- Maurice Hamilton's blog
Jonathan Williams: 1942 - 2014Maurice Hamilton September 1, 2014
- Jonathan Williams
Those of us tasked in recent years with writing about motor racing in the 1960s and 70s, and fortunate enough to have got to know Jonathan Williams, will have been deeply saddened by the news of his passing last night at the age of 71.
I was first introduced to Jonathan by Denis Jenkinson; 'DSJ' to give Jenkinson his familiar by-line in 'Motor Sport', or 'Jenks', as he was more commonly known during his reign in the F1 paddock for four decades. Jenks was a difficult man to please. When he said Jonathan was a 'good bloke', I took that as praise indeed.
Jenks would also admit that Williams was a handy, stylish driver who deserved more than his single Grand Prix in a works Ferrari in Mexico 1967. In many ways, that one-off outing would sum up an extremely diffident but polite man who quietly knew he was quick but didn't feel the need to shout about it.
He got the Grand Prix drive as part of a contract that had him racing for Ferrari in F2, sports cars and CanAm; a typical roster for a professional racing driver in 1967. This was a torrid year for Ferrari, Lorenzo Bandini having been fatally burned during the Monaco Grand Prix and Michael Parkes, a fellow Englishman and close friend of Jonathan, badly injured at Spa.
The drive in Mexico, the final GP of the season, came about largely because of a handy gap in the CanAm sports car calendar in North America and Enzo Ferrari had fallen out with other drivers. It was clear Williams was the Number 2 on the first day of practice when he had to hand over his car to Chris Amon after the Kiwi had experienced brake trouble. On the second day, Williams qualified 12th (of 18) and spent the race in a furious battle with Jean-Pierre Beltoise in a ballasted F2 Matra-Cosworth FVA (allowed to race in the final GPs to bolster a dwindling grid - a sign of the times). It was also a sign of Amon's wretched luck when his V12 ran out of fuel while running second and was eventually classified ninth, one place behind Williams.
When passed over by Ferrari for 1968, Jonathan reverted to F2, winning the flat-out Monza Lottery in a Brabham entered by his old mate, Frank Williams.
"The team consisted of the car, Frank and a mechanic - nothing else," recalled Williams in February 1997. "I have never sat in a car like it, before or since. It was immaculate; beautiful. The Ferraris were junk compared to this. Monza was very quick in the days before the chicanes; a real slipstreaming track which I knew pretty well. Frank was delighted with the win. But he was pretty mean. He gave me half the prize money and bought me dinner that night. And that was it! I had to get myself there and pay all my own expenses. But it was great fun. Even though Frank was now a team owner, he was no different to the Frank I had known for several years."
The pair had met at Mallory Park in 1961 under circumstances that would set the tone for an enduring friendship. Jonathan recalled the memorable moment with a shake of the head and gentle chuckle. Having crashed his Mini, Jonathan was watching the race from the fast right-hander at Gerards when Frank thumped the bank with his Austin A35 at exactly the same spot and scrambled to the top.
"I remember watching Frank driving and thinking he was a right lunatic. But when he joined me at the top of the bank, I could tell straight away that he was just like the rest of us. A perfect fit. We were all mad on motor racing. We would rather not have eaten if it meant going somewhere and racing something."
This incredible drive would take the pair of them the length and breadth of Europe in 1963, Jonathan racing a F3 Merlyn; Frank acting as his 'mechanic' - a posh way of elaborating the role of 'gofer and general helper' for a mechanic who could barely tell a clutch from a camshaft.
"We used a Volkswagen pick-up and slept on the back, on two lilos between the wheels of the racing car," recalled Jonathan. "It was pretty brutal; not very comfortable. But we were as happy as could be."
Despite - or perhaps because of - the Spartan existence while travelling from Sweden to Sicily, the friendship endured, Frank and Ginny Williams christening their first-born after Jonathan and Piers Courage, one of the original gang of wannabe racers and soon to become Frank's driver when he became an F1 entrant.
Jonathan - along with everyone who knew Courage - was devastated when Piers was killed in the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix, Jonathan drifting away from racing to follow his other love of flying and become a private pilot in the business sector.
In recent years he had retired to Spain, appearing occasionally at Grands Prix. Apart from Frank's effusive welcome, you would never have known Jonathan had been a racer of some significance in his day. He preferred it that way. It was part of the appeal of a very gentle man from another era.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.