When Frank Met Dennis


Celebrity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As a lifelong motorsport fan, I have been lucky enough to get to know some of the key figures in F1 over the past twenty years or so and to be at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix most years.

Even so, I still get a bit star-struck when I am in the F1 paddock. Part of me still feels like the 13 year old me who was at a Grand Prix for the first time back in 1968. One day in the early noughties, though, celebrity worked the other way around.

I had known Sir Frank Williams for years.

He had hosted me at the Williams factory in Oxfordshire along with my old friend and fellow motorsport nut, Peter (now Lord) Hain. Whenever I was at Silverstone for the Grand Prix, I would always call in to the Williams motor home to say hello. There was always a warm welcome from Frank as he filled me in with what was going on with the team and how things were looking for the race., Frank would also ask about what was going on in my world of Parliament and politics. When he did so, he would love to quip reminders that my Labour politics did not, as you might say, “align” with his own outlook on world affairs. And there would always be a twinkle in his eye when he did so.

Then, one day at Silverstone, he suddenly asked me “Do you know Dennis Skinner?” When I replied that I got on well with Dennis, Frank asked if I could fix it for him to meet “the Beast of Bolsover.” Even though their politics were poles apart, he told me how much he admired the way Dennis was his own person and always stuck to his guns. He said Dennis was someone he had always wanted to meet.

So my task was set and the following week I asked Dennis in the lobby of the House of Commons whether he knew who Frank Williams was. I found out something new about Dennis that day too. Straight out of the blocks, he asked “Williams Grand Prix, you mean?” and proceeded to give me a very knowledgeable run-down on how Frank’s team was doing that season.

He then moved swiftly on to telling me how he had once been late for an NEC meeting at Labour’s annual conference because he had been mesmerised watching TV footage of Ayrton Senna putting in one of his spectacular performances for McLaren. When Dennis finally got to the meeting, an NEC ally asked him what had delayed him. Dennis replied “Ayrton Senna”, prompting his colleague to ask “Is he your conference delegate?” Dennis was caustic as he recounted the tale to me. “Some of these people know nothing about anything outside politics,” he growled. Dennis was clear that he was not one of them.

And so the meeting between Frank and Dennis was duly arranged. Frank was shortly to come to Parliament to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Motorsport Industry Association at their annual reception in the House of Lords. When the day arrived, I introduced the two of them just before Frank went into the reception. They got on like a house on fire. They were from very different worlds but they related to each other straight away as kindred spirits. They both always did things their own way and neither gave up. Ever. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Frank’s face that day. He really looked a little bit star-struck and Dennis looked proud to meet Frank too.

From that day on, whenever I saw Frank,he would always ask: “How is my friend, Dennis, doing?”

Like so many other people, I have been saddened by the news that Frank passed away last weekend. He was a true legend of F1 whose achievements were as immense as they were unique. His contribution to the sport he loved will never be forgotten.

I will never forget him either. Central to those memories are the personal warmth of the welcome he always gave me at Williams, the ever-present twinkle in his eye and the special day that Frank met Dennis.

Rest in peace, Frank.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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