Su­per-suc­cess­ful but se­cre­tive Adrian Newey, the engi­neer­ing guru once de­scribed by Ron Den­nis as “the most com­pet­i­tive per­son I’ve ever met”, rarely gives in­ter­views. Here he opens up about why he thinks of him­self as “a bit of a di­nosaur”, why he’s neve


To co­in­cide with his new book ‘How to Build a Car’, we sit down with de­signer Adrian Newey

Adrian Newey OBE: the only F1 de­signer re­spon­si­ble for cham­pi­onship-win­ning cars with three dif­fer­ent teams; Wil­liams, Mclaren and Red Bull. Sought af­ter by Fer­rari. And now the au­thor of How to Build a Car. That’s a rac­ing car, of course. Given the se­cre­tive na­ture of the busi­ness, not to men­tion Newey’s low pro­file, it’s worth find­ing out just how much this essen­tially pri­vate man wants to re­veal. On the ba­sis of pre­vi­ous en­light­en­ing and hon­est chats, I can only as­sume it will make il­lu­mi­nat­ing read­ing. As Da­mon Hill (1996 world cham­pion, cour­tesy of Newey’s cre­ation) says on the book’s cover: ‘Adrian has a unique gift for un­der­stand­ing driv­ers and rac­ing cars. He is ul­tra-com­pet­i­tive but never for­gets to have fun. An im­mensely like­able man.’ We meet in the lounge of his Berk­shire home to discover if that trans­lates into a book.

F1 Rac­ing: So, now you’re an au­thor – just to add to your other achieve­ments. What’s the book all about? Adrian Newey: It’s very much an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy from child­hood, through my ex­pe­ri­ences in mo­tor rac­ing, but also in­clud­ing some of my home life. It’s about the chal­lenge of find­ing that first job and then mov­ing from team to team and go­ing to the States with March. It’s about es­tab­lish­ing the bond be­tween en­gi­neer and driver, which could be a very close re­la­tion­ship if it worked well; more so than to­day.

And then, from Indy­cars, try­ing to break into For­mula 1 and find my way to a top team, try­ing to de­sign the best cars I could. That brings in re­la­tion­ships with driv­ers and team prin­ci­pals while also deal­ing with the chal­lenge of man­ag­ing home life and work; try­ing to not make mo­tor rac­ing all­con­sum­ing as well as not let­ting the spirit of com­pe­ti­tion make you too hard-edged – which it eas­ily can do. It’s about find­ing all those bal­ances while, at the same time, ex­plain­ing and rem­i­nisc­ing on how every­thing un­folded.

F1R: How about avoid­ing the trap of mak­ing all of that too tech­ni­cal for a wider au­di­ence?

AN: I’ve tried to ex­plain it in a way that I hope non-en­gi­neers will un­der­stand. If I had to sum up the book, I would say it’s try­ing to give an insight into the daily life and ap­proach of an en­gi­neer in For­mula 1.

F1R: I’m sure this re­minded you how much things have changed. What struck you most?

AN: It’s funny how, when you’re in the sport, you don’t no­tice change. When I started at Fit­ti­paldi, my first team, I was hired as a ju­nior aero­dy­nam­i­cist – which also turned out to be a se­nior aero­dy­nam­i­cist! We were five en­gi­neers in a team of about 45 peo­ple. And that was it. To­day, at Red Bull, we have more than 250 en­gi­neers and over 800 peo­ple in to­tal. That’s the big­gest sin­gle change.

F1R: Yet, through all of that, is it fair to say you’ve re­mained very much hands-on? AN: Yes, I’ve tried to. I still spend at least 50 per cent or more of my day on my own, work­ing in my of­fice, of­ten at the draw­ing board, try­ing to make the car faster through

un­der­stand­ing. The rest of the time I spend with my col­leagues in meet­ings, or in­di­vid­u­ally with them, go­ing through the var­i­ous tar­gets we’re try­ing to achieve.

A lot of tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors are ac­tu­ally tech­ni­cal man­agers be­cause the teams are so big. So, in­creas­ingly, that’s mak­ing me a bit of a di­nosaur. Ob­vi­ously, if you’re in a team of five en­gi­neers you can hope­fully make a rea­son­able in­put, whereas if you’re one of 250 en­gi­neers, it’s a dif­fer­ent chal­lenge.

F1R: Did you find writ­ing the book cathar­tic?

