Profile: It's not sport, it's war: Frank Williams, driving force in Formula One racing

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The Independent Online
'Frank is geared up and ready and looking forward to the fray,' said a colleague of Frank Williams last week, as the Williams team - sans Nigel Mansell but avec Alain Prost - prepared for the South African Grand Prix tomorrow, and the beginning of another Formula One season. 'His mood is the same as it has been every season for the past 20 years. His passion to compete and to win won't be stilled until the day he dies.' Last year he had it all his own way. His cars won the constructors' championship, leaving his nearest rival, McLaren, way behind, and enabling Mansell to become the first British world champion since James Hunt in 1976.

This year will be tougher. Williams's rivals have closed the technology gap and Ayrton Senna, the world's best driver, is in a new McLaren. Williams has a fight on his hands. He'll enjoy that.

You'd think he already had enough to contend with. For at least half the working day in his office, Williams dangles physically helpless in a vertical frame as tall as his own six feet. His limbs are limp. His head moves only by fractional inches and jerkingly. For the rest of the day, Williams is in a wheelchair. Male nurses attend him round the clock, feeding, clothing and moving him between his wheelchair and his standing frame. He has been a quadriplegic since 1986, when a car he was driving left the road in the south of France and he broke his neck. 'The word 'disability' genuinely applies,' he says.

At first sight, when you walk into his room and see him hanging there, he looks shockingly like a ventriloquist's dummy in a gibbet. This bizarre effect is complemented by the telephone headset he wears, with earphones and a microphone, and by his bright green eyes, which dart and roll. When he speaks, his hands flap involuntarily. Eye movement and brain power expressed in speech are his only means of communication.

Williams has been in love with the fighting side of motor racing since first he entered an Austin A40 in club races 30 years ago, when he was 20. He was a terrible driver, dangerous chiefly to himself, but a terrifying opponent. He has not attempted to adjust his attitude or tailor his nature for Formula One, the multi-billion dollar global sporting business in which the cars bearing his name bossed the world in 1992. He approaches each race and each season in a martial and competitive spirit that whiffs of fur-lined flying jackets and a stout briar clenched in a Kenneth More-like jaw.

He often says: 'I'm not a belligerent person . . .' but his speech is studded with war-like imagery and rallying cries. He talks about Formula One as being 'like going to war. If you get blown away in the first race, you come back here to the factory and work your nuts off for two weeks and fight to the death for the next race. It was like that in the war. They never stopped developing the Spitfire. They had to do it. The pressure was on.'

He says that aggressive competition is 'in the British blood, it's part of who we are'. Look at Europe, he says: 'We're the tail-end Charlie in giving up our national identity. We're going to go down fighting.'

This spirit may seem quaint but it has winning consequences for the Williams factory at Didcot, Oxfordshire, for its 200 employees and for the world of Formula One. In a list of Britain's most successful entrepreneurs and small-company managerial executives, Frank Williams would have to be placed near the top. As founder and co-owner of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, maker of the car in which Nigel Mansell became world champion last year and five times winner of the World Constructors' Championship (1980, 1981, 1986, 1987, 1992), he is and always has been the inspirational force behind his company and his team.

The technical superiority of the company's cars proceeds chiefly from the engineering genius of Williams's partner and head of design, Patrick Head (another John Mills-ish figure with a jaw like a housebrick), and their chief designer, Adrian Newey; but Frank's is the burning, inexhaustible energy that has fired and driven Williams.

He had always been demonically active, a monomaniac about his business, whose idea of relaxation was to run half- marathons. Married for 20 years to Virginia and father of two sons and a daughter, he has always seemed to be an affectionate husband and father; but he dedicated himself to the development of his team and business with an artist's (or a soldier's) commitment.

His family has remained together since his accident; but Virginia hinted recently that they may have grown apart when she published an intimately autobiograph-

ical book. Typically, Williams made no comment.

