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ABS brought the realization that it was possible to allow computing power to do far more than keep the wheels from locking



1993 williams renault fw15c


World Champion Alain Prost once described the Williams-Renault FW15C, as "really a little Airbus" -his way of describing an F1 car in the electronic era.

Prost campaigned seven grands prix in the 1993 season, from Germany to Australia. He won the German grand prix where S/N 005 debuted. It was his 51st and final victory on July 25.

This victory contributed to his 4th F1 World Champion title, which was awarded two months later, on September 26 at Estoril in Portugal. Again in S/N 005, Alain reached the podium and became world champion. Winner was Michael Schumacher in his Benetton-Ford, who would capture his first World Championship in 1994.

Prost drove this same chassis to 2nd place in Suzuka in Japan on October 24 and 2nd in Australia behind Ayrton Senna in a McLaren on November 7. The last race in Adelaide marked the end of Prost's F1 career and that of the Williams-Renault FW15C S/N 005.

{analysis}{auto}860{/auto} The SCM Analysis: This 1993 Williams-Renault FW15C sold for $410,000 at Artcurial's Paris auction on June 12.

Formula One is considered to be the ultimate arena for motorsport. It has the fewest rules, biggest budgets, biggest egos, and the biggest international audiences to play to, with frequent high drama and spectacle. It is arguably the most difficult sport in the world in which to attain elite status and endure.

In the roughly 40 years that he has been an entrant/constructor in Formula One, Frank Williams has proven to be one of the most resilient players. Starting with absolutely nothing but commitment and enthusiasm, Williams took an unfunded one-car, back-marker team that he started in the late 1960s and turned it into one of the top contenders, winning the championship nine times.

He did it by assembling a team of designers and engineers who proved capable of leading each successive technical revolution as it unfolded. Ground effects aerodynamics were Lotus's idea in 1979, but Williams perfected the concept and created the dominant design in the FW 07, winning in 1980 and '81. Williams's cars controlled the end of the 3-liter era of Formula One.

Then the 1.5 liter Turbo engines took control. Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche, and Renault controlled the early years, but by 1986 Williams had caught up, and with Honda power he won in both 1986 and 1987. He lost the Honda engine deal for 1988, making do with Judd, and 1989 was the beginning of the 3.5-liter normally aspirated rule, so Williams moved back into the middle of the pack while working out engine arrangements with Renault and starting serious development of the new paradigm: active suspension.

Ever since Williams started winning and found adequate sponsorship, the team has been committed to spending whatever it takes to stay technically ahead of the competition. Drivers were very important, of course, and Williams had access to the best, but the focus was to create the most advanced cars in the race.

In the 1990s, he did. ABS brought the realization that it was possible to allow computing power to do far more than keep wheels from locking. Normally, mechanical springs, anti-roll bars, and shock absorbers controlled suspension movement, feet controlled throttle and clutch, and levers controlled gearboxes, but in the brave new world of space-age technology, why not let a computer do it? Conceptually, it's a stunning idea; practically, it's a nightmare.

From 1989 to 1993, Formula One headed down this road, but Williams was way out in front. By 1992 he had the FW 14, which was a fully active car. "Hydro-pneumatic" devices that computers could control replaced the springs and shocks. The computers constantly adjusted ride height, spring rate, and roll stiffness so that the tires stayed in contact with the track and the chassis remained in optimal attitude.

This allowed the aerodynamicists to make all their gizmos work in a very small design envelope, which made them immensely efficient. ABS was there, of course, as was traction control to prevent spinning the tires under acceleration. To top it off, Williams designed a computer-controlled gearbox that would shift when the driver tapped a button or do it for him if he didn't.

By the time the Williams-Renault FW15C arrived, the computer tracked the engine revs so closely that the wheels wouldn't lock up when it downshifted in the wet. The driver's involvement was reduced to pushing very hard on pedals and steering.

With the FW 14 for Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese in 1992 and the FW15 for Prost and Damon Hill in 1993 (the FW15 was available in August of 1992, but the 14 was doing so well there was no reason to bring out the new car), Williams set the bar almost impossibly high. Partially because of this, but also because of safety concerns and a need for better on-track competition, active suspension was banned for 1994, and the era came to an end.

The Williams FW15C was the final, ultimate product of a wild, almost out-of-control ride to technology's frontiers. The future involved a large step backward, and most of the technologies that made this car work were abandoned. The FW15C ended up being perhaps the most technologically advanced and simultaneously mind-numbingly complex race car of its era-possibly of all time.

Alain Prost retired at the end of the 1993 season and this car was apparently given to him as a memento of his time with Williams-Renault-it was his primary car for the last half of the season. As far as I can tell, the car is complete, but the reality is that it is an artifact, not a race car. It will never, ever, run again, either in anger or in joy. Indeed, there are no active suspension cars that are likely to ever run again; they're simply too complex and dangerous to resurrect.

Think about it. The suspension isn't springs and shocks, it's pumps and shuttle valves, seals and relays, all controlled by 1993 microprocessors with programs maintained by watch batteries. I'm told it took three laptops to get it going (suspension, engine, and telemetry) and eight of Williams's engineers at the track to make it do the famous "dance" that proved the systems all worked.

Those parts have now been sitting for 13 years; do you think they're going to work? Who has those 1993 laptops, anyway? The engine is a pneumatic (air pressure) valve unit, so after at most two days without external pressure, all 50 valves fall open and tangle (engines that run are kept attached to a nitrogen tank when stopped). Somebody would have to rebuild it first, and last I heard, Renault and Williams aren't best friends anymore.

So, somebody bought a wonderful museum piece for a bit over $400,000. What could you do if you wanted the real experience? There are several options. The 1968-81, three-liter Formula One cars are available, actively raced, and can be driven by ordinary (very good) drivers. These are available for anywhere from about $150,000 to $450,000. The "turbo" cars are out there and available, but you need to be ready to handle a jump from 300 to 800 (plus) horsepower when the turbo hits, so they're not easy to drive. These generally sell for $120,000 to $150,000, reflecting their general lack of friendliness.

You can also buy various lesser post-1994 cars (mostly with Judd V10s) for about $175,000 to $200,000. There's not much to do with the newer cars except rent a track and go scare yourself. The EuroBOSS series in England is trying to provide venues for actual racing, with some success. Ferrari sells and services its old F1 cars as well, if you've got something around a million to spend.

But in any circumstances, you won't drive this FW15C, nor will anyone else. This is a situation where power, technology, and adrenaline have become history and art. It's not a race car anymore, it's sports memorabilia.{/analysis}

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