Why was Sir Frank Williams in a wheelchair as F1 legend passes away?

Jake Nichol November 29, 2021
Why was Sir Frank Williams in a wheelchair as F1 legend passes away?
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Sir Frank Williams has passed away aged 79, but why was the former Williams F1 team principal in a wheelchair? What caused him to be unable to walk or stand?

Statistically speaking, Sir Frank Williams is the most successful team principal in the history of Formula One.

His team racked up seven drivers’ titles and 114 grand prix wins between 1979 and 2012.

Williams claimed nine constructors’ crowns – second to only the might of Ferrari – during their heyday as the man from the north east of England built a winning machine.

Times had become harder in recent years, with the team surviving solely on the commercial and sponsorship funding it could bring in.

In September 2020, Williams sold up to US firm Dorilton Capital, ensuring the team had a secure and long-term future.

It was in the middle of this winning run that the famously fit Williams suffered life-changing injuries and became a wheelchair user.

But what happened to Williams and why did he have to use a wheelchair?

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images

Frank Williams wheelchair explained

Williams had been a keen marathon runner during his early years in F1. He planned to competing in an event in the UK in March 1986.

After a pre-season test in France at Paul Ricard, Williams was on his way back to the airport when he was involved in a car accident.

His Ford Sierra rolled a number of times before coming to rest on its roof. During the accident, Williams suffered life-changing spinal column injuries.

He had suffered a spinal dislocation between the C6 and C7 vertebrae, and would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.

Such was the severity of his injuries, Williams wasn’t expected to survive, with wife Virginia told to expect the worst. It shows the nature of the man that, somehow, he did pull through.

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Frank Williams didn’t let the fact he was in a wheelchair stop him in any way. He became the world’s longest-surviving tetraplegic, which means suffering partial or total loss of control of the limbs and torso.

His team went on to win the 1986 constructors’ crown for their injured boss. The Williams team only missed out on the drivers’ title after in-fighting between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet was blamed for destabilising the campaign.

McLaren’s Alain Prost stole in at the final race to snatch the title after Mansell’s tyre famously blew and Piquet pitted as a precaution.

Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images

Feast, and then famine for Williams

Despite the severe injuries he sustained, Williams recovered to take his position as team principal once more.

He needed to find a new engine supplier after Honda opted to join McLaren for 1988, and he settled on Renault. In the 1990s, Williams-Renault became one of the most iconic partnerships in F1 history.

Four drivers’ and five constructors’ titles were delivered to Didcot as Williams scaled the world.

Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The team began a gradual slide down the order in the late 1990s, which endures to this day when aero wizard Adrian Newey left.

Williams’ 114th and final victory as team principal came in the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix with Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan driver put in a spirited performance to hold off Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari.

It was Williams’ first win since Juan Pablo Montoya in the 2004 finale in Brazil. It was also the last race Williams’ wife, Lady Virginia, attended before her death from cancer in March 2013.

There could have been more tragedy when, post-race, a fire broke out in the Williams garage after a fuel problem with one of the cars.

Williams had rarely attended races in the past few years, with daughter Claire becoming deputy team principal. Although Sir Frank retained the title of team principal, Claire ran the team on a day-to-day basis until the family stepped away in autumn 2020.

The Focus sends its condolences to the friends and family of Sir Frank Williams at this difficult time.

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.