed by team-mate Valt­teri Bot­tas, who once drove in Wil­liams colours. “With­out Wil­liams, and es­pe­cially with­out Frank, I wouldn’t be here,” the Finn said.

“I have been enor­mously priv­i­leged to have grown up in this team,” said Claire, Wil­liams’s spokes­woman on a day rich in pathos. “I have loved ev­ery minute and the op­por­tu­ni­ties it has given me.”

Their out­look, with a New York pri­vate in­vest­ment house fur­nish­ing the cap­i­tal, is not with­out prom­ise.

Ge­orge Rus­sell, at 22, is an out­stand­ing tal­ent, and quite pos­si­bly a fu­ture world cham­pion. For now, it is Wil­liams’s mys­tique, their standing as the last of the fam­ily-run teams tak­ing on the world, that will be missed most acutely of all.

Hands on

Wil­liams was not just a fig­ure­head – as a for­mer driver and me­chanic he knew all about the nuts and bolts of the cars, a pas­sion he still re­tains

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