Brains behind the Bull
The Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber would not have been flying around virtually every race track on the Formula One calendar this season had it not been for Adrian Newey. But the design genius behind the two quickest cars on the grid admits he might well have not been at the Canadian Grand Prix this weekend and could in fact have quit designing Formula One cars altogether 16 years ago.
In 1994, Newey's talents were already well known - he had given Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost the machinery to win world titles for Williams. But at the San Marino Grand Prix that year, disaster struck when Ayrton Senna was killed while driving the Renault-powered and Newey-designed FW16. Looking back on the incident, Newey says, "Without a doubt, that was the worst time of my Formula One career. I think when it happened, one of the things I questioned was whether I wanted to be involved in the sport any more.
"I think if it had been proven or felt it had been the result of a mistake in the design of the car, I don't know what I would have done." Following what Newey describes as a "ridiculous court case" in Italy "that not even Ayrton's family wanted", he and Williams were cleared of any wrongdoing and, thankfully for F1 and Red Bull in particular, Newey opted to stay in the sport. In the process, he has gone on to become one of the most innovative and successful car designers in motorsport history. At the last count, his cars had won 108 grands prix, six drivers' titles and half a dozen constructors' crowns.
As a result, he has become one of the most sought-after and prized assets in the F1 paddock. He began his career with Fittipaldi Automotive in 1980 before joining March. However, it was at Williams, whom he joined in 1991, where he finally realised his full potential. Eventually, he tired of his time at Williams and joined McLaren for the 1997 season. He was so coveted at McLaren that a bitter power struggle took place between then McLaren boss Ron Dennis and Jaguar chief Bobby Rahal in 2001 over Newey's future, a row McLaren won by offering a sizeable pay rise.
He stayed at the team until 2005 when he pleaded with Dennis to leave to pursue a fresh challenge at Red Bull. Into his fifth season with the team, he is relishing the role of chief technical officer. His design efforts allied to his achievements have seen him likened to Colin Chapman, who was responsible for Lotus' long-term success in F1, but Newey blushes at such comparisons. "I don't really think about those sort of comparisons, although obviously it's flattering to even be mentioned in the same breath as Colin Chapman because, as a boy, he was my absolute hero," he says. "And like him, I've always enjoyed being creative."
Newey credits his design success to his father, who worked as a veterinary surgeon, but had a passion for building and creating things in his spare time in a workshop in the garden at the Newey family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK. "Dad was a real hobby engineer," he says. "He loved welding and creating things and I picked up my passion then. Obviously, I started pretty basically but I gradually worked my way up."
Throughout school, all Newey ever wanted to do was build cars and, as a result, he did not always excel at his studies. However, he did enough to earn a place at University of Southampton to study aeronautical engineering, but even that was done with car design in mind. "It struck me that that was the best degree to get into Formula One," he says. Newey's responsibilities have changed massively since that first, shortlived role at Fitippaldi. As chief technical officer at Red Bull, he is in charge of a large design and engineering team, and has little time to mull over creative ideas at race weekends or during the working week.
To counteract that, he has a slightly archaic approach to coming up with the most technologically advanced ideas - a pencil and paper. "Even now, I try to spend two days a week working at home as it means there's absolutely no distractions as I work," he says. "And often I will sit there with a blank piece of paper and jot stuff down. Sometimes that results in a eureka moment and sometimes you just get stuck with writers' or designers' block or whatever you want to call it.
"The eureka moments are great. But often you think you're onto something but it won't necessarily stand up to the processes before it gets put on the car - the research, the CFD [computational fluid dynamics] and the wind-tunnel work. But if it does work, there's obviously great satisfaction." Judging by this year's Red Bull, the RB6, some of the more recent ideas by Newey and his team have been particularly successful. Despite Webber and Vettel crashing together in Turkey two weeks ago, giving up an almost assured 1-2 finish, the Australian is still on top of the drivers championship table, with the team trailing McLaren in the constructors championship by just a single point.
However, Newey is still not satisfied. "The season could definitely have started a lot better for us," he admits, "so there's some frustration there. On top of that, I'm never really satisfied with the car - you can't be except perhaps at the end of the season. "I'm very self-critical, so I'm always trying to improve myself and the car. And that can be a challenge. So many ideas end up failing. I don't know exactly but our strike rate for successes is about 10 per cent. But I'm always thinking forward and looking ahead."
The reason for that approach, he believes, lies with his father, who taught him to always read the entire exam paper before answering a single question at school. And Newey insists that remains the secret to his daily approach. "I'm always looking ahead and researching, and you have to as you're always wanting to stay ahead of the teams, of Ferrari and McLaren, and that's the real battle." Newey has a fondness for both the RB5 and this year's RB6 but he insists that picking out an all-time favourite car is virtually impossible.
"The best ones are probably when there have been big regulation changes," he says, "so I was definitely fond of the RB5 as I love regulation changes. It makes my working life so much more entertaining. You can be a lot more creative." Away from designing racing cars, Newey's other passion is still in the world of motorsport. A keen racer, he takes to the wheel in competition whenever possible. In fact, he has competed at the 24 Hours of Dubai endurance race driving a Ferrari F430 with Khaleji Motorsport.
There have been hiccups, such as a crash in a classic event at Le Mans in 2006, a big accident which he walked away from unscathed. But on the whole he thrives on the idea of racing, although he insists he does not have the same genetic gift as that of Vettel or Webber. "What I love about the racing is that it's the one time when I switch off my brain as, when you're racing, you can only think of one thing or should only think of one thing," he says. "All your focus is on that. With the day-to-day stuff, I don't feel the brain ever switches off."
As for which he prefers - car design or racing - Newey refuses to be drawn. "I know which one I'm better at!" he adds. "There's a different buzz from them but I enjoy each immensely." Red Bull, though, will be happy if he sticks to the day job.
Published: June 12, 2010 04:00 AM