• Alan Henry met Frank Williams in 1971

The Day I Met ... Frank Williams

Alan Henry January 25, 2010
Alan Henry first met Frank Williams in 1971 © Sutton Images

The day I met Frank Williams was also the same day I met Niki Lauda. It was the opening F2 international meeting of 1971 at Mallory Park where Frank was fielding his pair of red March 712Ms for Henri Pescarolo and Derek Bell. But whereas Niki was some new slip of a kid on the block, Frank was already one of the sport's grandees, having established his own F1 team two years earlier with a private Brabham-Ford driven by the late Piers Courage.

I was introduced to Frank by Mike Doodson, my senior on the Motoring News editorial staff, and the man who had previously been F2 correspondent for the magazine. Mike was moving up to cover the F1 world championship and he knew Frank extremely well. Frank obviously liked him a lot and I could almost discern the disappointment in his response when Mike told him that I would be taking over the F2 coverage. I can recall him giving me a cursory, sideways glance of acknowledgement, which looked as though he was thinking "where on earth did Doodson find this scrofulous bank clerk?" I just mumbled something inane about being pleased to meet him and simply stood alongside Dood blushing like a self-consciously overweight beetroot.

Looking back, I always bracket Frank with Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti. It seemed to me they were all so crisply formal and totally in control of things that, on many occasions, when I tried to strike up a conversation my mouth opened and nothing much came out. As Jackie subsequently noted, this wasn't an affliction which seemed to be particularly long-lasting. But, interestingly, although I quickly became more relaxed with Jackie and Mario, it took me years to conquer my nerves with Frank.

Later in 1971 came another defining moment which indicated what a wimp I could be. We were attending the F2 international at Mantorp Park in Sweden and Frank came breezing up to me. "You'll be coming in early, I'm sure, tomorrow morning," he told me in a tone which seemed halfway between an inquiry and an instruction. So there was any prospect of a lie-in gone straight out of the window. I blathered something like "yes, of course" and Frank followed that up with "in that case I wonder if you would mind giving me a lift into the track". Terrified that I would be reported to Dood if I failed in this task, and deemed not to be quite the ticket as a result, I meekly acquiesced and had the car ready, waiting and warmed up outside the local hotel at what seemed an ungodly hour the following morning.

Frank Williams' ISO Marlboro team finished just five races in 1974 © Sutton Images

It was only later than I realised that Frank was depending on me because there was no money for a hire car within his F2 team's budget. Many years later one of his former colleagues told me "We really hadn't got a pot to piss in through most of 1971, it was real hand-to-mouth stuff." Naively, I assumed that anybody who operated an F1 team was extremely comfortably off. But Frank was always treading water in those days when it came to cash, even though he concealed it well beneath a veneer of well-groomed sleekness.

Some years later we picked up on this theme. I think it was 1974, when the standing joke about the Williams team was that, while most teams had two cars and three engines, Frank had two cars and one engine between them. It wasn't quite like that, but it certainly gave a new meaning to the expression "hand-to-mouth." I wrote something in Motoring News, for whom I was now F1 correspondent, which he interpreted as vaguely critical. A letter from Frank came the following week saying, "You may think I'm a joke, but really we're trying to build the basis of a competitive F1 team. I'm not just here to ponce around the pit lane in expensive pullovers."

Aghast, I penned an apology which obviously he deemed excessively craven. Back came a second letter kindly telling me that there was no need to apologise in such abject terms, adding "my wife is a very good cook, do come to lunch sometime soon." I felt I had got to know Frank Williams at last.