AN: Yes in­deed, be­cause I’m not a per­son who re­ally both­ers too much about look­ing in the past. I thought I’d for­got­ten most of it. But when you start it all comes flood­ing back. It was sur­pris­ingly en­joy­able to re­live it although some bits, par­tic­u­larly Imola ’94, were hard to go through. Over­all, it made me re­alise I’ve been very lucky. Par­tic­u­larly when I started and the teams were small. I think it would’ve been fas­ci­nat­ing to be an en­gi­neer in the ’70s, at the start of, say, the Gor­don Mur­ray pe­riod.

F1R: Why? Be­cause aero was in its in­fancy?

AN: Be­cause it was the op­po­site prob­lem to what we have now. You had very small teams, very lim­ited bud­gets and a lack of re­search. They didn’t have a par­tic­u­larly good un­der­stand­ing of what they were de­sign­ing, but, at the same time, they had this in­cred­i­bly open reg­u­la­tion book, which is why you saw this ex­plo­sion of dif­fer­ent-shaped cars.

Since then, the cars have con­verged as a re­sult of two things; firstly the rule­books have be­come more re­stric­tive, and, se­condly, it’s prob­a­bly fair to say that ul­ti­mately for a set of reg­u­la­tions there will be close to a sin­gle so­lu­tion. If you painted all the cars white in the last few years – marginally less in 2017 – you’d have to be a real ex­pert to know which was which. But that was not the case 30 or 40 years ago.

F1R: How about from a race engi­neer­ing stand­point? When you were start­ing off, if a driver said he had un­der­steer, you would run through springs, wings and so on. What hap­pens now? Is the en­gi­neer plugged into a bank of com­put­ers with so­lu­tions that the en­gi­neer wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily reach? Or do the old fun­da­men­tals still ap­ply?

AN: They still ap­ply. The dif­fer­ence is, if the driver says the car is un­der­steer­ing, now you’ve got two in­puts. You’ve got what the driver says and you’ve got what the data says. You then try to marry those to­gether. It’s a dif­fer­ent art. When there were no data en­gi­neers, it was purely that driver/en­gi­neer re­la­tion­ship you’re re­fer­ring to. Now you’ve got this over­load of sen­sory in­for­ma­tion telling you what the car’s do­ing. But, ul­ti­mately, it does that be­cause of the driver in­puts.

I find that fas­ci­nat­ing as well be­cause you can ac­tu­ally get an even bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the car than back in the ’80s. But if you sim­ply rely on the data recorders and ig­nore what the driver is say­ing, the data won’t give you as full a pic­ture.

F1R: You learned a lot at Wil­liams. How im­por­tant was it hav­ing Pa­trick Head let­ting you get on with it, but al­ways be­ing there for you? If there was a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion with a young en­gi­neer/de­signer com­ing into Red Bull, would you be there in the back­ground?

AN: Over the last few years I’ve tried to step back and let the very tal­ented young guys get on, and let them come up with ideas to take the car for­ward, while be­ing there to over­see it and tap them on the shoul­der metaphor­i­cally if some­thing

ap­pears to be go­ing off in the wrong di­rec­tion.

F1R: You men­tioned ’94 and Ayr­ton Senna. I pre­sume, in the con­text of your book, that must be the low­est point in your ca­reer, par­tic­u­larly Imola? How much de­tail have you gone into?

AN: A rea­son­able amount. Although I’d been in mo­tor rac­ing for 14 years by then, it was the

first time I’d ever been at a rac­ing cir­cuit when some­body lost their life. On Satur­day, it was Roland [Ratzen­berger] and then Ayr­ton on Sun­day. When some­thing like that hap­pens, you are a fool if you don’t ask your­self a lot of ques­tions. I’d never re­ally thought about how I would feel, and the pur­pose of my job, should some­body lose their life in a car the de­sign of which I’d been re­spon­si­ble for.

So, yes, it was ob­vi­ously a hugely dif­fi­cult pe­riod. You have to make a dig­i­tal choice: you ei­ther say right, I am go­ing to carry on in mo­tor rac­ing, carry on be­ing re­spon­si­ble for the de­sign of cars, know­ing that this could hap­pen again but do­ing every­thing I can to try to make sure that we field the safest car pos­si­ble. Or you say I’m not sure I’m re­ally up for this, and go and do some­thing dif­fer­ent.

