“ In the end, if you are a racer, you are a racer. It’s a bug. It gets to you.’’ – Frank Williams
It was one of those coincidences.
The day I finished watching the 2017 documentary film Williams on Netflix, news broke that the Formula One racing team – it was in talks to rope in an investor – had been acquired by an American investment firm: Dorilton Capital.
Reports said, the name of the team based in Grove, UK, will continue unchanged. That should make anyone admiring passion and independence, happy, for Williams is one of the great stories of Formula One; great not just by performance but the determination it showed to keep going despite the odds. Given it was languishing in the lower half of the points table these past few years one may call the acquisition news of August 21, 2020 as expected. That would be a cold way of looking at things. What genuinely matters is the retention of the Williams name. If you take it off, a whole angle disappears from Formula One; that of the independent teams, founded and surviving not on the strength of capital, but interest in the sport.
A good documentary film is like that book you purchase despite everything gone online. There is something of a lasting value to it. The film Williams falls in that category. It tells the story of the Formula One racing team bearing that name and in the process gifts you insight into the sport, a man who became an institution in it, the people around him and how that life in racing left its mark on all of them. Motor racing is an expensive sport. Frank Williams wasn’t born into wealth or high society. He was attracted to cars from a very young age and instead of pursuing higher education, struck out on his own, including dabbling in auto parts and performance cars. Much of his earnings, dovetailed into Frank’s single minded focus on racing. His was a case of passion building a journey step by step, till following a stint as racer himself Frank eventually builds a Formula One team; the one carrying his name.
The film – like all films working within the limit of its length – is tad sketchy on the travails Frank faced in the initial years and for sure they would have engaged, for he is an outsider in a capital intensive sport ruthlessly partial to performance. It goes on from there to cover the first set of race victories that the team enjoys, including in between the early success (with Pierce Courage as driver) and the later poor showing and subsequent divestment to a Canadian investor. By the time the season that saw the investor come aboard, concludes, Frank is shut out from his own factory. It sinks him into a depression of sorts, release from which occurs only with a return to pursuing his dream of racing by starting a new team with Patrick Head. A few years into the championship victories that come the team’s way, Frank Williams suffers an accident. It leaves him a quadriplegic.
To adequately comprehend what this loss of mobility meant, one must note – Frank’s other great interest was running. He was into running marathons. Frank fights his way back to being by the race track and watching his team at work, from a wheel chair. The team he co-founded would win nine constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ championships at Formula One, as of August 2020. It is a journey entailing tonnes of human experience ranging from Frank’s early struggles to keep the team going, the drivers who race for him, the great drivers who lost their lives doing so, the scars it leaves on the team principal and eventually, his own accident off the track. Yet for all this drama, Frank Williams is a person totally lost to racing and his mission of managing a Formula One team. He lives and breathes that life.
The lives of intense people in intense sports, has often been the subject of riveting books in the biographical space. Less heard of, but as important – if not more important – have been the accounts of those who inhabited the surrounding ecosystem, without who, very likely the main protagonist wouldn’t have accomplished as much as he / she did. Among great stories told in mountaineering, has been the the sport as beheld by mountaineers’ spouses. They are as much affected by the risk associated with the sport; they are also among those enduring an utterly changed life when accident strikes leaving climber maimed or dead. What renders solidity to the documentary Williams is the inclusion of the memoirs of Virginia Berry, Frank’s late wife and the presence in the film of his daughter Claire Williams, who becomes deputy team principal. Virginia helps with resources in Frank’s struggling days; she is the one who takes care of him after his accident. Her memoirs – it runs like a spine for the narrative – serves as useful material to highlight the human story behind an obsession with racing; the toll it takes on a family.
I watched Williams after viewing Formula 1: Drive to Survive and A life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story (in that order) – all on Netflix. It was a trinity that helped put the sport often rendered remote and extreme by its glossy marketing, in perspective. Just one observation: as an independent team that built its own cars, cut a reputation for itself at Formula One, had its share of struggles raising resources and even became a publicly listed company, the story of Williams exceeds the dimension of a documentary film. It should be a mini-series.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)