Williams is much more than just an F1 documentary, it’s a film about changing social attitudes, women’s liberation, success, tragedy, serious illness, and much more. If you have no interest at all in Formula One, fear not, as this is simply a riveting documentary about one family which rose to become a legend, led by Frank William’s relentless enthusiasm for motorsport but, also, his wife Virginia and now daughter Claire, who fronts the Williams F1 team and its £110 million annual assault for glory.
As with Senna from 2010, this is more of a study on the human condition as opposed to a look at F1. What struck us was how moving everything becomes, from the early days of youthful hedonism in the early ’60s to international success, big business, controversy, tragedy, severe injury, disability, and battling against adversity. It’s a story for everyone and there’s a lot to take away from one of 2017’s best documentaries.
This documentary rather profoundly affected us after the first viewing, we must admit. We went in concerned it might be a corporate romp along – the team is, essentially, a global business after all, but the family didn’t hold back and this is a deeply personal and moving account of 40+ years of triumph and tragedy.
Summarising the team for those not in the know, in the 1960s a young Frank Williams began a racing team after his failures as a driver convinced him to try something new. Teaming up with dashing young British driver Piers Courage, events spiralled around for a decade until Frank formed the Williams F1 team in the late ’70s. In the early 1980s, after signing brilliant engineers Frank Dernie and Patrick Head, things drastically changed and Williams became one of the leading F1 teams, winning titles in 1980 and 1982.
Then came 1986. The gregarious, energetic, charismatic Frank Williams was paralysed in a road accident. Having almost died and left quadriplegic (he’s able to use his arms to propel himself in a wheelchair, but has no feeling in his arms and can’t use his fingers), the man’s attitude to all this has been remarkable – to this day he remains largely jovial about his situation. He hasn’t complained once and has approached his life-changing accident with a sense of humour, although the period of adaptation took its psychological toll on his family.
Whilst Williams went from success to success in F1, further tragedy marred events, including the death of Ayrton Senna, which led to numerous legal inquiries – the Italian courts hounded Williams and Patrick Head up until the mid-’00s. Head has since retired and Frank Williams presides over events more as an enthusiast (incidentally, for their efforts in motorsport both have been knighted).
His fabulous daughter Claire has been a trailblazing force for women in F1, rising to the top of the team by hard grit (seriously, her father did not give her an easy route and didn’t seem, at first, to want her to run the team), but the central figure of the whole documentary is Virginia (“Ginny”) Williams, Frank’s charismatic wife.
Although she sadly died in 2013 of cancer, she was clearly a force to be reckoned with and had played a huge part in ensuring the Williams team stayed afloat following the 1986 disaster. The book she wrote about her experiences remains a key talking point in the film as her husband has yet to read it, which leads to a particularly moving end to the documentary. Following her passing, Frank Williams admits in the documentary he now rarely goes home and, instead, sleeps in the team’s factory.
At the heart of it all is F1 and his love for the sport, speed, technology, and everything else, which keeps the 75 year old more than occupied and humble – he never fails to point out how privileged and lucky he’s been in life, and we think that’s an inspiration for all of us.
Legal or not, the whole thing is on YouTube, so if you have a spare hour and 45 minutes this is definitely one to watch. There’s a brief loss of sound at one point at the 25 minute mark, but it comes back after a few minutes. Alternatively, you can, you know, just buy the film on DVD or a streaming service of your choice. Totally worth it. Please enjoy.