In Maurice Hamilton’s new book, Williams, a host of characters tell the story of this great team. Here, they recall a dominant year for Mansell and the FW14B
f ever a car was made for Nigel Mansell, it was the Williams FW14B. Patrick Head joined Adrian Newey to explore the benefits of active suspension, despite previous torrid experiences with such systems, in order to gain a performance advantage over McLaren. A simple concept, active suspension offered control of the cars’ ride height, which in turn allowed the engineers to optimise the aerodynamics. The FW14B was actually a stop-gap while the team researched active suspension during the heat of battle, but such was the car’s immediate dominance it remained in service throughout the season.
Mansell’s strength allowed him to bully the car, and he put down an impressive marker by winning the first five races of the 1992 season. By the Hungarian GP in August the World Championship was his. But away from the track, Renault and Elf were pushing for Alain Prost to join the team for 1993, leading an unsettled Mansell to dramatically announce his retirement in a press conference at Monza.
Instead, he would head for pastures new in American Indycar racing for ’93. But Nigel’s turbulent association with Williams was not yet over.
“Nigel was outstanding in 1992, quite brilliant. The active-ride FW14B was a massive step forward for us, but it was difficult. It was changing all the time according to the software so it didn’t necessarily give the feedback in real time. It told the driver, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got the grip – you’re okay.’ So you have to know that, later in the corner, it would sort itself
out and the grip would be there. Riccardo [Patrese] didn’t like that whereas Nigel would just say, ‘I know the grip will be there.’ Bang. Total self-confidence.
“I wouldn’t say we developed the car much during the year; it was mostly about keeping it reliable because it was quite a complex car. It was something I anguished over. I knew we had a very good car, and I thought it quite possible that even with the FW14 developed, we could win the championship without active ride. We were always able to go back to a conventional car if we had to, but while the active ride was proving itself reliable and quicker, that’s what we stuck with.”
“The active suspension was a three-legged system that AP [Automotive Products] had developed for road cars. It was a very simple system which offered good ride height control and therefore allowed us to optimise the aerodynamics. As a spring and damper suspension, however, the vehicle dynamics of the suspension were actually very poor, and that was its weakness. But we were able to develop aerodynamics which, combined with the ride height control we had, gave us huge amounts of downforce.
“We realised in the wind tunnel that if we lowered the rear and raised the front, you could stall the diffuser and that reduced the drag of the car significantly. So we put a button on the steering wheel which the drivers could push once they were on the straight. The button lowered the rear, raised the front. I can’t remember the figure but that would give them something like an extra 10kph. It was a great system, an aerodynamicist’s dream in terms of what we could then develop.
“At the last test of the winter there was a failure in the system. It wasn’t serious, but Nigel was very worried and wanted to run the passive car in the first race in South Africa. We said we believed we could get it reliable, and we also believed that we needed the performance it offered, otherwise we were going to be beaten. We started with the active system, and it was as good as gold. It was very robust and gave us no problems as well as offering the performance advantage. Plus there was the fact that McLaren had got themselves completely and utterly lost trying to run V10 cars and V12 cars. In truth, they went backwards over the winter, and we went forwards.
“The 1992 season was the easiest I’ve ever had in motor racing, without a doubt. It was very interesting between the drivers. In 1991, while Nigel was generally the quicker of the two, on his day Riccardo could beat Nigel.
In 1992 the active car was perfect for Nigel because, first of all, it was before we had power steering and, because of the amount of downforce it had, the steering loads were very high. Nigel had this tremendous upper-body strength, so he could cope with the steering loads. And because the suspension system was quite crude, the car used to move around and give all sorts of slightly funny signals to the driver. Going into the corner, if the rear started to move in a slightly Citroën 2CV-like way, Riccardo’s understandable reaction was to lift off the throttle, whereas Nigel had this total belief in himself and his ability to control the car, so he would keep his foot on it. By carrying this speed, he’d keep up the downforce and through the corner the car would go.
“But Nigel was very clever as well. He realised that his principal rival for the championship was going to be Riccardo and that he’d better set about destroying him from the outset. He did that very effectively in one simple move. Riccardo had been training very hard through the winter in order to get his weight down and get himself really fit. I think that was the first year we had the driver weigh-ins. Nigel, who never appeared to take gym work seriously and wasn’t too careful about his diet, set about dehydrating himself for a couple of days. Then he stripped everything out of his overalls, took all the lining out and removed the lining from his helmet. At the weigh-in, he managed to come in about half a kilo under Riccardo, who was mentally destroyed by this.
