Jonathan Williams

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Last updated: 16-September-2003


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Before F1

Egyptian starts out in his Mini racing at the local airfield

If you were given the chance to drive in one - just one - Formula One Grand Prix, and you could have a choice of any car, for most people the dream would be to have that one race in a Ferrari. Here we bring you the story of the man for whom that dream came true. An Englishman born in Cairo in Egypt, who spent most of his career in Italy, Jonathan Williams made only one start in Formula One, as part of a one-off year spent driving for the works Ferrari team in open-wheelers and sports cars.

In the late 1950s, whilst completing what he calls a "wasted education" at Cheltenham College, Williams learnt his motor racing by illegally thrashing around a local airfield in his Mini, along with a few pub mates. One of these, with whom Williams became close friends, was future Grand Prix star Piers Courage. Another was Sheridan Thynne, a man who in the 1980s would become instrumental in the development of the Williams Grand Prix team.


Straight to Formula Junior, then off to F3 with Courage

With driving racing cars his lifelong passion, in 1960 and 1961 Williams went racing for real, contesting a number of minor speed events in his Mini. The following year he took an Austin A40 to 12 wins and 2nd overall in the Brands Hatch Molyslip Saloons series, and in 1963 jumped straight into Formula Junior (the forerunner to Formula 3) competition on the continent. He firstly drove for the Merlyn team, but after being injured at Monaco, returned with a Lotus 31 and took 3rd place in a race in Dresden.

But it was as early as 1961 that Williams and Courage, whilst at a meeting at Mallory Park, met one of their fellow competitors - Jonathan's namesake, Frank Williams. Only eight years later, Courage would be driving for Frank's privateer team in F1. But in the meantime, Piers left school, moved into a flat in Harrow which Jonathan was also sharing with Charles Crichton-Stuart, and decided that he and Williams (Jonathan) would compete in a season of continental F3 together in 1964.

Williams discussing the development of the Ferrari F2 car with Mauro Forghieri.
Williams discussing the development of the Ferrari F2 car with Mauro Forghieri.


Lucas runs Jonathan in a Brabham; wins the Monza Lotteria

Purchasing a pair of Lotus 22s, they called themselves Anglo-Swiss Racing because they based themselves in Lausanne. Living a hand-to-mouth existence, they used whatever start and prize money they received to go from one race to the next (see also our fascinating interview with Williams). Williams proved himself as a driver, taking 2nd at Innsbruck, 3rd at Crystal Palace, 4th at the Nurburgring and at Brands Hatch, and 6th at Zolder, plus 3rd in a support event to an F2 race at the Nurburgring in a Lotus 31 Ford.

But during the year Courage and Williams also met Charles Lucas, who agreed to run Brabhams for both of them in 1965. In what was a highly successful partnership, Courage took four wins which paved the way to greater things, while Williams won the Monza Lotteria and at Zolder, as well as picking up 2nd at Brands Hatch and Chimay, 3rd at Monza and Silverstone, 4th in another race at Monza, and 5th in another event at Brands Hatch.


A great year sees six wins in Italian F3 (one a dead heat!)

Courage and Williams' individual success meant that from here their careers took different paths. Whilst Piers progressed up to F2 and eventually F1 in 1968 and 1969 before his untimely death in 1970 at the wheel of the Frank Williams-run de Tomaso, Jonathan scored himself a ride in Italian F3 in 1966 for the works de Sanctis team. He had already driven an F3-spec de Sanctis Ford in the 1965 F2 race at Syracuse for Scuderia Sorocaima, but this was the real deal.

1966 would be another good year for him. After overcoming Icelandic driver Sverrir Thoroddsson to win at Enna, he took three more wins at Monza (one of them a dead-heat), as well as victories at Mugello and Garda, 2nd at Monza and Vila Real, 4th at Buenos Aires and Monaco, 6th at Imola, and 10th at Reims. The de Sanctis connection also saw Williams make his sports car debut, a retirement at the World Championship round at Mugello where he shared the car with Luciano Verrocchio.

Williams joined Gunther Klass in a 206S at Monza in 1967.
Williams joined Günther Klass in a 206S at Monza in 1967.


Picks up a works Ferrari drive, but chances to impress are limited

Williams had now done sufficiently to impress none other than Enzo Ferrari, and in late 1966 this young Englishman abroad was offered a place in the works team for 1967, supposedly to drive the new F2 car that Mauro Forghieri had designed. With F2 rules stipulating that the engine had to be built around a production car block, by putting a Ferrari V6 into some Fiat road cars that engine could be used in the F2 machine, and, on paper at least, looked to have a massive advantage over the Cosworth four cylinders.

