The ultimate Williams track test

As one of Formula 1’s foremost teams celebrates its 40th anniversary, Motor Sport secured a drive in one of its most famous cars – the FW14B, back on track for the first time in 25 years – and also its latest, the FW40

Karun Chandhok raced in Formula 1 for HRT and Team Lotus. He is currently a commentator for Channel 4, the test driver for Williams’s heritage division and a Motor Sport contributor

2017 Williams FW40

All the way through the 2017 season I’ve been going to races and hearing drivers talk about just how amazing this generation of cars is. The bigger tyres and more downforce coupled with the V6 turbo hybrids that are producing 1000bhp all mean that we are seeing the fastest lap times in F1 history. The drivers love the cars and I must say that, watching from the outside, I’ve been very curious to see just how good they are.

Now I was being given the rare chance to drive a current car – something that’s very hard to do these days with the testing regulations and therefore I felt very privileged indeed. This was no test hack I was driving, either. It was Lance Stroll’s current race chassis, which was being shipped off to Montréal at 2pm that day for him to drive in the Canadian Grand Prix!

The most recent car I’d previously driven was the 2011 Red Bull that took Sebastian Vettel to the world championship. That was of course the previous generation of V8 non-hybrid engines, still capable of producing more than 850 horsepower but not quite in the same league as the current cars. 

The first thing that struck me was just how much throttle travel there was. The power units produce a huge amount of torque and Mercedes has therefore created a lot of throttle travel to allow the drivers to manage all of that torque, particularly when the tyres start to wear and you need to be careful not to spin up the rear tyres and increase the degradation. 

I was actually quite nervous before driving the FW40. How tricky would it be to harness that much power? There are lots of buttons to manage how to recover and harvest energy from the ERS system, how to control the brake-by-wire systems and then how to discharge the battery power in conjunction with the power from the internal combustion engine. It’s tricky stuff, but the systems engineers at Mercedes and Williams are incredibly clever people who have made maps that are relatively straightforward for drivers to adjust between the different modes without several button clicks. 

As the tyre blankets came off, the cameras and people moved away and the mechanic waved me out onto the track, an altogether familiar sensation came over me. All of a sudden, things didn’t feel alien. I wasn’t nervous. It just felt normal and perhaps that’s a reflection of the car being from my era of racing in that everything is filtered through the electronics. It didn’t have the vibrations of the cars from the 1980s and 1990s and my seating position was pretty much like every race car I’ve driven in the last 15 years.

Turn off the pit limiter, floor the throttle and all of a sudden things aren’t normal any more! The power and acceleration are just immense. Even before I’ve got to the tight right-hander at Abbey, the car is shouting for fifth gear. Onto Hangar Straight I unleash all of the power. Oh. My. God. 

I’ve never experienced acceleration like it. Before I hit the brakes for Stowe, I’m doing more than 300kph, which is just extraordinary. The driveability of the power unit really stood out. As I mentioned before I was very nervous about managing all that torque and power, never having driven the V6 hybrids before, but actually the Mercedes engine guys have done a brilliant job of mapping the torque delivery. The blend of power from the internal combustion engine and the ERS units is seamless and seriously impressive.

Like any racing car, however, it’s so important not to back off. You have to keep going quickly to maintain temperature in the tyres and brakes. That seems like a good excuse to lean on it through Stowe and that’s where the 2017-spec downforce really shows its hand. The car has so much grip that it’s actually comfortable through there. It takes a few laps to understand just where the limit of grip is, which is something Jenson Button mentioned in Monaco on his return to F1. For the first couple of laps, I felt like I was just cruising around. I wasn’t, of course, but you just can’t believe how much grip the car has in the high-speed corners. 

The braking performance was equally impressive. F1 cars these days recover a lot of energy under braking and when you hit the anchors you hear a lot of popping and hissing from the turbo and the energy recovery unit. What’s really impressive is just how good the electronic brake-by-wire system is at controlling the bias and the migration of brake effort that you get when you ease off the brakes.

Aided by the downforce and the bigger tyres, the braking distances this year are amazingly short and the electronics have to be extremely good at controlling the brake bias between front and rear wheels. The systems guys at Williams have once again done a great job of preparing the various maps because the brake system has to correct itself depending on how much energy is being recovered, which makes it really tricky to set up the ratio between brake balance, balance migration and the energy being recovered. 

Like any chassis, when you’re trying to squeeze out the last tenths it’s going to be hard to drive, but when you compare it to the sheer physical effort required to drive the FW14B, which we will come to shortly, it’s hugely different. There are a lot of toys which make your life easier. 

