LONDON (Reuters) – Former Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone paid tribute to the late Frank Williams as a pioneer who helped to build the modern sport and without whom it might have ceased to exist.
Williams, who had been quadriplegic since a 1986 car accident in France, died on Sunday aged 79, his family said in a statement.
The eponymous team he founded, still the second most successful in terms of constructors’ championships and third oldest, was sold to U.S.-based Dorilton Capital last year.
Williams came from an era where title-winning teams were run by their founders, men such as Enzo Ferrari, Ken Tyrrell and Lotus boss Colin Chapman who are all long gone.
“Without those type of people I doubt whether Formula One would have still been going now. Probably Ferrari would have stopped and that would have been it,” Ecclestone, 91, told Reuters.
“There’s not many of the old-timers floating around now — those that were with the teams when they started.
“You could buy an engine and a gearbox (in those days). You didn’t need to have multi, multi-billions and have 1,000 people working for you.”
Ecclestone, who took over and ran the Brabham team in the early 1970s, recalled Williams as an old friend who got over life’s financial and physical obstacles with charm and determination.
“Frank was a little bit special as a person. And that sort of showed in the way he kept going,” he said.
“Things were never really bad as far as Frank was concerned, he never complained about things. He got on with things the best way he could. And that’s the reason he was so successful. He was a racer through and through.”
Ecclestone recalled the obsessive physical fitness fanatic who before his accident would run for miles before dinner but also showed a keen eye for style.
“He was always ahead of the game. He knew about cashmere sweaters when I’d never heard of cashmere. That was Frank,” said the British billionaire.
“He’d say to me ‘Could you lend me 2,000 pounds’. And I’d say yes. And he’d say ‘I’ll pay you in 10 days’. As sure as anything, Frank would return in 10 days with 2,000 pounds.
“He’d talk about whatever and then just before he went he’d say ‘I wonder if you could help me? Do you think you could lend me 2,500 pounds? I’ll pay you back in 10 days.’ And that’s how we worked with Frank. I would trust him with my life.”
Ecclestone also recalled sitting in hospital, after Williams had been flown back from France to London, with Formula One doctor Professor Sid Watkins.
“I said ‘How long’s this going to last?’ and he (Watkins) said ‘I think he’ll be here for six months looking at the ceiling’. I said ‘Is he going to survive all this?’ and he said ‘I don’t think so’. And Sid really knew (the science).
“As usual Frank proved everyone wrong. They don’t grow them like Frank any more”.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Clare Fallon)