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Five Stars – The Williams cars before they were Williams

January 10, 2019

We all know that Williams Grand Prix engineering was founded in 1977 by Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head, and that the first car they produced together was the Williams FW06. But why start at six? What happened to Williams FW cars numbered 01 to 05?

Sir Frank’s involvement in Formula 1 goes back to 1969 and pre-dates the Williams team we now know and love by a full eight years. Here’s the tale of what led to Frank & Patrick’s decision in 1977 to buy an empty carpet warehouse in Didcot and form Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

Frank Williams fancied himself as a racing driver from a young age. But after a fleeting career in touring cars and Formula 3 he realised that his talents lay in team operations and decided to let other people do the driving for him, and started his own team – Frank Williams racing cars – in 1966.

A successful two seasons in Formula 2 followed, where Williams’ drivers, led by Frank’s former flatmate Piers Courage, pitted themselves against the likes of François Cevert, Jochen Rindt and a plethora of then Formula 1 stars, keeping their eye in (and the sponsors and organisers happy) with the odd F2 appearance every now and again.


Buoyed by this success, Williams bought a Brabham Formula 1 car with which he would enter Courage into the 1969 F1 season.

The step up gave Williams more success as Courage finished second at both the Monaco Grand Prix and the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen on his way to eighth place in the championship in his and Frank Williams Racing Cars’ debut season.

De Tomaso

Success in 1969 brought Williams to the attention of the De Tomaso car company who agreed to build a car for Williams and for Courage with which to compete in F1 in 1970.

However, the car was unwieldy, slow and struggled with reliability, failing to finish the first four races of the season. In the fifth Courage crashed heavily at Zandvoort, and tragically, he was killed instantly.

Williams fought on after the death of his driver and friend, but results were hard to come by and Williams and De Tomaso parted company at the end of the year.

For 1971 Williams bought a March 701 chassis, bolted a Cosworth engine in the back and sat Henri Pescarolo at the wheel. By now the chassis was a year old, and despite upgrading to the latest March 711 mid-season, two top six place finishes were the high points of a disappointing season.

Lack of results meant the team was beginning to struggle financially. Formula 1 was an expensive business and without an injection of funds the team faced an uncertain future.

Thankfully, funding arrived with Williams agreeing sponsorship deal with Italian toy manufacturer Politoys, reportedly securing them £40,000.

Politoys FX3

This allowed Williams to buy a new March 721 for Pescarolo but more excitingly it gave the team the opportunity to develop and built their first in-house chassis, which they named the Politoys FX3.

The FX3’s debut came after numerous delays, and was short lived. Starting the British Grand Prix from the back of the grid after handling issues in practice, its steering failed on lap seven, spearing itself and driver Pescarolo into the barriers and it was destroyed.

Pescarolo, unhurt in the accident, completed the 1972 season in the March 721.

Politoys withdrew their support for the 1973 season and so, when a second FX3 was built it was re-christened the ISO Marlboro FX3B after new sponsorship deals the canny Frank Williams landed the team.

Two new drivers were signed – Howden Ganley and Nanni Galli. The season opener in Argentina did not go well for Frank Williams Racing Cars and the FX3B; Galli retiring on the opening lap and Ganley finishing the race 17 (seventeen) laps down on winner Emerson Fittipaldi.

While results picked up with sixth and ninth places in the next Grand Prix in Brazil, despite the FX3 having completed a mere half a season it did not meet the new F1 regulations on deformable structures and the team had no option but to retire it.

Iso–Marlboro IR / Williams FW

The Iso–Marlboro IR made its debut at the fourth race of the 1973 season, the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic.

The IR was a conventional design, penned by John Clarke, ex of March Grand Prix.

It’s fuel tanks were in the centre of the car, around the driver, the radiators behind the front wheels, and the oil tank twixt (fully enjoyed writing that) driver and engine. 

It was low and flat with a low centre of gravity, powered by the Ford DFV (what else?) and featured a Hewland FG400 transmission.

Williams FW01, FW02 and FW03

With Howden Ganley as Williams’ regular driver in chassis number 1 (later renamed the FW01), the second of the two IRs built (FW02) was made available to pay-per-drive drivers, which, over the course of the season included Jacky Ickx, Tim Schenken and Gijs van Lennep.

The season started slowly with five retirements from six starts, but progress was solid and the season ended with two points finishes in the latter part of the year.

Prior to the 1974 season, Marlboro withdrew their funding and the team found itself in financial difficulty. This meant starting the season with a single car, now renamed the Iso–Marlboro FW, for new #1 driver Arturo Merzario who powered it home from an outstanding third on the grid for a points finish in the third Grand Prix of the year at Kylami.

A third chassis (FW03) was completed by the time the team arrived in Spain for the fourth round of the season. This was used as a spare car for Merzario and Dane Tom Belso who was in the second Williams that weekend.

A disappointing string of DNQs followed for the second Williams, chassis #1 (FW01) before it made its last appearance in the French Grand Prix when home favourite and future Grand Prix winner Jean-Pierre Jabouille failed to qualify.

Lead driver Merzario fared little better, retiring from eleven of the 13 GPs he started, a fourth place in the Italian Grand Prix being a high point of a poor season.

For the 1975 season the three FW chassis were updated and officially renamed the FW01 (by now consigned for use as a spare car only), FW02 and FW03, to begin with each chassis was given its own ‘FW’ number rather than Williams’ current naming convention of each design being numbered.

Williams FW04

Frank Williams Racing Cars’ latest car, the FW04 appeared at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Designed by Ray Stokoe, the FW04 was an evolution of its predecessor, the FW.

Stokoe narrowed the monocoque and moved the fuel cells inwards to alleviate roll that afflicted the FW cars and the radiators were moved backwards.

Only one FW04 was built initially as the team was, by now, being operated on a shoestring.

Arturo Merzario gave the FW04 its debut at Montjuic, where he was outqualified by his team-mate Tony Brise on his F1 debut – standing in for Williams regular Jacques Laffite who was honouring F2 commitments – in the FW03.

Brise would finish 7th that day in his only Williams outing of the season. Merzario withdrew his FW04 in protest at the barriers not being bolted together properly alongside then World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi.

Laffite chose to drive the FW04 at the next round in Monaco but neither he nor Merzario in the FW03 were able to qualify.

The tone for the season was set – neither regular driver nor the numerous pay-per-drive drivers could muster anything like a decent result in a season blighted by unreliability.

One exception would be the German Grand Prix, where Laffite capitalised on an unusually high attrition rate to bring his FW04 home in second place, securing six valuable points for the team.

By the season’s close another FW04 had been built, but it arrived too late to participate in a Grand Prix.

Wolf-Williams FW05

During the close season, the cash strapped Williams accepted an offer from Walter Wolf to buy 60% of his team, and for 1976 it was renamed Wolf-Williams Racing with Frank Williams continuing as team manager.

Frank Williams Racing Cars was no more.

Having also bought the remaining assets from Hesketh who had withdrawn from Formula 1 at the end of the 1975 season, whilst operating from Williams HQ in Reading, the team used equipment bought from Hesketh, including their 308C racing cars which were rebadged as Wolf-Williams FW05s.

At the end of a season spent largely outside of the top ten, Walter Wolf removed Frank as team manager and disillusioned with a team in which he no longer had a controlling interest he left (along with Patrick Head), the team became Walter Wolf Racing and Frank was left without a team for the first time in a decade.

Not wishing to be out of Formula 1 for long, Frank and Patrick Head got together and worked out the beginnings of Williams Grand Pix Engineering.

A legend was born..


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