Claire Williams exclusive interview: 'I've run out of energy - this sport takes a lot out of you'

A new chapter awaits after the wrench of overseeing the departure of the Williams family from F1 after 43 years

Williams wants to define herself beyond the perimeter of an F1 paddock
Williams wants to define herself beyond the perimeter of an F1 paddock Credit: GETTY IMAGES

It is Claire Williams’s last day at the team factory that has framed her life, and she appears uncertain quite how to feel. In public, she has already bid her goodbyes, marking Williams’s farewell as a family run entity with a tearful speech at Monza. But nothing captures the finality of the team’s sale, after its 43 years of defiant independence, so starkly as packing up her office and watching the Grove gates recede irrevocably into her rear-view mirror.

“I’ve been coming here for 20 years,” she reflects. “I drive in and I see the Williams sign, the flags, the roundabout. It has always felt like a very safe place, like home. Leaving here feels like I’m not going to another home. It’s a whole gamut of emotions. You flick from being quite positive about the future and ­excited about what life might hold to a complete trough of ‘what am I going to do now?’”

In the days ahead, she is unlikely to miss the barbs and brickbats that assailed her ­during eight tumultuous years as de facto leader of a team with 16 world titles. Even those close to her have spoken of a weight visibly lifting from her, such was the withering criticism she faced for every misstep Williams made throughout their painful tailspin to the back of the grid. This week brings a novel but no less nourishing reality as her ­father, Sir Frank, the team’s founder and a man believed to be the oldest living tetraplegic, takes Nate, her two-year-old son, to the zoo.

“I’m pretty much done,” she says, weary of her recent experiences of being Formula One’s punching bag. “I’ve had my turn. I’ve run out of energy. The new owners deserve someone who can give it everything that they’ve got. That’s not me.”

Dorilton Capital, the New York private investment house that acquired Williams last month for £136 million, had wanted her to stay, but she was adamant she could not give the same passion to a project that was no longer the family’s own.

“Everybody knows how emotionally ­connected I am to this team. I do it because of my dad and my family. I took on this role ­because I wanted to protect my parents’ ­legacy and what they had created. I didn’t feel I could put as much into it, doing it for ­somebody else.”

Williams conceded working for anyone other than her father's would not feel the same  Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

For all that the team she inherited proved brittle, there is a certain indomitability about Williams herself. “A tough piece of work,” her father once called her. “Whatever she sets out to do, she achieves it.” It is tempting to ­ascribe such a trait to Frank, who, despite battling unimaginable physical debilities, has never displayed a trace of self-pity.

But it owes as much to the example of her mother, Virginia, who helped keep the team intact after her husband’s car crash 34 years ago in the Provencal countryside left him paralysed from the neck down.

“My mother was incredibly resolute, very stiff upper lip, got on with things,” Claire explains. “You’re dealt your cards in life and you handle them to the best of your abilities. She put the money in behind the scenes in the Seventies to keep Dad going. Equally, she was the one who rescued my dad from his ­hideous car accident. If it wasn’t for her, he wouldn’t be alive and we wouldn’t have the championships we won after 1986. I never wanted ­people to forget that side of our story.”

Ginny, as she was known to all, died of cancer in 2013, aged 66. She wrote a book, A Different Kind of Life, documenting the grief and rage she felt in the aftermath of Frank’s crash, when his rented Ford Sierra plunged off a narrow hillside road as he rushed to catch a flight home from Nice. The fact that Frank ­refused to read it caused great hurt to Claire, at least until she delivered a moving excerpt to him in the closing scenes of Williams, the 2017 documentary on the team’s triumphs and trials.

Claire and parents Franks and Ginny together during the Spanish Grand Prix in 2012 Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Claire still has the poster for that film on the wall of the Oxfordshire office she is about to forsake. “Formula One’s greatest family,” the strapline declares. And now, at a stroke, their presence has gone. “It’s so weird,” she acknowledges. “It goes in different waves of feelings. Dad started racing when he was a teenager. It’s a big adjustment for us all, ­getting our heads around not having ­Williams in our family any more.”

Allied to Williams’s natural resilience, though, is a realism which allowed her to ­accept definitively that the team could not endure as a family enterprise. True, they had rebounded from adversity before, not least when they failed even to have a car ready for testing last season. But 2020 brought challenges of a graver magnitude: no sooner did they lose their title sponsors than Covid-19 brought their financial distress into the sharpest relief.

“We had exhausted every avenue open to us,” she says. “I did think, coming into this year, that we had turned a corner. We had new title partners, who were promising the earth. Then that collapsed, and coronavirus hit. It was game over. There was no coming back from that. If those two things hadn’t happened, we would have been OK.”

Williams’s formal response in May was to embark on a “strategic review”, although it was evident to Claire from the outset that an outright sale was the only feasible option. “We saw that fairly early on, if I’m honest, considering the types of organisations that would want to invest in something like this. They’re going to want full control. It was the inevitable conclusion.”

One visible consequence of her departure is the extinguishing of the last flicker of female representation at the highest levels of F1 leadership. In the role, she always sought to downplay her rarity value as a woman in the sport’s corridors of power. Today, she is conscious that she is leaving the team principals’ club as a male-only cabal once more.

'If I’ve inspired just one woman to come into the sport, then that’s fantastic.' Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“I would never want to hold myself up and say, ‘I’ve gone, so now F1 has a real problem on its hands,’” she smiles. “I’ve always believed that these roles are meritocratic. But it was one of my thoughts when I made this decision to step away: ‘I am the only woman, and I know that people have been motivated to come into F1 because of seeing a woman in a senior position.’ Now, the mantle is being handed over. If I’ve inspired just one woman to come into the sport, then that’s fantastic.”

At 44, she has amassed a lifetime of stories on how dramatically the racing obsession can lay waste to normal family life. On her parents’ wedding day, Frank, eschewing the offer of a slap-up lunch, went straight back to the factory. On the annual holidays in Marbella, he never came. It has become a concern of hers ever since to keep her work and home life in some semblance of proportion.

“I’ve experienced how much F1 takes away,” she says. “I’m now in the position where I can be a mum, a wife. I also want to focus on my dad, as he’s moving very near to us at home. There’s a lot of work involved in that, and I want to make sure it all goes smoothly.”

There is a restlessness to define herself, too, beyond the perimeter of an F1 paddock. “I’m going to go home, regroup, recalibrate. It takes a lot out of you, this sport, and I want to go and build myself back up a little bit, work out who I am away from Formula One.  I’ve always been Claire Williams, Frank Williams’s daughter. I’d like just to go away and be my own person, see what that feels like.”

As she knows, cold economics dictates that there can, ultimately, never be a tale quite like Williams’s again. While F1’s foundations were built on the wild dreams of people such as her father, it has long since morphed into the province of global corporations and ­sovereign wealth funds. To be successful, she argues, takes “hundreds and hundreds of millions”.

Eventually, that equation took its toll on her. But the fight is one she will remember with the deepest fondness. “I’ve never considered it to be a burden, running this team,” she says. “It has always been an enormous privilege.” And with that, she drives away from the house that Frank built one last time, closing the door on one remarkable chapter, but determined to write another.