It was hardly a surprise that Williams went into 1994 as hot favourites. Not only had the team been the dominant force for the previous two-and-a-half seasons, but Ayrton Senna had replaced Alain Prost as Damon Hill’s team-mate. It seemed an unstoppable combination.
The reality wasn’t so straightforward. The loss of active suspension and traction control levelled the playing field, and hit Williams hard. In its initial guise the FW16 was not as competitive as its ‘fully loaded’ predecessors.
“I think it was more difficult for us than other teams,” says former chief designer Adrian Newey, “because we’d been on active suspension for longer. It took us a while to get back to making passive suspension work properly, especially in terms of remarrying the aerodynamics to the suspension.
“The car wasn’t easy to drive at the start of the season. Ayrton managed to carry it to three poles, but In race trim in Brazil even he found it difficult to keep up. Basically, the sidepod was too long. We recognised reasonably quickly what we needed to do, but it took us a while to get the short-sidepod car out. Had Imola not happened, it would’ve been sooner.”
Benetton’s successes at the start of the season left the Williams team scratching its collective head.
“We were surprised,” admits Newey. “The B194 was obviously a good car in many ways, but Ayrton was absolutely convinced it was running traction control. Having listened to it at Aida after his first-corner accident, he came to Imola convinced that he was fighting an illegal car. That caused him quite a lot of angst going into the weekend and the race. In fact, he and I had a long discussion about it in the truck on Sunday morning.”
Senna’s accident that afternoon was to change the face of motor racing, and the legal repercussions were to haunt Newey even after he’d left the team and joined McLaren: “To this day we still don’t know exactly what happened. There is this general perception that the car went straight on. It didn’t, it was high-sided, to use the motorcycle expression. The car stepped out into oversteer. Ayrton lifted off and, as far as we can see, applied opposite lock. Then it gripped and spat him to the outside. Through the race we were given all sorts of misinformation as to how he was. At one stage we were told that he was okay and fine. To finally get the news… you can imagine.”
Williams had no choice but to regroup under Hill’s leadership, but it wasn’t easy.
Newey: “Monaco was extraordinarily difficult. Damon had only done one full season at that point, and being elevated to team leader was a big burden. Certainly, in Monaco, for most of practice, we were tugging around. Both Patrick Head and I told him, ‘Come on. we’ve got to lift this for qualifying’, and he did a pretty good job to qualify fourth.
“Barcelona was a lucky win for us; Michael was a fair way in the lead when he had a gearbox problem. But it boosted morale: we’d broken our 1994 duck. From then on we made steady progress with the car as did Damon as a driver.”
Tester David Coulthard was drafted in as Damon’s team-mate, but for Magny-Cours Williams stole the headlines by bringing Nigel Mansell back from CART. France was the only race he was able to contest in the short term, but three late-season GPs were also on his schedule.
“For Damon, having someone come in and test the car and make similar comments gave him more confidence,” reveals Newey. “And also having Nigel out there hurling it round in his inimitable fashion made Damon dig a little deeper, spurred him on. It was definitely a positive thing. Nigel was always a dramatic driver who was never to be underestimated.”
That summer, while Benetton lurched from crisis to crisis. squeaky-clean Williams just got on with it. Hill raised his game. And the wins piled up.
“It was to our advantage as far as points were concerned,” says Newey. “It was Benetton getting itself into trouble that kept the championship alive. I think the black flag incident at Silverstone was Michael trying to stamp his authority, and then his team. I guess. got a bit arrogant.
The bottom line for us was to do the best job possible. We weren’t only picking up points because Benetton was tripping over itself, we were also genuinely competitive: Damon’s drive at Suzuka was sensational. That showed his depth of character. He wasn’t necessarily the quickest natural driver, but he had great determination and resilience. That gave us confidence going into Adelaide.”
The finale was a what-might-have-been. For a few seconds the title was there to be taken, but when he went for that gap Hill didn’t know Schumacher’s car was potentially crippled, that the German thus had little to lose.
Newey: “We had the quicker car that day, without doubt. Michael. I guess. realised that and cracked. Damon was reeling him in relentlessly and pushed him into a mistake. It was pretty clear that, having lost it the corner before. Schumacher knew he’d damaged his car and so he took Damon out. There’s no doubt about it.
“Our wishbone was bent, so it was. ‘Do we keep going and hope he finishes. or do we retire the car?’ We really felt, especially given the year we’d had, that we couldn’t put Damon at risk. It was very frustrating. but these things happen in motor racing and you have to be philosophical. Equally. if we’d been on the radio a little quicker we could have warned Damon to be patient.”
A win for Mansell in Adelaide provided some recompense, and Williams beat Benetton to the constructors’ crown.
“We had a pretty good car by the end of the year says Newey, “as the results showed. If anything. we had a car that was slightly quicker than the Benetton. That was satisfying, the fact that we had managed to turn the car around. especially after Imola. We also had the newspaper stuff about ‘killer car’ and the rest of it, which added to the pressure.
“Regardless of what we did in the championship, it was never going to change the fact of Ayrton’s loss. I didn’t feel any sense of revenge, we just did the best job we could. It was tremendously difficult for everybody involved.”