During 30 years in motorsport Adrian Newey has developed something of a legend. He’s heralded as an original thinker, a maverick designer, the heir to the legacy of Colin Chapman and a softly spoken genius. But the thing he’s best known for is winning.
His thesis on the science of ground-effect in aerodynamics attracted the attention of the motor racing community and in 1980, shortly after graduation from Southampton University, Newey began working for the Fittipaldi F1 team. He soon moved to March, beginning work as a race engineer in Formula 2 before moving on to design. While Newey is first and foremost regarded as a Formula One designer, his early successes came in American racing: his first sports car design for March won the IMSA’s GTP class in 1983 and 1984, though Adrian had already moved to March’s IndyCar project. His first effort, the March 85C, won both the Championship and the Indy 500, while his follow-up model won the Championship in 1986 and the Indy 500 in both ’86 and ‘87.
Newey briefly left March to work for Carl Haas, first at the FORCE F1 team and latterly back in IndyCar as a race engineer for Mario Andretti. It was a short-lived soujourn and Newey soon returned to March, masterminding the constructor’s return to F1, as technical director. He moved on to Williams at the end of 1990 and began a decade in which everything he touched turned to extremely rapid gold. In partnership with Patrick Head, Newey’s first car for Williams won seven races in 1991; its successors won five Constructors’ titles in the next six years, made world champions of Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, gifted a fourth title to Alain Prost and introduced a callow youth by the name of David Coulthard to the top step of the podium. When Newey departed Williams for fresh challenges at McLaren, he confirmed his prowess with three further titles, rounding off the decade with the 1998 Constructors’ title and two world championships for Mika Hakkinen.
Newey’s McLarens continued to win races in the 21st Century, taking several championships down to the wire and never failing to win individual grands prix. His final effort in 2005 won ten of the season’s 19 races but somehow managed to dodge both titles. In search of a new challenge Adrian moved on once again, to Red Bull Racing, the attraction of which lay in the potential to create a winning team virtually from scratch.
“In truth when I joined Williams and McLaren, they were teams that had won championships and clearly had the infrastructure to be capable of doing so in the future,” says Adrian. “It meant they were able to get to the point of winning races and championships quite quickly whereas Red Bull Racing was a very different case – which was what appealed to me. It was a very young team, which offered me the opportunity to be centrally involved in developing not only the design of the car but the whole infrastructure of the engineering team.”
It’s a widely-held belief that Adrian does his best work whenever F1 undergoes one of its periodic regulatory upheavals, moving development away from number crunching and briefly allowing creativity and intuition to come back to the fore. 2009 demonstrated that in ample measure: Red Bull Racing’s breakthrough season had Adrian’s RB5 taking five pole positions and score six victories.
“I do enjoy regulation changes such as those we had last year,” reflects Adrian. “They allow you to sit back with the clean sheet of paper and from first principals try to work out the best solutions to those regulations. Eleven years since a big change, and four years since any change at all meant F1 became quite repetitive. Nobody was coming up with new ideas; there were just lots of little alterations on existing, well-established themes… and I don’t find that quite as interesting.”
The idea of a clean sheet of paper isn’t just a metaphor. Despite the non-stop technological advancement of F1, Adrian still likes to use the drawing board rather than a supercomputer when he’s feeling creative. Away from the office he indulges a passion for classic sports cars, as both a keen collect and amateur racer. Not one to let the laws of physics stand in the way of a borderline overtaking opportunity, he’s had some high-profile scraps in recent years, but - undaunted by the bruises and occasional concussion - has progressed to more serious racing, finishing a highly creditable fourth in class and 22nd overall in the 2007 24 Heures Du Mans while driving an AF Corse Ferrari F430. He also won the 2009 Goodwood Revival TT Race, sharing his Lightweight E-Type Jaguar with his old friend, Bobby Rahal.
Members of the garage crew will whisper that an even more impressive driving performance involving Adrian, a donuting Ferrari California and Christian Horner’s lawn took place after the team’s 1-2 finish at Silverstone last year.