Sir Frank Williams

When Bernie was asked on the starting grid who he’d like to see win the Spanish Grand Prix, the hard-bitten old impresario said “Williams.” Winning for Sir Frank’s 70th birthday party seemed a long shot. It had not won since 2004. Like Manchester City’s last-minute triumph you couldn’t make it up.

I thought the bubbly, slightly devious but thoroughly likeable keep-fit fanatic we used to call W**k*r (rhyme it with Franker) Williams older than that. He had been in grand prix racing, it seemed, for ever and certainly most of the 1960s to the 1980s, when it was my job to cover it. I knew him as a hustler, a bustler always seemingly on the brink of financial disaster, who could sell sponsorship from a red kiosk owing, it was said, to a temporary anomaly over his domestic phone bill.

What a hero. Fidgety, mercurial, wiry, wide-eyed; we followed him from crisis to crisis, with unlikely sponsors and unlikely cars. You had to admire his cheek. He was up against the engineering genius of Colin Chapman, the cunning of Enzo Ferrari, the pragmatism of John and Charles Cooper and the stolid practicality of Jack Brabham. Well funded and well organised grand prix teams had come, with smooth-talking PROs - yes even then – and ignominiously gone.

Frank Williams didn’t need a PRO. He was available, loquacious even, in the paddock winning or, as often as not, losing. He once stopped me in my tracks with: “That was a nice piece you wrote about us in The Guardian.” Hardly anybody else ever did that. Graham Hill was one. None of the others read, registered or understood.

Williams’ setbacks were cruel and colossal. He had to come back after the bright star of Piers Courage was snuffed out at Zandvoort in 1970. He endured Ayrton Senna’s accident at Imola in 1994 to say nothing of the Italian police scapegoating afterwards. Frank’s own accident in 1986 one felt sure would paralyse his career, as well as him.

Well, it didn’t. Awards, such as the well deserved Helen Rollason for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity, and national recognition acknowledge as much. Congratulations Sir Franker; one of the motor racing greats along with Chapman and Ferrari. And if, who knows, Bernie does manipulate Formula 1 like some super telemetry Scalextric set, he couldn’t have written a better scene than this one.

Except maybe for the fire.