NOW THAT WAS A CAR
Meet Keke Rosberg’s smokin’ Monaco winner – and Ayrton Senna’s cherry-popping ride
The Williams FW08C
The same but different? It’s a nonsense paradox easy to dismiss, but when it comes to this classic 1980s Williams the old pearl carries a grit of truth. Only a single letter in their names differentiate the Williams FW08 in which Keke Rosberg won the 1982 F1 World Championship and the car you see here in which he defended his title, yet they look completely different. In one sense, thanks to the politically sharpened axe that cut a swathe through the F1 rule book late in the winter of 1982, they are. In three short months F1’s plucky band-of-brother teams burned the candle to create fresh F1 cars from a brand new premise, but in most cases and because of the time and budget constraints, from what they had before. The 08C is the same car as its older sister in a literal sense, because it is the same chassis – but thanks to the Fia-patterned rug firmly ripped from beneath its wheels, it can barely be considered so.
It wouldn’t happen today. The shock announcement that caught the majority short was the banning of ground effects for ’83. This was no small matter. With a new season beginning in South America in March, Formula 1 teams were flung a new rule book demanding flat-bottom cars from front to rear axle, outlawing the underside aerodynamics that had formed the basis of most Cosworth Dfv-powered cars since the late 1970s. The problem was that the turbo contingent, namely the manufacturer powerhouses of Renault and Ferrari – and now BMW in harness with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham – had struggled to mate full ground effects to their forced-induction V6s. This drastic change not only enhanced their ever-increasing advantage, but in one move also succeeded in hobbling those pesky British garagistes who had given truculent FIA president Jean-marie Balestre such grief over the sport’s control.
Safety, of course, was said to be the motivating factor and it’s true that ground-effect cars were becoming lethal. The banning at the end of 1981 of sliding skirts, the moveable devices that ran along the bottom of sidepods to help suck the cars to the track had, as a result, led to ever-harder springs and rock-solid suspension settings. Drivers were complaining of back ache, while increasingly astounding G-forces added stress to already taut neck muscles.
Something had to change. But this? Overnight? It was too simplistic, and in the words of Williams co-designer Frank Dernie, a “massive catastrophe”. Not because of the work and expense, but because of the new aerodynamic challenges flatbottomed F1 cars created. In one fell swoop, as much as 80 per cent of downforce was lost – and in Dernie’s opinion, teams were handed rules that created inherently unstable F1 cars.
Still, Williams being Williams, they just got on with it. Dernie and Williams co-founder Patrick Head, like other Cosworth runners around them, cut to the chase – literally in terms of what they did to the sidepods. From full-length wheel to wheel, they were now short and stubby to package the radiators and reduce drag – that mortal enemy of the racing car designer. Their rear wing was smaller than others with drag in mind, too.
The pair had circled drag reduction as essential for any car hoping to still compete against turbos with a DFY, as the
“IN JULY, A YOUNG F3 DRIVER CALLED AYRTON SENNA EXPERIENCED F1 FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ONE OF THESE CARS”
engine’s last iteration was known. Until recently, Head and Dernie had been pursuing a six-wheeled F1 car (known as the FW08B), which unlike the famous Tyrrell of 1976 featured its extra wheels at the back, not the front. The six uniform-sized wheels increased traction, but crucially decreased drag created by fat rear tyres. The low-drag six-wheeler was a gamechanger, they believed. But again the FIA scuppered them: fearful of promising test reports, they banned six wheels and 4WD from F1 forthwith. The flat-bottomed ruling thus represented something of a double-whammy for Williams.
The context adds depth to FW08C’S legacy, as much for what its team was up against above what it achieved. Although what it did pull off was pretty special too, thanks to the smokin’, moustachioed star driver who pedalled it.
Rosberg’s title in ’82 had surprised everyone, probably even the man himself, in a turbulent season rocked by tragedy and political strife. His single race victory, in the Swiss GP at the French Dijon circuit (that’s another story!), had been enough for normal aspiration to fend off the turbo might for one last time. But in ’83, with these new rules, Keke now had both arms tied behind his back…
Rosberg marked this new era with a victory in a race that signified the end of another.
The Race of Champions was run at Brands Hatch in March for one last time, attracting a reduced F1 field for what would be the last ever nonchampionship race. Then in
Rio for the championship opener Keke stunned everyone by taking an unlikely pole.
The race itself would feature the controversial reintroduction of refuelling to F1. Alarmed by the testing times set by Gordon Murray’s small-tank Brabham BT52 dart, Williams rushed through their own rudimentary system – made from a pressurised beer barrel. In the race, Rosberg pitted, the refueling contraption leaked and he scrambled from the cockpit as a flash inferno briefly engulfed him. Remarkably, little damage was done and there followed a frank exchange between Head and his driver, in which Patrick bellowed those inimitable words: “Keke, get back in the fucking car!” An uncharacteristically cowed Rosberg did as he was told, then drove the race of his life to finish second to Nelson Piquet’s Brabham – only to be disqualified for his mechanics giving him a push start from his pitstop. Ho-hum.
But no one would take away his Monaco victory in May. An inspired decision to start on slicks on a wet track allowed Rosberg to showcase the FW08C’S nimbleness and driver- friendly characteristics in a performance forever remembered as one from the top drawer. Rosberg removed two layers of skin from his hands during that race – and soothed them later by dropping them into the salty sea… Tough doesn’t cut it.
That should be enough to chisel FW08C’S place in the rockface of greatness, but there’s more. In July, a young Formula 3 driver called Ayrton Senna experienced F1 for the first time in one of these cars, at Donington. Test driver Jonathan Palmer set a benchmark of 61.7s; Senna tonked that out of the park with a 60.1s best. And somehow Frank Williams didn’t sign him – at least for another 11 years.