Great F1 cars: Williams-Renault FW14B

Williams-Renault FW14B

Williams-Renault FW14B

The Williams-Renault FW14B is featured at this year’s Autosport International show as one of the great racing cars of the last six decades.

The FW14B was such a leap forward for the team in 1992 it was able to delay the introduction of its successor and still win races by whole minutes.

It was probably the last F1 car that demonstrated a great technological leap forward in a single area – thanks to its highly developed active suspension.

Active suspension

Williams often had the fastest car in 1991 – but too much unreliability early in the season and a fight back from Ayrton Senna and McLaren kept them from the silverware.

The team headed into the off-season knowing most of the problems of the FW14 had been sorted – the semi-automatic gearbox was behaving and the Renault engine was at least a match for McLaren’s Honda – probably better.

To that already competitive package the team now added an innovation that put them far beyond the reach of all the other teams – active suspension.

In essence, this was a computer-controlled system which changed the stiffness of the suspension to give the car maximum grip from corner to corner, bump to bump. It was especially useful in managing the effects of an ever-decreasing fuel load.

Much of the development work was handled by test driver Damon Hill who I talked a few years ago about the project and whether he felt any fear in driving a prototype car which such radical new technology:

If there was a doubt they would always say, “Now just be a bit careful because we?re not sure about something.”?? And from time to time weird things would happen and you?d have a shock or a crash or whatever but you?d accepted that that?s part of your job and it was great fun working on innovative projects like that.
Damon Hill

Six weeks before the start of the 1992 season Williams held an eight-day test at Estoril in Portugal to make a final decision on whether to use active suspension on their race car (yes, eight days – no testing ban then!)

They ran the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ cars back-to-back and found the FW14B was two seconds per lap quicker. With that, they headed off to the first race feeling very confident.

Dominating the championship

Williams routed their rivals as the season got underway. Nigel Mansell won the first five races in a row and team mate Riccardo Patrese backed him up with second place in four of those. Mansell took pole position for all five as well, usually with a one-second margin over the next quickest non-Williams.

What interrupted Williams’ success was usually either a mistake by the drivers or occasional unreliability. Mansell’s domination of the season was so great he ended the year with almost twice the score of runner-up Patrese.

While the active suspension was undoubtedly the key to the FW14B’s performance advantage, there were few weaknesses in the rest of the package. The team started the year with the powerful Renault RS3C V10 engine which was replaced with the RS4 unit which increased power to over 700bhp. It was generally reliable, with only the odd failure here and there (notably at Belgium) costing the team points.

The car’s aerodynamics were honed by Adrian Newey, who had recently joined the team from Leyton House. There are clear similarities between the shape of the FW14B and the 1990 Leyton House CG901B, especially around the front nose.

Mansell vs Patrese

Despite the obvious technical superiority of the FW14B Mansell often seemed reluctant to credit the car for his dominant wins. This often put him in conflict with the press and there were moments when frustration boiled over into anger – particularly at Montreal after his clash with Senna.

For Mansell there was perhaps a degree of frustration that the overwhelming superiority of the FW14B made it harder for onlookers to appreciate how he had raised his game. He blew Patrese away in 1992 but the pair had been more closely matched the year before.

Part of the explanation for that was Mansell being more at ease with the FW14B’s peculiar high-speed handling sensation due to the active suspension. It was also partly because of Mansell’s psychological warfare against his team mate, which designer Adrian Newey explained at Autosport International yesterday:

In 1992 the active car had a huge amount of downforce, it was a very physical car to drive and Nigel who is incredibly strong in the upper arms, was perfectly adapted to that.

Early on he realised his main rival was going to be his team mate and he basically – very cleverly and very slyly – set about completely destroying him psychologically.

At Monza Nigel was much quicker through the chicanes – which is, really, over the chicanes – than Riccardo was. So Patrick Head came over to Nigel and said, “Nigel, what’s your secret for getting through the chicanes so quickly?”

In the car at that time the monocoque came over the top of the steering wheel. So Nigel said: “Well what I do is I get my knuckles and I brace them against the side of the cockpit, so when I go over the kerb it can’t kick back.”

So Patrick goes up to Riccardo and tells him this. And Riccardo goes out, does one lap and comes back in and his gloves were seeping blood. Nigel was very good at that sort of wind-up…
Adrian Newey

Mansell had already wrapped up the championship by this stage – at the 11th round of 16 in Hungary.

But through a strange series of events, despite having produced such a dominant car neither of Williams’ 1992 drivers stayed to drive its successor.

Different drivers, same result

Frank Williams had already signed Alain Prost to drive for the team in 1993, and when Mansell found out he refused to extend his contract for another year. Shades of Jenson Button and Brawn in 2009, perhaps?

Meanwhile Patrese had already made arrangements to join Benetton, believing Prost would replace him alongside Mansell, so Hill was promoted from the test team to partner Prost.

