Frank Williams first hit my radar during the sixties via the back pages of a motorsport magazine. I drooled over adverts offering everything from race tyres through Holbay engines and Hewland gearboxes to complete F2 cars.
Later the same publication informed me about Frank’s nascent F1 team with Piers Courage; subsequently, the driver’s tragic death at Zandvoort in 1970. During my first (1972) visit to a South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, I saw his team race for the first time, using March 711s liveried in Politoys colours.
I recall the cars finished well down the order – and being impressed by a certain Nikolaus Andreas Lauda. But a comment made on the trip by my host – a retired South African race driver of considerable note and father of a school friend – overshadowed the lot. “They call Frank Williams ‘Wanker Williams’ because he wanks around at the back and will never make it.” Harsh, but at time indisputable words.
In time Frank was forced to cede his team to Walter Wolf, who formed his own single car operation for 1977. The contrasts could not be greater: The dark blue car won on its debut with my compatriot Jody Scheckter, while Frank scratched about for a new March chassis. His eventual purchase proved a year old, having been a ‘works’ car in 1976, and he recruited Belgian pay driver Patrick Neve to pedal it. More ‘wanker’ years ahead, right?
Wrong. Using his silver-plated used racecar salesman’s tongue, Frank sweet-talked unemployed engineer Patrick Head into joining him, then persuaded Saudia Airlines – and associated companies, including the bin Laden family business – to sponsor his own one-car team in 1978. By the following year it was a two-car winning outfit; a year later Williams Grand Prix Engineering and Alan Jones were world champions.
During its 43-year existence Williams Grand Prix Engineering amassed 114 grand prix victories from 727 starts. They won nine constructors championships – more than any team bar Ferrari – and took seven different drivers to the title.
I was reminded of the ‘wanker’ slight in rather humorous fashion in mid-January 1999 during the team’s car launch at the Autosport International Show. Frank, now a quadriplegic following injuries sustained in a 1986 car crash, had been made Sir Frank in the New Year Honours List. He was being wheeled towards the launch hall when Jackie Stewart, following in a the train of people, shouted, “Sir Wanker, congratulations!”
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Frank took it with good grace, simply smiling broadly. He was a knight, and the three-time world champion remained a ‘commoner’ despite his enduring royal connections. Stewart’s (overdue) knighthood followed two years later, but Sir Frank had beaten him to the queen’s sword, and his tight smile clearly spelt it out. In my book that said it all about Francis Owen Garbett Williams.
Back then he was still a regular race attendee, so we saw each other frequently. Particularly after he instituted regular Saturday afternoon media sessions, which became one of the highlights of my race weekends. Initially the sessions were on-record and ‘correct’, causing some media members to drop out. Once he felt comfortable with the stalwarts he opened up. I guess that was his strategy: Feed an inner circle.
As he grew to trust us, so the number of off-record snippets increased. The Concorde Agreement has always been a key focus of mine, and this period coincided with that acrimonious 2009 season when teams threatened to break away unless any replacement document satisfied their soaring demands. After I posed increasingly pointed questions about the topic, he suggested I remain behind for off-microphone briefings.
As one of the team bosses who had been involved in negotiating the original (1981) and subsequent agreements Frank’s insights proved most helpful. At the time I was contracted to a German F1 media outlet, and they asked me to present their ‘Team Principal of the Year’ award to Frank. The ceremony took five minutes (if that), and the subsequent chit-chat five times as long. That’s Frank – always ready for a chat.
The sales process and acquisition of Williams was analysed here previously, and subsequent events largely confirmed the information provided by our sources. However, Frank stood down as team boss and daughter Claire as deputy team principal after Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, with CEO Mike O’Driscoll resigning as this was written on Tuesday. Thus, Monza marked the last F1 race overseen by the Williams family.
While the Williams resignations took some by surprise – there were suggestions in Monza that they’d been forced out after the deal was done. But on Saturday former F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone, who has been close to the family since the seventies, told me in an initially unrelated call that prior to the sale Claire advised him she had been asked to remain for the foreseeable future, but that her departure was a personal decision.
Ecclestone had acted as advisor for a rival bid for Williams from Dmitry Mazepin, the Belarus-born Russian billionaire and father of Formula 2 driver Nikita. That floundered for various reasons, not least the difficulty with remitting large amounts of cash from Russia at present, but also as the owner of the Uralkali chemical conglomerate planned to rebrand the team. In contrast, new owners Dorilton plans to retain the Williams name and the team’s considerable heritage.
Following the resignations Dorilton appointed Williams managing director Simon Roberts as acting team principal. The new owners are said to be evaluating a number of options for executive positions.
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A Liberty source confirmed four senior Dorilton officers requested passes for this weekend’s Tuscan Grand Prix, while former Manor executive Graeme Lowdon, tipped for a senior role, is also expected in Mugello.
Claire Williams and Mike O’Driscoll steered Williams through its most challenging period, and it is due to their foresight and commitment that there was a going concern to sell to Dorilton Capital, a US-based investment vehicle for a high-net-worth UK family. While their identity remains secret, it is sure to leak out over time, as was the case with the mysterious Longbow Finance, which owns Islero Investments AG, which controls Sauber, currently competing in F1 as Alfa Romeo.