But right from the start things started to go wrong. There was a dispute over his monthly salary, and over the winter all he got to do was show up at the Modena factory on bitterly cold mornings, find privately-owned sports cars that needed a shakedown, and take them for a spin around the town and its surrounds. He also tested a Ferrari 275GTB/4 that belonged to Ferrari's girlfriend, and was also sent all over Italy in a Dino 206 GT to test the suspension, when what he really wanted to do was race.


Ferrari F2 endeavour turns out to be a damp squib

When 1967 came around, Williams finally got to test the Ferrari F2 car, the Ferrari Dino 166 V6, but found it a major disappointment with a high-revving but gutless engine which, in the end, would be no match for the Cosworths. It was clear the car was in trouble when it couldn't lap the Modena test track any faster than John Surtees' old F1 car, which at 1,500cc had a much smaller engine capacity. Eventually, he only drove one race with the car at Rouen, retiring after 7 laps with an engine failure.

In sports cars he got some opportunities for the Prancing Horse, but it was still far fewer than what he expected. He retired at Monza in a 206S with Günther Klass, and was also loaned out to privateer Italian teams for two other championship events in 206Ss. He retired at Sebring with Mario Casoni for the Brescia Corse team and also drove at the Targa Florio with an amateur driver by the name of Vittorio Venturi for the Scuderia Nettuno outfit.

The Targa Florio proved a somewhat fruitful outing for Jonathan.
The Targa Florio proved a somewhat ... fruitful ... outing for Jonathan.


All about appearances, as frail Dino can't make the distance at Monza

The Targa Florio was held over 10 torturous laps of the classic mammoth circuit, and Williams drove for 8 of them! To make matters worse, he had taken a mandarin with him for refreshment, but it had fallen out of the door pocket over a bump and was rolling around the car. Not that it caused a distraction, but instead, all the bottoming out had worn a hole in the undertray, and Jonathan was worried about losing his fruit! In the end the mandarin survived, and largely by Williams' effort the car came home 4th.

Otherwise, the Ferrari Dino sports cars were not terrifically competitive either. At Mugello, Klass was killed when he hit a tree, and team manager Franco Lini withdrew Williams, Casoni and Ludovico Scarfiotti. Allegedly, Klass' death was merely an excuse; the Ferraris were withdrawn because they were being smashed by the Porsches. At Monza, knowing that the Dino wouldn't last the distance, Forghieri told Williams to use an extra 500rpm to make sure he was leading when he retired - which he did, as if on cue.


Great Scot! Jonathan defers at Brands Hatch; heads Stateside with NART

But Ferrari also had larger sports cars, the 330 P3 and P4 Spyders which competed at Le Mans. Williams tested these too but didn't get the opportunity to race in the 24hr classic. However, Williams did get to race the P4 in the Brands Hatch 6hrs, where he was due to be teamed with Jackie Stewart. Realising that the Scotsman was too fast for him, he graciously asked Lini to put Chris Amon in the car so Stewart could have a chance of winning. Williams was instead paired with Paul Hawkins, and they came 6th.

Amon also convinced Ferrari to have a tilt at several Can-Am rounds towards the end of 1967, bankrolled by car collector and gambling mogul Bill Harrah, and run under the North American Racing Team banner. Two P4s (badged as 330 P4 C7s) were given revised bodywork, wider wheels and 4.2 litre engines, one for Amon and one for Williams. The car had no shortage of speed in a straight line; it was getting the car to handle properly around corners that proved much more difficult.

Williams drove alongside Chris Amon for NART in some Can-Am races in 1967.
Williams drove alongside Chris Amon for NART in some Can-Am races in 1967.


Frustrating spell in Can-Am, includes a top-5 finish at Laguna Seca

Amon was 5th at Laguna Seca and Williams 8th, but at Riverside it was Amon in 8th whilst Williams retired with a damaged exhaust system after a minor collision. The last race was in Las Vegas, where Williams was involved in a multiple shunt at the first corner, and Amon crashed on the last corner of the last lap. All in all, it was a frustrating Can-Am experience. The best thing about it, perhaps, was the blue Ferrari 275GTS which Hollywood Ferrari dealer Chick Vandergriff loaned Williams for his time in America.

