Features - Interview

JULY 1, 1997

Frank Williams


Frank Williams went to Hockenheim in the Williams team's company helicopter. Commercial flights are very difficult because of his paralysis - the result of a road accident in March 1986 - and normally Frank would have flown to Germany in the Williams company jet but that has been sold and Williams Grand Prix Engineering is looking for another one.

Frank Williams went to Hockenheim in the Williams team's company helicopter. Commercial flights are very difficult because of his paralysis - the result of a road accident in March 1986 - and normally Frank would have flown to Germany in the Williams company jet but that has been sold and Williams Grand Prix Engineering is looking for another one.

Frank was bubbling with enthusiasm for the trip. He had been over the coast and across northern France and he had had a good time. At 55 years of age, he still has the capacity to be enormously enthusiastic, despite being confined to a wheelchair.

He has achieved an enormous amount, of course, not just with the racing team which has enjoyed a marvellous run of success in Formula 1 in the last five years. The cars bearing his name have won four of the five Constructors' titles and Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill have each taken a Drivers' World Championship thanks to Williams. Jacques Villeneuve's recent victory at Silverstone marked the team's 100th Grand Prix win, a record which takes the team to within striking distance of Ferrari (111 wins) and McLaren (105).

Success has turned Williams Grand Prix Engineering into a very profitable company. It employs over 250 people and is based in a 28-acre "green field" factory, just outside the village of Grove, near Didcot. There is a separate factory for the Williams Touring Car Engineering company and - although Frank will not admit it - there will probably soon be a new company called Williams Sports Car Engineering, which will build GT racing machines for German carmaker BMW.

Williams owns 70% of his team. His partner since the team was formed in 1977 is engineer Patrick Head, who continues to run the engineering side of the operation.

Frank was recently valued by The Sunday Times newspaper as having a fortune worth $75m.

He has been honored by the British government, being appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire as long ago as 1987 and in December 1994 was made a member of the French Legion d'Honneur. One day he will probably be Sir Frank Williams.

This sort of thing may make Frank very proud but he is a down-to-earth pragmatist. The important thing is winning races. He must take sometimes unpleasant decisions to ensure that his team is in the best possible position to win. It has not always him popular with the British racing public, notably the decision not to accept Nigel Mansell's demands at the end of 1992 and the dropping of Damon Hill at the end of last year.

This year there seem to be more problems than usual. Williams and Head are defending themselves in Italy against charges that they were responsible for the manslaughter of Williams driver Ayrton Senna at Imola in May 1994; Williams is fighting F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone over the Concorde Agreement and - most importantly of all for Frank - Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen have been struggling to stay ahead of the opposition on the race tracks. In 1996 Williams won 12 of the 16 races but this year Villeneuve and Frentzen have collected only five wins in the 10 races. Their form has been inconsistent and there have been far too many incidents.

As a result Michael Schumacher leads Villeneuve in the Drivers' World Championship by 10 solid points and Ferrari is ahead by nine in the race for the Constructors' title.

Frank is not happy but reckons that sometimes one can simply become too successful.

"When you have had a season like last year you have a problem," he explains, "because people compare this year to that. Last year was a really exceptional year - by any standards. If we did the same every year there would be no people in the paddock any more. The other teams would not readily come along to participate and - more importantly - there would not be any people in the grandstands watching us.

"It cannot happen every year, so it really does not matter if I am happy or unhappy."

But the Williams-Renault package is good and the results are not coming?

"That is subjective, isn't it?" Frank fires back. "Yes, we think it is a good car but there is lot more to winning than just that. A good chassis is not enough. You need good everything: a good team and good drivers with the ability to get the best out of the car at all times.

"It is a big ball to keep up in the air all the time."

It does not help that other teams - notably McLaren and Ferrari - have been trying very hard to lure good people away from Williams British racing green Bugatti 35B the mysterious "Williams" won the first Monaco GP, beating the huge 7.1-litre Mercedes of Rudi Caracciola.

In November he married Yvonne.

"One talks always of the crazy twenties," recalls Frederic Grover, "but they were very much like that. Willy and Yvonne danced very well and they won all kinds of prizes at big hotels. He was gifted for sports. He played tennis well -- and golf."

"Williams" continued his racing career, winning the 1930 French GP at Le Mans and the 1931 Belgian GP. That same year he and Yvonne bought a large house in the fashionable Brittany resort of La Baule and settled down as the Grover-Williamses and concentrated on breeding Aberdeen terriers.