Active suspension had proved a tricky technology to master in the past – other teams including Lotus had flirted with it for the last decade. But Williams conquered it and stole an enormous leap forward over their rivals which they carried into 1993 with the FW15.

Prost duly delivered the title, but the banning of active suspension at the end of 1993 along with other driver aids brought this high-tech era to a close.

For more on the development of active suspension and its banning see this article: Banned! Active suspension

Williams-Renault FW4B

First race: 1992 South African Grand Prix
Last race: 1992 Australian Grand Prix
Total races: 16
Wins: 10
Pole positions: 15
Fastest laps: 11

Williams-Renault FW14B pictures

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45 comments on Great F1 cars: Williams-Renault FW14B

  1. Wow, I never knew Mansell could be so devious.

  2. Definitely one of my favourite F1 cars ever and it had it’s neck rung by a great driver :)

  3. sato113 said on 17th January 2010, 0:21

    favourite 90′s car.

  4. LewisC said on 17th January 2010, 0:31

    Great article – your depth of knowledge about things I only vaguely knew about is great. I remember watching 1992 and seeing ‘Nige’ cruising off into the distance at a second a lap… amazing that in 2009, that second would cover almost all of the grid!

  5. SeanG said on 17th January 2010, 5:20

    It really was the best F1 car of the modern era.

  6. Macca said on 17th January 2010, 5:54

    Great photos to.

  7. virtuso13 said on 17th January 2010, 6:41

    Try to watch – Williams the champions . Its shows the testing in Protugal and all

  8. Monad said on 17th January 2010, 8:47

    Great car but the year was boring because of it.

  9. SoLiD said on 17th January 2010, 8:58

    Great looking car, love it!

    Also, if active suspension wasn’t banned, we still might have Ayrton Senna, as his car would have never lost grip because the active suspension would have compensated for the cold tyres. Cruel twist of fate.

    • David said on 17th January 2010, 9:35

      I’m afraid no active suspension or technical aid could avoid a crush if the steering broke…
      I didn’t know 1994 cars had not active suspension anyway.

      Sometimes I think about how quick a formula 1 with no banned technology could be: image a formula 1 with ground effect and active suspension (which are technologies that work perfectly each other), turbo engine with no pressure valve, automatic gearbox, antispin system, free aerodynamic devices…It could be worth someone builds a prototype just to answer this curious question!
      Unfortunately it could not be driven by Ayrton Senna…

      • SoLiD said on 17th January 2010, 10:38

        his steering wheel didn’t brake, that happened after the impact.

        The more acknowledged theorie is that Senna lost all grip because his car hit the ground (they didn’t have a bottom plate then). Just what active suspension is for, keeping ride hight perfect all the time

      • SoLiD could be correct…..

        One theory is that Senna’s car on the re-start with cold tyres and hence very low ride height bottomed-out, restricting the accelerated air flow ( & low pressure) under the car causing immediate massive loss of downforce on the flat out Tamburello curve causing the car to lose all grip a veer off into the wall. Active Suspension (ironically banned for supposedly for safety reasons for the 1994 season) would have been able to compensate for this reduction in ride height until the tyres came upto full operating temperature and possibly saving Senna’s life. This was one reason minimum ride heights were introduced and the wooden boards (10mm Jabroc Plank) were hastily fitted to the bottom of F1 cars in 1994 follwing Ayrton’s death ( a very low tech but effective fix).

        • David said on 17th January 2010, 11:37

          Your explanation are technically well motivated. Anyway I still am quite sceptic about that, because it seems really a “unique scenario” motivation…I mean, why anything similar ever occurred to other cars as they restarted after a sefety car event?
          Anyway i credit your explanations as a reasonable option, thank you for posting.

          • It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for certain what caused the crash, although the steering failure theory has been generally discounted.

            I think the steering failure (column broke, steering wheel came off, etc) theory originally captured the imagination of so many because it seems so utterly unlikely that a driver like Senna could have made a mistake – therefore it must have been some sort of fundamental mechanical problem that no driver could have ever corrected, goes the thinking.

            Damon Hill’s view was that Senna had made a mistake, pure and simple. Immediately after the race Michael Schumacher commented that the Williams was very nervous in Tamburello, that the car had gone sideways and Senna had lost it. The FW16 was well known to be a very difficult car to drive because its aerodynamics were very sensitive. And Senna making a mistake while pushing hard in the Williams wasn’t a unique scenario – he’d spun out of the Brazilian GP while trying to catch Schumacher’s Benetton, albeit at much slower speed.

        • Bigbabadderboom said on 17th January 2010, 18:15

          Pat, I understand that was the outcome of all the investigations, it was simply down to the tyre pressure having dropped off as the cars paraded. But it as Senna pushed he lost all the aerodynamic effects through the car bottoming out. Perhaps there is a safety argument for the reintroduction of active suspension, we would then see some real driver fatigue as they are able to wresttle the cars through corners with 20% more speed!!!

