RealSport F1 Reviews: Williams (2017)

Our RealSport review series continues with a look at the 2017 documentary 'Williams' charting the foundations and rise of the enigmatic F1 team.

(Photo credit: J.H. Sohn)

You’ve finished your family dinner, gorged yourself silly on chocolate, and now want to settle down to watch some F1 action this Easter Sunday. Disgracefully, some oik at the FIA decided that there should be no race this weekend, and you’ve already seen the excellent McLaren ‘Grand Prix Driver‘ series we reviewed a few weeks back. So what are you going to watch? This story about Sir Frank Williams and his racing legacy provides the perfect solution.

The story looks at Williams in three parts: The origins, mainly through the eyes of his friends and colleagues in those early days. His home life, both before and after his near fatal accident in 1986 (told mainly through the eyes of his late wife Ginny whose 1991 autobiographical tale 'A Different Kind of Life' provides the backbone for the film). And it also briefly looks at the Williams F1 team of the present, from the perspective of Frank's daughter (and current team principal in all but name) Claire Williams.

Yet the tales of Williams 'the team' and Williams 'the family' are too interlinked to be separated cleanly. And the same characters pop up throughout to give a continuous commentary on all aspects of Sir Frank and his team's life. Tying these together is the man himself, giving rare and unprecedented access into the mind of an F1 legend. Often candid about his own failings, but always unflinching about his objectives, his honest appraisals really strengthen the entire piece. 

The man behind the team

It will not surprise you to discover racing is Sir Frank Williams' life. However, hearing his wife say it (the film makes use of audio dictated to Ginny's ghostwriter Pamela Cockerill), his daughter repeat it and the man himself admit the same, invokes several emotions. For all his faults, ‘Frank is Frank’, and those around him have just learned to live in that environment. Claire shows little enmity for her father being how he is although there is a certain level of frostiness when discussing her mother's legacy. For those outside the family circle, the impression is of a man with such drive, passion and charm it is hard not to be swept away by the Frank Williams tide. 

For Sir Frank himself, one gets the feeling that team and family are not notions he separates. If you are with him, you’re with him for everything, because to him there is nothing else. This is touched on in a tragicomedy way by the story of the family holiday - 32 years of visiting the same place in Marbella without Sir Frank because: "he’d just drive us all mad."

The main focal point of the piece is the life-changing accident in 1986 that left Sir Frank tetraplegic. And while there’s a strong emphasis on his determination to fight on and not let it ruin his life, there’s also remarkable candour about how this was impossible, at least for those around him. Sir Frank focuses on the accident, giving firsthand insight into what happened, but it is left to Claire to narrate the story of how Ginny held the family and team together, while barely holding herself together under extreme pressure.

Untold stories

For all the documentary reveals – and with such access to the subjects, it’s far more than you’d expect – there’s still a feeling that more has been left out of the narrative. For racing fans, the brief time dedicated to the accident that lead to the tragic death of Ayrton Senna feels like a copout, especially given the questions asked of Williams after the incident. However, this is ground that’s been covered extremely well elsewhere (particularly in Asif Kapadia’s seminal documentary 'Senna'). And there’s a huge gap as the documentary jumps from the period of success in the 90s straight to Claire’s role today, which itself is only briefly covered. 

However, the documentary doesn’t set out to be an all-encompassing history but more a look at the man himself in the only way possible – through his team. For those interested in the human dynamic, there is a lot unsaid about Claire’s relationships with her brothers, especially Jonathan. It’s clear there is resentment over who is running the team, and suggestions that office politics has caused a rift between the siblings. But maybe that's for a follow-up documentary in another 30 years time.

Williams gives an unprecedented insight behind the scenes of one of F1's iconic teams, and the last true family set-up on the grid. And while it doesn’t focus on the mechanics of running a multi-million pound empire like other documentaries do, it really drives home the human aspect of the operation. This leads to some moving moments that few others would allow access to and allows the viewer to connect with Sir Frank, the man and the father. The documentary might not change any pre-conceived views you have of one of F1's most enigmatic figures (not that he’s bothered about people's opinions), it will at least offer you an intriguing glimpse into how his mind works.

Williams can be found on either Netflix as part of their standard package, or available to rent through Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and other streaming sources.

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