The Story of the Williams FW14B: A revolutionary technological masterpiece

Uros Radovanovic
Williams FW14B: One of the greatest F1 cars of all time

Williams FW14B: One of the greatest F1 cars of all time

Winning 10 out of 16 grand prix races, the FW14B is considered one of the fastest and most technologically advanced Formula 1 cars ever to hit the racing track.

The key reason behind this dominance was the active suspension, but it wasn’t the only element that contributed to this amazing success.

This is the breakdown of the iconic FW14B and what made it so good…

FW14 – How it all began

In 1990, renowned aerodynamicist Adrian Newey joined the Williams team to help them build a competitive car and challenge McLaren’s dominance with Ayrton Senna. Along with several brilliant engineers, including Patrick Head, Paddy Lowe, and Frank Dernie, they initiated the FW14 project.

The FW14 first hit the track in 1991, and its speed showed promise. Newey designed the car’s aerodynamics differently from others – it looked slim but was highly effective. Additionally, Williams had one of the best internal combustion engines at the time, the Renault 3.5-litre V10, known for its perfect balance of power, weight, and reliability. This was a much better solution for Williams, considering at that time McLaren had a much more powerful engine but it was much heavier.

Although the FW14, driven by Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, secured seven wins in 1991, it wasn’t enough to win the Constructors’ Championship. The major issue was the gearbox’s reliability, as Williams had introduced an automatic gearbox for the first time in F1 history, resulting in a shaky start to the season and many DNF races.

However, things started to improve toward the end of the season, and the car became more reliable. This served as a strong foundation for the advancements that came the following year.

Active Suspension arrives

During the winter tests of 1992, it became clear that Williams had made the fastest car on the grid. With the FW14B, this improved car was significantly ahead in terms of technology compared to the FW14. The new car now featured active suspension, traction control, a new semi-automatic gearbox, and enhanced aerodynamics. However, active suspension was the primary reason for their dominance that year.

When designing the aerodynamics of an F1 car, the main focus is on its effectiveness. Since track conditions change with varying speeds in corners, gradients, and grip, it’s challenging to find a balance. Active suspension provided engineers with the ability to adapt the car’s height to different corners for optimal performance.

Williams had been working on this idea for years, and it finally saw the light of day after several years of research. In addition to hydraulics, engineers had to design a complex software system to communicate with sensors and adjust the suspension. It was, and still is, a work of art.

The FW14B could change the height of its front and rear axles in a split second, ensuring the car’s aerodynamics worked at their best. Typically, before entering a corner, the front end would lower while the rear would rise to maximise downforce. More downforce equals higher speed. This also gave extra grip to the front wheels and thus allowed the car to rotate better when cornering.

Active suspension also served as a highly effective anti-roll system, something today’s engineers aim to achieve using traditional springs. The major advantage of anti-roll suspension is that the car remains stiff and glued to the asphalt, providing maximum grip.

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The first-ever ‘DRS’ button

The lowered nose of the car was great for corners but not ideal for straight-line speed. During testing, engineers noticed that top speeds on the straights were lower than the previous year, which was unusual. This suspension configuration increased drag, causing issues on the straights. Therefore, engineers had to find a solution.

They added a special button on the steering wheel that could completely change the suspension to maximize straight-line potential. In these cases, the ride height would be lower, creating separation of airflow under the car, reducing drag coefficient. With the help of this button, the car was even 10 km/h faster than its previous generation, a significant difference.

The only drawback of this system was that drivers had to manually engage and disengage the button, which Nigel Mansell didn’t particularly like, as he sometimes forgot to turn it off.

Traction Control

In addition to active suspension, the 1992 Williams car had another remarkable technological feature that was revolutionary at the time – traction control. The idea of this system was quite simple: prevent any of the tyres from slipping and losing grip. Williams created a system that controlled the brakes on all four wheels, immediately responding if any of the tyres started to slip.

The FW14B was the first and only car at the time to feature such a system. Its real power was most visible in wet conditions, where it ensured excellent grip even at high speeds.

Was Active Suspension Safe?

Williams drivers often mentioned that driving a car with active suspension was challenging. They had to have complete trust in the car even when it felt like they might go off the track. However, Nigel Mansell found this car configuration suitable and handled the FW14B incredibly well.

He mentioned a few times that the FW14B was not very safe, considering that if the active suspension failed, the car would lose grip and likely leave the track at high speed. Given the safety standards in F1 at the time, this could have been a significant problem.

Because of this, the team decided to introduce a feature to ensure driver safety in such situations. Engineers created a system that, in case of suspension failure, would lower the car completely, allowing it to glide on the asphalt, reducing speed and the risk of hitting barriers.

However, the safety of this system influenced the FIA to ban active suspension in 1993. The main reason was that the cars were now capable of achieving much higher speeds in corners, which was not safe at the time. Suspension failure or aerodynamic instability could lead to loss of control, with potentially deadly consequences.

As a result, the FW14B remains the only F1 car to successfully implement this complex technology. Many consider it one of the most successful F1 cars ever, and one thing is certain: it was so good that it forever changed the world of Formula 1.