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SCM Profiles » 2006 » October » Race Car Profile

1993 Williams-Renault FW15C
ABS brought the realization that it was possible to allow computing power
to do far more than keep the wheels from locking
        Chassis #: 005

by Thor Thorson

World Champion Alain Prost once described the Williams FW15, 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.

The SCM Analysis

The SCM Analysis: This car 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 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

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

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 car, 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.

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