“At Monza in 1991 Nigel had been very quick and very good at jumping the chicanes, so Patrick asked him what his secret was because Riccardo seemed to be struggling. The 1991 car had a cockpit chassis structure that came over the top of the steering wheel. Nigel said, ‘Well, what I do is, I jam my knuckles against the inside of the cockpit. Then, when I jump the chicane, the steering wheel can’t move.’ So Patrick duly went back to Riccardo and told him what he had to do. Riccardo went out and came back after one lap with blood all leaking through his gloves! Nigel was very good at winding people up.
“Nigel had a very close relationship with David Brown, his race engineer. We didn’t have a huge amount in the way of data recording in those days. But we did have three knobs in the cockpit which were for low-speed front ride-height, high-speed front ride-height and rear ride-height. The drivers could use these to adjust the handling of the car during the race. Nigel would go out, adjust it to what he wanted and then, on his in lap, change all the settings. Those settings would go down on the set-up sheet. Riccardo would duly try and copy Nigel’s settings, which of course were hopelessly off. David was in on the act but kept his mouth shut. So there were all these little wind-ups going on, which to be fair to Nigel was clever of him. He had sussed that his main rival was Riccardo and he needed to go about outsmarting him.
“When it became evident that Frank had signed Prost and in the process had allowed a contract that put Nigel out of a drive, I felt it was wrong. What that did mean was, when we started talking about extending my contract, I asked that I should be involved in major policy decisions including driver choice, recognising that of course Frank and Patrick could outvote me ultimately. But I wanted to be in a position to put my tuppence in. So I re-signed in 1993 for one year. But in the middle of ’93 Ferrari basically couldn’t get their active car to work at all, so miraculously the FIA decided to ban active suspension.”
“I was an Italian driver but I had worked with English teams before. Frank had worked a lot with foreign drivers and he could understand my Latin attitude. I think one of the reasons I stayed so long in Williams – five years – was because the relationship with the mechanics and the engineers and everyone was fantastic. One of my characteristics is that I’m a driver who always wants to look after the enthusiasm and wants the best morale of the team. It is important that if you want the results you always have to have a nice atmosphere and everyone motivated. The driver needs to be motivated because, in the end, he is the man who is going to get the result through a lot of hard work. I loved the team and the team loved me. I finished second in the drivers’ championship. Okay, every driver likes to be champion, but you can’t have everything you want in life.
“Nigel and I are very good friends, but to work with him can be hard because, as you know, he likes to have all the attention for himself. He was a fantastic driver and he deserved to win the championship in 1992. He was a little bit quicker than I was. Working with Nigel went very well but I have to say that for me the most important thing was the best interest of the team. Nigel wanted to have everything for himself.”
Ian Anderson (chief mechanic)
“From a technical point of view, that car was unbelievably impressive. It had active ride, which I know a lot of people had on their cars later on, but I don’t think anyone made it work as well. It had a power-shift gearbox, hydraulically operated throttles and ABS. To make it reliable was very impressive. Of course, Nigel will tell you it’s all down to the driver. We did have the theory that we ought to put straps under the car. When Nigel asked what we did that for, we would say, ‘Well, if it breaks, you can carry it across the line.’”
“I had two very good years in 1991 and 1992. There were a few problems with the semi-automatic gearbox, otherwise we could have really challenged for the championship in 1991. It was tricky in 1992 because Frank was trying to replace me, but fortunately I had a good strong contract, otherwise I’d never have won the championship. I wasn’t afforded the same opportunity to do it again in 1993 because they wanted a French driver and a French-engined car to win the championship.”
Peter Windsor (team manager)
“The bottom line was Nigel was annoyed that Frank had signed Prost. The only way he was going to stay was if he got twice the amount of money Prost was getting. I don’t think Nigel was in the mood to spend three months negotiating. He was World Champion and wanted an instant response from Frank. He wasn’t going to get it because Frank never gave in that quickly. He wasn’t being mean. He was trying to do the best job for himself and his company. There were a lot of people fanning the flames. To me, it was simple: Nigel wanted the money and Frank was either going to pay it or he wasn’t. He did offer it in the end, and I don’t understand why Nigel didn’t accept that late offer and stay. Okay, you could argue that Frank was asking for trouble by bringing Prost into the team, but I think he genuinely felt that Mansell and Prost were the best driver combination for 1993, and from Renault’s point of view it was the right thing to do. If Frank had made the final offer a couple of months before, the deal would’ve been done.”
“Put simply, I think it was a matter of two hard-headed idiots who couldn’t make a deal, couldn’t communicate at the right time. It’s still my firm opinion that if Nigel hadn’t had that press conference in Monza, announcing what I thought was a grossly premature decision to retire, by Monday evening or so – away from the track – both of us would’ve calmed down. He’d have been away from his sycophantic followers, who were advising him badly in my opinion, and we’d probably have made a deal.”