You must have known Frank for a long time, Murray. When did you first meet?
The very first time that I was introduced to Frank was at Zandvoort in 1969. His driver was Piers Courage, and I remember looking around his car. It was a very smart Brabham Ford as I recall, he had managed to wangle a chassis just like the works cars – and it was immaculately turned out in dark blue. I was a bit surprised to find a medallion of a cockerel, the symbol of the Courage brewing company, discreetly attached to the bodywork – because I had not associated a pubilc school boy like Piers with the brewing business.
In fact, the BBC coverage of Formula One was still a long way from getting established then. What was your involvement?
I did not have all that much contact with Frank in the early days of his Formula One operation because I was strictly the BBC’s motorcycle specialist. Any interest which I took at that time in car racing was strictly out of my own enthusiasm. As far as I was concerened, he was a likeable, dash-about chap with lots of ambition and not always enough cash.
When did you and the BBC get involved, then?
Even when Frank got together with Patrick Head in 1977 and started his new team, I wasn’t going to the Grand Prix regularly. That didn’t start until 1978, which was the BBC’s first year covering Formula One, and in those days I was expected to stay at the circuit picking up ‘gen’ until Saturday, then it was a dash back to London to commentate on the race itself from the studio.
What was your impression of Frank in those days?
My first awareness of Frank’s character – which had always been a mixture of good humour and deep commitment – was in his relationship with Alan Jones, who joined the team in 1978. The two of them always seemed to be sparking off one another in a friendly way which I don’t think you would see very much of these days between a driver and his team owner.
Is he easy to interview?
I have to say that from my point of view he has never been the easiest man in motor racing because he is not a good subject for interview and has a tendency to evade the question. Whatever I want to talk about, he seems to want to avoid it. I suppose it means I am either asking all the right questions – or then maybe I’m asking the wrong ones. Either way, I find it a very strange attitude in a man who has obviously got a brilliant technique with the sponsors.
Nevertheless, you have had some memorable moments with him on-camera …
That’s true, and I hasten to say that Frank is kindness itself in difficult circumstances. I had the task of interviewing him on the morning that he was allowed to leave hospital after that ghastly road accident which injured him so badly in 1986. I was full of trepidation as I drove to the family house near Newbury where the Williams family lived. I didn’t even know how to approach him. How do you ask the right questions of a man who’s lived such an active life and now has to face the future in a wheelchair?
That must have been tough. But you had some help, didn’t you?
It was Ginny Williams who came to my rescue. While Frank was being prepared for the interview, she came up to me and said, “Hello Murray, there’s some champagne in the fridge if you’d like some. “Since a couple of hours after breakfast on a working day is a bit early for me to get into the grog, I was inclined to refuse, but something told me not to. Which is how I came to be knocking back champagne at 10 o’clock in the morning as preparation for one of the toughest assignments I have ever faced.
How did you approach him, then?
I felt I had to appeal to Ginny. “How do I do this?” I pleaded. “You cope with Frank just as you would cope with him at any other time,” she replied, adding, most sensibly, “it’s his body that’s been damaged, you know, not his brain.” And even though he was still terribly weak, that’s how I handled it. Frank was marvellous. “Before we start,” he said, “there’s no need to be worried. You can ask me anything.” We went over everything, and he even insisted on blaming himself for the accident, which happened while he was driving. It takes a very big man with more than the usual amount of moral fibre to do that. It didn’t last long, and considering the weakness of his condition at the time, it was an excellent interview. Bearing in mind what he had already achieved by then – two world championships for drivers and several others for constructors’ – I was an admirer. On that day, my admiration increased tenfold.
You seem to have an equally good relationship with Patrick Head…
Yes, Patrick is obviously an essential part of the Williams success story. You get the feeling that the relationship between them is easy and entirely natural. As Frank says, whenever they are in the factory they get together at lunch time for a conversation, and one imagines that they reach all their decisions after careful consideration and probably a lot of good humour.
You must have had some memorable moments with him, too…
One of the best interviews that I have ever had the privilege of doing took place with Patrick after the 1991 Portuguese Grand Prix. That was a very emotional time for Williams, as you will remember, because it was the race in which Nigel Mansell’s car shed a rear wheel in the pit lane, and the incident almost certainly cost him that year’s world championship. It was difficult for us at the BBC, too. With a satellite ‘slot’ looming, we were pushed for time, and we needed someone from the team to give us his comments in a hurry. I found Patrick, who generously agreed to talk even though he too was desperately short of time. He gave us a superb but condensed description of the pit procedures and how it had gone wrong. He made it clear that it had not been Nigel’s fault in any way and gave us a kindly explanation of who was responsible.
The Canon Williams Magazine – Winter 1993