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How Williams triumphed in the face of adversity

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Andrew Benson | 19:30 UK time, Sunday, 19 December 2010

Sir Frank Williams, who has been given the 2010 Helen Rollason award for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity, has never seen his disability as an excuse not to succeed at the very highest level.

The owner of the Williams Formula 1 team has been a quadriplegic since breaking his neck in a car crash in March 1986 but he has continued to oversee his company with evangelical zeal and commitment. In fact its biggest successes came after his life-changing accident.

Williams does not so much love Formula 1 as he is consumed by it. He still goes into the factory seven days a week, with Christmas Day his only time off. And his ability to carry on regardless, resolutely refusing to let his disability affect his day-to-day work, continues to humble those who know him.

When Williams suffered his injury, at the age of 43, doctors pointed out to those close to him that, based on the examples of other people with similar problems, he would be lucky to live another 10 years.

Nearly 25 years later, Williams continues to attend most of the races in an increasingly marathon F1 calendar, and remains one of the most widely respected men in the sport.

His attitude to his disability is simple - it's his own fault he ended up that way so he had better just get on with it.

If he ever felt differently, there is no evidence for it.

In her brilliant book about Frank, his wife Ginny gives an eye-opening account of the days after the accident.

Williams was a very active man and a keen runner but even when his life was still in danger immediately afterwards, he never - not even to his wife - betrayed any sense of self-pity, depression or any of the other emotions that might be expected of someone in his situation.

He talks about it very little, and simply says to Ginny that they have had several good years of one kind of life together and now they just have to get used to a different one.

Williams's partner, the team's director of engineering Patrick Head, says: "I'm sure Frank had some terrible moments thinking about the change in his life but he's never been one to sit around and be sorry for himself.

"Frank has always been very pragmatic about 'what is the problem and how can I deal with it' and applied that to himself and his injury.

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"His enthusiasm and positive attitude always overcome any difficulties he has."

This is the approach Williams has applied to his disabilities ever since.

Looking back, he says in his clipped manner: "I've had a wonderful life; wouldn't dream of changing anything, truthfully."

Williams suffered his injuries when he crashed his hire car while racing his driver Nelson Piquet to the airport after a pre-season test in the south of France.

He discusses the accident now with the same detachment he displayed in recovering from it.

"The car banged over a few times and I'm ashamed to say it was either the sixth or seventh rollover accident I'd had in my life," he says.

"I remember the sharp pain in my neck. I thought: 'Wow, rolling over isn't supposed to hurt that much.' The car finished upside down and I tried to reach for the safety belt to get myself out and I couldn't do it.

"I knew I was going to have the big one but I couldn't slow myself down."

The first few months after his accident he spent focusing on getting into a condition that would allow him to get back to attending races.

"He runs himself with military precision," says Head, "and once he'd found out what the things were that would cause him problems, he adapted his lifestyle to give himself the best opportunities. He's very disciplined about that sort of thing - it's remarkable what he has done since then.

"Frank's always been quite private in his own emotions and in control of his interactions with other people. Once we'd got used to the fact that he wasn't the same person he was before, that he was in a wheelchair, things just sort of carried on as normal."

Stopping competing in F1 never occurred to Williams.

"The thought of retiring or selling the team never crossed my mind," Williams says, "and I also suppose recognised subconsciously it would be a great daily antidote for the difficulties I would find myself in. It's a fantastic job, a very exciting business, highly competitive, always something to worry about, which can be quite healthy, actually."

At the time of his accident, his team were about to embark on one of several periods in which they have dominated the sport.

But success was a long time in coming. Getting to the top of F1 was famously a struggle - Williams operated his team out of a phone box at one stage in the early 1970s, so tight had money become. Once he had achieved success, though, he did not let it go for a very long time, regardless of the misfortune that was to befall him.

The turning point was joining forces with Head, whose first car for the team in 1978 established them as serious contenders for the first time.

In 1979, they missed out on the title only through poor reliability and an eccentric scoring system. But they made no mistake in 1980, with Australian Alan Jones romping to the championship.