The modern cars are a bit like other things in life – everything is in digital rather than analogue mode. Everything is filtered through some form of electronics, whereas with the older cars you get a pure and direct feeling from every input that you make. 

One thing is beyond doubt, however: the 2017 Williams was unquestionably the best race car I have ever driven. 

1992 Williams FW14B

I grew up in an era where the biggest stars in F1 were Senna, Prost, Piquet and Mansell. The cars from the late 1980s and early 1990s were the ones on my bedroom wall posters. Watching Mansell take pole position at Silverstone in 1992 – 2.7sec faster than the first non-Williams – inspired me to chase the F1 dream. That sight of Red 5 charging down Hangar Straight into Stowe and the sound of that Renault V10 is something I can recall instantly – I’ve seen the VHS tape so many times. 

So you can imagine how I felt as I prepared to drive that very car on the track – the first time anyone had done so since that 1992 championship-winning campaign.

I’ve always been a driver who loves the engineering side of our sport. People often asked me about the best part of Formula 1 and, apart from obviously driving the cars, it was working with some of the most brilliant engineering minds in the world and their incredible technology. 

The Williams FW14B sits in the garage when I walk in. Bodywork off, tyres on and, on command, the guys start flushing the system and the car starts moving up and down, flexing its muscles. I’ve seen it on TV as a kid, but seeing it in real life is something else. Welcome to the world of active suspension. Welcome to the FW14B – a car far ahead of its time. 

The car is set with the Nigel Mansell seat and his unique smaller steering wheel that gave him a very direct turn-in but made it very heavy in the fast corners. It has a foot clutch but paddles to shift gear. You’ve got switches for the active ride control and today we’re not running the traction control, as this car hasn’t really run in 25 years and we don’t want to overstress the engine. I get in it and am all set to give the command to fire up when Paddy Lowe, one of the key architects behind the active suspension program back in 1991, pops his head into the cockpit: “Remember you have to blip on the downshift - there’s no fly-by-wire throttle!” Good tip, Paddy.

I pull out of the garage just after lunch during the Williams fan day and the pitlane is filled with people holding their phones out to record the moment – I spot Felipe Massa, Paddy, Sir Patrick Head, Jonathan Williams, Riccardo Patrese, Mark Webber and Geoff Willis all watching intently as I trundle down the pitlane. A quick glance to the left and the 45,000 people in the grandstand are all on their feet. The significance of seeing Red 5 back at Silverstone instantly hits me. 

Floor the throttle and all of a sudden you realise that while it may not have the power of a current car or the turbos before it, 750 horsepower and only 580 kilograms is still enough to push your head into the headrest. The driveability is just incredible and such is the linear torque curve that within a couple of laps I feel as if with the traction control off I can get the rear to pivot on the throttle in the slower corners, with no surprises in the torque curve. 

Onto Hangar Straight and, weirdly for me, I’m feeling quite emotional – that view of the straight widening, Stowe corner looming, the sound of that incredible 3.5-litre engine behind me takes me straight back to being an eight-year-old child. My mind goes back to an on-board film of Nigel from 1992 and I can almost hear Murray Walker’s voice.

Get to Stowe and you realise you have to look down either side of the cockpit and not in front of you as the centre of the monocoque is so high – I now understand all those videos of Nigel’s head tilted to one side as he approached the corners.

I start to lean on it now, build temperature in the tyres and all of a sudden you start to feel the movement of the car from the active suspension. Paddy talked me through how it works earlier in the day – and only when you drive at speed can you fully appreciate just how revolutionary it was. 

As you turn into a corner – take Stowe for example – the outside front corner (ie the left front) lifts up to counter the natural body roll and therefore keeps the platform stable and creates an incredibly sharp turn-in. It feels a bit odd because you do feel this movement and it takes a huge amount of confidence to just push on and know that the car isn’t moving out of line. Having said that, the turn-in is incredibly positive and the car is beautifully balanced.

From mid-corner the nose goes down to keep the front pinned, but because the car has been designed with a blown diffuser you need confidence to really hammer the throttle from mid-corner and this will ensure that you’ve got the rear downforce you need to keep the back of the car stable. 

Being quick and maximising the active suspension means that you really have to understand the principle behind the design. It needs a driver to have incredible inner belief and brute physical strength to hustle it around and be on top of it. The steering gets very heavy in the high-speed corners, as there’s no power steering and all of this combined tells you just why Nigel, with his strong upper body, was able to extract so much performance. 

