was also worth a second per lap – and for far
less work. And we’d sorted the [electro-hydraulic, semi-auto] gearbox, which was
worth perhaps half a second relative to
McLaren, who didn’t [yet] have one. But
still we weren’t sure we could beat them.
“That winter, McLaren’s testing had all
been done in private. That was an error.
Yes, it meant that we didn’t know how they
were going to perform – but they didn’t
know either. When Nigel took pole [by
seven-tenths from Senna’s 1991-spec
MP4/6] we finally realized that we had
something that they couldn’t match.
“It’s since been very interesting to
watch the ‘Senna’ movie, because I’d
never seen it from Ayrton’s point of view.
He was the enemy and we had put years
of our lives into inventing these new
systems to try to beat him. But now I saw
how depressed he was when we achieved
McLaren brought forward its new
passive car by a month, and sent no
fewer than six chassis to the Brazilian GP
on April 5, but Mansell was virtually
unstoppable. Winning the first five grands
prix – and nine in total – he secured the
1992 world title after just 11 of 16
rounds. McLaren’s active car didn’t arrive
until September and round 13 at Monza,
by which time Williams had decided to
keep its FW15 powder dry for ’ 93,
despite it being ready to race by August.
“Lotus’s system was fully active, with no
mechanical compliance to react to road
disturbance,” says Lowe. “Its potential was
arguably complete, with full authority, but its
complexity, working at very high frequencies,
and power consumption were very high.
“What we had was semi-active [often
called ‘reactive’ to ameliorate Group Lotus
and based on a system developed by AP
for road cars], with mechanical springs
managing the primary disturbance from
the road. We thought our approach was
more realistic in that we were essentially
only dealing with the attitude of the car. The
perfect manifestation of our system was to
manage the platform actively while its
passive elements, the spring and damper,
managed the bumps.
“But the reality was that those
objectives overlapped in their working
frequency domains. The secret, and any
breakthroughs, lay in our ability to
separate those elements. But there was
still plenty of room for improvement…”
And improvement duly came with the
FW15C of 1993. A development of ’ 92’s
never-raced FW15, the “C” variant added
ABS brakes to its high-tech arsenal and
boasted significantly improved aero over
the 14B. Also new was the driver lineup;
Mansell and Riccardo Patrese replaced by
Alain Prost and erstwhile tester Damon Hill.
Despite going head to head with Senna’s
McLaren MP4/8, which also came with
active suspension, traction control and a
semi-auto ’box, 15C matched 14B’s 10
grand prix wins and 15 poles and provided
Prost with his fourth and final drivers’ title.
But that was it for these high-speed R&D
labs. For 1994, FIA president Max Mosley
brought in a blanket ban on electronic driver
aids, ostensibly to hand control back to
the guys behind the wheel. It’s an ethos
that remains in place even today.
Given that Paddy Lowe and his ilk were
still scratching the surface, how far active
suspension and its associated technologies
could ultimately have taken Formula 1
performance remains the great unknown.
“It’s been very interesting
to watch the ‘Senna’ movie,
because I’d never seen it
from Ayrton’s point of view”
With active suspension
and other electronic
driver aids banned for
1994, the Williams
FW15C of ’ 93 (ABOVE)
remains perhaps the
advanced F1 car of
all time. McLaren’s
Ayrton Senna wrested
three wins from the
dominant 14Bs in ’ 92,
including the Monaco
Grand Prix (LEFT).