Williams the conqueror

Eurosport F1 commentator and FF1600 and F2 racer Allard Kalff takes us behind the wheel of the World Championship-winning FW15C

Okay, so the contract for 1994 may not be in the post, but when I got the chance to drive the championship-winning Williams I really wanted to make a good impression. After my first five laps, I rolled to a halt and lifted my visor. The guys came running up to me, and I was desperately searching for something subtle to tell them. When you've had ear plugs in, and a lot of noise around you, you raise your voice a little, and the only thing I could come out with was what you might politely call a Dutch version of 'Oh dear! I couldn't think of anything else to say. They dissolved into laughter. . .

As soon as I found out about the test, I phoned up Henny Vollenberg at Vortex and said, 'I'm driving the Williams, can you give me some laps?' I did about 17 laps in Henny's F3000 Reynard at Nogaro. More than anything, I wanted to feel its power so that I wouldn't be too amazed when I drove the F1 car. It didn't work; I was still astonished! The first time you go into a second-gear corner and you floor it, you really don't know what's happened. The thing just takes off. It's like hitting the eject button.

Before I went out, Damon Hill said: 'Allard, just be careful.' Johnny Herbert said, 'Don't worry, there's plenty of grip, plenty of power, so you'll be all right.' David Coulthard gave me some really good advice, and we went round and had a look at what Derek Daly was doing in his stint. I'd had quite a long chat with Jan Lammers too, and everybody at Williams and Renault was very supportive. They said, 'Don't worry about it. We're not here to break any records, or to prove anything, just to have a good time.' Mind you, not everybody was as supportive as Johnny. He said, 'Go out there, and when you get to a corner it's goingto be phenomenal. Don't worry, buddy, just nail it!' As I drove off, Williams' PR star Annie Bradshaw looked a bit worried . . .

Once you're in the car, there is actually a surprising amount of room. It's very comfortable: you can move your legs around – I was wearing kneepads because you don't want to bang against the sides of the bulkhead and there's enough room to move your arms. There is more room than in a Formula Three car.

I had a fitting in Riccardo Patrese's seat from last year, and there was plenty of room< in that too, so perhaps I'm not as fat as I thought I was. I took the seat and put it in the car we were going to use, and we did up the belts. The guys said, 'Alright, is that comfortable then?' I said, 'Yes, brilliant,' and I was thinking I'd get out, have a cup of coffee and have another half hour to get nervous, because we were just making sure that I fitted all right. Suddenly they gave me the helmet, and the next thing I knew I was being pushed out of the garage, started, and was on the main straight! Well done boys.

I wasn't that worried about adapting to a semi-automatic gearchange although I admit I had taken one of the steering wheels for lunch and played with it under the table! It sounds cocky, but I didn't actually find it confusing at all. After two corners it came so naturally that it was amazing. In the whole 10 laps I didn't once feel like I had to go for a gearlever. I spent more time thinking, 'Do I change with my middle finger, or index finger?' than I did actually worrying about the system itself.

It's semi-automatic, which means you can also be on the brakes or full on the power. To change gear you use a lever, although it feels like a button because it's very light. You don't have to pull it with the whole hand or anything, it's literally a one finger job. To change up you pull towards you, to change down you pull towards you with the other hand.

If you use the software for an automatic downchange or upchange, it will change at the optimum point, although Damon said it's more fun without it. There is also a programme where it will do all the gearchanges by itself! I'm not sure I would like to have it all done for me.

What struck me most about the gearbox was that after Signes you've got a double right-hander where you're braking in the corner and you've got to change down. You're hard on the brakes and the deceleration is phenomenal yet you just pull with your index finger, one click, and it changes down a gear and the car doesn't even move.

The changes are very smooth. Coming out of the slow corners, within 100 metres you have changed up from second to third and third to fourth. In maybe 1.8 seconds you've gone through two gears. If the drivers are going to do that manually, I feel sorry for them. They must be losing quite a lot of time into the bargain. The computer will take away the throttle, change gear, and apply the power again in about a millisecond!

There are three lights on the dashboard, and the car accelerates so fast that when the second light is on you have to change gear, and when the third is on you're on the limiter. Going from second to third, as soon as the second light was on you were calling for the gear but would actually touch the limiter because the engine was revving so fast. (Around 240 revolutions of the crankshaft, rods and pistons every second!) If you do that manually, you are definitely losing time.

After a while you get so used to the button that you are actually anticipating the change; you know you're going to go up, so you might as well get the finger in position instead of having to get it stretched and behind the lever at the last moment. It's remarkable that so soon you are concentrating on shortening that time as well.

You still use the clutch to drive away. In fact you only use it to drive away. For the remainder of the time, the left foot is on the foot rest. You're not even allowed to use the clutch on the circuit. They made these things so very clear to me. . . The first couple of laps I just pressed very hard against the footrest, after that it was fairly natural.

