Any form of motor racing has the fundamental problem that the best driver in the quickest car will usually win, give or take the occasional fumble. When people deride Formula 1 for being boring what they really mean is that they’re fed up with the same guy winning all the time. And yet for two seasons in the early 1990s, a plucky British team and a driver with an aptitude for melodrama conjured a thrilling spectacle with a car that in its ultimate form was ludicrously quicker than its closest competitors, often to the tune of two seconds a lap.
Few Formula 1 team owners are as intimately acquainted as Frank Williams with the abrupt swings in competitiveness the sport’s politics can bring. From a position of outright dominance in the mid-1980s, his team plunged to the back of the grid when Honda decided to transfer its V6 turbo engines to McLaren in 1988. And all because Frank had refused to replace Nigel Mansell with Satoru Nakajima, a Japanese driver of middling talent who enjoyed Honda patronage for PR purposes back home.Mansell, a combative and often difficult person both inside the cockpit and out, was a remarkable driver.
Drama attended his career like a Greek chorus. His path to F1 had been difficult: he’d broken his neck in a Formula Ford accident, quit a full-time job and sold most of his worldly goods to finance his racing career, but still been given the cold shoulder by most of the F1 industry. He is one of the few F1 drivers to have been forced to skip a race because of chicken pox. Mansell proved his speed and grittiness at Lotus, moved to Williams, almost but not quite won the drivers’ championship twice – and then, after that miserable 1988 season with stopgap Judd V8 engines, departed for Ferrari.
Frank swiftly rebuilt, acquiring an exclusive supply of Renault V10 engines for 1989. Bolted into an evolution of the ’88 FW12 chassis it delivered an instant uplift in competitiveness, including a one-two finish at the Canadian GP, but still some vital spark seemed to be missing. Did the problem stem from the cars? Certainly the FW12C and the FW13 were decent cars, but not ground-breaking ones. Was it his drivers? Riccardo Patrese began his career in the late-1970s as a firebrand, but during the ’80s he seemed to cool somewhat; and Thierry Boutsen, despite winning three races for Williams, wasn’t a charger in the Mansell mould. The last word on this driver pairing went to 1976 world champion and BBC F1 co-commentator James Hunt:'A pair of slow journeymen,' he said, witheringly, on-air. 'Frank should fire them both.'
Meanwhile, Mansell had been driven to despair at Ferrari by the unreliability of his car and the politicking of his team-mate, the 1989 world champion Alain Prost. After retiring from the British GP in 1990 he stormed back to the paddock and announced his permanent retirement from motor racing to the world’s press. 'I can’t say much,' he growled, 'but what I will say is…' Journalists had long since learned that when Mansell uttered these words it was their cue to activate their tape recorders.
Mansell’s retirement was one of the shortest phases of his career. A little over seven months later, in late February 1991, he was shaking down the Williams FW14 at Silverstone. Despite slithering off the wet track and ending up axle-deep in mud, he was enthusiastic: 'I’m putting everything into 1991,' he said. 'And I’m even talking 1992.' He was 37 years old; clearly the new Williams, though very late (the shakedown took place just over two weeks before the start of the season), had massive potential.Mechanically and aerodynamically the FW14 shared very little with its predecessors.
It enjoyed considerable input from Williams’ new technical recruit, the prodigiously talented engineer and aerodynamicist Adrian Newey. In his previous designs for Leyton House and March, Newey had been exploring the potential of the diffuser – the complex aerodynamic device mounted between the rear wheels and underneath the gearbox. Newey had discovered that the diffuser’s effectiveness increased enormously when he raised the nose of the car, allowing more air under the chassis, and this thinking informed the aero philosophy of the FW14. Its tapered, low-slung sidepods, raised nose, V-shaped cockpit aperture and tightly packaged rear were a clear departure from the workmanlike FW13. The front wing was slightly raised in the middle and the endplates extended back around the front wheels, and the shock absorbers were mounted horizontally rather than vertically.
The alliance of Newey’s creativity and Williams technical director Patrick Head’s experience produced a sweet-handling and aero-efficient racing car; and in Renault’s V10 it had one of the most powerful engines on the grid. A better packaged one, too: the RS3 V10 was 17mm lower than its predecessor. The FW14’s only potential weak spot was its new semi-automatic gearbox.The chief opposition in 1991 would not be Ferrari, who had flattered to deceive by setting quick times in winter testing, but McLaren-Honda. Over the winter McLaren’s lead driver, Ayrton Senna, had made public his misgivings about the competitiveness of Honda’s new V12, which he said wasn’t any more powerful than the V10 it replaced.
One would never describe McLaren as complacent, but the team had enjoyed a power advantage for so long that its cars had perhaps become less aerodynamically efficient; certainly the 1991 MP4-6, with its big front and rear wings, did little to dispel this notion.
