He was 43 when he crashed his rental car at high speed in southern France in 1986 while trying to catch a flight to England to run in one of his road marathons the following day. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
He died Nov. 28 at 79, according to a statement from the team’s chief executive Jost Capito that provided no further details.
Williams Racing, which Mr. Williams founded and led for more than 40 years, remains second only to the mighty Italian Ferrari team in F1 World Constructors’ Championships, the key to winning finance — including paying the drivers’ multimillion-dollar salaries — and gaining sponsorship and streetcar sales. Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes team said recently that the constructors’ title, rather than the driver’s title, was the most important for any racing team. Williams Racing won nine Constructors’ world titles.
Yet, unlike his great rival Enzo Ferrari, former boss of the company and racing team that bears his name, Mr. Williams built his family team up from nothing. At first penniless, he sold cans of soup so that he could race, and later build, racing cars. For a time, he had to come and go to the nearest public phone booth after the phone in his workshop was cut off because he couldn’t pay the bill.
According to sportswriter Richard Williams (no relation) of the Guardian, his daughter Claire recalled that she once sent him out for fish and chips but all he came back with was a set of spark plugs he needed.
After he was knighted by the queen in 1999, he was widely known in the United Kingdom as Sir Frank. As the racing team’s success dwindled over recent years, he ended the family connection to F1 by selling to the New York-based investment firm Dorilton Capital for 152 million euros (nearly $180 million) “to deliver the best outcome for the shareholders and secure the long-term success of the Williams Formula 1 team.” Dorilton will retain Williams as the team’s name in honor of its founder.
Francis Owen Garbett Williams was born April 16, 1942, in South Shields, near Newcastle upon Tyne, in northeast England. His father was a Royal Air Force pilot who flew Wellington bombers during World War II and abandoned the family when Francis was an infant. His mother taught children with learning disabilities. His grandparents helped bring him up until he was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Dumfries, Scotland, near the English border. He said the trauma and dislocation of his upbringing gave him the resilience he would need later in life.
His mother let him drive her little Morris Minor saloon car long before he was old enough to get a drivers’ license, and he was immediately hooked. Mr. Williams spent most of his money on motoring magazines and, when he was 17 and old enough to take a driving test, persuaded his mother to give him £80 (just over $200 at the time) to buy a small Austin A35 that he souped up and entered in local car races. He quickly became known for his crashes and writing off cars.
After rolling his car off the track at the Mallory Park circuit in central England, Mr. Williams found himself watching the rest of the race alongside another driver named Jonathan, who had crashed his car at the same spot and who shared his surname. The latter introduced him to another up-and-coming driver, Piers Courage, heir to the Courage brewery fortune in Britain, and the three men dedicated their lives to motor racing, starting in the Formula Three category.
Further crashes ensued, and Mr. Williams soon realized he might be a better team manager. He founded Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1967 and upgraded to the top level, Formula One, in 1969 with Courage, in a privately owned Brabham car, as his main driver. Up against the big works teams such as Ferrari, Courage finished second in the historical Monaco Grand Prix and the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Courage was no longer racing for Mr. Williams when he died the following year in a crash during the Dutch F1 Grand Prix at the Zandvoort circuit. Mr. Williams was heartbroken and Courage’s death was one of several that haunted him throughout his life.
After Mr. Williams’s own horrific road accident in 1986, doctors requested his wife Virginia’s permission to switch off his life support machine — but she refused, saying she knew he would survive. And only six weeks after the accident, he was back, in a wheelchair, as “team principal” at the British Grand Prix in Brand’s Hatch, England, receiving a standing ovation when the crowd saw him.
His daughter Claire, who in 2012 took over the day-to-day running of the team while her father continued to strategize from the wings, said he had been in constant pain since his accident. Yet he had managed to get funding from Saudia, the national airline of Saudi Arabia, and, during their sponsorship, painted “Fly Saudia” on Williams racecars, the first major Arab oil sponsorship in F1.
By 1994, he had finally persuaded the driver he considered the best in the world, Brazilian Ayrton Senna, to join the Williams team. But when Senna crashed into a concrete wall at more than 190 mph and died instantly in his Williams car at the San Marino Grand Prix that year, Mr. Williams’s heart was broken once again. His daughter said he never got over it.
Because the accident did not appear to be any fault of Senna’s driving, an Italian prosecutor accused Mr. Williams and five others of manslaughter. It was not until 1997 that an Italian judge absolved them of any culpability and acquitted them.
In 1974, he married Virginia Berry, known as Ginny. She died in 2013. Survivors include three children, Claire, Jonathan and Jamie. In 1991, Virginia Williams wrote a book, “A Different Kind of Life,” about her years with Mr. Williams before and after his accident. Mr. Williams always insisted he had never, nor ever would read it, saying, “The past is the past.”
One of his former drivers, 1982 World Championship winner Keke Rosberg, tweeted after his death: “We used to tell a joke about how Frank would go into the workshop and pat one of the lads on the back. ‘How’s it going, Pete?’ Pete would say, ‘Not so good, Frank. My wife died this morning.’ And Frank would say, ‘O.K., never mind. D’you think that front suspension will be ready in time for the test at Paul Ricard [a racetrack in France] next week?’ ”