Formula One designers have been trying to get away with crazy shit for years, and one of the coolest examples of innovation from the early 1990s is the FW14B, the car that Williams brought to the 1992 season. It was one of those machines so damn good that the FIA banned it—and all the things that made it cool—for the following year.
The FW14B was a development of the FW14 that was used in the 1991 season. The latter had evolved to include active suspension, traction control, and a semi-automatic gearbox, a combo that made the thing unstoppable. In 1992, driver Nigel Mansell won nine of F1's 16 races behind the wheel of the FW14B.
You can learn a little more about the car in the following video from Williams:
Basically, the FW14 worked just fine, but further technical developments transformed it into a thing of beauty. Williams had been developing active suspension for years and finally implemented it in its 1992 car. Active suspension adapts to the conditions of the road it’s driving on. Sensors feed on the information of the road, its every bump and rattle, which makes for a much smoother ride.
Imagine driving down a road littered in potholes. In a car with passive suspension, you’re going to be rattled around like crazy, probably even feeling like you’re about to shake your teeth out of your head. In a car with active suspension, the suspension does the work of providing you with a much smoother ride by adjusting the suspension to match the road features. It’s a little like the human body; our vision adapts to the dimming light of sunset, and we react to a painful stimulus by doing something to alleviate that pain. Active suspension uses that same basic process.
That’s obviously a huge advantage for an F1 car. Consider a lap around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in a passive suspension 1991 machine. Now compare it to an onboard of Nigel Mansell driving the FW14B at Spa the following year. Yes, the FW14B onboard is still a little shaky, but there’s a significant improvement compared to the 1991 car. The line of sight has steadied in 1992 because the car is able to account for the most significant road changes. That makes it easier to focus, easier to turn, and easier to perform at a more dominant level. A level ride height also provided a much more stable aerodynamic base.
All that extra technology made for an added challenge, though. Any new tech involves a certain level of trust that certain drivers just couldn’t give. Mansell’s teammate Ricardo Patrese much preferred passive suspension, which allowed him to feel the motions of the car and better respond to them. Mansell himself said he never “trusted” the FW14B but instead learned to adapt to it.
And it could be finicky stuff. Suddenly, there were tons of tiny components to worry about, that could wreak havoc if not working correctly. Williams did an admittedly damn good job of making the FW14B work, but it was also the kind of technology that required years of development and hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain. It was ultimately banned by the FIA for providing an unfair competitive advantage.
The car is still regarded as one of the most technologically advanced F1 cars of all time, and Mansell’s dominant machine has been painstakingly preserved by both Williams and a single private owner. Recently, Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel purchased the historic machine to add to his collection of privately owned cars.
It was the car that halted Ayrton Senna’s massive dominance at McLaren, and it cemented both Mansell’s and Williams’ names in the history books. Why not spend some time reveling in the glory of some of its finest on-track footage?