The loss of Frank Williams’s first racing team to Walter Wolf is a very difficult segment to watch. We’ve all been there, sitting in our pajamas, unable to even get dressed. It took six weeks before his wife phoned a friend to help, and with that marked the start of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, the team we know today, the successful one. Frank climbed out of his pajamas and took money from Belgian beer company Belle Vue to start his new team. His friends remember how women threw themselves at the young team owner. They had a special name for the girls: screwdrivers!
The start of the 1986 season was to be the most promising yet: Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell had arrived. Pre-season testing was going unbelievably well, until Frank crashed with Peter Windsor on the way to the airport and (not for the first time) rolled their hired Ford Sierra. This time it was different. Frank had broken his neck, and the French doctors did not believe he would live. Nobody else agreed, and his wife Ginny arranged for him to be flown back to London. After a series of near misses, he recovered. Like the French, the English doctors believed Frank should be allowed to die. Friends and family rallied around, and eventually Frank came through. Today, he would probably have recovered more quickly and death would not have been considered. But in 1986, it sounds like he was right on the brink.
This film exposes the painful recovery not only of the man himself but of his wife, children and friends. It must have been impossibly difficult to have such a life-changing injury when he was on the brink of his most successful period yet as a Formula One team owner. A runner of marathons, he was super fit. His fitness probably saved him. He still retains a sharp sense of humour about most of the painful times in his life. His wheelchair made his later achievements all the more fantastic. Patrick Head observes that for a long period of three to four months, they feared he might never set foot outside the hospital again. By the British grand prix that summer he was up and about, although he would not fully return to work until the start of 1987, and back in control of his F1 team.
The first race of 1986 in Brazil was won in splendid style by Williams driver, Nelson Piquet. Mansell had crashed on the first lap after a schoolboy error while overtaking Senna. The win for Piquet underlined just how great the 1986 car was, and it was a memorable season. The failure of Mansell though set the tone for intra-team rivalry behind the two drivers. The team used this to cajole Williams back into the office. His diplomatic skills would be needed here to keep the team together. Both drivers seemed to think they were number one drivers, having been made oddly similar assurances by Williams himself.
Patrick Head is the Dave Gilmour of this band. After the leader, Williams, was hospitalised, he ran the team alone for several months. Only later did his contribution get the recognition Head deserved. Without the two of them at the top of the team, Williams would not have been the force that it became. And that force began in that winter of early 1986.
As a close follower of F1 since those early 1980s, I had no idea Frank Williams was quadriplegic. I thought, because I saw him pushing himself around in his wheelchair, that it was his legs bothered that him. But in fact he cannot use his fingers and is in constant pain. His stamina and motivation are utterly inspirational.
This film is partly about a Formula One team, but it is foremost the story of one extraordinary family. Now run day to day by Claire Williams, Frank’s daughter, the team is showing signs of recovery. This team, this family, are an important chapter in one of the world’s most exciting sports. It is a story that has waited too long to be told. Ginny Williams published her story in 1991, and she died in 2013. Frank, to this day, has not read the book and has no plans to do so. The closing segment shows daughter Claire reading passages to her father. Sadly, it seems that the depression might have come to visit again. He is reported to sleep many times a week in his own factory.
I have no plans ever to let a film make me cry, but as someone new to fatherhood, this film came perilously close.
A Brilliant Sports Film
This is a must-watch for motor sports fans of all kinds.
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