The season unfolded unpredictably. Senna won the first four races, building a safe cushion of championship points. The FW14 had race-winning pace but Williams struggled to overcome glitches with the semi-automatic gearbox; Patrese, in the twilight of his career, found a second wind and was often as quick as (or quicker than) Mansell, taking three consecutive pole positions. Soon, though, Mansell began to assert himself – as did his demons. Drama was never far away: having built an unassailable lead in the Canadian GP, Mansell began waving to the crowd on the last lap and missed a downchange; his engine shut down and he ground to a halt almost within sight of the finishing line. After he won the British GP the crowd invaded the track before all the cars had returned to the pits; during the Portuguese GP his pit crew failed to attach one of his rear wheels properly, and as he drove off it departed on a different trajectory; and finally, having hauled himself back into championship contention during the season, he speared off the track and into the gravel at Suzuka while chasing Senna.
Over the winter Newey refined the FW14’s aerodynamics and Renault arrived at a still more powerful evolution of the V10. For 1992 the ‘B’ spec of the FW14 would also feature a technology Williams had tried – and discarded on reliability grounds – in 1988: active suspension. The system involved some extra bulk (on the FW14B pictured here you can see the bulges on each side where the pushrods enter the nose) but enabled the aerodynamics to work at maximum efficiency by keeping the car flat relative to the road, eliminating the variations of pitch and roll.
'We like our technology at Williams,' Head told the press in January, 'but we don’t go racing with these gizmos for the sake of it. I’ve never believed we could beat McLaren by running a more reliable car, by operating it better – no, the only way to beat them is by building a car that’s plain faster. And all this trick stuff – active ride, semi-automatic gearbox, and so on – should make things easier and less tiring for the drivers, as well as making the car quicker.'
Only one of the Williams drivers would prosper in 1992. The FW14B was a beast of a car. Adrian Newey, in an interview with this author in 2007, recalled how the active suspension destroyed Patrese’s confidence: 'It was a very physical car to drive because it had enormous downforce and big steering loads. And it didn’t give much feedback – in fact, on corner entry it moved around quite a lot, like a Citroen 2CV, and wasn’t confidence-inspiring. If you kept your foot in it would go round, but Riccardo couldn’t bring himself to do that – Nigel, with his enormous self-belief and car control, could.'
Mansell’s pole position lap at Kyalami, the first grand prix of the year, was over two seconds quicker than Senna’s best. Patrese qualified second, nearly four tenths down from Mansell, and trailed his team-mate home by 24 seconds. The margin could have been even greater: Mansell only posted his fastest time of the race two laps from the end. This, combined with Mansell's insistence that the Williams-Renault’s superiority wasn’t as great as it appeared, would suggest that he was mildly embarrassed at having such a quick car; that somehow its performance detracted from the unparalleled bravery and commitment he brought to the table.
As an indicator of how rattled the rival teams were, McLaren pitched up for the third race of the season, at Interlagos, with six cars for its drivers to choose from, tended by 81 personnel. And a fat lot of good that did: Mansell squandered pole position by fluffing the start but still reached the chequered flag first, nearly 30 seconds before Patrese and a full lap ahead of the two McLarens in third and fourth. If every grand prix today ended with that kind of victory margin, internet fan forums would be alive with ire.
Mansell won eight of the first 10 grands prix of 1992. He could have won all of them; the increasingly demoralized Patrese couldn’t keep up. More often than not the FW14Bs would finish one-two, at least a lap ahead of anyone else. No one could get near it on one-lap pace: Mansell’s pole lap at Silverstone was nearly two seconds quicker then his best effort there from the previous year. And this was half way through the season, when everyone else ought to have caught up. Only the intervention of fate – in the form of bad luck and mechanical unreliability – prevented Mansell from winning more. He had the championship sewn up by the Hungarian GP, race 11 of 16.
And yet even in Mansell’s hour of triumph, the soap opera continued. No matter how dominant the performance, a saga lay behind it: his post-race interviews spoke of blistered tyres, mystery vibrations, gearbox glitches and niggling worries. A veritable conga line of talented drivers was forming outside Williams HQ, with Alain Prost at its head. Mansell couldn’t countenance being Prost’s team-mate again – and quit Formula 1 for Indycar racing. Williams had to develop a power steering system so that Prost could drive the 1993 FW15.
Predictably active suspension became a must-have, along with traction control and many other electronic driver aids that many fans felt detracted from the spectacle of Formula 1. The FIA stepped in to ban them, and over subsequent years continued to fight a rearguard action against increasing speeds, mandating narrower tyres and smaller engines and wings.Is it possible to compare the FW14 with the cars of today? Not with any reliable measure. Two decades of development means that engine designers can now squeeze almost as much horsepower from a 2.4-litre V8 as Renault’s pneumatic-valved 3.5-litre V10 was producing in 1992. Increasingly optimised aerodynamics and tyre constructions have helped bring modern straight-line and cornering speeds into line with the previous era.
In the intervening years circuits have changed and the advent of in-race refuelling has led to cars running lighter – 2010 is the first year since 1994 in which the cars have had to start with enough fuel to last the distance – making direct comparisons of lap times almost irrelevant.No, to truly appreciate the drama of one of the most technologically laden F1 cars, wrestled to its limits by the muscle and sheer willpower of one of the sport’s greatest characters, you just had to be there. F1 will never see the likes of the FW14 again.
Read about the Williams-Renault FW14 and several other significant F1 cars in Art of the Formula 1 Race Car (£27 from www.motorbooks.co.uk).