          • Bigbabadderboom, thanks for the endorsement. Yes that was my understanding too – just didn’t want to go definitive on it & sound too cocky as some people are a little sensitive to an opposing point of view :)

            Apart from lowering F1 cornering speeds I never really understood why Active Suspension was banned it was the pinnacle of innovation that F1 is here for and had relevance to be crossed over for road car usage – especially in the era of “OFF” road 4X4′s that probably never actually go off road but do tend to roll quite a bit when cornering even at low speeds Active Suspension would negate this – and from a safety point of view would give drivers of any car a better chance of recovering from a tyre blow out as it would compensate and keep the car on the level.

          • There’s no drivers around today with the upperbody strength of “Our Nige” it would certainly test them :) – but they’d probably just max out the power power steering to compensate :( (lightweights :) )

  10. Juanjo said on 17th January 2010, 9:22

    What a beatiful car!

  11. HounslowBusGarage said on 17th January 2010, 9:26

    Those stats are absoultely crushing.
    Total races: 16
    Wins: 10
    Pole positions: 15
    Fastest laps: 11

    How miserable it must have been to be designing/building/racing anything but a Williams. But that 1 second a lap advantage speaks volumes about the progress that all GP cars have made in less than twenty years. Can you imagine the 2010 Ferrari or MacLaren or Merc being one second a lap quicker than anyone else? No, nor can I.

    • Damon said on 17th January 2010, 10:41

      “Can you imagine the 2010 Ferrari or MacLaren or Merc being one second a lap quicker than anyone else?”

      Yes, I can.

  12. Pingguest said on 17th January 2010, 10:20

    A very good article! But one thing om the active suspension: the computer-controlled system did not only changed the stiffness of the suspension, it also controlled the ride height of the car. The Williams did even had an aero ‘push-to-pass’-button.

  13. Sush Meerkat said on 17th January 2010, 10:34

    [quote] “Well what I do is I get my knuckles and I brace them against the side of the cockpit, so when I go over the kerb it can’t kick back.”[/quote]

    He’s got Piquet to thank for that one, he was the king of wind ups.

    • Sush Meerkat said on 17th January 2010, 10:34

      arghh, BB coding doesn’t work.

      • Can anyone corroborate this…..

        I heard a story ages ago that as team mates at Williams at the 1992 British Grand Prix (Silverstone) Mansell set a hot lap, Patrese then went out for his final qualifying run and put in what he thought was a stonker of a lap pipping Mansell’s time – Mansell seeing this hopped back into his car & smashed Patrese’s time by 2 seconds. On Mansell’s return to the pits the story goes that Patrese approached Mansell when he got out of his car and “cupped” his (Mansell’s) balls – saying after that lap outrageous lap he just wanted to see how big they really were – (If true quite a nice endorsement from a fellow driver) :)

        P.S. Mansell credited the time and his dominating performance during the race to “People Power” in reference to the massive British crowd supporting him at the race that year of which I am happy to say I was one. :)

        P.P.S. Brundle finished 3rd ! ahead of Schumacher in the same car :)

        • stjoslin said on 18th January 2010, 12:22

          Yes I have heard that “story” too. I think two things helped him at Silverstone, one being that it was a fast challenging track which as Keith has pointed out suited Mansell’s confidence and aggressive high speed corner entry on turn in, and also the crowed did motivate Mansell.

          I think Mansell was nearly 2 seconds quicker than Patrese in Brazil that year also – demoralising or what?!

  14. Good article, I have to say the FW14B is one of my all time favourite F1 cars.

    As Mansell mania in 1991 helped get me interested in F1 I suppose I was always going to like the car he finally won the championship in, but even ignoring that I think the livery and the shape of the car combine to make it look great.

  15. Williams4ever said on 17th January 2010, 14:05

    Nice Story!!!
    By eerie coincidence, Ross Brawn won the double title in ’09 thanks to clever car design and has not retained the two drivers that contributed to the campaign and hired a retired world champion.
    Now will the ex-world champion do an Alain Prost, that is the question :-?

    • SeanG said on 19th January 2010, 0:49

      Slightly off topic but I believe Honda-Brawn won the title because of Honda’s development. Just my opinion.
      Cheers.

      • OttoAu said on 8th September 2010, 7:22

        No, NOT correct

        When Rubens went from haonda to Brawn/Benz engine he said the biggest advantage was the power and torque of the Benz engine over the junk haonda engine.

        The Benz engine deserves all the glory

        • dfghdfn said on 20th March 2011, 11:33

          Thats because honda aren’t used to making pussy little 750hp engines they are used 1000hp 3.0 v10 thats a real engine not these crap limited rubbish v8s.I can see why there are only 3 engine suppliers in F1 at the moment cause it sux

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