They retained their house in Paris and Willy worked from time to time for Bugatti.

"Many of the people who bought those expensive cars could not drive them at speed," remembers Frederic. "They had to be shown and he did it."

In this role he became a close friend of his old rival Robert Benoist who, by this stage, managed the Bugatti showrooms on the Avenue Montaigne.

In the late thirties, Willy's racing career now over, the Grover-Williamses moved into a villa in Beaulieu, near Monaco.

"They used to drive around Monaco in two cars," remembers his niece Jessie. "Willy would be in the first and Yvonne in the second. Yvonne would be stopped for speeding. She would say: 'What about him. Why don't you stop him?' But the police would say: 'He is Williams, we don't stop Williams'."

And thus it remained in the care-free days of the thirties.

Although he was a rare visitor to England Grover-Williams was a patriot and when war broke out he quickly joined the British Army in Paris, taking on the anonymous rank of Driver with the Royal Army Service Corps.

As luck would have it, he was given the job of chauffeuring around a General during the German invasion of Belgium. When France fell Grover-Williams and his General were cut off from Dunkirk and escaped with other British troops from Brittany after a hair-raising escape across France.

For a time Grover-Williams remained a driver but, prompted by the General, he was recruited by the SOE in 1941. To retain his anonymity he became 'Vladimir'. After rigorous training he emerged, in the Spring of 1942, a fully-fledged secret agent. He was appointed an officer and, with his fellow trainees, waited to be parachuted into France.

"We were on standby," remembers a fellow agent Bob Sheppard. "We really had nothing to do. Vladimir and I decided to have lunch together at the Cafe Royal. We knew we would both be going to France within 48 hours or so. He was very easy-going. I didn't know where he went on leave or his friends in London or anything like that.

"It was during lunch that, for the first time, without telling me who he was, and without knowing who I was, Vladimir suddenly said: 'We never know what is going to happen, but we must meet after the war'.

"He asked me if I knew the Bugatti showroom on the Avenue Montaigne.

"He said: 'Look, just opposite there is a bar where I used to go. At the first occasion you are in Paris after the liberation, leave a message. We will meet for a drink'."

"We shook hands and went our separate ways. I didn't even find out that he had been a racing driver until after the war was over."

A few days later 'Vladimir' had become 'Sebastien' and was in Paris, reunited with Yvonne. He settled quietly into a flat near the Trocadero, while she continued to live in their house on the Rue Weber.

Hi flotation is principally about Bernie selling his company to the public - assuming it goes ahead. It does not in theory directly affect the F1 world. However one has to consider that when Bernie goes there could be a serious void inside F1. He is a brilliant deal maker and understands the business so his departure is obviously of concern. Bernie will not going to walk away and leave a mess. He is not that sort of a man but how he structures his eventual retirement - and I sincerely hope that it is later rather than sooner. He knows that we are concerned and I wouldn't say we are relaxed but we do know that he won't walk away and leave it untidy."

And what about the Senna Trial. What does Frank feel about having to defend himself against manslaughter charges relating to the death of Ayrton Senna in a Williams-Renault at Imola in 1994?

"The trial is now in the second part of its existence. I cannot say much more because I have to go to Italy to appear before the court in September."

Are there worries about what a guilty verdict will do to the Williams team?

"Absolutely," says Frank. "if the judge finds against us - no matter what he says and how he carves it up - the verdict will be guilty. Of course we can appeal that but it would still be a major blow to the reputation of the company. There is no question about it. And there are no words that can tone down that reality."

Are there worries that a guilty verdict could lead to damages actions against the team in the law courts.

"We very much doubt it," Frank admits, "but you can never be quite sure. It is possible that you can argue that the commercial ramifications will be limited because it has been going on for such a long time. But whichever way you look at it it would be bad, bad, news."

Faced with this wall of problems an the stresses of the racing this year, it must sometimes be hard to get the motivation to keep on fighting. Does Frank ever get motivation problems or is the urge to win sufficient to keep his drive.

"It is more than the winning," Frank says. "It is about being in motor racing. We are all here to win and enjoy that but we all lose far far more frequently than we win. I enjoy being here. I enjoy participating, being part of a team, admiring the drivers, admiring the cars. That is the interest. I love it."

Even when it gets to be unpleasantly cut throat?

"It's competition, isn't it?"

So Frank is still loving ever minute of it?