Although the respective routes of Longbow and Dorilton into F1 differ vastly – the former effectively entered by default after Sauber was in danger of breaching obligations towards Longbow, while the latter invested deliberately – their modus operandi is essentially very similar: Family investment fund acquires F1 team, then appoints hired hands to increase its asset base and provide acceptable returns on investment.
Thus Williams, F1’s last truly independent F1 team, fell out of the hands of its founder and into the clutches of investors. Frank was a truly passionate entrepreneur who was utterly consumed by winning in F1 despite spending over three-quarters of the team’s lifespan as a quadriplegic after a road car accident in 1986. The new owners have yet to prove themselves, but deserve time to do so.
Claire in particular came in for undue flak, with unkind folk pointing to either her family connections or, worse, her gender being among the reasons for both her appointment as deputy team boss and the team’s recent slide down the order. Such criticism is grossly unfair and fails to take into account the unrelenting evolution of F1 over the past ten years, during which time F1 ceased to be a sport, having mutated into a corporate activity.
The fact is that currently not even the most able team boss could lead a team to title victory without gazillions in backing – consider the $400 million annual budgets of Mercedes or the (combined) Red Bull operations. Even Renault is nudging over $200m. Such teams enjoy considerable internal funding, then obtain further income by leveraging their corporate networks.
Where on earth would Claire (or any other independent team boss) obtain the $50m required to hire Lewis Hamilton, or the same again required to build a new wind tunnel? $30m for a new CFD installation? Imagine the clout Mercedes or Ferrari enjoyed in negotiating the last (2013-2020) Concorde Agreement, which was so horribly skewed against independent teams.
Any wonder Lotus (sold to Renault for pennies), Sauber and Force India changed hands during that period, the latter verging on bankruptcy before its rescue? Yet, under the Williams trio, the team retained sufficient value to attract five $150m bids, which not only speaks volumes for their endeavours but enables the family to net upwards of $60m after debt settlements and external shareholder disbursements.
Who is laughing now? Understandably not Claire’s critics.
That 1978 season, Williams’ first as constructor, featured 27 separate teams – yes, that many. Of those just two, namely Ferrari and Renault, could be considered ‘corporates’. True, there were single-car, single-event customer team hopefuls amongst that lot, but one could not argue the bona fides of Williams, Lotus, Ensign, McLaren, Ligier, Tyrrell, Shadow, Surtees, Fittipaldi, Arrows and Hesketh – 11 independent teams, run by founder-owners, plus the rest.
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By contrast, last week’s grid boasted 10 teams, of which just one was run by its founder; the rest were either investment fund-owned or corporate properties, be their parent or associated companies motor manufacturers (Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and, from next year, Aston Martin), drinks or clothing brands (Red Bulls respectively), machine tool brand (Haas), investment funds (McLaren, Sauber).
Now consider the individual pedigrees of those teams: Ferrari is well-documented, but Mercedes started as Tyrrell (1968); Renault’s Enstone operation as Toleman (1982); Aston Martin as Jordan (1991); Red Bull Racing as Stewart (1997); AlphaTauri as Minardi (1985); while McLaren and Sauber were founded by racers Bruce McLaren and Peter Sauber in 1966 and 1993 respectively.
Tellingly, only the last two retained their founder’s surnames. That leaves Haas: founded by machine tool magnate Gene Haas in 2016 as a marketing platform for his products, the team draws heavily on Ferrari and Dallara for technical services, and thus cannot be considered a typical independent operation.
Whatever, how could a family business compete against such financial firepower? Asked by RaceFans in Monza whether she thought that it was now impossible for entrepreneurs from modest backgrounds to emulate her father; that the days of independent teams were over, Claire said, “I think, in reality, they probably are.
“That’s clearly a great shame because I think that the very foundation of this sport has been built on those kind of individuals.
“We have received an awful lot of criticism for some decisions that we’ve taken at Williams over the past handful of years, but until you actually see what goes on behind the scenes of a Formula 1 team, particularly operating in the environment in which we find ourselves in at the moment in this sport, [which] has become ever harsher predominantly courtesy of the last Concorde Agreement, I think our team has done an extraordinary job.
“I think Formula 1 has changed, and I think it would be enormously hard for anyone of Frank’s ilk back from the ’70s to start with nothing. It would just be absolutely impossible. Another reason why I’m so pleased that the Concorde Agreement has been finalised because it is going to help create a much more level playing field and make it easier on teams like ours to be able to be successful in the future but also be sustainable in the future as well.”
That last comment provides the key to the team’s dilemma: It may well have had a fighting chance of surviving as independent team into next season when the budget cap kicks in and F1’s revenues are more equitably distributed, but Covid-19 knocked the stuffing out of Williams’ reserves and thus reality hit. Hard.
Rather than chastise the family for selling out, they should be saluted for keeping the independent flame burning well into the twilight zone. Williams Grand Prix Engineering was fuelled by intense passion until its final day as an independent team, and any criticism should be directed not at Frank and Claire, but at the suits who turned the sport into the corporate playground it is today.
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