A World Championship Winning Team Grown From a Family Business
Now when you think of a family business you might think about the corner shop down the road or the friendly neighbourhood handy man. What doesn’t come to mind is an internationally successful championship winning Formula One team. But that is the story with the Williams F1 team, a team with a story dating back to 1966, a story of both triumph and tragedy in equal measure.
The First Bump on a 50 Year Journey
The Williams F1 story starts in 1966 when Frank Williams formed Frank Williams Racing cars he competed in the Formula 2 and 3 series with drivers Piers Courage and Tony Trimmer. In 1969 Williams made their first attempt at Formula One and managed two second places at Monaco and the USA Grand Prix, with Courage behind the wheel of a Brabham chassis car that Williams had bought. Unfortunately this early foray into the world of Formula One lead to nothing more than money troubles for Frank Williams and in 1976 he sold the team to oil magnate Walter Wolf, and the team was rebranded to Walter Wolf racing. This, as you know, was not the end of Frank Williams’ motor racing dreams, as in 1977 Frank teamed up with British engineer Patrick Head to form Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd.
An Enormous Success Followed by a Cruel Twist of Fate
The Williams team had a competitive first full season in 1978 with Australian Alan Jones behind the wheel of the FW06. Then in 1979 the team managed to reach second in the Constructors Championship with drivers Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni, an astonishing feat for a team only in their second full year of competition. Williams managed to win a major championship for three years on the trot in 1980, 81 and 82, dominating the sport.
Williams would struggle for the next few seasons only managing third in the Constructors Championship in 1985. Events did not improve on the personal side either, as in 1986 Frank Williams was in a devastating car accident which lead him to be a tetraplegic. Whilst driving to Nice Airport after testing at the Paul Ricard circuit, Williams rolled the Ford Sierra rental car causing a severe spinal fracture. On the track the team had a better time, winning the Constructors title, with drivers Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell finishing second and third in the drivers standings, driving the FW11.
Back to the Winning Ways of Racing
1987 was another dominant year for Williams with Frank returning to the helm the team nine months after his accident. Nelson Piquet won the Drivers Championship that year and Williams won the Constructors Championship. The Queen also honoured Frank with a CBE in the New Year’s honours list. Truly a return to form for the team. The 1992 season saw the Williams FW14B truly destroy the competition, being the most advanced race car ever, with a semi-automatic gearbox, active suspension, traction control and anti-lock brakes the Williams team dominated the next three seasons.
Tragedy Strikes at Imola
The team saw tragedy strike during the 1994 race at Imola when at the San Marino Grand Prix Ayrton Senna, then driver for the team died after a crash at over 145 mph into the concrete barrier on lap 7 of the race. He was just 34 years old. An Austrian flag was found furled in his race suit, Senna had planned to unfurl it after the race to honour fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger who had died during the Saturday qualifying. The rest of the ’94 season saw some success as the team managed to retain the constructors title with Damon Hill losing out on the drivers title after a very controversial crash with Michael Schumacher at the last race of the season which took both cars out of the race. Williams struggled with Schumacher’s dominance throughout the 1995 season finishing 2nd in the Constructors Championship and Hill and David Coulthard finishing 2nd and 3rd in the Drivers Championship.
A Dominant Schumacher Finally Beaten
The 1996 season saw Williams finally overcome the German though, and by some margin the Williams team had over double the Constructors points of its nearest rival (Ferrari) and saw the driver title become an exclusive battle between Williams drivers Damon Hill and Jaques Villeneuve with Hill taking the title at the final race of the season in Japan. The 1997 season saw Williams carry on from where they left off dominating the Constructors Championship and with Villeneuve just winning the title against Schumacher. This would sadly be the last championship gold the team would see.
Changing Drivers and Engines, a Desperate Team Tried to Reclaim Their Glory
1999 would see Frank be honoured by the queen again, this time with a knighthood. But ’99 would be a difficult year on the track for Williams. With the Supertec FW21 struggling to compete with rest of the pack, the team would eventually finish 5th in the Constructors Championship, with Ralf Schumacher finishing 6th in the drivers standings. The millennium saw a change in fortunes for the team, Williams finished 3rd in the 2000 and 2001 seasons and managed 2nd in the Constructors Championship in 2002 and 2003. This would be the last top three championship finish for the team until 2014. The following years would see Williams try numerous different drivers trying to regain its winning ways of the 90’s, drivers such as Mark Webber, Nick Heidfield and Nico Rosberg would all come and go from the team. Williams also struggled with engines throughout the 2000’s going from BMW units to Cosworth, to Toyota. Nothing seemed to be going right for the team until they switched to the Mercedes power units in 2014.
Keeping it in the Family
2013 saw the coming of a new face to Williams, that of Claire Williams, Frank’s daughter, who took on the role of Deputy Team Principal. She may have been a good luck charm for the team as in the 2014 season the team would come third in the Constructors Championship with a total of nine podiums for the team throughout the season with drivers Valteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. They retained this third place finish in the 2015 season. The 2016 season however saw a fall from grace for the team who struggled to a 5th place championship finish. At the end of the season Felipe Massa announced his retirement from racing, however Mercedes snatched away Valteri Bottas leaving the team a driver down so Williams have retained Massa on a one year contract. Former test driver Canadian Lance Stroll joins Massa.
One of the Most Loved Teams in the Championship all Thanks to one man
Williams is one of the most loved teams in Formula one and, let’s not forget, with 9 World championships 114 race wins and 133 fastest laps it is also very successful. Whilst they may have fallen behind the dominance of the Mercedes the continued involvement of the team in the championship and the ever evolving drivers could see Williams return to championship glory once more. Williams is one of the last family run race teams in the world, through the leadership of both Frank and Claire Williams, it has claimed many successes and sustained many losses. But they have endured to become one of the greatest teams the sport has ever seen and will likely remain so for many years to come.
Sources:Williams, The Independent