Williams is one of Formula 1’s most legendary outfits, enjoying a rich history in the series. Ahead of its 2021 car launch, Autosport has picked out its 10 best grand prix challengers
Williams is one of Formula 1’s most legendary and best-loved teams. Its recent struggles have been well-documented but last year’s buyout by Dorilton Capital and announcement that the Williams family is stepping aside could herald the start of its revival.
Ahead of the launch of the team’s 2021 challenger, Autosport decided to pick out the best Williams F1 machines since Patrick Head’s first car for the then new Williams Grand Prix Engineering concern in 1978.
For this list we considered each car’s success, how innovative it was and how cool we think it is.
10. Williams-Ford FW06
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 0
It didn’t win a race but the FW06 is a key car in the history of the team. It marked the start of the Frank Williams/Patrick Head era, defined by a practical and no-nonsense approach.
The Cosworth DFV-powered machine was a relatively conventional design, but it was neat, well-balanced and proved surprisingly rapid in the hands of former Shadow driver Alan Jones. Generally not a match for the ground-effect Lotus 79 and the Michelin-shod Ferrari 312T3 in 1978, Jones provided some hints of things to come in the solo entry.
He charged to second before a misfire at Long Beach and finished second at Watkins Glen after qualifying third. Jones’s performances convinced Head and Williams that he was made of the ‘right stuff’ and the car showed that the team needed to be taken seriously.
9. Williams-Honda FW10
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 0
It was clear by 1983 that Williams needed turbo power and it got it with Honda. The 1984 FW09 was something of a handful, but the Head/Frank Dernie FW10 was much better, helped by a new engine.
Keke Rosberg won two races, but the Finn’s most famous 1985 moment was his stunning 160.9mph pole position lap at Silverstone, set with a slow puncture. That lap would stand as F1’s fastest pole for 17 years.
New signing Nigel Mansell also scored his first world championship grand prix victory with the FW10 at Brands Hatch, round 14 of 16, then won next time out in South Africa.
It was enough to boost Williams from sixth in 1984 to third in the constructors’ championship – and Autosport readers voted the FW10 the Racing Car of the Year.
8. Williams-Renault FW16
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1994)
The unloved FW16 is probably the most infamous of all Williams racers, given that Ayrton Senna died at the wheel of one at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, but it still has to be on this list.
The banning of ‘gizmos’ that Williams had become so adept at, such as active suspension and traction control, put the team on the back foot for 1994. The rise of Michael Schumacher and Benetton, and the events at Imola, made for a tough season but both Williams and new team leader Damon Hill rallied.
Improvements to the FW16, notably shortened sidepods and revised wings, culminated in the car being designated the FW16B from the German GP in July.
A combination of Hill raising his game, penalties for Schumacher and the improved car helped Williams retain its constructors’ crown, while Hill finished one point behind Schumacher following their controversial Adelaide clash.
7. Williams-BMW FW25
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 0
The closest Williams has come to repeating its former glories so far in the 21st century was when it joined forces with BMW and Michelin in the early 2000s.
The team didn’t lead the aerodynamics race, but the combination of BMW power, Michelin rubber and fiery line-up of Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher often made it the closest challenger to the all-conquering Ferrari squad.
The FW23 took Williams back to the front and scored four wins in 2001 – the team’s first since 1997 – but it was the FW25 that came closest to bringing a big trophy back to Grove two years later.
After Ferrari’s domination in 2002, one-lap qualifying and a new points system – with just two points between first and second instead of four – were introduced to spice up the show.
Ferrari’s F2003-GA was not as strong as its predecessor and both Williams and McLaren (also on Michelin tyres against Ferrari’s Bridgestones) battled the Italian team for the title.
After the Hungarian GP, with three rounds to go, just two points covered Michael Schumacher, Montoya and McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, while Ralf Schumacher was also within 14 of the top. And Williams led the constructors’ race.
At that point, however, Bridgestone spotted something with Michelin’s tyres that led to an immediate amendment to the application of the rules – tyre tread would be measured after the race rather than before, as previously. This was to ensure there was no exceeding of the limit of the maximum tread rules, resulting in Michelin making changes.
Michael Schumacher then beat Montoya to pole and victory next time out in the Italian GP, while Ralf’s non-start thanks to a testing crash dropped him out of title contention. Then a drivethrough penalty for a clash with Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari in the United States GP ended Montoya’s championship aspirations.
The FW25’s final tally of four poles and four wins was enough for Williams to pip McLaren to second in the table but, once again, Ferrari had taken both titles.
6. Williams-Renault FW19
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Jacques Villeneuve, 1997)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1997)
Was this the last great Williams? The FW19 scored the team’s last two titles and was the last that could without doubt be described as the fastest F1 car of its season.
It was also the last Williams design in which Adrian Newey was involved before he left for McLaren, the final one to wear Rothmans colours and the last to be powered by the successful line of Renault V10s that stretched back to 1989. It represents the end of many eras.
Despite some bad luck, odd decisions (slicks at a wet Monaco!) and the occasional mediocre performance from Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the FW19 scored 11 poles and eight wins.
Heroics from Michael Schumacher in Ferrari’s F310B took the drivers’ title to the Jerez finale, where Villeneuve did enough despite their controversial clash. Schumacher was then stripped of his second place in the table, handing Williams its last 1-2.
5. Williams-Honda FW11
Wins: 18 (9 FW11, 9 FW11B)
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Nelson Piquet, 1987)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1986-87)
Dernie’s FW11 was the car that ended McLaren’s reign at the top of F1 – and it did so despite the pre-season road accident that left team founder Frank Williams fighting for his life.
