Motor Racing close-up: Williams-Renault FW18 Why the car is the star

Damon Hill won the season's first three grands prix in a machine without equal. David Tremayne explains its brilliance
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Jochen Rindt won the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 1970 the crowd believed it had witnessed its hero beating Jacky Ickx's Ferrari by the proverbial margin of a gnat's anatomy. The crowd was wrong. Rindt and Ickx had spiced things up to make the race look good. The truth was that Rindt's Lotus 72 was to him what spinach is to Popeye. So superior to anything else that the Austrian was moved to comment afterwards: "A monkey could have won in it today."

No one is suggesting that Damon Hill or Jacques Villeneuve have simian traits, but there is not a rival who does not believe that he would be world champion if only Frank Williams would stick him in one of his cars. Tinged with unbecoming shades of green, rivals can only snipe and suggest that it is not Hill's skill that has won him the first three races of this season, but that the car is the star.

Whatever the accuracy of these views, it is certainly true that between them, the Williams technical director, Patrick Head, and the chief designer, Adrian Newey, have consistently done a better job than their equivalents at any other team not only in creating the better car but also in reacting to sudden changes in the technical regulations.

In 1993, for instance, the governing body, the FIA, outlawed advanced technology such as traction control, anti-lock brakes and computer-controlled active ride suspension (at which Williams excelled), that helped cars to grip the track better and consequently go faster. Williams were able to absorb the changes without any discernible difficulty and maintained their car's superiority. That ability to change tack without a dip in competitiveness marks Williams out as the engineering pace-setter. The process of staying ahead of the pack is even more testing because Williams's main competitor, Benetton, uses precisely the same Renault engines.

But since 1991, the FW14, 14B, 15, 16, 16B, 17, 17B and current FW18 family of cars has amassed 41 victories from 84 races, in the hands of Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese, Alain Prost, Hill and David Coulthard. There will be more.

The shape of Formula One cars betrays one of their primary functions: achieving a minimal resistance that will help them to go faster. But cheating the wind is only one part of the story. Formula One cars also stand or fall on the amount of aerodynamic downforce they can generate to push themselves down on to the track so they can corner at speeds that are mindboggling by road car standards. Williams's FW18 is the product of continuous development in their own wind tunnel, which is fully operational five days every fortnight in the unceasing search for speed. In a sport where micro-seconds are the difference between the front row and the fifth, between winning and losing, tiny advantages add together to generate a dominance that can be as fleeting as champagne bubbles.

"The most critical area is the integration of the aerodynamics and the suspension system," Newey explained. "It's no good having masses of downforce if the suspension is not good enough to handle it. Equally, it is no good having a great suspension geometry if the car does not have sufficient downforce. That's what happened with Ferrari last year: the cars handled really well, but they were up to two seconds off the pace at times because they didn't have enough downforce."

Williams have no such problems. One of their trump cards is aerodynamic performance combined with the balance of the car. To make the car easily driveable, it is important that the centre of pressure, or the point at which the aerodynamic forces act upon the chassis, is not drastically different when the car is dipping under the force of braking or rising when accelerating. Williams have created a superior aerodynamic package that controls these forces, the pitch sensitivity, and adds to the driver- friendliness of the vehicle.

"The Williams is fantastic," Hill confirmed. "In the past three seasons I have had a consistently good car, and though we had some reliability problems in 1995, the package has fundamentally been terrific. The aerodynamics are good, and the car is inherently comfortable to drive."

When the regulations were changed suddenly in the wake of Ayrton Senna's death, to limit the amount of downforce cars could generate, the precise details were not finalised until late in the 1994 season. "That meant that FW17 was something of a hybrid," Newey admitted of the 1995 Williams. "For instance, we retained the FW14/15/16 sidepods. We went to the raised nose because it was more efficient as the front wing regulations had been changed, and FW18 is a logical progression with things tidied up a little

"Over the winter you simply do your best, come up with the concepts and the figures, and hope that you are going to be competitive. But that doesn't mean that somebody else might not have come up with something better still. Part of the reason we have done well is continuity, because the cars have been very competitive since 1991. That helps, but sometimes when you are winning it can simply seem logical; when you hit a losing streak it can be extremely hard to fathom why. Certainly having Renault engines has been an immense advantage."

Michael Schumacher is pinning his hopes on his brand new Ferrari's development potential in the long term, hoping that Williams may be so dominant at the moment because Ferrari and Benetton have not yet hit their stride. "What Michael is saying is that our car is an evolution of last year's, whereas because it is all new, the Ferrari may have more development," Newey said. "That isn't necessarily so, and we will of course be trying everything we know to keep ahead."

Ironically, nobody will really know how good the Williams is until it has been overtaken.