Transport yourself back to Formula 1 in the mid-1990s and imagine Williams then as the equivalent of back-of-the-grid Minardi. Such a fall from grace would have seemed ridiculous, that one of F1’s greatest teams could crumble to the status of stumbling backmarker. But that’s how it played out – and there’s even a case to be made that the seeds of that sad decline, played out over the years and decades since, were actually sown right then, when Williams was at its magnificent best.
The history of F1: the 1990s
First, the 1990s began with the third instalment of Alain Prost vs. Ayrton Senna. In the wake of the depressing end to the 1980s, when Prost lamely turned in on Senna at Suzuka’s chicane to claim an inglorious title, the hope in 1990 was the three-time champion’s switch from McLaren to Ferrari might at least dilute the vitriol that had poisoned F1. Fat chance. Now in separate camps, the pair went at it once again. Prost won five times in his gorgeous V12-powered Ferrari 641, to Senna’s six in McLaren’s Honda V10-propelled MP4/5B – and it all came down to another Suzuka showdown.
Angered by a refusal to switch his pole position to the cleaner side of the track, and safe in the knowledge that this time the onus was on Prost to win, Senna made a chilling, calculated decision: whatever the circumstances, the Ferrari would not pass. So when Prost made the better start and nosed into Turn 1 with a slender lead, Senna kept his foot in and drove both of them off the track at 150mph. With that, he became world champion for a second time – with the most reprehensible piece of driving that has been seen in a grand prix racing before or since. Ferrari’s slump in form during 1991, and Prost’s subsequent sacking for public criticism of the team, at least took the sting out of a vicious and now officially deadly rivalry – even if it briefly robbed F1 of one of its greatest talents.
Senna’s third title was perhaps his finest, even if he wasn’t facing a competitive Prost, simply because his V12-powered McLaren was not the quickest car. Williams was now in the ascendency once more as its new alliance with Renault began to pay dividends. The powerful V10 mated to Patrick Head’s unmatched engineering was always going to be potent – and then there was the accumulated potential of the best active ride system on the grid, combined with the aerodynamic expertise of a new recruit: Adrian Newey.
Quiet, bookish and utterly driven, Newey had risen to prominence first at March in IndyCars, then more noticeably with the constructor in F1, under the guise of Leyton House. He moved to Williams in the summer of 1990 – and the team’s subsequent FW14 looked remarkably like the turquoise cars, but painted in Canon white, Elf blue and Camel yellow.
Nigel Mansell, newly returned from Ferrari, gave Senna a serious run for his money in the (for now) still passively suspended Williams. But in an FW14B full laden with the perfected active ride system and bristling with four-channel anti-lock brakes, traction control and a perfected six-speed transverse semi-automatic gearbox, nothing could stand in Mansell’s way in 1992.
At the British GP that year, ‘Red Five’ was at times the best part of two seconds quicker than anything else around Silverstone – to Head’s eternal satisfaction. Has a car ever been more superior to its opposition? Ten race victories, six team one-twos, 15 out of 16 pole positions and 80 per cent of the season’s laps led: that was the final tally for FW14B as Mansell swept to his long sought-after F1 world title by August.
Read part one of this series here: The history of F1: The 1950s
But a familiar figure cast a foreboding shadow over Mansell’s moment. From the sidelines, Prost used his influence with Renault and Elf, plus favour from an admiring Frank Williams, to engineer himself into the best seat on the grid for 1993. As Mansell flounced off to remarkable success in IndyCars, Prost appeared to be facing an open goal.
Thank goodness, then, for Senna – and the revival of their old rivalry, albeit in very different circumstances. Now without Honda, which had shocked F1 by quitting at the end of ’92, Ron Dennis was reduced to buying customer Ford V8s to power his McLarens – but with canny TAG electronics and Senna’s talent, there was still scope to embarrass Prost and Williams, most notably at a sopping Donington Park, where the Brazilian banked one of the great performances of his life.
But he knew over the season nothing would really be able to stand in Prost’s way of claiming a fourth world title – and so it would prove. The only answer was to work his way into a Williams himself, and when his deal was confirmed it helped push Prost into retirement. The Frenchman wasn’t about to face his nemesis in the same team again – and frankly who could blame him?
So now Senna faced an open goal – didn’t he? No, he didn’t. A ban on the so-called ‘gizmos’ that had strengthened Williams’s strong hand levelled the field for ’94 and initially at least, Newey underestimated the effect. Senna struggled with his tricky new FW16 – and to make matters worse a new force had risen, from those ‘noisy neighbours’ at Benetton.
Michael Schumacher had burst into F1 in the summer of 1991 when he stepped into the Jordan newly vacated by Bertrand Gachot, who had been jailed for spraying CS gas into the face of a London cabbie during a road rage incident (you really couldn’t make it up). At Spa, Schumacher had stunned everyone by qualifying a superb seventh on his first F1 weekend, following an apprenticeship served with Sauber-Mercedes in sportscars. On the back of that performance, Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore swooped and signed the German right from under Eddie Jordan’s nose. Outrageous – but who could blame them?
Read part two of this series here: The history of F1: The 1960s
The following seasons would fully justify their ‘daylight robbery’ and by 1994, armed with Rory Byrne’s perfectly formed B194 and powered by a still effective Ford V8, Schumacher came of age. Senna was rattled – and suspicious that his new foe was benefitting from traction control, despite the new ban on driver aids. At Imola on 1st May, he would crash to his death believing he was up against a cheating team.
