Williams FW15C – the most advanced F1 car ever made

© P-H Cahier / F1-photo.com

The Williams Renault FW15C has a good shout at being the most advanced formula one car ever made boasting traction control, ABS, anti-lock brakes, active suspension, fly-by-wire controls, telemetry and continuously variable transmission (although the latter was never raced and quickly banned).

The car is not new though as you may expect, in fact all of this technology was available for the 1993 Formula One season.

The original was built during 1992 and intended to be a replacement for the FW14 which was designed to incorporate passive suspension but adapted to accept the active format (FW14B). This meant the FW14B was heavier than it should have been and there was hesitancy regarding its use in the overweight guise. The FW15 meanwhile was active from the start and owing to the design philosophy being designed around an active ride it was much sleeker, lighter and better packaged.

The FW14B however was dominant and it was deemed too risky to introduce an update when the current car was winning everything in sight.

After 1992 the regulations changed so the FW15 was updated the the B version which featured a narrow track front suspension, narrower tyres, and altered front wing criteria. The car was available in time for early season testing in 1993.

The FW15 was the first all new car designed by Adrian Newey and Patrick Head. Newey brought his exceptional skills in aerodynamics and Head his superior engineering skills which culminated in the FW15 being a big improvement over its predecessor. The new car had a narrower nose, sleeker air intake and carefully sculptured engine cover and sidepods. A large rear wing was implemented for the high downforce circuits which had an extra wing element ahead of the main wing.

The Renault engine marked a collaboration entering it’s fifth year and again the engine was the class of the field. The RS5 V10 produced 760bhp which was at least 30bhp more than the Ford engines in the other title contenders McLaren and Benetton. The other benefit of the engine was that it was a V10 as opposed to the V12 in the Ferrari. The V12 produced phenomenal power but was much thirstier than the Renault. During the year the engine just three times adding to the French manufactures reputation for bullet proof reliability.

1993 was the last year electronics were used to such a degree as most systems were banned for 1994. Some, such as traction control were later readmitted for a period but banned for the same reason they were ahead of the 94 season, to make driver skill a more relevant factor. The Williams FW15 utilised the electronics age to the full, so much so that Alain Prost dubbed the car “a little airbus”.

While all of the driver aids were intended to make the car easier to drive or more aerodynamically efficient the early age of sophisticated electronics didn’t pass problem free. The Williams was prone to the onboard computer wrongly interpreting data it received and the main area that suffered was the active suspension. The car would pitch itself incorrectly ruining the aerodynamics.

The active suspension was the major breakthrough. It allowed the car to maintain an optimal ride height at all times regardless of the fuel weight, avoid pitch under acceleration and breaking and even pitch in to the corners to ensure the wings worked to the maximums. The car was so advanced that just to start it three laptops were needed.

A push to pass button was on the steering wheel which had the effect of making the active suspension lift the rear of the car thus breaking the effect of the diffuser and decreasing drag. At the same time the electronics would allow the engine to go a further 300 revs higher giving the driver extra speed for brief periods.

So advanced was the car and so high the cost that the FIA stepped in and banned the systems from Silverstone, but the ban was impractical and the cost and time needed to remove them was too great. The ban was postponed until 1994.

Damon Hill and Alain Prost made good use of the car and Prost cruised to a relatively simple fourth championship. In 1992 Ayrton Senna realised that without a works engine McLaren were going downhill and offered his services to Frank Williams for free, however Alain Prost could contractually veto the move which would have took effect for 1993, did so and Senna stayed at McLaren for the time being. Sady, the removal of electronics was to have a devastating effect in 1994 while the teams adapted back to conventional set-ups.

The FW15 was dominant and at times could qualify 1.5-2 seconds ahead of their rivals. The only time the car ever looked ordinary was at Donington where Senna was the class of the field in rain, making Prost look clumsy and slow, a feat which given the pedigree was outstanding.

The car was not without its criticisms wit the drivers complaining inconsistent handling when the computers went haywire. The car was prone to being nervous on the limit and suffered from rear end instability under braking especially in low downforce trim. Alain Prost and Damon Hill were smooth drivers and the FW15 needed to be manhandled more than some others, a characteristic which would have played in to Ayrton Senna’s hands. A final issue that the drivers had was that during wet races the rear wheels sometimes locked during gear changes although a power throttle system was introduced for Imola which matched revs to wheel speed and eliminated the problem.

The final FW15 was the FW15D which was an interim car while waiting for the FW16 and was essentially a modified FW15C but without the banned electronics. The cars were used for testing by Hill and Senna but didn’t give a true likeness to the FW16 owing to the design being around electronic aids. Ironically once the FW16 made an appearance it was not initially the quickest car.

Comments

  1. Force India are slusopedpy bringing a huge upgrade to Turkey, so they may get a jump on Sauber, but given the pace of development in F1 that is likely to be temporary. It’s going to be a lot of fun seeing who grabs that 6th position…

  2. @ Peter

    It wasn’t that drivers couldn’t drive without driver aids it was the fact that cars had been designed and built around them. The FW15C was a world beater but the FW16 (the 1994 car) was a similar car but without all of the aids. It ended up a very twitchy car with major handling issues.

    As such it could be said that the move from active to passive cars was so quick that handling issues could not be ironed out and at 200mph that is a major issue.

    I agree about the steering on Senna’s car, the wheel does move a lot BUT when Williams provided the courts a video of Coulthard manipulating the steering it was shown that with enough force the steering had a huge amount of flex. Personally, I’d be tempted to say steering but we’ll never know.

  3. Peter Säll says:

    Senna had been around since 1984, a few years before the driver aids was introduced. So he (and many others) was´nt exactly a rookie in cars without active ride height, traction control etc. So i won´t consider that as a factor of his crash. And if his car bottomed out enough to cause an accident at imola (because of the famous “tyre pressure-theory”), why did´nt it happened at the first lap after the pace car had driven into the pits? (the accident happened on the second lap after the safety car)
    My opinion is that that the before the race newly lengthed steering column broke in the welded area, and made the car unsteerable. You can clearly see it on the in car video, the steering wheels movement is suddenly all over the place…

  4. Senna was a major campaigner for change – he wanted these electronics banned but then after driving the FW16 had a change of heart. There was a realisation that the changes happened too quickly and that young drivers were at serious risk.

    At the beginning of 1994 he predicted that the season wouldn’t go by without a serious incident. Sadly there were three.

  5. JER0EN R0LAND says:

    Senna says; Pure driving, real racing…that makes me happy. why did senna say that? Senna hate it to lost race for rookie like Damon Hill, with all his skill and formula 1 experience to drive in not winning car. But than a year later Berrie eccelestone Ban electronics, ABS, Active Suspension, CVV, Traction Control. But this make car even more danger than ever, formula 1 go to limit ride height, and it this cause of deathly crash on 1 may 1994. it was not good idea to ban “optimal ride height on straight , same story for Traction Control in most danger place”. it was this that can safe senna’s life.