Impressed by the pioneering use of ground effects by Lotus, the Williams team were convinced they could do it better – and proved they could with this championship-winning design
I would go for the Williams FW07. Williams won their first GP with it, in 1979, and, refined for the following year, it won the championship with Alan Jones. It just about qualifies for this series as, although I was involved with it, it wasn’t my design.
I thought of picking the Lotus 79 because it was the first ground-effect car, but it had structural weaknesses — a great concept, but flawed, whereas the Williams FW07 put that concept into a superior mechanical package.
Structurally, Lotus hadn’t really taken account of the location, the way the bodywork was attached to the monocoque. One could tell from observation that there were areas with too much deflection because they didn’t appreciate the huge size of the loads. I think the subsequent failure of Lotus to continue the development of the ground effects principle showed that they had the concept but not the application. Williams understood what was happening more, and produced a better car.
Frank Dernie was in charge of the FW07 aerodynamics, and I was working for him, so I had some input into that area. Patrick Head was responsible for the mechanical side, and the team all had a good understanding of what was going on. I think we had the more pragmatic approach; Lotus was so absorbed with the concept that they forgot the detail. That didn’t matter at first because they had such an advantage, but as soon as they had a rival, the details started to matter and they got caught out.
The rest of the package was relatively conventional; we took the view that here was a fantastic concept which we didn’t think was being utilised properly, so we didn’t need to embellish it, just produce a car which was structurally good, nice and stiff, and which properly accommodated the huge loads generated by ground effects, and used them to their best effect. So there was nothing trick about the rest of the car It was just a very, very good piece of engineering.
The Lotus 79 was one of those “Of course!” events. We built a wind-tunnel model of what we thought was a Lotus 79, and the First time we ran it in the tunnel, we thought the dials had gone wrong. We were shocked, and just sat there in amazement at what our first crude attempt had produced — four or five times better than the flat-bottomed car we were racing at that time. We just didn’t appreciate the extent of its potential until we got a scale model into the tunnel. It was an eye-opening experience.
Then you could go pretty close to rival cars to investigate. Sometimes too close: in 1979 one of our mechanics found Peter Collins, the Lotus team manager, under one of our cars with a tape-measure. But you could at least have a look at a rival; now it’s much harder. But we’re always open to outside ideas; we’ve recently introduced the same ‘chimneys’ as McLaren to extract hot air, and I noticed at the last race that they now use a diffuser which is the spitting image of ours. It happens all the time; you must study the opposition and compare their solutions to your own.
Now the challenge is in the details, but there was a period in the early 1990s when it was really exciting with active suspension, traction control, a lot of innovation which probably would have led to dynamic handling control. The driver would have been a virtual passenger, and in some ways I agree with Max Mosley that it had to be stopped. But as an engineer it was pretty stimulating.
But there is still scope. We now study every aspect of the car in far more detail than ever before to get that last tenth of a second, but it’s still stimulating. We’re not sat here wondering what to do next. There’s a huge amount of work going on, but the rewards are smaller — though I would never dismiss the idea of another Chapman-like leap.
Everything these days is much more thoroughly assessed before you do it. If we took a risk on a new concept and had a bad year, it would have serious consequences for individuals and the company. There’s not the cavalier attitude there was 20 years ago. Then you could change tack far more quickly; today there’s a longer gestation period; we’re starting our cars ever earlier to get them on the grid by March. We already have projects for 2002 under way. It was less professional then; we would take three sets of parts and two cars. Now we take three race cars, six sets of parts, 10 engines, six gearboxes. It’s just a different level.
I was also involved with the derivatives of the FW07, including the fantastic six-wheeler — the proper concept of a six-wheeler with four wheels at the back so the skirts could run straight from the front to the back of the venturi with no interruption from the tyres. That would have been outstanding. Most people didn’t realise that the true advantage was aerodynamic, not mechanical. There was a significant traction advantage, but it came strangely enough during starts, because the front pair of tyres would lay down rubber which the second pair would grip on, which was not anticipated, to be honest.
It would have been a massive step forward in down-force but, unfortunately, it was banned before it raced. It used an FW08 chassis, but they were all derivatives of the 07. They all had a family link, so the FVV07 was really the car which started Williams off on its path to becoming one of the greatest teams ever in Formula One.
Ross Brawn was talking to Gordon Cruickshank