Even all these years later, revisiting that dreadful weekend at Imola casts a shiver. On the Friday morning, Rubens Barrichello was lucky to survive a horrible accident in his Jordan; on Saturday afternoon, Roland Ratzenberger’s Simtek flew off the road at Villeneuve, the Austrian becoming the first F1 race-weekend fatality since 1982; then on Sunday, spectators were injured by debris from a startline collision involving JJ Lehto and Pedro Lamy. Senna, starting from pole position, ran behind the safety car until he was unleashed on lap five. On a mission to build a gap to Schumacher, who had won the first two races of the season, Senna stormed around lap six – but the next time he speared straight on into the wall at flat-out Tamburello.
The cause, and the Italian legal system’s demand to place blame, would hang over Williams for years. Had Senna’s steering column failed, did he have a slow puncture – or had lower tyre pressures from running slowly behind the safety car made him susceptible to the bumps at the notorious turn? We can never be certain, but as ever F1 rumbled on.
The pressure increased after Karl Wendlinger was left in a coma from a crash in his Sauber at Monaco. In response, new aerodynamic regulations were rushed through by Max Mosley’s FIA as Schumacher continued to rack up the wins. By Silverstone he’d won six of the first seven races.
The one that got away was in Barcelona, where his Benetton became stuck in fifth gear. That day, Damon Hill stepped up as the new leader of the Williams team, just as his father Graham had at Lotus in 1968 in the wake of Jim Clark’s death. He’d already won three times in ’93 as understudy to Prost, but in the wake of Senna’s death the stakes were suddenly higher. At Silverstone he would manage what his old man never could by winning his home grand prix, after Schumacher was black flagged for failing to serve a stop-go penalty as punishment for passing Hill on the formation lap. Things were turning surreal.
Was Schumacher’s subsequent two-race ban a genuine punishment for his offence or was it a warning to Benetton to curb its alleged and unproven sharp practices? Whatever, it went from bad to worse at Hockenheim ,when Jos Verstappen’s Benetton was engulfed by flames in a refuelling fire later blamed on revisions made to the rig by the team. Schumacher also lost a win at Spa when the 10mm plank, added to the bottom of cars as part of the new aero changes, was found to be overly worn. Meanwhile, Hill closed the gap. After the drive of his life at Suzuka, when he beat Schumacher fair and square in a rain-affected two-part race, the pair headed to Adelaide for the finale just a point apart.
How Schumacher concluded their duel and wrapped up his first title is up there with Suzuka 1989 and ’90 in the controversy stakes. Feeling the heat from Hill, Michael had run off the road and damaged his car, then drove into the Williams as it attempted to pass. A bitter finish to a dreadful year most in F1 couldn’t wait to end.
But Schumacher’s second title, now in a Renault V10-powered Benetton, was beyond reproach, as Hill blew his lines with a string of poor performances for Williams during 1995. But when Michael made a big-money move to Ferrari for ’96, the path was clear for Hill to claim redemption with a well taken title – only to be rewarded with the sack. Turns out Williams and Head had lost faith in their charge during the previous campaign.
Read part three of this series here: The history of F1: The 1970s
But the Williams-Renault run of success, briefly interrupted by Benetton, hadn’t yet run out of steam as grungy Jacques Villeneuve – son of Gilles – completed his successful transition from Indy 500 king to F1 champion in 1997, narrowly beating Schumacher – whose latest professional foul at Jerez this time backfired and left him picking gravel. But the Renault alliance was coming to an end, the French manufacturer choosing to quit F1 (for now) – and Newey was already gone.
The aerodynamicist, clearly a core ingredient in the Williams success story, had become disenchanted by Frank and Patrick’s refusal to include him in the big decisions – such as Hill’s sacking. That was a nasty surprise. But three’s a crowd and after years of running their team purely on their own terms, Newey was always likely to be left out in the cold. It wasn’t about money. He’d just succeeded in negotiating a new and more lucrative contract – a major achievement given who he was dealing with. But when Ron Dennis dangled a carrot to join him at McLaren, Newey was ready and willing to bite. In that moment, a parallel Williams history might have been created. Had Frank and Patrick fully embraced Newey, made him part of the management and recognised his potential, the team might have won further titles in the next decade. Instead, the best was already over for this special team.
At McLaren, Newey would weave new magic that carried Mika Häkkinen to twin world titles, the first in 1998 just three years after the Finn had almost lost his life in a terrible accident in Adelaide. As Williams trod water with customer Mecachrome engines – rebadged Renault V10s without the financial development to remain at the cutting egde – a rejuvenated McLaren bore fruit from its new engine partnership with Mercedes, back in F1 from 1995 for the first time since the Fangio and Moss days 40 years earlier.
At Ferrari, Schumacher had been joined by old Benetton comrades Byrne and Ross Brawn. But the super-team, under Jean Todt’s measured guidance, was not yet firing on all 10 cylinders – and after years of underachievement, patience was running thin at Maranello. No matter. The titles would come – and once they started flowing they wouldn’t stop. Williams, McLaren and every other team was about to swept up in F1’s crimson tide.
Read part four of this series here: The history of F1: The 1980s
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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