The fuel-efficient Honda-powered machine won first time out at the 1986 Brazilian GP in the hands of Nelson Piquet. The FW11 won eight of the remaining 15 races and Williams swept to its third constructors’ crown.
There’s no doubt the FW11 was the best overall package of the season, but the intra-team battle between Piquet and Mansell – plus the Briton’s infamous Adelaide tyre blowout – allowed McLaren’s Alain Prost to snatch the drivers’ crown.
There were no such errors in 1987. The uprated FW11B took 12 poles (eight for Mansell) and nine wins as Williams won the constructors’ title by 137 points to McLaren’s 76.
Following Piquet’s frightening Imola crash, Mansell was the dominant force. He won more races (six) and led twice as many laps as any other driver, but bad luck (chiefly engine failure while leading in Monaco and a loose wheelnut while heading for victory in Hungary) handed Piquet the initiative.
When Mansell was injured during qualifying for the Japanese GP and forced to sit out the rest of the campaign, Piquet was confirmed as champion.
Piquet had also embraced the active (dubbed ‘reactive’ at the time) suspension system before Mansell, having used it to for the first time to dominate the Italian GP against Mansell in the passive FW11B.
4. Williams-Ford FW07
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Alan Jones, 1980)
Constructors’ titles: 2 (1980-81)
The FW07 is the car the 1979 Lotus probably should have been. Having worked out the secrets of ground-effects that had allowed the Lotus 79 to dominate in 1978, Head and his team simply built a better version.
Stiff and light, the FW07 set the pace once Williams had got on top of the initial gremlins. Clay Regazzoni scored the team’s first world championship race victory in the British GP and Jones reeled off four wins in the last six races of 1979.
Having become the first Williams to win an F1 race, the FW07 became the first to take a title in 1980. Jones beat Brabham’s Piquet to the drivers’ crown with five victories, while Carlos Reutemann won in Monaco as Williams comfortably took the constructors’ championship.
The FW07, which was developed throughout its life, wasn’t the quickest car of 1981, but it and Gordon Murray’s Brabham BT49 were the best. Williams took four victories – more than any other team – and the constructors’ title, but Piquet beat Reutemann and Jones to drivers’ honours. The Williams duo was not helped by occasional DFV misfires, which led to changes to the FW07’s fuel system.
Keke Rosberg started his successful 1982 campaign with the car before switching to the FW08, an evolution of the FW07 that took two victories.
3. Williams-Renault FW18
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Damon Hill, 1996)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1996)
In terms of strike rate, the 1996 FW18 is the greatest Williams. It scored 12 wins from 16 races, eight for Hill and four for Villeneuve, while Michael Schumacher was the only other driver to score a pole.
The FW18 extended the team’s advantage from the previous season and Hill raised his game, eradicating most of the mistakes of his 1995 campaign. The opposition was also weaker, Schumacher leaving reigning champion Benetton to take on a new challenge at Ferrari.
The FW18 wasn’t revolutionary, but only in the appalling conditions of the Spanish GP was Williams beaten in a straight fight in 1996.
At Monaco, Hill was comfortably in control when the Renault engine blew, a pitstop issue allowed Schumacher to beat Villeneuve at Spa, and Hill crashed out of the lead at Monza.
The FW18 lacks the super-cool status of the top two on this list, but Hill’s favourite F1 car deserves to be remembered as one of the great GP designs.
2. Williams-Renault FW15C
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Alain Prost, 1993)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1993)
In terms of raw pace, the FW15C is the most dominant Williams of all time. It’s 1.7% advantage is the fourth biggest in world championship history and 15 poles from 16 races underlines its status.
In some respects it represents the pinnacle of F1 sophistication before rules banned many of its ‘gizmos’. Active suspension, anti-lock brakes and traction control were just some of its features, while other innovations, such as continuously variable transmission, were tested before the regulations changed.
That the FW15C ‘only’ won 10 of the 16 races it started was down to a number of factors. It was not the easiest car to drive and Prost made a number of errors, including crashing out of the wet Brazilian GP and jumping the start in Monaco, while team-mate Hill was in his first season in a frontrunning F1 car.
Senna (McLaren) and Michael Schumacher (Benetton) also produced some superb drives, Senna being masterful in the wet at Interlagos and Donington Park, while Schumacher held off Prost at Estoril.
McLaren’s MP4/8 improved during the year and was competitive enough for Senna to win the final two races of 1993 and take the only non-Williams pole at the Adelaide finale, but by then both titles had been wrapped up.
1. Williams-Renault FW14B
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Nigel Mansell, 1992)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1992)
It wasn’t quite as neat as the FW15C that replaced it, but the Newey/Head FW14B was the car that introduced many of the technical advancements that put Williams clear of the rest. The 1992 car was also cooler, with its wider rear tyres and ‘red 5’ on the front of Mansell’s machine.
Mansell was arguably better suited to the high-commitment approach that type of car required than team-mate Riccardo Patrese, Prost or Hill. That perhaps helps to explain why, whereas in 1993 there was the illusion of a title fight, Mansell clinched the 1992 drivers’ crown with five of the 16 races still to go.
A run of victories at the start of the year were only halted by a suspected puncture at round six in Monaco. Mansell crashed battling Senna in Canada, then won the next three races before securing the crown with second in Hungary.
Reliability problems denied Williams in Belgium and Italy, Patrese won in Japan, while the season concluded with an unsatisfactory clash between Senna and Mansell in Australia.
Mansell’s final tally was nine wins and 14 poles, which included qualifying fastest at Silverstone by 1.919 seconds, the biggest margin in terms of lap time percentage (2.4%) in world championship history.
A fantastic-looking, dominant and innovative design, the FW14B isn’t just the greatest Williams, it’s one of the greatest F1 cars of all time.