I was very lucky to drive this iconic, magical car for several laps through the day. I just didn’t want to stop and it was funny, as the runs went on and the confidence built, how the inner racing driver comes out; you start chasing the performance and wondering about your lap time rather than just driving around to enjoy the experience. Racing cars feel awkward when they’re not driven hard – they’re not designed to be driven slowly. You need to push to get temperature in the brakes and tyres. To get all of the engine and gearbox elements to work in sync, you have to push on and get the revs up. 

Several onlooking drivers, including Riccardo, Mark Webber and Anthony Davidson, were all incredibly jealous that day – and I don’t blame them! It was an emotional and overwhelming experience and one for which I am enormously thankful to Williams. 

Red 5 speaks out

Nigel Mansell’s 1992 world title kick-started a period of dominance for Williams, the team taking the championship for constructors five times in seven years. Here he talks us through his epic season

With 14 poles and nine wins over the year, it’s probably hard pinpointing highlights of your 1992 campaign. Do any particular races stand out? 

“A few – not least the season-opener in South Africa, because it was important to get the year off to a good start. That gave us a bit of momentum, after which we picked up another win, and then another, and then a couple more… Cars were still quite unreliable then, of course, certainly in comparison with the way they are now. You were always half-expecting something to go wrong, so it was incredibly important to get off to such a fantastic start. 

“Silverstone was special, of course, as it always was for me – but on reflection I guess Monaco was one of the most exceptional races, with me recovering after an unscheduled stop and Ayrton Senna on the defensive. I still find it amazing that we didn’t touch.”

Can you believe that a quarter century has elapsed since then? 

“I can’t, but my body can... It’s amazing that everything remains so crystal clear in the mind, as though it were yesterday, but sometimes when I get out of bed I have to accept that it wasn’t.”

Can you recall how you felt when you drove the FW14B for the first time? 

“I’d obviously driven different versions of it before we committed to race the FW14B – and that in itself was quite a difficult decision, simply because of its complexity and the potential reliability problems that might arise. We knew it offered better grip in low-speed corners, but getting comfortable through the high-speed stuff was the trick, basically because it was such an absolute monster – an incredibly physical car to drive.”

On paper, a Frank Williams-led team featuring strong characters such as Patrick Head, Adrian Newey and yourself looks pretty dynamic. What was the working relationship like from your perspective? 

“Very, very special – and I’m not just saying that with hindsight. That’s how it felt at the time. They were wonderful days.”

You were still a Formula Ford cub when Frank and Patrick launched Williams Grand Prix Engineering. Were you conscious of the team’s growing stature as you moved up the racing ladder? 

“Very much so. It is a huge achievement to succeed in Formula 1 as an independent entity – and all the more so to have survived in the industry for 40 years with your independence intact.”

On the day that Clay Regazzoni scored Williams’s maiden F1 win at Silverstone in 1979, you finished sixth in the supporting F3 race. What d’you remember about that? 

“The biggest thing was probably Lotus boss Colin Chapman coming to find me for a chat – the first time we’d had a meeting on a formal basis.”

You were with Williams from 1985-88 and then 1991-92. How different was the team you left from the one you’d first joined? 

“I think the biggest difference was probably me, because I’d developed during my two years at Ferrari. If nothing else, I’d learned there that if you wanted something you just had to ask and it would be done! I pointed that out when I returned… I told Frank what I felt we needed and he went on the record, telling people that some of my demands were impossible, but three weeks later everything I’d asked for was in place.”

After the last-minute disappointment of 1986 with that puncture in Adelaide, did you ever think that you might not get another shot at the F1 title? 

“Some people were writing exactly that and suggested I might as well retire, because I was unlikely ever to be in such a strong position again. It had been hard enough losing the title in the first place, without having to put up with that kind of stuff. But you bounce back, don’t you?

“I often wonder what would have happened if I’d crashed on the straight and caused a race stoppage – we’d gone far enough by then for a result to be declared and it would have been taken at the end of the previous lap, so I guess I’d still have been champion…”

And given what had happened in 1986, how sweet did it feel when finally you clinched the title in Hungary? 

“I recall feeling as though I could barely breathe at the start, just because my heart was in my mouth and I didn’t want anything silly to happen on the run to
the first turn. I knew the maths, understood where I had to finish and drove accordingly… until I picked
up a puncture, which meant having to pit and then do it all again. 

“It ended up being a fabulous weekend, washed down with lots of champagne, and to this day I still sometimes pinch myself and wonder whether it all really happened – especially when you consider guys like Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneuve, legendary names that never won it.

“Having previously been the bridesmaid three times, it felt as though I’d finally completed a journey.”