Red Bulletin columnist and former director of the UK’s Design Museum Stephen Bayley asks Red Bull Racing design chief Adrian Newey what inspires him.
Adrian Newey is a very practical person. At 16, he went on a British Oxygen (BOC) welding course in Birmingham. After all, Formula One is, despite its magnificent and profligate absurdities, the most practical of sports. In the design of a racing car you are continuously doing trades: penetration versus lift; speed versus reliability; lightness versus strength. It’s the designer’s balance of these trades that makes a winner.
Right now, Adrian Newey, chief technical officer of Red Bull Racing, achieves this balance better than any of his rivals. I wanted to meet him not to steal Red Bull Racing’s secrets and start my own team, but to understand the place of design – the place of creativity – in the hard, mercenary and realistic world of Formula One. I wanted to know if Newey was aware what made him and his cars first, best and different. Do exceptional people know what makes them exceptional?
'Newey has an unromantic view of the driver’s overall contribution'
Newey is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, quite intense, but friendly in quite an unassertive way. He is undemonstrative and calm, but not, one imagines, much given to the toleration of dissent in the workforce. And by ‘workforce’ I mean drivers as well as grease monkeys. He is one of those Formula One technocrats who, like Patrick Head of the Williams team, has an unromantic view of the driver’s overall contribution to a car’s performance. For Newey, the design of a racing car is a technical exercise in which the driver is just another (expensive) encumbrance on the way to perfection.
I am guessing that Newey would be just as interested in designing a remotely piloted Formula One car, a Grand Prix drone. Without a driver, you could strip out a lot of unnecessary stuff: things such as seats, pedals, steering wheel, rear-view mirrors and whole load of safety systems. A driver-less Formula One car could become an exercise in pure mechanical engineering, controlled from a distant console in Milton Keynes, just as someone in Nevada controls the unmanned aerial vehicles known as MQ-9 Reapers over Afghanistan.
You sense this in the decoration of his office. By which I mean: there is none. No mementoes. No signed photographs. No charming knick-knacks. I have visited most leading road car designers all over the world. Mostly they have a Wurlitzer, a Fender Stratocaster and a model Ferrari 250 GTO in Rosso Corsa on display for instructive and inspirational purposes. Some have guns.
'A Formula One car is a phenomenally messy vehicle' – Newey
I immediately ask Newey why no Ferrari: irrespective of contemporary Formula One team rivalries, the 250 GTO is surely the ultimate car? He looks disappointed, even confused, and says: “Why does everyone focus on the 250 GTO?” I give him an answer which touches upon the airy fantasies of art and the erotic power of seduction by sculpture, but he is unimpressed. He explains that the 1967 330P4 was the better Ferrari and, in any case, he much prefers the Ford GT40.
But my first big question is very different. Formula One is governed by manically detailed laws which dictate this and that down to millimetres. And when you have satisfied the FIA’s [the governing body’s] legislators, there are then the even more non-negotiable laws of physics. Why, I want to know, if everybody is subject to the same rulebook and identical physical laws, are the results so very different? Why aren’t all Formula One cars exactly the same? Why isn’t every car a Red Bull Racing car?
“Because there are so many variables,” Newey replies. “A Formula One car is a phenomenally messy vehicle: an open-wheeled car is not something you’d design just by giving it a free hand! Just look at the level of complexity. An aircraft is much cleaner. The thing is, we set off on a certain route, but it might be a dead end. You can start well, but then end up getting stuck.”
Read the rest of this article in this month’s edition of the Red Bulletin.
- Official Red Bull Racing website redbullracing.com
- F1 Canada Ones to Watch
- Official F1 website formula1.com