F1's 1990s tech boom: tobacco money and more manufacturers


The arrival of unlimited tobacco sponsorship funding and road car manufacturers led F1 into an innovative decade

Michael Schumacher, 1993 Monaco GP

The arrival of big money in F1 prompted a tech boom like no other

Grand Prix Photo

Motorola and Nokia dominated the growing handheld phone industry, there was a new wave of sound growing stateside out of Washington and tobacco was about to truly make its mark in F1.

Formula 1’s golden era arguably came in the 1990s. The Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost rivalry was lingering but would never hit the tumultuous highs (or lows) that it had done in the late ’80s thanks to a concoction of perfect timing and circumstances, the racing was about to undergo a great evolution.

From the cumbersome but attention-demanding cars of the 1950s, the Lotus revolution in the ’60s, the advent of wings then further understanding of ground effect in the 1970s and ’80s, F1’s development rate was rapidly increasing with each decade.

The 1990s would be no different in that respect, though the levels in which engineers took their work was unparalleled and to this day, some of the most sophisticated creations were thought up during this era.

Each technical advance is detailed in a new book, Formula 1 Car by Car 1990-1999 and the June issue of Motor Sport examines the underrated cars of the decade.

The arrival of huge tobacco sponsorships as companies turned to F1 as its advertising avenue of choice opened the door to technical impossibilities.

“I think that certainly within our team, we definitely had a lot more money than we’d had previously,” Pat Symonds explained to Motor Sport.

“In ’94, this would have been pre-Canada, we were absolutely going to win the world championship, nothing could possibly go wrong. I remember talking to members of our board saying ‘You know, we’re obviously going to have a good year financially so we need to think about where we spend our money, we’ve got to look at the future of Formula 1’. Really our decision on that was to build our new wind tunnel. For us, there was that step in what we could spend.”

Mika Hakkinen, 1999 McLaren

McLaren earned attention when its cars rear brake discs were glowing under acceleration, eventually it was uncovered it ran third brake pedal

Grand Prix Photo

Symonds was operating in Benetton’s technical ranks and would continue with the outfit during its transformation into Renault F1.

For him, the time period was one of the most exciting to be a part of Formula 1 as the teams and technical staff got to flex their design muscles with the funding now available.

“The technology almost went into reverse because the ’93 car was still the most technically advanced car. I’d say it was probably the most advanced chassis even to today. Okay, the engine was a bit of a dinosaur compared to today, but you know it had the four-wheel steer, active suspension, ABS, all these sorts of things were way ahead of where we were but they were done on a shoestring.

“I’d love to look back at what our budgets were then. I actually used to write a report for Max [Mosely] mostly every year to have sort of a brief overview of what we spent and where we spent it just to put him in touch with things like that. I can’t remember the numbers now but there were several things happening there was more money coming into the sport. From our point of view, it was the Benetton thing but of course, Mercedes were getting on board and later BMW was pouring money into Williams, so you were starting to see the beginning of the manufacturers.”

“Some manufacturers were probably playing ‘alpha’ but the other thing that really was starting to take-off was the understanding of aero”

The development of cars was accelerated as engineers began to fully exploit the growing understanding of aerodynamics. With the extra funds available, engineers and aerodynamicists could be exploratory, ambitious and outside-the-box more often than ever before.

Symonds remembers the rapid progress from the late 1980s into the early 1990s. The advent of CAD design was another crucial step towards what you might consider modern-era F1 car development.

Team’s understanding of ground effect and aerodynamics on a larger scale began to accelerate at some pace during the decade, and the use of computer simulation and design only furthered the possibilities for teams in terms of development scope.

The transition from 2D to 3D design led to some of the most technologically complex cars F1 has ever seen, particularly at Williams as the team started on a development path to its 1993 effort: the FW15C. Complete with an impressive active suspension system that could alter the suspension geometry at a whim on one of the three computers it was connected to at any one time, the ’93 car stands the test of time for being an incredible piece of engineering that helped the team onto one of its five constructor’s titles during the decade.

“Some manufacturers were probably playing alpha but the other thing that really was starting to takeoff was the understanding of aero.

“At Benetton, we opened our wind tunnel right at the end of the ’90s. We’d certainly moved up an awful lot in what we could do in the wind tunnel and interestingly, one of the things that came along was our first rapid prototyping machines at the end of the ’90s. We got our first CAD machines in the ’80s in the ’90s we’re really starting to use them.

Williams FW15C, 1993

The FW15C is still regarded as one of the most sophisticated F1 cars of all time

Jean-Marc LOUBAT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“So now we were able to not just design but to manufacture much more complex 3D shapes. We were getting a lot more complex.

“I think also the work we did on the active [suspension] car had definitely moved us forward a massive amount in simulation. Not simulators, we were not into simulators at that time but simulation, a lot more mathematical modelling, etc. I mean it sounds crazy, but we didn’t have much computing power up until the ’90s. So, we were starting to do a lot more classic engineering relevancy to the PAMPs engineering and I think those are the things that really moved to being state of the art.”

Improvements weren’t exclusive to the technological side of things either. The ‘garagista’ era was well and truly finished and even the traditional manufacturers were beginning to modernise. Greater budgets meant better equipment and along with that, the individuals operating them also took a step forward.

The likes of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn had been around before the boom and were respected for their work though it was during the 1990s that they enhanced their reputations and set themselves apart from a crowd that was growing increasingly intuitive.

The supporting casts that helped create some of F1’s most iconic cars were getting better and better, with greater funds allocated to recruitment rather than purely driver salaries and engine deals.

