NOW THAT WAS A CAR:
THE WILLIAMS FW14B
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