In the 1990s, Adrian Newey was all about continuity as he established himself as F1’s premier technician. Some saw him simply as an ingenious aerodynamicist, but what set him apart from his peers was his ability to see both the big picture and the fine detail of a car, maximising performance outside and in.
As car design grew ever more sophisticated in the 1990s, and required ever larger groups of people working on it, most advances came from seeking out margin gains rather than finding ‘magic bullet’ solutions that delivered big laptime improvements. The main exception to this rule was when designers found clever ways of circumventing the rules, as with the FW18.
When regulations were stable, Newey favoured careful evolution over clean-sheet designs. In 1992 and 1993, Williams had swept all before them, but the next two seasons were tough. The ’94 car was tetchy at first as the team adapted to the ban on active suspension, yet Damon Hill still came within a whisker of winning the title. Rule changes ushered in to slow down the cars after Ayrton Senna’s death moved Newey to adopt the raised-nose design philosophy for ’95, but while the FW17 was quick, errors and bad luck meant that it was Benetton and Michael Schumacher who snatched the title double. Hill won an attritional season-closing Australian GP by two laps, but by then it was too late.
The next year, 1996, was about consolidating pace and eliminating errors. Patrick Head, Williams’ technical director, made that plain: “The ’96 car was only a subtle development on the previous model. The FW17 had an upgrade towards the end of 1995, which was the 17B, and that was already a pretty good car. The higher cockpit sides were the main visual difference on the FW18, but it was very much an evolution.
“The cockpit sides were a key change; along with Jordan, Williams produced a very sleek, low design that met the new safety rules. Other teams were frustrated when their shapes proved less aerodynamically efficient.”
Rivals missed another clever interpretation that was used on the FW17B, through which Newey was able to extend the rear diffuser to more powerful effect. Considering the rear aspect of the Williams was the view most of these other teams had through ’96, as Hill and team-mate Jacques Villeneuve battled for the title, you’d have expected them to cotton on sooner. Carbon-fibre monocoque Double wishbones, pushrod-actuated torsion bar (front) and coil (rear) springs and dampers Renault RS8 V10 3,000cc 750bhp Williams 6-speed semi-automatic 595kg 2,890mm Goodyear Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve Patrick Head, Adrian Newey