“When I got into Formula 1, though, there weren’t many professional engineers. Engineers, people with engineering degrees, there were an awful lot of incredibly clever people. They had sort of grown up learning on the track about racing cars. Some of them with an incredible eye for design. There was very little analytical work. And I think that in the ’90s, it was quite unusual but by the end of the ’90s pretty much everyone working in a design office in aerodynamics were professional engineers.

From the archive

“Coupled with that sort of expansion in budget. I guess the main reason for the expansion in budget wasn’t really the manufacturers – that was a bit later – it was much more the tobacco. So you know that was starting to really pump into the sport, the tobacco companies began to spend less and less on advertising in conventional areas so I think there was more money going into the sport. That allowed us to employ professional engineers, to buy the computers and software, set up R&D and spend a lot more money on windtunnel testing and things like that.”

All of these points combined and created the perfect storm for a technical revolution. With the level of engineers increasing and the greatest funding ever seen now available, F1 underwent a period of technological innovation not rivalled for some time, perhaps only by the recent turbo hybrid concept.

With relative regulatory freedom, innovations were concocted, earlier concepts redefined and speeds were increased again and again. That wasn’t limited to the top teams either. While of course the likes of Ferrari and McLaren had almost unlimited funding in comparison to the minnows of the F1 world, backmarkers could afford to get creative for their own versions of budding technology. Lotus for example was on its last legs and a shade of its former title-winning self by the ’90s yet even it gave its own spin on active suspension. Over at Benetton, the funds weren’t flowing quite as freely by the end of the decade, that mattered not to Symonds and Co.

“The amazing thing is what we did for very little money. Yeah, in our case, the active car we raced in ’93 had a very long gestation period because I’d started work on that car in the late ’80s, and then left Benetton to go and do the Reynard thing when Rory [Byrne] and myself, you know, didn’t get along with [John] Barnard.

“Then I came back and did the active cars again, picked up the programmes after a little bit of a hiatus. That was still done on a shoestring. The four-wheel steer actually is an even better example because the four-wheel steer I’d been playing around with it for a bit. I’d done all the modelling, like part of my team to set up a few sorts of tests early ’93 in the lab and what have you.

“When you look at the team now with 500-600 people, most of those people are engineers and finding all these tiny little incremental improvements”

“In my mind, it was going to be introduced for ’94. Then, in Canada in ’93, the FIA decided that the active suspension sort of stuff was illegal. I remember coming back from Canada, and Ross [Brawn] was technical director then, and Ross was going on holiday straight off the week after Canada and I remember saying, ‘Well what are we going to do with this four-wheel steer project? It’s showing an awful lot of promise’ and Ross said, ‘Well when I get back from holiday give me a plan.’ Actually what I did was I built it while he was on holiday.

“If I wait till he comes back, we’re not going to get it on the car. So we built it we raced it in the last three or four races. That was from a ‘let’s get this thing out of the R&D lab and onto the car, go out testing and race it by October’ or whatever was. We were able to work incredibly quickly. The latter part of the decade, you know, in ’99, we were really on a shoestring budget at that time. The good times of ’94, ’95 had gone. We were paying an absolute fortune for engines.

“Benetton had decided they wanted out and I was trying to get Renault involved with us again because, by this time of course, I was technical director. Our budget was minute in ’99, yet we did the front-torque transfer. We did a twin-clutch gearbox. And these were done on a tiny budget. We should be pretty proud of what we achieved, all of the teams. Our team then was probably 300 people. When you look at the team now with 500-600 people, those additional people on production people not many of them are pen pushers, you know, okay, maybe a few more HR people. The process is zero, but most of those people are engineers, people are working and finding all these tiny little incremental improvements.”

Giancarlo Fisichella, 1998 Benetton

Benetton were still working on innovative braking systems after its championship heyday

Jerome Prevost/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Image

One particular piece of tech didn’t make it onto the Benetton though and it was an ingenious piece of work. Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz could have had a unique braking system at their disposal for the 1998 season but thanks to an FIA rule clarification, the design didn’t make the cut.

“We didn’t race our sort of full Active Brake System which was quite a complex system. It altered the gain of the foot pedal to brake pressure depending on speed, and it also altered the bias. It didn’t actually do anti-lock in the same way that the front torque transfer didn’t do anti-lock because that had been banned in ’93, it made it quite difficult to lock the front brakes on turn-in.

“It was a great system, actually Swiss watch stuff. It was a hydroelectric control system on the pedal assembly and that effectively altered the ratio size so high speed you know that the driver just press lightly on the pedal and there was a lot of brake pressure and then he just kept his pressure constant and the control algorithms would then back off the brakes as the speed came down to stop and locking it would alter the bias, front to rear. It would sense when the car was turning in and alter the bias again. So yeah that was, that was a pretty neat system actually.

Innovations like McLaren’s extra pedal ‘brake-steer’ system or the Williams active suspension system are pointed to as the most notorious of the 1990s F1 tech inventions though, for Symonds, Benetton’s four-wheel steer system is the winner despite the more renowned inventions living on in the memory.

“My favourite is the four-wheel steer. It was an incredibly innovative closed-loop system. Most four-wheel steers are open-loop, at low speed they’ll counter steer and at high speed, they’ll pro-steer. This one says if the car was oversteering, understeering and what rate of turning was warranted.

“It was fully integrated with the active suspension. It had some really clever safety systems on it to capture hydraulic failures and stuff like that. It was a lovely bit of engineering and the control algorithm to this day I still think you could stick it on a road car and it’d be really good. I should write about it one day.”