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Sir Frank Williams 1942 - 2021: Jonathan Palmer pays tribute

Monday, November 29 2021

So the curtain has finally fallen on the remarkable life of Sir Frank Williams, someone whom it was an enormous privilege to have known, indeed quite closely, particularly in the 1980s.  Williams F1 played a hugely important part in my motorsport career, and I shall always be grateful to Frank, along with Patrick Head, for recruiting me as their first ever F1 test driver and particularly providing me with my first F1 Grand Prix drive at Brands Hatch in 1983.   Much more will be written elsewhere about his extraordinary career, but I would just like to share my own experiences of working with Frank.

My first encounter with Frank was towards the end of 1981, when, having won the British F3 championship, I was invited to meet him at their former Didcot factory where we had a chat and he invited me to test the FW07 F1 car at Paul Ricard, which of course I was absolutely thrilled about. Following that test, where I worked with Patrick Head, I was offered an F1 testing contract, which after careful assessment with another major option, I was delighted to accept, to run alongside my move to F2 as a factory driver for the Ralt-Honda F2 team. Patrick Head and Ron Tauranac of Ralt had a fair bit of respect for each other and Patrick, who would be at quite a few of the F1 tests I did, was also very helpful with bits of advice and help with my F2 campaign - we got on very well.

I loved being around the Williams factory, chatting to guys like Ross Brawn who was running the wind tunnel at that time, and Frank was always very welcoming of me visiting there, which was great. My Formula 2 season got off to a promising start, with good qualifying performances, though the Bridgestone tyres we were running suffered from high degradation, which meant race results did not reflect our pace. This came to influence one of the key potential opportunities of my career.

By April 1982, Reutemann had suddenly declared he wanted to retire, leaving Frank with a need for a team-mate to Keke Rosberg.  Frank came to Thruxton for the Easter Monday F2 race to speak to Ron Tauranac about me moving from Ralt F2 to Williams F1, with immediate effect. I remember them both sitting in Frank's car in the paddock, talking for some time.  Inevitably I could think of nothing else but willing this extraordinary move to happen. Of course it didn't - Derek Daly got the drive. Ron told Frank I wasn't experienced enough and ready for F1. How much was truly that, how much was Ron not appreciating the limitations of the fast degrading tyres, or him not wanting to lose me from his F2 team I shall never know.

I loved my time testing with Williams, which was extended to a second year in 1983. The driving, the analysis of the car's performance with Patrick and the engineers, the contribution to its development, and just being part of this driven, but happy atmosphere team. Frank would often invite me round for dinner with his wife Ginny at their house in Goring-on-Thames. Well more Ginny really! Frank would usually arrive mid-dinner having come back from a run, enthusiastically ask how the last Austria or whatever test went, always what the DFV engine number was I'd used, and how did I find it. Then he'd go and watch a film, leaving me to continue a lovely dinner with Ginny! He was a bit eccentric, but so enthusiastic and motivating.

In the late summer of 1983, when I was also dominating the F2 championship, Frank calledJP70 me and said that I'd done a great job testing and that they were going to run a third car for me at the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. I could barely believe it! So excited. I'm sure Patrick had a lot to do with it, but this opportunity capped my second fairy-tale year in motor racing, after 1981. To be team mate to Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite at Brands Hatch was simply awesome. There was never any question of a drive in 1984, so it was a wonderful gesture from Williams.

Even when I had moved on to RAM and started my six year F1 career I was always welcome in the Williams motorhome - it was indeed a second home. Of course the news of Frank's devastating road accident in 1986 turned life upside down for him and those around him. Frank was looked after at the London Hospital, and it so happened my brother James was his day to day junior doctor - he was working for Prof Watkins at the time. I'd visit a fair bit. Ginny and I would while away the time browsing through Country Life. Many a time I'd end up feeding Frank with beans on toast. He always remembered that, and much later we'd have a laugh about it as he propped himself up in his frame in the Williams hospitality facility in the F1 paddock. It was quite a special relationship even though I never really raced for Williams.

In the early days of the Goodwood Festival of Speed Frank would run a car and ask me to drive it which was lovely. It was only a bit of fun, but I think I set the fastest time informally with both the FW08 and 6 wheeler the following year. And of course Patrick and I would take it reasonably seriously - neither of us could do otherwise! Later it was wonderful that when it came to designing and manufacturing our 2009 FIA F2 car, Frank was happy for Williams to do it - even though it was of course mainly Patrick. But to have the Williams name on our FIA championship was quite an honour.

Clearly Frank Williams' record will rightly pay homage to the outstanding F1 team he ran with Patrick Head, being, with McLaren, the dominant team for nearly two decades.  But his remarkable strength of character is possibly even better demonstrated by his incredible dedication to excel against the adversity of his tetraplegia. I remember my brother James telling me in 1986 that Frank now had a statistical life expectancy of 10 years. The fact that Frank not only lived for another 35 years, but was active, travelling internationally and heading an F1 team, is arguably even the greatest achievement of this extraordinary man.

Jonathan Palmer