So Williams' 1967 at Ferrari was winding down, and there had been no shortage of disappointment. What should have been a dream position leading to bigger and better things had been no more than a litany of stop-start outings. If anything, Jonathan's highlight of the year was back in his F3 de Sanctis, when he won the Monza Lotteria again. But, in the middle of his American sojourn, just when it looked as though his year was petering to an end, Williams got his chance on the biggest stage of all.

Formula One

Joins Amon in F1 at the last race of the season in Mexico

Part of the Ferrari deal meant that Williams was also a reserve driver for their Formula One outfit. Running the 312 model with a 3.0 litre V12 engine, Lorenzo Bandini was meant to be the team's front man, with New Zealander Amon in support. But tragically, Bandini perished in a gruesome fire after crashing at the port chicane in the season opener at Monaco. Ferrari then fielded second and third cars alongside Amon's for Mike Parkes and Scarfiotti in Holland and Belgium.

But after Parkes also seriously injured himself at Spa, for six races straight Ferrari only ran one 312 for Amon, with Williams seemingly left on the sidelines. That was, until the last round of the 1967 World Championship in Mexico City, in between the Riverside and Las Vegas Can-Am rounds. Williams had expected that Amon's would be the only car entered, and was greatly peeved when Lini insisted that he too come south of the border, believing that he would only be a spectator.

Williams racing during his solitary F1 outing for Ferrari.
Williams racing during his solitary F1 outing for Ferrari.


Tough assignment; cops one on the nose for his trouble

It was clear though that Williams was going to be more than just that when Lini told him to bring his race gear. But it would turn out to be a tough initiation. Williams was unfamiliar with the car, the track, and the Mexico City altitude. He needed all the time in the car he could get. Yet as things turned out, he was forced to sit out all of Friday practice whilst Amon swapped between both cars to see which one he liked. It was only on Saturday, after Amon had made his choice, that Williams could venture out of the pits.

Being a diminutive fellow, the mechanics had to place foam rubber in the cockpit just so that Williams could reach the pedals. As Jonathan himself put it, he was in a type of car he hadn't driven, on a track he didn't know, in a car Amon didn't want - great for one's confidence on their Grand Prix debut. Even worse, he clipped one of the semi-circle tyres set in concrete on the apex of corners to discourage drivers from cutting the track, damaging his nosecone which was merely taped up because there was no replacement.


Finishes the race, classified 8th and only a lap down

In the end, he eventually qualified 16th out of the 19 competitors, 7.24 seconds slower than Jim Clark on pole, and 6.76 seconds behind Amon who was 2nd. His was the lowest-placed works machine; behind him were three privateer entrants, Jo Bonnier in a Cooper, Mike Fisher in a Lotus, and Guy Ligier in a Brabham. The race was scarcely any easier, Williams running ahead of Jackie Stewart in the lamentable BRM H16, and battling with Jean-Pierre Beltoise in a Matra F2 car.

In the end, Williams embarrassingly had to give best to Beltoise, and eventually was classified a lap down in 8th, ahead of Amon in 9th only because the New Zealander, who was in contention for the race win against the likes of Clark, Denny Hulme and Jack Brabham, only to suffer fuel feed problems towards the end. It was not a performance by which Williams could have been properly judged though, considering how the car didn't fit him and the limited practice he got.

Williams racing his Ferrari, ahead of Jackie Stewart at the 1967 Mexican Grand Prix, his only F1 race.
Williams racing his Ferrari, ahead of Jackie Stewart at the 1967 Mexican Grand Prix, his only F1 race.


Write-off at Modena the straw that breaks Enzo's back

However, Ferrari didn't really see it that way. He was already in Enzo's bad books after all. There had been an incident during where one of Ferrari's friends had invited Williams and Amon to his Adriatic resort to stay for week. After a gigantic farewell lunch there, they bumped into Enzo, who invited them for pizza at four in the afternoon. Williams and Amon said no, but in hindsight to say 'no' to 'Il Commendatore' was a suicidal mistake. It was not a good way for Williams to endear himself to the boss.

The final straw perhaps came after that Mexican GP. Williams had already been ostensibly released by Ferrari who were now anxious to sign Jacky Ickx. But after negotiations hit a few stumbling blocks, Williams was brought back to test the F1 car at Modena. He was getting close to the lap record when he pushed too hard, crashed into a hedge, and tore all four wheels off the car. When he returned to the pits, his mechanics refused to look at him for fear of showing their embarrassment.


