Williams FW15C: F1’s high-tech pinnacle

Goodwood Festival of Speed

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The Williams-Renault FW15C was one of the most high-tech cars ever to race in Formula 1. It bristled with gadgets, most of which were outlawed after it dominated the 1993 championship.

It gave Alain Prost his final world championship and Damon Hill his first Grand Prix win.

Williams leap ahead

Williams FW15C, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

The FW15C was ready to race halfway through 1992. But with the FW14B setting pole positions with a margin of more than two seconds, and Nigel Mansell on the cusp on winning the world championship, there was simply no need for the team to show its hand and roll the new car out.

So they continued with the FW14B, a development of the 1991 car which used active suspension to devastating effect. Computers controlled the suspension at all four corners of the car, setting it up perfectly for every corner.

Williams made some revisions to the system for 1993, but as they were already so far ahead, and the writing was on the wall for the technology, they did little further development on it during the year.

Patrick Head said that, by the end of the season, McLaren had a superior active suspension system on their MP4/8. Ayrton Senna won the last two races of the year with that car.

But Williams were forging ahead in other areas, such as transmission.

The FW15C’s gearbox could be fully automated at the drivers’ discretion. After selecting the fully automatic option the car would shift up and down by itself, until the drive pulled one of the shift levers behind the wheel again to take back control.

Anti-lock braking was introduced at the French Grand Prix on Prost’s car as he took his fifth win from the first eight races.

Battle with the FIA

The season was dogged by rows over when the various driver aids used on the FW15C and, by now, several other cars, would be outlawed.

In Canada technical delegate Charlie Whiting declared 12 teams (all bar the Scuderia Italia Lolas) were running cars that were illegal due to the presence of either active suspension or traction control.

FIA president Max Mosley put pressure on the teams to agree to a ban on the systems for 1994, or he would make good on the threat to exclude them at the next round in France. The teams agreed, and active suspension, traction control and anti-lock braking were banned for 1994.

In the meantime, Prost put the seal on his fourth world championship title and duly retired.

After being robbed of victory while leading at Silverstone and Hockenheim, Damon Hill finally delivered his maiden Grand Prix triumph at the Hungaroring. He made it three on the trot with wins at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza.

Continuously variable transmission

The FW15C boasted other technologies that were never raced. An automatic clutch was tried in testing, but the drivers preferred to use a manual clutch for race starts.

Williams also used the car to develop a continuously variable transmission. This did away with the conventional arrangement of gears and instead used a combination of cones and drive bands to alter the speed delivered from the engine to the road.

This offered the advantage of allowing the engine to work at peak efficiency, leading to the peculiar sound of the car charging into corners where the revs would normally drop with the Renault V10 still screaming away.

Unlike many of the other technologies on the FW15C, CVT was banned before it could be raced.

Williams FW15C at the Goodwood Festival of Speed

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Keith Collantine
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50 comments on “Williams FW15C: F1’s high-tech pinnacle”

  1. I always say that the FW14B is my favourite F1 car, but really I should have been thinking of the FW15C! Ironic really given how much I’m against driver aids!

    Why was CVT banned? If anything it sounds like the kind of thing the FIA would want nowadays!

    After being robbed of victory while leading at Silverstone and Hockenheim, Damon Hill finally delivered his maiden Grand Prix triumph at the Hungaroring. He made it three on the trot with wins at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza.

    So 5 races in a row contesting for the lead. Sure, he had the best car, but not bad for an “over-rated” driver in his first full year, in the same team as a then-3-times world champion.

    1. So 5 races in a row contesting for the lead. Sure, he had the best car, but not bad for an “over-rated” driver in his first full year, in the same team as a then-3-times world champion.

      Exactly! His development work on the FW14 (and presumably the “B” spec car) and FW15 should not be overlooked either. Frank Williams and Migel Mansell are two who were particilrly full of praise for Damon’s developmental abilities.

      1. Wasn’t Luca Badoer praised for his developmental abilities?

        1. He was in actual fact, Mike Shoe’s success in the early naughties was due in no small part to the hard work Luca did at Fiarano.

          And by the way, I didn’t miss your dig at Damon, I chose to ignore it. ;-)

        2. Of course he was, being in Ferrari from 1998 to 2010 he had a great experience and knew what was best for the car. During his stay with he team, Ferrari won 8 Constructors’ Championships and 6 Drivers’ Championships, totalling 102 wins in those 13 years.

          1. Exactly.
            Sure, when driving in the races was not where he will be best known for, he was an integral part of that amazingly successfull team and he can be very proud of that.

    2. hill was the best ever son of a world champion. But he was against schumacher and that is hard to handle.
      He was a match for prost that year, and much better on starts. Prost was too gentle with the clutch, and forced him to overtake cars all season long.
      Hill was better that history tells.

    3. Martin van Raay
      23rd November 2013, 3:09

      Some years ago, I spoke to VDT, the manufacturer of the CVT tested in the Renault-Williams. They told me it was banned by the FIA after Bernie Ecclestone complained about it, because with the CVT, Renault-Williams would dominate F1 and that would make for boring races, which Bernie hates because he sells the tv rights to these races.
      Imagine what would have happened had Ecclestone not thought of his bank account, but of the advancement of the automobile – would we still be able to buy manually shifted cars today? I doubt it. How one man changed the course of automotive history…
      By the way: as I recall, VDT told me Renault-Williams would only have had the CVT for themselves for the first year – after that, any team would have been able to use it.

