McLaren had dom­i­nated F1 since the be­gin­ning of the 1988 sea­son, but in 1991 Wil­liams gave them a fright with the fast but frag­ile FW14. Re­nault’s new gen­er­a­tion of 3.5-litre, pneu­matic-valved V10 en­gines were thought to be among the most pow­er­ful in the field, and with the FW14 the de­sign part­ner­ship of Patrick Head and Adrian Newey pro­vided the ideal plat­form.

Vet­eran en­gi­neer Head knew how to make a car han­dle, while com­pro­mise-averse Newey had demon­strated, with the low budget March and Ley­ton House cars, how to make a car fly in a straight line. McLaren could no longer rely on the sheer grunt of their Honda en­gines, al­lied to barn door-sized wings and the sheer ge­nius of Ayr­ton Senna, to cre­ate a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage.

The in­tri­cately pack­aged FW14 was a chal­lenge for the me­chan­ics to as­sem­ble and its weak point in early races was its semi-au­to­matic gear­box. Senna racked up four con­sec­u­tive wins as Wil­liams driv­ers Nigel Mansell and Ric­cardo Pa­trese strug­gled with re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues. Mansell then lost the Cana­dian Grand Prix on the fi­nal lap when he waved to the crowd and missed a down­change, caus­ing the en­gine to stall. His old neme­sis, Nel­son Pi­quet, glee­fully in­her­ited that vic­tory.

But as Wil­liams got to grips with the gear­box and Re­nault brought an even more pow­er­ful spec of the RS3 en­gine on stream, Mansell and Pa­trese be­came a much more ef­fec­tive fight­ing force. In­deed, Pa­trese – a vet­eran now in his 15th sea­son – oc­ca­sion­ally had the up­per hand over the fa­mously tiger­ish Mansell.

Yet it was Mansell who be­came the ti­tle chal­lenger, col­lect­ing five wins, but the ground lost ear­lier in the sea­son cost him the ti­tle. When he went off while chal­leng­ing Senna in Ja­pan, blam­ing a ‘long’ brake pedal, it put the cham­pi­onship out of reach with one race to go.

For 1992, Wil­liams rolled out an evo­lu­tion of the FW14 with im­proved aero­dy­nam­ics, a still more po­tent Re­nault RS4 V10, and a so­phis­ti­cated ac­tive sus­pen­sion sys­tem de­vel­oped by a team in­clud­ing Paddy Lowe. Now Mansell was vir­tu­ally un­stop­pable. It was a quirk of the ac­tive sus­pen­sion that its additional cor­ner­ing po­ten­tial came at the cost of driver ‘feel’. Pa­trese couldn’t deal with it, but Mansell’s ex­tra­or­di­nary brav­ery let him place to­tal faith in the car’s abil­ity to get round – even when his ev­ery in­stinct screamed that it couldn’t.

At the first grand prix of the year he lapped ev­ery­one up to sixth place and took the che­quered flag 24 sec­onds ahead of his team-mate and 34 sec­onds clear of a livid Senna. By Hun­gary – race 11 of 16 – it was all over. Senna won, in part thanks to a mo­ment of con­fu­sion be­tween the two Wil­liams driv­ers at the start as they tried to avoid hit­ting one an­other – but sec­ond place was enough for Mansellto take the world cham­pi­onship he richly de­served.

Mau­rice Hamil­ton in­ter­views Nigel Mansell on page 78

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