Free from the Italian infighting and infamous in-house politics

And that was it as far as Williams' time at Ferrari went. Soon it was confirmed that his services would not be required at Maranello in 1968. In truth, perhaps Williams was not as disappointed as he could have been. His career with the Prancing Horse had never taken off, and he had spent more time sitting on the sidelines than actually getting behind the wheel. Especially since the whole F2 project for which he was originally signed turned out to be a dead horse which they couldn't even be bothered flogging.

Worse still, Williams had become disenchanted by the infamous Ferrari politics. Although his mechanics were loyal, and he had the greatest respect for Forghieri and the engine technicians, it was a culture shock to leave a de Sanctis and join Ferrari where to have people pulling in different directions was not only the norm, it was what the idiosyncratic Enzo wanted. Williams also spoke fluent Italian, which one may have thought was an advantage, but it also meant he was privy to all the debilitating infighting around him.

After F1

Develops Abarth and de Tomaso F1 cars

How was Williams going to resurrect his career after a stint at the most famous team of all? During 1967, Paul Hawkins, with whom he drove at Brands Hatch, had obtained some sponsorship to run two Lola T70s in F5000 for 1968, and Williams was part of the plan, but in the end it never came to fruition. But for a while it looked as though Williams' F1 career may not have been over after all, when he signed for Carlo Abarth to develop the Italian's V8 F1 project.

Although at one stage it was reported that Williams would debut the car in the 1968 Spanish GP, in truth the Abarth design was never going to race. By this stage monocoque design, pioneered by Lotus, had become all the rage, but the Abarth was still based on an old space frame design. So the Abarth deal also came to nothing, and apart from some development work he did on the de Tomaso F1 car later raced by his friend Courage, Williams never drove an F1 car again.


Bits and pieces in F2 again, before a spellbinding Lotteria victory!

For the rest of 1968, when it became clear that the Abarth F1 effort was going to be aborted, Williams wanted to drive Courage's F2 car run by Frank Williams on the weekends when Piers had other commitments, but Carlo Abarth would not release him, and some acrimony developed between the two. In the end, Williams did manage a few sporadic F2 races, the first at Hockenheim in a Church Farm Racing Brabham BT23C FVA, where he came 11th.

At the non-championship Monza Lotteria though, he finally got his wish to drive in the Frank Williams-run Brabham BT23C. Here he proved the talent that Ferrari had wasted. Despite a less-than-brilliant qualifying effort, he won a thrilling slipstream duel by 0.2s over Alan Rees' Brabham, with two McLarens of Robin Widdows and Jo Schlesser in 3rd and 4th, all within a second of Williams, who had overtaken Rees on the drag to the finish line after the Parabolica.

A return to the scene of many triumphs: Williams piloted the new de Tomaso DT103 at the 1969 Lotteria Monza. He came 9th.
A return to the scene of many triumphs: Williams piloted the new de Tomaso DT103 at the 1969 Lotteria Monza. He came 9th.


Takes a noteworthy 0.1 points in Temporada; back to sports and touring cars

He then came 8th at Zandvoort in a Merlyn Racing Mk12 FVA, before starting three events in a Ron Harris Tecno 68 FVA at Enna, Reims and Albi. Towards the end of the year, Alessandro de Tomaso also fielded a Tecno 68 for him in the four-race Temporada series in South America, Williams coming 11th at Cordoba and 14th at San Juan, scoring 0.1 of a point in the process under the bizarre points system, and taking 17th overall in the series!

In 1969 he would have two more F2 races for de Tomaso, debuting their DT103 chassis with 9th at the Monza Lotteria but not being classified at Tulln-Langenlebarn, and coming 14th in a F5000 start in a Lola T142 at Brands Hatch. During 1968 and 1969 Williams also had several sports and touring car outings, retiring at Le Mans in 1968 in a Scuderia Filipinetti Ferrari 250 LM with Herbert Müller but coming 2nd at the Enna City Cup in a Serenissima GT, and having one ETCC start at Monza in a works Abarth 1000 TC.


Singing in the Rain and Dancing in the Dark at Le Mans

That 1968 Le Mans start turned out to be an eventful affair. When rain started to fall during the night, water leaked through the roof, drenching Williams and causing the electrics to short circuit. With several of the headlights blown, Jonathan was forced to guess where some of the corners were, including the kink in the middle of the fearsome Mulsanne straight at around 140mph! Then the 2nd and 4th gears failed. But the car only dropped out when eventually the rear right wheel fell off just after a pit stop.