  2. This car is one of my first memories from when I started watching F1; I still think it looks great.

  3. Hope Williams will go back to winning races like back in the 90’s

  4. Hope Williams will go back to winning races

    1. …like back in the 90’s

    2. I’m looking forward to see Williams improving their performance.
      With Mike Coughlan behind the ‘drawing board’ sure I’m sure they’ll make it!

      1. DeadManWoking
        3rd July 2011, 15:45

        Does Coughlan have any friends at Red Bull ?? :)

    3. I’m sure they will have an aggressive and innovative design for next year.

      1. they are bound to have that (or doomed?) ;-)

  5. Either which way you look at it. Its nearly the ideal looking racing car.

    1. Agreed

  6. A nice little video about Williams CVT, featuring some young bloke with a very square jaw

  7. Me and my mate “invented” CVT ourselves a few years ago and wondered why no-one had thought of it. Apparently they had. lol

    1. Daf had it first.

      1. Yeah, it was pretty successfull, but hard to get exactly right for reliability half a century ago. Not that new a concept.

    2. Didn’t Da Vinci think it up?

  8. I have to wonder, given how fast the FW15C was – how fast would modern F1 cars be with all that technology?

    1. Not very fast imo :S The cornering speeds would be so dangerously fast I wonder if they could even make it out alive.
      We mustn’t forget all the other things like ground effects and such… so if you get in the theoretical car of yours and drive it, your neck would probably snap :(

    2. The limits of the car would be beyond the limits of what a driver could handle.

      I think the average person can handle 3-5 Gs for a short time, people like fighter pilots peak around 9 Gs during turns, from the graphics on the broadcast we see F1 drivers hitting 5Gs again and again throughtout the race.

      Imagine 300kms of pulling 7Gs through corners? Makes my neck sore thinking about it

      1. On the surface, that sounds great. The drivers could never go on the limit and it would really sort out the drivers from each other.

        But even if it was bullet-proof, the second it crashed the G-forces would be horrific.

      2. I’ll paraphrase the quote I remember from Dh about these active suspension cars…basically he said they cornered so fast he couldn’t believe the suspension arms stayed attached to the chassis.

    3. Play F1 2010 with all the assists on :D

  9. is there any road production car with cvt? it sounds like it would be more efficient, and faster!!

    1. Ford Fiesta and others.

    2. 1st gen Honda Jazz had a CVT. I think the current generation Jazz is about to dump i-shift automated manual with a CVT, if they havent already done so. Toyota Prius and Auris hybrid also have one. Some Audi models also came with the optional CVT, called multitronic or smth, but they are being replaced by DSG.

      I have driven the Jazz with a CVT, it was weird with revs staying the same and speed increasing.

      1. Daf (in its road cars, not in the trucks) had it first. Although they called it Variomatic. They actually helped Williams develop their CVT system.

        They also raced it themselves in Rallys and Formula 3. In the latter they worked with Jack Brabham for a while. Gijs van Lennep won a couple races with that car.

        Then when Daf was bought by Volvo Volvo continued to offer a CVT in their 300 series.

        And the best thing: Those Dafs were just as fast in reverse as in other gears. Which resulted in this madness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7ipFApsFec

        1. Geordie Porker
          3rd July 2011, 21:41

          Alex, thanks for posting that video. LMAO! :)

  10. Yep on road vehicles, sounds a lot like whats on mopeds to me, lol

  11. So… Leonardo da Vinci came up with the CVT concept first? (as far as we know) O.o
    This man actually scares me to a degree.

    1. Well, since it’s mechanical engineering and since people have been using gears for centuries, it’s not too surprising, although that doesn’t make da Vinci’s ingeniousness any less impressive.

  12. Funny how a little Formula 1 outfit had the cash and ability to develop all this technology, most of which is now available on road cars, but nowadays the likes of Mercedes,Ferrari,Renault and all the other major manufacturers have to be protected from the cost of developing a racing engine.

    1. The problem is the expense in other areas, not to mention that the cars are even more complicated today, so money has to be spent there. It all adds up for a small team, I doubt it’s really to protect the big teams.

      1. I think the problem is that with areas for development so limited, every square centimetre of bodywork has to be developed in the hope of gaining 0.001% improvement that it creates more expense than applying lateral thinking to all parts of the car and gaining a breakthrough. I am also wondering if Williams are earning royalties on any of this technology.

        1. The problem there is that once a breakthrough has been made, the teams all exploit it as much as they can, which leads to big spending and dangerous cars. Only if you had a strict budget cap would it work. And eventually, most of the ideas will be found out.

          They have a deal with Porsche about KERS. There were rumours of standardising KERS and making Williams’ the package, but that doesn’t look like happening.

    2. ABS, TC, CVT gearboxes were in road cars before F1. It wasn’t like Williams came up with them from scratch. Nowadays it isn’t like manufacturers cant spend to develop a new F1 engine, it is that they don’t want to.

      Back in the day, rightly or wrongly they believed that success in motorsport brought them sales. Now they dont believe that any more.

      1. That is not true for the 2 of those, that were developed in racing.

        1. Which 2 were you thinking of? ABS was developed for aircraft in the 30’s and motorbikes in the 50’s before racing, TC was developed by GM in the 70’s long before it’s use in racing, and as discussed CVT was widely used by DAF from the 50’s before racing.

  13. Sounds like that CVT would’ve worked well with the hot-blown diffuser.

  14. Why isn’t CVT more widely used in road cars? Too expensive and complicated to maintain?

  15. All i remember about this car,is what a HUGE spectacle we were robbed of-due to the fact that alain prost refused to drive alongside ayrton senna !!!

  16. I knew this car was ground-breaking but not to that extent. Seeing the active suspension in use on ‘Senna’ was fascinating to a relative new F1 fan.

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