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Remembering Senna’s dramatic 1994 Williams unveiling

Williams later showcased Ayrton Senna at the launch of the car that would claim his life

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Ayrton Senna had high hopes for 1994 at Williams following his dramatic switch from McLaren. 

 Senna prepares to test the Williams Renault FW16 at Imola ahead of the 1994 season (Image Credit: @LegendarysF1 on X)
Senna prepares to test the Williams Renault FW16 at Imola ahead of the 1994 season ( (Image Credit: @LegendarysF1 on X)

Ayrton Senna’s defection from McLaren to Williams shocked the F1 world. However, this was a logical move as Senna had begun to lose faith in the team. McLaren had lost its mantle as the sport’s dominant force, losing both championships to Williams in 1992 and 1993.

Ford power replaced the all-conquering Honda engine in 1993. Pre-season testing proved tricky for Team Principal Ron Dennis, as Senna negotiated a race-by-race contract for 1993 after realising he could not win the title once he tested the MP4/8.

Announcing his decision to move in late 1993 was the culmination of multiple attempts by the Brazilian to race for the eponymous Frank Williams. Arch rival Alain Prost dominated that season, but while he was still driving for Williams, the door for Senna remained firmly closed. 1992 champion Nigel Mansell also had reservations about having Senna in the second car.

Such had been his determination to race in blue that Senna had offered at one point to drive for Williams for free. But Frank Williams wanted Senna in one of his cars for 1994 and chose to pay Prost off. Still under contract to Williams, he flirted with a McLaren Peugeot drive. He tested the new MP4/9 but walked away upon realising he had no chance of winning a fifth title and his second in succession. The legendary Frenchman never raced in F1 again.

With the political wrangling and complications settled Senna now had an unobstructed path to F1’s top team. Williams, Renault and Senna aimed to become a dream team in F1 and continue the team’s dominant form.

The reveal
The Williams driver up for the 1994 season is unveiled to the media (Image Credit: @LegendarysF1 on X)
The Williams driver up for the 1994 season is unveiled to the media (Image Credit: @LegendarysF1 on X)

The challenger for 1994 would be the FW16, but this would be revealed in February. Instead, Senna, now in iconic blue Williams overalls, adorned his helmet beside a modified FW15C, the FW15D. Gone were the hints of yellow and red on the car, replaced by white of Rothmans.

With Prost out of the sport, car number 0 appeared for the second consecutive year. In an era long before driver numbers, if the reigning world champion retired at the end of their winning campaign, the number 0 was used. However, Senna would drive car 2.

Instead, Damon Hill would drive car 0. The Briton kept his seat for a second season, having won three races in his rookie season at the age of 33, but he still had much to learn.

Beaming for the cameras at the event, Hill said, “I’m thrilled to bits to have Ayrton in the team with me, and I’m really looking forward to this year”. Senna dominated previous teammates Gerhard Berger and Michael Andretti at McLaren, and Hill knew the scale of the mountain he had to climb.

The Brazilian also knew his first team switch in seven seasons presented a significant challenge:

“I’m under no illusion this is going to be an easy thing  because it will take a lot of effort to get used to the new machine, new people, new team members, and I am ready to start the work”.

The FW15D was not an accurate indicator of the car Senna would drive in 1994. Designed for the electronic marvels of its origin car, the original FW15C featured electronic suspension, one of the many reasons the team dominated in 1993. All driver aids were banned for the upcoming 1994 season, with the FW16 to have a different feel entirely.

Taking to the track in Jerez for a series of shakedown laps, he was as relaxed as ever out of the cockpit. Cutting an optimistic figure, he prepared for the next chapter in his glittering career.

New car niggles
Senna tests the Williams Renault FW16 (Image Credit: @LegendarysF1 on X)
Senna tests the Williams Renault FW16 (Image Credit: @LegendarysF1 on X)

Senna got his first taste of Williams Renault power at sunny and cold Estoril in early February, joining Jordan, Sauber, Lotus and Ligier. Unsurprisingly, Senna ended the week fastest of all, comfortably ahead of the rest of the field. However, he and test and reserve driver David Coulthard drove FW15Ds during this test.

Despite the compromised setup, the car still had pace. But as the new car would employ different characteristics and set-up, lap times were impossible to decipher. Excitement over the new season became a concern once the FW16 debuted.

The FW16 finally hit the track at Jerez on February 25th, 1994. Although Senna ended the day fastest, concerns over the car’s pace were immediate and justified. The new car lapped slower than the modified FW15D.

A disaster from the get-go, work began immediately to understand the car’s new niggles. With handling identified as the main culprit, the team pushed to understand how to improve its fortunes. Williams itself reports that a design flaw was found in the car’s “frontal section”. Back in the 1990s, budgets were unlimited, but car issues still required time to fix.

Senna was understandably unhappy with the car on the eve of the 1994 season. He and the team knew, arriving in Brazil, that expectations of a Senna victory would be stratospheric. However, both knew the FW16 was on the back foot, with Benetton and Michael Schumacher looking ominously quick.

But with his home crowd’s support and legendary driving style, the Brazilian topped every session in the build-up to the race, even taking pole position. Retiring from the race after spinning out, the team conducted a private test to remedy the situation.

Technical Director Patrick Head admitted the car was troublesome: “we certainly aren’t happy with things are with the car at the moment, the handling isn’t particularly good. ”

The fix for the FW16 was scheduled to arrive for Imola, the race where Senna would lose his life.

A move few could pull off

Thirty years after Senna’s launch at Williams, his achievements in F1 are as relevant today as they were back in 1994. Driver moves are nothing new in F1; all top drivers will switch allegiance for a new challenge, the best chance to fight for a title, or even to add more to their tally.

But few driver moves have the drama and intrigue of Senna’s move to Williams from McLaren. A political jigsaw had to fall perfectly into place for Senna to drive in blue.

Contract wrangling, driver preference, and questions over competitiveness are all stumbling blocks for any driver. But Senna knocked all of them away. He wanted to race in blue, and nothing would stop him.

The name Ayrton Senna conjures images of passion, a bright yellow and green helmet and a desire to win. Even when presented with a disappointing car at launch, he fought and dragged the FW16 to the front row while Damon Hill struggled. He truly was one of a kind.

Feature Image Credit: TF1C_Williams on X

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