1969 saw Williams retire at the Brands Hatch 500 miles in Hawkins' Lola T70 Mk3B, and also at the Targa Florio in Antonio Nicodemi's Porsche 907, on both occasions sharing the car with its owner. He also drove the Serenissima again at two other events, finishing 7th but taking fastest lap at the Enna City Cup, and also competing at the Norisring. But little did he expect that his sports car exploits would turn him into a movie star - sort of - the following year.

Williams partners Alberti in the 1970 Targa Florio. Willimas co-drove their Alfa T33/2 Spider to 7th place.
Williams partners Alberti in the 1970 Targa Florio. Willimas co-drove their Alfa T33/2 Spider to 7th place.


More endurace outings, but with little reward at day's end

What happened was this. 1970 looked like another unhappy year where Williams would be scrounging around for drives. At the Brands Hatch 1000kms, he shared a Gelo Racing Team Ferrari 512S with Georg Loos, but they couldn't start the race when no tyres were available to them. He had then retired at the Monza 1000kms in Nicodemi's 907, and after a practice accident in a works Abarth 3000SP at the Targa Florio had stepped into the Scuderia Madunina Alfa T33/2 Spider to place 7th with Giovanni Alberti.

Mixed in there had been a one-off drive in the European 2-litre Sports Car Championship at the Salzburgring, where Williams had come 4th in a works Abarth 2000SP. But then came the biggest sports car race of the year, the Le Mans 24hrs. It just so happened that this was the race actor/racer Steve McQueen wanted to use as the basis for his epic film Le Mans. McQueen wanted to compete in the event himself in the interests of authenticity, but his insurers wouldn't let him, and his project suddenly was on the line.


Williams and Linge pilot the Le Mans movie camera car

McQueen and his production company, Solar Productions, quickly found a solution. They entered an old Porsche 908/02 which McQueen himself had previously raced, and organised for Williams and Herbert Linge to drive it. The car would be fitted with three cameras, one bulging out under the front hood. Although Le Mans officials were wary of cameras falling onto the track during the race, McQueen was desperate to get on-board shots, showing the massive crowd from an in-car perspective, and the officials relented.

In other preparations, Solar completely repainted the pit areas, added lighting to two corners, and placed 16 cameras around the track. Inside the cockpit of their 908 there was an on-off switch for both the cameras facing forward and back. Linge, who was to start the race, was under instructions to film the entire first lap, and both drivers were told to capture anything of note - when they passed cars, when the leaders lapped them, differing light conditions, cars stopped or spun, lights in the night, and so on.

Jonathan at the helm of the Porsche 908/02 during the 1970 24hrs of Le Mans, laden with cameras and film for the production of Steve McQueen's epic film.
Jonathan at the helm of the Porsche 908/02 during the 1970 24hrs of Le Mans, laden with cameras and film for the production of Steve McQueen's epic film.


Williams takes the film laden Porsche to 9th overall, but 61 laps down

When the race finally got under way, Linge made a lightning start but pitted after two laps just to change the film. In fact, this happened several times every hour. Williams claims that, almost without doubt, their Porsche set the record for the most number of pit stops ever made by a car without any problems! Despite that, and the handling of the car being wildly unpredictable because of the weight of the cameras, the pair still came home 9th on the road, although they were 61 laps down and were not classified.

All the used film put together made for some 15 miles of footage, although subsequently Solar assembled a stable of 26 cars to run a mock race in order to film additional action sequences, a process Williams was also involved in. Williams had made a massive contribution to what many have called the purest racing film ever made, and in fact had a small acting role as a character called Jonathan Burton. In future years he co-authored a book about his experiences in the making of the film, called A French Kiss With Death.


Retires from racing to pilot millionaires around the globe

But as a racing driver, this had been something of a last hurrah for Williams. He would only have one more outing, in the 1971 Targa Florio, where he once again teamed up with Nicodemi, this time in a Lola T212 Ford, placing 7th. At the end of the year he retired from racing. But with a pilots' licence in his pocket, and at one stage having been de Tomaso's personal pilot, he found himself an alternative career firstly flying at air shows, and then flying private jets for multimillionaires and multinational companies.

Based in the south of France, this continued for the next two decades or so. But in the 1990s, Williams gave up this lifestyle as well. Instead, for the last ten years he has been living in a small motor home with his companion Linda, becoming a writer and photographer, travelling from place to place on a whim. A quiet way to end a professional career which saw him drive for the most famous team in motor racing, and play an instrumental part in one of the best motor racing films ever made.

Click here to read our Interview with Jonathan Williams!

Note: Some stories and anecdotes in the above biography have been adapted from various articles written by, or provided to us by, Jonathan.

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