They remained more or less at the top of F1 from then until Williams's accident, just missing out on the drivers' title in 1986 but winning it in 1987. But when at the end of that year they lost their supply deal with Honda, producer of the best F1 engines, people wondered whether, with the boss in a wheelchair, they would cope.

That was counting without the incredible commitment and desire of this remarkable man.

Patrick Head and Sir Frank Williams

Williams and Head have formed a formidable partnership for the last 30 years

Before long, Williams had replaced Honda with Renault, and the team went on to its greatest successes - particularly the 1992 and 1993 seasons, when a car bristling with technology such as active suspension brushed the opposition aside with Nigel Mansell and then Alain Prost at the wheel.

The team have variously dominated F1 in the early 1980s, the mid-'80s, and the early to mid-'90s, winning drivers' titles with many famous names - Jones, Keke Rosberg, Piquet, Mansell, Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, along with nine constructors' championships.

They have also provided the platform for some of the sport's most brilliant engineers to make their names - among them Adrian Newey, now in charge of design at world champions Red Bull, and Ross Brawn, who ran Ferrari's technical department in their dominant period with Michael Schumacher and now boss of the Mercedes team.

But there have been dark times, too - particularly the death of Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix only three races into his Williams career.

It remains one of William's greatest regrets: "I felt that we had been given a great responsibility providing him with a car, and we let him down."

The last few years have seen Williams slip from competitiveness. They have not won a world title since Villeneuve's in 1997 and not taken the chequered flag since the final race of the 2004 season.

And for the first time there have recently been signs that the 68-year-old Williams is slowing down a little.

In November 2009, he and Head sold 10% of the company to Austrian businessman Toto Wolff, with the two men's own shareholdings reducing proportionately from 65% (Williams) and 35% (Head).

And last summer, Williams handed his role as chairman responsible for the day-to-day running of the team to Adam Parr, with Williams remaining as team principal and Head still in charge of the technical side.

When he made the announcement, Williams emphasised that while he was planning for succession, he was certainly not retiring.

As Williams's current lead F1 driver, the veteran Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, says: "I've never met anyone with so much passion for motor racing - it's truly amazing."

So much passion, indeed, that when he had to make a decision a few years ago between building a wind tunnel that would help make the cars go faster and keeping the private plane that allowed him to attend the farthest-flung races, he chose the wind tunnel.

Williams's voice is quieter now - talking is uncomfortable for him, as a result of his disability - and his eyes a little more watery. But a few minutes in his company leaves you in no doubt that his team's current lack of success pains him greatly, and that he is as committed as ever to getting them back to the top of F1.


  • Comment number 1.

    Way back when you could get right amongst the action, I was lucky enought to meet Frank. It was at Silverstone in 1981 and we happened to be outside the Williams motorhome (more like a caravam back then!) after the race. the door opened and Frank emerged. Never being one for autographs, I greeted him with the immortal line "Hi Frank, what happened to Alan?". "Villeneuve spun and he hit him" came the answer. Gilles had piroutted at the stupid chicane at Woodcote and, typically, kept the boot in as he spun. Jones couldn't see a thing in the tyre smoke and harpooned the Ferrari.
    Frank's response was typical no-nonsense and how I wish "Team Willy" was still at the front of the grid mixing it with McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull.

  • Comment number 2.

    Very deserving in his SPOTY award win.

  • Comment number 3.

    Deserved winner

  • Comment number 4.

    Great to see Sir Frank recognised in this way, it's a shame so few of the Brits involved in F1 get recognised by the awards ceremonies - I read somewhere that Adrian Newey's cars have won more than 100 races. Hopefully the new engine rules will help bring Williams back to their rightfull place at the front of the grid.

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks Andrew. A fully deserved award and I really hope Williams can get back to the front.

  • Comment number 6.

    just one minor correction to an excellent article. The passenger when Frank had his accident was journalist Peter Windsor not Nelson Piquet. Windsor walked away virtually unscathed.

