It may seem unfair to compare every new racing documentary to Asif Kapadia’s Senna, but since its 2011 release there have been a number of films that have covered the sport. Rush, Lauda: The Untold Story, 1, and Senna vs Brundle have all to a certain degree tried to recapture both the heart-pounding thrills and emotion of Kapadia’s film.
The latest Formula One documentary Williams does cover a similar subject area but instead focuses on a very different racing icon. Frank Williams, founder and team principle of the Williams Formula One team that has won 9 Constructors’ Champions since its inception in 1977, is one of the most recognisable figures in the sport, as much for his longevity and success as his wheelchair.
The film has a split narrative, with one part showing us the current state of the team, while the other takes us chronologically through his life from childhood through to his almost fatal road crash in 1988. Aside from Frank, the two main figures are his late wife Ginny and his daughter Claire who is currently in charge of the day-to-day running of the team.
Formula One is a big money sport with a lot of commercial interests competing against each other for sponsorship and endorsements. Consequently I feared that Williams would be a bit corporate and official. Each team has shareholders to please and it seemed a real possibility that a high profile documentary like this would follow a pre-agreed agenda.
It is a pleasure then to say that Morgan Matthews’ documentary is surprisingly honest. Audio tapes of Ginny Williams, recorded for a book she wrote following Frank’s crash, highlight the pains and sacrifices made by Frank and those around him to make his sporting ambitions a reality. Interviewees are in general willing to comment on the topics brought up, though there are times when Frank understandably chooses not to comment. The story behind the rise of the Williams Formula One team is an excellent one that was built on the obsession and commitment of the man at its centre.
I do, however, wonder if the documentary would have been better off if it had a different narrative structure, and if it had opened with Frank’s crash. The problem with Frank’s accident being used as the climax of the film is that it means that his most successful period in Formula One is overlooked.
In 1992, four years after the crash, Williams produced an incredible car that won the Championship by a record margin. There would not have been a better way to show Frank’s resilience and ability to overcome the challenges he faced than to have shown his greatest sporting success. By not including this period the documentary is overlooking perhaps the defining moment in his life, one where he escaped death and overcome the challenges of his disability to gain unprecedented success.
Williams may not match the breath-taking brilliance of Asif Kapadia’s Senna, but it is a more than fitting tribute to one of Britain’s great sporting icons. In the end it is the story of how one man’s life was saved by sport.