Williams was born in Jarrow in 1942; his father, an RAF officer, separated from Frank's mother soon after the boy was born. He has rarely seen his father and seems not to have been close to his mother, a teacher of subnormal and backward children, who brought him up alone. At 17 he left school and went to work in a garage, thus servicing and extending his obsession with cars.

His career as a Formula One team owner began in 1969, when he was a garage proprietor living in a flat over his workshops in Slough. Williams acquired a used Brabham and painted it dark blue. He gave it to his friend Piers Courage to drive, scraped together about dollars 100,000 for a year's budget, drove the car to races in a transporter and made himself into a standing joke with the racing fraternity. For the next 10 years, Williams cars regularly started F1 races from near the back of the grid, while Frank scrimped and scratched for the money to run his cars. In the late Seventies, he made an inspired approach to Saudia Airlines for sponsorship and took on Patrick Head as his partner and designer. Within two years, with Alan Jones driving, Williams had won its first championship. Within another decade, Frank and Patrick had established Williams as a dollars 40m-a-year company, with McLaren, one of only two teams currently likely to win the championships for constructors and for drivers.

Williams may be horribly crippled; but he can stand his ground in a business negotiation against any opponent, whether it be the directors of major client corporations like Renault and Canon; or the ferret-like hustlers who administer Formula One; or the egoists who drive the cars (whom he has always regarded with the kind of resigned disdain with which Alfred Hitchcock viewed actors).

A year ago, Frank Williams said: 'People in business are selfish. Their own interests must be primary. You have to operate like that and people who deny it are hypocrites. If it suits the Williams team in 1993 to spend whatever it costs of our sponsors' money to get (Ayrton) Senna and that means dropping Nigel (Mansell), if it means running across the toes of everybody, that's what I've got to do. Sentiment doesn't come into it.'

As it happened, Williams signed Prost to drive one of his cars in 1993; and he had to let Mansell flounce off in a huff

to America, to drive Paul Newman's IndyCars, appointing Damon Hill (son of the late Graham Hill) as Mansell's replacement.

In truth Senna is the man who, more than any other, he would like in his car, but once Prost was signed, Senna became out of the question. Prost has an almost paranoid fixation about him, dating back to when they were team mates at McLaren at the end of the Eighties.

Williams's demeanour during the Mansell imbroglio last autumn gave many fair indications of his character. While Mansell was using the loud-hailer of the popular press in his manoeuvrings for contractual advantage, Williams kept quiet. Mansell's complaints of betrayal and victimisation gave Williams many opportunities to be critical of the driver. He took none of them.

By the high summer of 1992, Williams had already signed Prost, three-times world champion, to drive in 1993. Negotiations with Mansell, however, were becoming a soap opera. For weeks, Mansell demanded special contractual treatment - including more millions of dollars than Prost and six hotel suites at each race for his entourage. He would not accept that a global recession was pinching even Formula One and its cosseted aces.

Finally, Williams agreed to all of Mansell's demands. At that point, Mansell declared that he would prefer to go to America. Since he clinched the world championship, Mansell has never set foot in Williams's Didcot works.

Mansell always emphasised the team nature of his success with Williams. A genuine bond of attachment connects the boss and the workers at Didcot. Most of them have worked for Williams since the end of the Seventies, when Frank first got his hands on enough sponsorship money to enter Formula One with a chance of winning. Up until then, the Williams team had been run in the hand-to-mouth tradition of British constructors; and that laddish, knockabout tradition still informs the works and its leader's style.

'Board meetings' at Williams occur when Patrick Head passes Frank Williams in his wheelchair in the corridor and they rap a couple of sentences at each other, or during their daily lunches in his office. Williams's executives know that their boss will never spend more than five minutes debating any question. His ideal press conference would be one from which he could escape without having been called upon to speak. The point of journalists eludes him.

Driving that broken body hanging in its frame, there may well be an angry spirit still seeking recognition and acceptance. Williams himself would despise such analysis. A fully comprehensive account of his character may not be available, therefore, to any outsider; but there is one truth about Frank Williams's way, and we can expect to see it again in South Africa tomorrow: it works.