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.
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.
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…
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
First race: 1992 South African Grand Prix
Last race: 1992 Australian Grand Prix
Total races: 16
Pole positions: 15
Fastest laps: 11
Williams-Renault FW14B pictures