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The car that rewrote F1’s record and rule books: Nigel Mansell’s 1992 Williams-Renault FW14B

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08. Photos courtesy Bonhams Auctions.

In 1991, its debut season, the Williams-Renault FW14 won seven of 16 races on the Formula 1 calendar, but mishaps and mechanical issues kept the team and its drivers from earning championships. In the off-season, the FW14 evolved into the FW14B, which would go on to win 10 races in 1992, including a record-setting nine by world champion Nigel Mansell. Chassis FW14B/08, which Mansell drove to five wins and six poles on his way to the title in 1992, will be crossing the auction block at Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed sale, taking place on July 5, 2019, at the firm’s New Bond Street facility in London, England.

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08

The FW14B was a technological masterpiece, and perhaps the most complex F1 car ever created. Taking advantage of gaps in the FISA’s rulebook, the Williams-Renault was equipped with a cutting-edge active suspension (developed in partnership with AP Racing), a semi-automatic gearbox, electronic traction control, anti-lock brakes (late in the 1992 season), electronic data logging, and an exhaust-blown diffuser to supplement rear downforce. Power came from a 3.5-liter Renault V-10, widely believed to be among the most powerful engines on that season’s starting grid.

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08

Active suspension wasn’t new to Formula 1, having debuted in the 1983 season with the Lotus Type 92. An evolution of the technology developed for its road cars, the active suspension used on the Lotus F1 car had little impact on the team’s performance, which was best described as “dismal.” (Of note, however, was the team driver tasked with developing the system — Nigel Mansell.) It would take until 1987 before an F1 car equipped with an active suspension posted a race victory, and that year Ayrton Senna posted two for Camel Team Lotus Honda. At Williams, driver Nelson Piquet helped to develop an FW11B with active suspension, while teammate Mansell chose to stick with the more predictable — but slower — conventional setup, leery after his oft-terrifying experience with enhanced suspension at Lotus.

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08

Such technology can have many components and many functions, but by the time the FW14B was launched in 1992, the primary function of active suspension was to keep the car level, at a consistent ride height, regardless of speed or side load. Not only could the FW14B’s active suspension trim the car, but it also served as an anti-roll bar and could be used (in conjunction with traction control) to limit understeer and oversteer. The tradeoff was precise feel communicated via the suspension to the driver.

As Patrick Head, technical director of Williams-Renault during the FW14B’s development, explained to Motorsport magazine,

Our active control responded to changes in load distribution, but there was always a small period before the system corrected, and during that period the usual feedback to the driver was not present. There was a fraction of a second delay and it felt to the driver as if he didn’t have roll stiffness or roll resistance.”

To put this in less technical terms, taking a corner in the FW14B required a bit of blind trust on the part of the driver. At turn-in, handling was vague, yet confidence in the system — and fast hands to catch a momentary slide — paid big dividends in lap times. Mansell eventually acquired a degree of trust for the active suspension, which proved well-suited to his hard-charging style of driving. Teammate Patrese, on the other hand, was more sensitive to a car’s feel, and had a harder time adapting to the system.

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08

At the season-opening 1992 South African Grand Prix, Mansell put the FW14B (nicknamed “Red Five” for his number and chosen color) on pole, claimed fastest lap, and won the race, with teammate Patrese finishing second. Ultimately, Mansell would earn an astonishing 14 poles in 16 races (with Senna being the only non-Williams driver to earn a pole the entire year, in Canada), with a record-setting nine wins, one more than Senna had achieved in 1988. Patrese scored a single win, at the penultimate race in Japan, but delivered six second-place finishes for the team.

At season-end, Mansell had amassed 108 championship points, nearly doubling that of his teammate and second-place finisher Patrese, who wrapped the year with 56 points. Williams-Renault easily won the constructor’s championship, accumulating 164 points to second-place McLaren Honda’s 99. Still, nothing sums up the dominance of the FW14B more than one simple fact: Its replacement, the FW15, was ready for competition mid-season, but never deployed because the FW14B was so fast and reliable. (A revised version, the FW15C, was raced in 1993.)

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08

The reign of the FW14B did not go unnoticed by other teams and, ultimately, the FISA, which governs Formula 1. Afraid that rapidly emerging technology would only widen the gap between well-funded teams and those with more modest budgets, it passed an edict in February 1993 banning electronic driver aids as of the 1994 season. Briefly, F1 had reached a technological peak, legislated out of existence in the name of cost-containment.

Chassis FW14B/08, the car on offer at Goodwood, was driven by Mansell in seven events over the 1992 season, plus one practice session. It carried the world champion to pole positions in South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, San Marino, and Monaco, with corresponding victories in all but Monaco (where he finished second). As of race nine, the 1992 British Grand Prix, the car was turned over to Patrese (and thus named “White Six”). Patrese would drive it in six events, earning a pole position (in Hungary) and two podiums (Britain and Belgium).

1992 Williams-Renault FW14B/08

The car was damaged in a minor crash during the Portuguese Grand Prix but repaired and added to the Williams-Renault collection at the end of the season. It eventually found its way into private hands, but remained a static display until 2017, when it was brought out for exhibition laps at Silverstone in honor of the Williams team’s 40th anniversary.

Given FW14B/08’s racing record and historical significance, Bonhams is predicting a selling price of £3 million (currently $3.89 million) when the F1 car crosses the auction stage in London this summer. For complete details on the Festival of Speed sale, visit Bonhams.com.