Williams almost won the 1991 Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship with its FW14. Adding some potent high-tech the following year put the matter beyond doubt.
“I said it at the time: ‘McLaren are like the Romans.’ From the minute I started my career they were this unbeatable force. We’d had a bit of a go in 1991 and arguably could have won the championship, had our gearbox been more reliable. But still we didn’t have confidence that we could beat them.”
Paddy Lowe, now executive director (technical) of the dominant Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team (pictured) joined world champion Formula 1 constructor Williams Grand Prix Engineering from Metal Box, a British-based packaging company – “The margins on a tin can are minute” – during the closing months of 1987. But since then the team had, according to technical chief Patrick Head, been “hanging by its fingernails.”
Brutally shorn of Honda horsepower, it had by mid-1988 shelved its computer-controlled electro-hydraulic suspension – victorious at Monza in 1987 – and spent the next two seasons fretting whether new engine partner Renault would ever match Honda, now allied with McLaren (as well as Lotus). Given that McLaren also had the world’s two best drivers – Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – there remained one option for Williams: build the better car, by far.
Matters improved in June 1990 when Adrian Newey was fired – yes, you read that correctly – by the imploding Leyton House F1 team and Williams signed him as chief aerodynamicist. Within a week it became obvious that he should be chief designer, responsible for aero and geometry, freeing Head to act as technical director and to oversee the mechanicals.
Lowe’s role was more junior and under the radar as joint head of electronics: “Steve Wise – he’s still at Williams – and I started on the same day to set up a department; Williams had no internal capability for building electronic control systems. He was biased toward hardware; I was more about software, so we were a great combination.
“But what began to unravel at that exact point was the reality that the team was completely unprepared for the complexities of running systems like that on a racecar. They were using an external contractor, Kurt Borman [of Motion Technology U.S.], to supply the electronics and, without wishing to decry him, it was still very much an R&D platform. So we started 1988 with a suspension system not fit for purpose. We’d bitten off more than we could chew.”
Lotus had introduced F1 to “active suspension” – a catch-all that covers a wide variety of origin, philosophy and design – as far back as 1983. Yet five years hence, technology – the necessary framework of test rigs and computer modeling – still lagged behind theory.
And there were still plenty more bumps in the long road ahead.
“During the next four years, Steve and I created a new capability,” says Lowe. “We built a computer fit for purpose; [wiring] harnesses fit for purpose; instrumentation and control valves; software for the onboard computer and for the system that talked to that computer; and software, too, for data analysis. But also we had to make them reliable and safe.”
Pembrey, a small airfield track in South Wales, became Lowe’s second home while glitches were smoothed using adapted year-old cars: “The track had all the types of corner we needed. We had our own car, own driver [Mark Blundell, then Damon Hill], own truck and own team. We had fun there – and learned a lot of lessons.
“But the trouble with R&D is that you’re always using spare resource to some degree. You’re on the back foot trying to grab and borrow bits, time and effort from people. And if you don’t know absolutely that it’s going to deliver, you’re wary of a huge commitment in case it puts your main program at risk.
“Adrian, for instance, had a lot on his plate aerodynamically [including the blown underwing concept] and didn’t particularly get involved until we reached the point where the system was nearly ready to race.
“Steve and I, meanwhile, knew how painful it had been in ’88 to race something unsuitable, so we were perfectly prepared to put in the time and effort. We wanted to win with it, not embarrass ourselves again.
“We were sure that it would work, but many weren’t…”
Technology finally caught up in 1991 and a current FW14 was fitted with active suspension for the purpose of back-to-back comparison with its passive cousin.
“Our system was massively more complicated than 1988’s,” says Lowe. “Although, if you laid it out on a bench, you’d think it simpler because it was far more elegant in its topology. But in terms of software it did far more. 1988’s had basically stuck at a constant ride height at all speeds, the essential part of having active suspension for aerodynamic benefit. But we realized that there was a large untapped area to expand into.”
A prototype FW14 active car made its public debut during practice for the 1991 F1 season finale in Adelaide. Nigel Mansell, a skeptic due to his struggles with its wayward forebears of 1983 and ’88, completed 16 laps in Friday practice before declaring it “some way from being competitive as it stands.” It was still too heavy.
Only after a seven-day test at Estoril in Portugal was the system given a green light to race in 1992, six weeks before the March 1 season opener at Kyalami, South Africa.
A perfect storm was brewing.
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