Over a quarter of a century after
Ayrton Senna was killed in a car bearing her family's name, Claire
Williams relived the tragedy of Formula One's darkest day.
"About a year later I remember being in a pub," she explains.
don't know how he knew who I was, but a complete stranger came up to me
and said: 'Your dad is a murderer'.
"It hadn't really sunk in about how people might feel about the
accident. That's not what happened, but I guess some people are
Senna was Formula One's brightest star, a sporting giant, an icon in
his native Brazil. But on lap seven of the ill-fated San Marino Grand
Prix - a black weekend that had already claimed the life of Austrian
Roland Ratzenberger - he ran off the road at 190mph and hit a concrete
wall. He died instantly, aged 34.
Saturday marks what would have been the three-time world champion's 60th birthday.
Senna's death in Imola was the last time a driver was killed at a
Formula One race. Jules Bianchi died nine months after his accident at
the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
Sir Frank Williams, the team's extraordinary founder, was cleared of
manslaughter charges in 1997. The exact cause of the crash remains
"Frank never spoke to anyone about it," Claire Williams, now the de facto boss of the British team, told the PA news agency.
"That isn't his personality. He isn't one for therapy, or having long
conversations. He internalises and keeps it all in. That is how he has
been brought up, but you can see the pain in his eyes every time he
thinks about the accident."
Senna was competing in just his third race for Williams, who were
then the kings of the Formula One road. Nigel Mansell had galloped to
the drivers' title in 1992. Alain Prost won the championship a year
later. Williams then landed the driver he had dreamt of signing.
"Ayrton was a God in our house and had been for many years, decades even," says Claire.
"Frank had a love-affair with Ayrton. He got into his heart, got into his mind, and he always wanted to put him in his race car.
"Dad's wish then came true, but it ended in the worst possible way."
Frank Williams remains the team principal of a constructor which has
won 16 combined championships. But his title is now largely in name
The 77-year tetraplegic has been consigned to a wheelchair for more
than three decades after a road accident in 1986. He no longer travels
to races, leaving his daughter Claire in charge. Yet on that fateful day
in May, she was a 17-year old schoolgirl, preparing for her mock
"I was watching the race in my bedroom," she says.
"Dad was obviously
away, and mum (Lady Virginia Williams) was watching it downstairs.
"It was just a horrific accident, and it felt as though something suddenly came over the house. It was really odd.
"Quite quickly, my mum came upstairs. I was due to go back to
boarding school at 18:00 that evening, and mum said you are going now. I
knew then that something serious was going on.
"I was put on a train and sent away. My parents preferred to shelter
us from it. They did that with dad's accident and they did so with
Ayrton's death, too."
Tragically for Williams it marked the second time a driver had died
in one of his cars. Piers Courage lost his life in a fireball inferno at
Zandvoort, Holland, in 1970.
"It was an excruciating thing to happen to dad again," added Claire.
"He went to Ayrton's funeral in Brazil which, from a safety perspective,
we were all very worried about because Ayrton was an enormous hero and
he died in our car, but Frank wanted to be there.
"We all then went to the memorial service in London. I'll always
remember my mother saying to me: 'There will be no crying on this day,
this is not your loss'.
"In our film (released in 2017) there is a scene where Frank is at
Ayrton's funeral, and I have never seen my dad look like that.
"There is an extraordinary line where he is asked how he felt that day, and he just says: 'Far from well'.
"I think that says it all. I am sure he felt far from well for many, many, many years, and still today he won't talk about him.
"He will talk about what a great man Ayrton was, and what a great driver he was, but nothing to do with the accident."
Despite the tragedy, Williams carried on. David Coulthard took
Senna's seat as Damon Hill became the team's lead driver. Hill fell just
one point short of beating Michael Schumacher to the championship.
"I am sure there were days when dad may have thought I don't want to
go racing, I want to hide under my duvet," Claire concludes.
"You just want to stop sometimes, and that was the hardest thing. But
people in this sport are made of stern stuff, and Ayrton probably
wanted us to keep racing."