We all have our heroes in Formula 1 and one of mine is Sir Frank Williams. It’s an often forgotten fact that Williams are the second most successful F1 constructor of all time, only Ferrari have won more World Constructors’ Championships. Frank Williams was at the helm through all of these successes, most of which came after 1986 when a car accident almost claimed his life and left him paralysed from the shoulders down. I haven’t been to the Williams’ factory on Christmas Day, but I’m told that Frank is there 365 days a year, and having met him several times I can well believe this. Frank is one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever met, not just in terms of what he has achieved, but the way he has achieved it.
Quite a few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Frank for the book ‘Performance at the Limit’, along with my co-author Richard West. Richard had worked for Frank as his commercial director, so there was a lot of reminiscing as well as a few stories which had to stay ‘off the record’. Because of Frank’s disability his office is a bit different to many, as well as a chair and desk he has a frame in which he can spend some time to get some relief from his usual posture, his telephone, which he can’t pick up with his hands, has an extension to enable him to use it. The office furniture is in the Williams’ corporate colour of navy blue, as is Frank, in his usual dark blue sweater. However, when we arrived to do the interview Richard and I couldn’t help but comment on the burst of colours that came from one of the dark blue cabinets. It wasn’t an F1 car, but a model of a bus, brightly coloured in yellows, blues, reds and greens. It was not a new bus, similar to one of those US school buses, but shorter, and with a roof rack filled with vegetables, livestock, sacks and packages of varying shapes and sizes. Frank explained that it had been a gift from their (then) new driver, Juan Pablo Montoya. It was a chiva, a traditional Colombian bus used to transport people and their belongings large distances from the Andes to the rich coffee regions near the Pacific. Frank joked that he thought he would buy one and put it in the paddock.
For some reason the memory of this bus had stayed with me and so when my wife suggested we visit Colombia on holiday, I had already plans that I would try and get my own chiva. We travelled around the Caribbean north to Cartagena, to Bogota and the Andes and to the coffee region near Armenia. We loved it. The people were so friendly and helpful, and the landscapes so beautiful. Our travel agent had booked us to stay at a small hacienda in the coffee region, a farmhouse that had effectively been converted into a small hotel. In addition to coffee they also grew cacao – which is used to make chocolate and bananas and their more savory cousin plantains. It was a beautiful and tranquil place with humming birds jostling each other for a place on the feeder outside our room. On our first morning we got a tour of the estate. As we set off across the fields our guide mentioned that a member of the family who owned the hacienda was a well-known racing driver, who now lived in the United States. As I asked for the name, I realised I already knew the answer, Juan Pablo Montoya.