  • Comment number 7.

    sorry just re read the passage, my mistake!!!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    jon #6, just to point out it says he was racing Piquet to the airport - not that he was a passenger in Frank's car. Could you really see Piquet letting Frank drive?! ;-)

    Anyway a nice blog Andrew. It's so nice to hear a little about the great men of F1. Frank's commitment and energy is a remarkable thing and his BBC award is well deserved.

    On a slightly different subject, I was thinking the other day that next august (I think) will mark the tenth anniversary of Ken Tyrell. Something to mark the occasion might show a little history to the newer generation of fans.

  • Comment number 9.

    As a young lad during the 80's, I was entertained every Sunday by Sir Frank and his lads. They were like the national team back then, every Englishman rooted for them. It was pure entertainment and those times I've never forgotten.

    Cant think of a more deserving winner of an award such as this.

  • Comment number 10.

    A well deserved win, nice to hear that he wouldn't try to do things differently if he was given the chance.

    Also, does anyone know what the piano music was from the first half of the video? would be much appreciated.

  • Comment number 11.

    Can someone tell me the name of the book Andrew was referring to by Sir Frank's wife Ginny?

  • Comment number 12.


  • Comment number 13.

    i live in malawi,in africa and i know williams from my friend who back in 2001 had a apair of sunglasses with the logo of williams f1 team on them.i got hooked on formula one since.with his condition,his story needs to be told all over for others to have hope too

  • Comment number 14.

    I think it's fair to say that Sir Frank Williams is up there with the true, genuine all-time greats of Formula 1 and indeed sport. A very, very worthy winner of the award.

  • Comment number 15.

    A worthy recipient of the Helen Rollason award. The cynic in me says its the alternative award for F1 after Button graciously accepted (tongue obviously in cheek!) defeat to Giggs last year. However it is timely just as FW powers appear to waning in the ownership side and arguably perhaps on the track as I find it a bit sad that the Williams team have resorted to using a pay driver (and yes, I do know Schumi was at an early stage an pay driver in F1 too)

  • Comment number 16.

    @Aorchis - I thought the same about the piano - I think it's Shawshank redemption the bit were Red leaves his job and goes off to find Andy. Took me ages to find this. Only the first 80 seconds or so on loop.

  • Comment number 17.

    The head of a typically British racing team - the passion still runs deep although the years are rolling by. His determination and resilience make the Helen Rollason award a fitting tribute to this driven man.
    I truly hope that the determination within the team can show great success once more. I am certain that 2011 will show a major upturn in the teams fortunes and propel them back to the top.
    To SFW and his family thank you for the years of entertainment both as a spectator and the times of my own involvement with the team.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    In the 1980's and 90's this was the team to beat on the track, started with little finance, no nonsese aproach and treat drivers with contempt. Think when ferrari and mclaren were at war with each other, frank didnt get involved in the war of words, he avoided it and got on with what he does best, running his team. Unlike the other team bosses, and drivers. Its been a remarkable journey for the likes of us to witness franks and the williams team asonishing achivements, all down to bloody hard work and steely determination, real british bulldog grit if i ever saw it. Frank didnt always win the world championship with the best driver combination, but he has that experience and natural abillity to get the best out of the driver. David coulthard never won the world championship but did win races, and was released by frank to go to mclaren.Deep down he knows a winner and a real winner, he keeps the real winners for that one world championship. Once its won he releases the driver from complicated financial demands and has the next driver in the car honing thier skills. Frank is very schrewd and also generous, he also gave credit when due, but then these drivers were all paid alot of money to do their job, dont know why british drivers moaned so much. Given that they were driving technicaly the best car out there at that time. He's been in the game that long i cant imagine him not being there, there have been financial difficulties, having to sell his private jet, considering his own physical difficulties. But he is a survivor he keeps the team alive and pushes forward in to the future. Frank does in my own personal veiw, really richley deserve the helen rollason award....

  • Comment number 20.

    I would just like to say i think that Sir Frank Williams is a remarkable man in every possable way. Keep on going Frank your a true legend i would love to see you back at the front winning like the good old day.


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