Ricard was the first time I've driven anything with traction control. Watching Derek Daly go round in the morning, he would feed the power in like he always used to do when he was racing in F1, IndyCar and IMSA. I was watching with Coulthard, and he said, 'Allard, don't do that. You can just turn it in and nail it because the traction control will take over.' I tried that, and it literally does. Because of it, there wasn't any oversteer on the entry to a corner. There probably would be if you took wing off (we were running a lot) and a little bit of traction control out because you can see on television that they do slide but the car being set as it was, you just pointed it at the apex, gave it full throttle, and it would go to the outside but it wouldn't break away. You just take off. You could really feel the traction control working. The funny thing is, you can hear the misfire but you're still ejected horizontally!

I knew Ricard was a fairly smooth place, but I didn't know they'd taken out all the bumps. The active ride was very, very good. You could actually feel the suspension move. Amazing.

I suppose if the active's not working properly, it's just as hard to drive as a passive car. But this was working properly, and it gave a very smooth ride. Even when you get on to the kerbs you don't notice them.

The car gave me so much confidence that I wondered where the limits actually were. For someone who has never driven a passive car, it could well be a little dangerous because it gives so much confidence. It's a little like driving a four-wheel drive car in the snow, where you can get away with murder. Until it goes wrong . . .

The Williams gives you so much confidence, until you step over the line, and then you must be in deep trouble. The good news is that as a World Championship-winning car it probably has a fairly big window in which it would work. When David went round in the morning the team was making small changes; not that big, but it seemed to please him whatever they were doing. I would say it's positive to changes, rather than sensitive to them. You don't want a car which will only work on a very tight line, because it will fall off the line too easily.

You have to be committed to get the best not only from the active, but the whole car. You have to have the tyres up to temperature, the brakes up to temperature. You only get that if you're going in fully committed. Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill are the same in that they really had the confidence in the car. They could drive it so well because they knew what it would be able to do.

Ricard was my first time with carbon brakes too. You hit those brakes and your eyeballs come out of your head! It is unreal, especially on the pit straight. There you have a very slow right-hander at the end, you're coming down from something like 270kph to nearer 120, and you're saying to yourself, 'You've got to brake now . . . 'You know it has mega stopping power, but you still actually hit the brakes about 30 yards too early. The first time you do that you nearly come to a complete standstill. Someone said the FW15C goes from zero to 200 clicks, and back to zero, in something silly like five seconds. I think under braking it was like 3.9G, which I think is quite a lot. Unbelievable.

You feel the ABS because the car stops, but I didn't feel it in the pedal as you would in a normal road car. I didn't hear it, and didn't feel it, but perhaps that's the way it should be: I don't know it's there, but thank you very much!

The car also has servo brakes, so you don't even have to push the pedal very much. In a way, all these things make the FW15C less physically demanding to drive. Although the g loads are still very high, and when you're loaded up on high downforce the steering will be fairly heavy, things like not having to press the brake pedal with Heaven knows how many millions of pounds, make it easier to drive.

Of course, I did have my neck strap on, and I did make sure that under acceleration I rested my head against the headrest! But I got out after 10 laps and thought, 'This is okay, maybe I could do another 10 or another 20.' Or at least I did until I woke up the next morning! The muscles at the front of my neck, which took the load under acceleration, were very sore. But not as sore as my neck would have been if I hadn't worn the strap: I didn't worry what people would think; I didn't know what to expect. I thought it was better to put it on and have everybody laugh about it, than not put it on and find out that my head would fall off.

Where you really notice the g force is when you go round the horseshoe, where you're turning in third gear and that neck strap is being loaded to its maximum. Then you accelerate, and your head is not only being pulled to one side, it's being tugged back at a funny angle as well. That is a definite killer.

The strange logic of downforce was something I was very conscious of. Johnny told me, 'Whatever you do, don't lift off in the middle of the corner, because you'll take away some of the downforce.' The faster you go, the more stable it is up until the point where you step over the line; I don't believe I got close to this line. The team had promised me all sorts of things if I shunted it, none of them nice!

Going quicker is funny, because you get to the point where you're not sure where you should go faster, because the car feels unstable. But when you actually do go faster, it makes it more stable. You have to get over something of a mental block.

I keep saying things are fabulous and amazing, but one thing struck me above all: le moteur, c'est incroyable! It was incredibly quick, incredibly powerful, and incredibly smooth. You could go fairly low on revs and it would still accelerate like a bullet. It was revving to 14,000 plus. How much plus, you ask? Unfortunately, we can't tell you that, but the plus was plenty enough for me. . .

I was talking to Jos Verstappen after his first run in a Formula One car, and he said you can't believe a car can actually accelerate that quick. I thought of him when I first accelerated out of a corner in the Williams. That was just incredible. The sheer acceleration in second, third and fourth gears is unreal. It is absolutely mind-boggling. You try to make comparisons beforehand, think what would it be like: you're taking off in an aeroplane and you think, 'If I do this by two, will that come close?' You try to visualise that acceleration. But then the first time you actually floor it, you know that whatever you had come up with, it would have been nowhere near what the feeling actually is.

