Eleventh heaven — Williams' greatest F1 car?

Williams approached F1's 1000bhp turbo era in its usual methodical fashion and built arguably the best car for Mansell and Piquet in the FW11. Damien Smith speaks to co-designer Frank Dernie

Nelson Piquet in Williams FW11 at 1987 Monaco Grand Prix

Piquet did the initial testing on '87 active Williams

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If you were drawing up a list of the best-looking Formula One cars, Williams‘ FW11B would be passed over in an instant. Williams cars, despite their huge success over the last quarter-century, have always looked workmanlike, with colour schemes shorn of flair. But that doesn’t make them any less memorable.

On the contrary, their shape and colours are always evocative of certain eras, races, drivers. Take FW11B: its white Canon sidepods, hump-backed yellow engine cover, angular front end-plates, deep blue Mobil 1/Honda stripe, little brown Barclay logo just behind the front wheels.., close your eyes and it’s 1987.

‘Our’ Nigel Mansell would not win the world championship for another five seasons, but it’s FW11B (and the original 1986 version) that define him: those two dramatic British Grand Prix wins at Brands Hatch and Silverstone ; that violent blow-out in Adelaide which robbed him of the ’86 title; the clumsy practice crash in Suzuka that ended his dreams a year later. Mansell was always about extreme highs and lows.

For two years he and Nelson Piquet went at it, fighting a bitter intra-team war that lacked the professional respect that later existed between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost during their feud. It was fascinating stuff if you weren’t directly involved.

Side view of Nigel Mansell in Williams FW11 in 1987

Bold sponsor graphics are a memorable element

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Sparks fly from Williams FW11 in 1987

Dernie’s functional aerodynamics also a perfect billboard

Grand Prix Photo

FW11 was usually about extreme highs. Those Piquet vs Mansell duels took place at the front of the field because of the sound engineering and aero principles of Patrick Head and his deputy Frank Dernie — oh, and the power of Honda’s V6 turbo. FW11 remains a car Dernie remembers with affection and pride.

“When we designed it we were pushing the limits of everything we had ever done,” he says. “For example, I believe it was the first Formula One engine cover to be created by computer-aided design. We did lots of things that we had always wanted to do but couldn’t before.”

Frank Dernie designing F1 car on a computer at Williams in 1987

Dernie — here in ’87 — was a CAD pioneer


That was why it enjoyed a two-year lifespan. Prost and McLaren’s MP4/2C beat the Williams men to the 1986 title, but that was because Piquet and Mansell took points off each other, not because of pace. FW11 secured the constructors’ title that year, and the team was confident that it would continue to set the benchmark in ’87. That’s why the B-spec car is so similar to the original. Linear rather than rising-rate suspension and a new diffuser were the only significant developments.

“It sounds arrogant to say it, but I think the car was pretty good in every area,” claims Dernie. “In terms of downforce, I think we were the first people to really achieve seriously large amounts by virtue of getting better airflow to the rear wing; Brabham spoke about it a lot but hadn’t done it very well.

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“The layout of the cooling system was simple and logical, and worked very effectively. When Lotus first ran the same engine [in 1987] they couldn’t get within two-tenths. That was partly because of aero efficiency and partly because we had a much better turbo air intake set-up. I did an awful lot of aerodynamic work on the intercooler layout. It made the efficiency of the turbo better than before and certainly better than Lotus managed.”

In these last years of the turbo, the FIA tried to cut horsepower by limiting boost levels. An Indycar-style pop-off valve was introduced for 1987 to limit boost to four bar. But it had little effect on the Honda or McLaren‘s TAG V6, neither of which had ever exceeded that figure, at least in race trim.

“The limit restricted those who ran qualifying engines, like Renault and BMW,” says Dernie. “But Honda never actually built a qualifying engine, so we were probably 200-300bhp down on BMW and Renault in qualifying.” That still didn’t stop Williams taking 12 poles in 1987 — and with excellent fuel consumption figures for the races, power was never an issue.

Overhead view of Mansell and Piquet in Williams FW11s at 1987 Hungarian GP

To add to its strength, Williams also took a big step forward with active suspension during the season.

“That was my invention, my project,” says Dernie. “The main thing I did on the car was aero work, and the main attraction of active suspension was the effect it had on the aerodynamics. I’d been pressing to run active suspension since 1979, but we didn’t have the budget then.”

The team tested a mechanical prototype system on an FW10 early in 1987, but it proved unreliable. The electronic version, which was more accurate and rapidly adjustable, did work. It won on its race debut at Monza in the hands of Piquet.

“It was a pretty substantial breakthrough,” says Dernie. “Some of the things we did then are still valid today, even though active suspension is banned.”

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As the team revelled in its technical superiority, its owner was fighting his own very personal battle. Frank Williams was making a remarkable recovery from the road accident he suffered in 1986. Despite facing life as a tetraplegic, he was back at the helm for ’87.

“Frank’s strengths were and still are getting sponsorship and choosing drivers,” says Dernie. “By then he had taken a back seat in running the cars at the track. Luckily, the driver and sponsor contracts carried over 1986 and ’87, so the things where his absence would have hurt us massively were already sorted.”

But there were plenty of deals to do for the future. It was clear throughout 1987 that Honda’s partnership with Williams was coming to an end, so the team tackled the return of a normally aspirated formula a year early and accepted that ’88 would be an interim season with John Judd’s V8. As McLaren and Honda swept all before them, Williams was rebuilding: Renault was on board for ’89, and a new era of dominance beckoned.