The Williams FW14B is nominated for the inaugural ‘Racing car’ category, in partnership with JBR Capital, for the Hall of Fame 2018. Vote for your winner below.
The ultimate Williams track test: FW14B
I grew up in an era where the biggest stars in F1 were Senna, Prost, Piquet and Mansell. The cars from the late 1980s and early 1990s were the ones on my bedroom wall posters. Watching Mansell take pole position at Silverstone in 1992 – 2.7sec faster than the first non-Williams – inspired me to chase the F1 dream. That sight of Red 5 charging down Hangar Straight into Stowe and the sound of that Renault V10 is something I can recall instantly – I’ve seen the VHS tape so many times.
So you can imagine how I felt as I prepared to drive that very car on the track – the first time anyone had done so since that 1992 championship-winning campaign.
I’ve always been a driver who loves the engineering side of our sport. People often asked me about the best part of Formula 1 and, apart from obviously driving the cars, it was working with some of the most brilliant engineering minds in the world and their incredible technology.
The Williams FW14B sits in the garage when I walk in. Bodywork off, tyres on and, on command, the guys start flushing the system and the car starts moving up and down, flexing its muscles. I’ve seen it on TV as a kid, but seeing it in real life is something else. Welcome to the world of active suspension. Welcome to the FW14B – a car far ahead of its time.
The car is set with the Nigel Mansell seat and his unique smaller steering wheel that gave him a very direct turn-in but made it very heavy in the fast corners. It has a foot clutch but paddles to shift gear. You’ve got switches for the active ride control and today we’re not running the traction control, as this car hasn’t really run in 25 years and we don’t want to overstress the engine. I get in it and am all set to give the command to fire up when Paddy Lowe, one of the key architects behind the active suspension program back in 1991, pops his head into the cockpit: “Remember you have to blip on the downshift – there’s no fly-by-wire throttle!” Good tip, Paddy.
I pull out of the garage just after lunch during the Williams fan day and the pitlane is filled with people holding their phones out to record the moment – I spot Felipe Massa, Paddy, Sir Patrick Head, Jonathan Williams, Riccardo Patrese, Mark Webber and Geoff Willis all watching intently as I trundle down the pitlane. A quick glance to the left and the 45,000 people in the grandstand are all on their feet. The significance of seeing Red 5 back at Silverstone instantly hits me.
Floor the throttle and all of a sudden you realise that while it may not have the power of a current car or the turbos before it, 750 horsepower and only 580 kilograms is still enough to push your head into the headrest. The driveability is just incredible and such is the linear torque curve that within a couple of laps I feel as if with the traction control off I can get the rear to pivot on the throttle in the slower corners, with no surprises in the torque curve.
Onto Hangar Straight and, weirdly for me, I’m feeling quite emotional – that view of the straight widening, Stowe corner looming, the sound of that incredible 3.5-litre engine behind me takes me straight back to being an eight-year-old child. My mind goes back to an on-board film of Nigel from 1992 and I can almost hear Murray Walker’s voice.
Get to Stowe and you realise you have to look down either side of the cockpit and not in front of you as the centre of the monocoque is so high – I now understand all those videos of Nigel’s head tilted to one side as he approached the corners.
I start to lean on it now, build temperature in the tyres and all of a sudden you start to feel the movement of the car from the active suspension. Paddy talked me through how it works earlier in the day – and only when you drive at speed can you fully appreciate just how revolutionary it was.
As you turn into a corner – take Stowe for example – the outside front corner (ie the left front) lifts up to counter the natural body roll and therefore keeps the platform stable and creates an incredibly sharp turn-in. It feels a bit odd because you do feel this movement and it takes a huge amount of confidence to just push on and know that the car isn’t moving out of line. Having said that, the turn-in is incredibly positive and the car is beautifully balanced.
From mid-corner the nose goes down to keep the front pinned, but because the car has been designed with a blown diffuser you need confidence to really hammer the throttle from mid-corner and this will ensure that you’ve got the rear downforce you need to keep the back of the car stable.
Being quick and maximising the active suspension means that you really have to understand the principle behind the design. It needs a driver to have incredible inner belief and brute physical strength to hustle it around and be on top of it. The steering gets very heavy in the high-speed corners, as there’s no power steering and all of this combined tells you just why Nigel, with his strong upper body, was able to extract so much performance.
I was very lucky to drive this iconic, magical car for several laps through the day. I just didn’t want to stop and it was funny, as the runs went on and the confidence built, how the inner racing driver comes out; you start chasing the performance and wondering about your lap time rather than just driving around to enjoy the experience. Racing cars feel awkward when they’re not driven hard – they’re not designed to be driven slowly. You need to push to get temperature in the brakes and tyres. To get all of the engine and gearbox elements to work in sync, you have to push on and get the revs up.
Several onlooking drivers, including Riccardo, Mark Webber and Anthony Davidson, were all incredibly jealous that day – and I don’t blame them! It was an emotional and overwhelming experience and one for which I am enormously thankful to Williams.