The good thing is that although the acceleration is phenomenal, it's all very smooth. The car's very driveable. It didn't particularly surprise me; it was more a relief that it wasn't like a beast trying to control a beast. If you get into even a road car and go halfway round a roundabout and floor it, you can find out it's a beast and you're struggling to keep it on the black stuff. You think that is quick. With the Williams you're getting into something which is probably four times as quick, yet probably 20 times easier to control!

It's 800 brake horsepower, 550 kilos, and it just takes off, but still inspires so much confidence that you have no fear of getting to a corner, giving it full throttle, and finding that it does something vicious.

Doing 299kph down the straight and having to turn into a corner wasn't really a scenario I was sure about. One of the most important things with this car is that you're concentrated a thousand per cent all the time. In the end the car makes sure you won't get into a false sense of security but because it is so quick, and because it gives you confidence – it's very positive, when you touch the brakes it actually stops, and when you turn the wheel it goes left or right, and when you touch the throttle it moves forward – you have to be with the programme every millionth of a second. If you're not, you'll pretty soon be ejected from the programme.

There was a switch for high or low revs, which I was allowed to use on my second run. I don't know how many more revs I gained because you change gear on the lights, and as soon as you switch the button the lights will change accordingly.

When I first sat in the cockpit, I thought 'Heck, all these knobs and buttons,' but while you might be searching for them for a couple of runs, I reckon you would actually get used to them pretty soon.

It's a little bit like an aeroplane cockpit with all the instrumentation. That includes tyre puncture, gearbox failure, and active failure lights. Yes, they really do work. I did a photo shoot after my run, and was driving round slowly on an old set of rubber when the tyre warning light came on. It senses the temperature in the tyres on the left and right, and if they differ more than the norm should be, the light immediately comes on. I thought that was very impressive.

There were four buttons on the steering wheel: the 'levers' for automatic upshift and downshift, an all-stop button, and one for low drag. They can use that on the straights. As I understand it, it raises the car and breaks the undercar aerodynamics to make them less effective, so the car is not sucked to the ground as hard as it is around the corners. That way you are able to move quicker through the air because there's less drag. I think all the active cars have such a system, and when you watch the onboard camera you can see the drivers pressing the button. The classic one is Schumacher, who seems to press it on just about every straight he can!

Then, of course, there are the normal radio knobs, ignition switches and switches to activate the hydraulic system for the gearbox and suspension. There are more knobs to tweak the engine, lean off the mixture. On the right-hand side of the cockpit, actually under your right elbow, there are knobs you can turn to change the active. We weren't allowed to touch them, but I assume they change the characteristics of the car just slightly. If you get different conditions during a race, you will be able to fine tune the active a little bit.

Like everybody else, I've heard and read the comments suggesting that because of all the technology the cars can effectively drive themselves. The way I see it is that you're talking about going round say a double left or right-hand corner where you've got to brake, change down a gear, accelerate, brake, change down again and accelerate, and it's probably easier to do it in this car than one which doesn't have those automatic or semiautomatic capabilities.

You could very easily think that it detracts from the driver, but because you've got all those things you can go round that corner faster. You've still got to do that. I think people are too quick to say that driving a Formula One car is now so easy that a monkey could win. That is definitely not the case; you still have to drive it, steer left and right, and brake at the right point. It will take away some of the physical stuff, very definitely, and the drivers will probably say it will take away an element of the fun. But you must never forget that part of that fun is going round the corner as fast as you can.

You can definitely go round faster than if you have to do a lot of things manually. But if you are going faster, it all happens faster, so your brain has got to be in top gear to handle that. Could a monkey drive the car? Maybe yes. But the monkey won't be able to win a Grand Prix. . .

Before the test I talked about it and people said, 'Ah well, it's an amazing car and it does everything very well.' When you actually get in it, you expect 'very good' to be very good. But I never envisaged 'very good' to be this good.

It would be understatement to say I enjoyed it immensely. It was an amazing experience and, yes, I would like to do it again. I've been looking at my fax machine a lot lately! A big thank you to all the Williams people, and everyone at Williams-Renault for making this happen.

I realise now just why top drivers such as Alain or Damon are amazing. They are going at a speed that is mind-blowingly fast, they've got to do the same thing every lap, at those speeds, and under those g loads, they have to do the same things under very difficult circumstances. Not only do they have to do every little thing right, they also have to realise what they're doing and tell the engineers what the car is doing. And they have to do all that while racing other competitors. That is a real feat. To be able to do all this and win, you must be an outstanding racing driver.

All of us who drove the car – myself, Derek Daly, Jochen Mass – stalled the car. Only my fellow Eurosport commentator John Watson didn't, but I must say that after a couple of times, once you've got the feel, it's a very smooth and fairly easy getaway. David did a 1 m 5.5s while warming the car up for us. Jochen did I m 6.6s, I did 1 m 7.63s, Wattle 1 m 7.9s and Derek 1 m 8.7s.

I 'phoned Frank as soon as I got out of the car, and said, 'Thank you very much.' He said, 'Allard, the pleasure was mine.' I said, 'No Frank, it was mine. . . A K