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 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.
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