F1R: Do you come to a con­clu­sion in the book about what you think might have caused Ayr­ton to leave the road at Tam­bu­rello?

AN: I think the hon­est truth is we’ll never know. All I can say is that engi­neer­ing logic does not fit with it be­ing a steer­ing col­umn fail­ure. The way in which the car left the road, and what hap­pened with some of the pres­sure sen­sors as the car crossed the apron from Tar­mac to the con­crete on the out­side be­fore it hit the wall, are just not con­sis­tent with a failed steer­ing col­umn at that point. What caused it to leave the road is much more dif­fi­cult to say with any cer­tainty. My per­sonal opin­ion is the most likely thing is a slow punc­ture and de­flat­ing tyre, prob­a­bly the right rear. But, as I say, we’ll never know.

F1R: You must have thought about Imola ’94 in all the re­cent dis­cus­sion about the halo?

AN: The halo is emo­tive, mainly be­cause it is such an ugly con­trap­tion. But I don’t go along with the phi­los­o­phy that there should be an el­e­ment of dan­ger to driv­ing rac­ing cars. Any­thing that can be done to make the cars safer is a good thing. So I am not against the halo. I do find it frus­trat­ing that we haven’t col­lec­tively man­aged to come up with a more el­e­gant so­lu­tion. That’s the bit that bugs me.

The good thing about the halo is, un­like some of the other things that have been pro­posed, it is af­ford­able enough that it can go down through the lower formulae – which is one thing I do feel strongly about be­cause an F1’s driver life must not be con­sid­ered more valu­able than, say, a For­mula 4 driver’s.

F1R: Go­ing back to ’94, do you touch on Benet­ton and what you think may or may not have been go­ing on with Michael Schu­macher’s car?

AN: I do, and I think one of the rea­sons I feel emo­tional about that is be­cause of the very last con­ver­sa­tion I had with Ayr­ton.

I was get­ting my notes to­gether and, about two min­utes be­fore the cars were due to leave the garage to go to the grid, Ayr­ton came run­ning in, peeled his over­alls down and we had a quick chat. He re­it­er­ated the fact that he felt he was go­ing into a race against an il­le­gal car.

At the pre­vi­ous race in Ja­pan, he had been elim­i­nated at the first cor­ner and spent quite some time watch­ing Michael’s Benet­ton, con­vinced that it had trac­tion con­trol [which had been banned for 1994]. Much has been writ­ten about Ayr­ton’s mind­set go­ing into Imola. For me, the most im­por­tant thing was he was ab­so­lutely de­ter­mined to win that race be­cause he felt he was rac­ing against a car that was il­le­gal. That’s ob­vi­ously quite an emo­tional place to be. [Al­le­ga­tions as to the le­gal­ity of the 1994 Benet­ton B194 have been de­nied by con­tem­po­rary team mem­bers and never proven. Benet­ton fin­ished sec­ond in the ’94 con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship, while Schu­macher won the driv­ers’ ti­tle.]

F1R: In­deed. You moved to Mclaren long af­ter Ayr­ton had been there. How dif­fer­ent did Mclaren feel com­pared with Wil­liams?

AN: Very dif­fer­ent. Prob­a­bly couldn’t have cho­sen two more op­po­site teams although, to be fair, be­fore the move to the new fac­tory, Mclaren still felt like a race team. It was on an in­dus­trial es­tate and felt a sen­si­ble, warmish fac­tory. Even though all the walls were grey, there’d still be the odd cal­en­dar on the wall and ra­dios play­ing here and there.

We were lucky enough to in­stantly go well and win the cham­pi­onship in 1998. I was kind of the golden boy with Ron [Den­nis], so every­thing was good to start with. But by hir­ing Martin Whit­marsh and then Jonathan Neale, both ex-bri­tish Aero­space, Ron brought in this dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the man­age­ment of the com­pany; not one I par­tic­u­larly liked or that worked for me.

It felt to me like he was try­ing to bring in a non-rac­ing, big busi­ness cul­ture. Per­haps as teams get big­ger, there’s an ar­gu­ment for that, but at the time, I think we had around 300 peo­ple. It felt to me every­thing was process and plan­ning with overly com­pli­cated or­gan­i­sa­tional charts. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, you sti­fle cre­ativ­ity when you put process first, and an F1 team should be putting cre­ativ­ity first and then learn­ing how to han­dle that cre­ativ­ity.

F1R: And was Red Bull a rac­ing team ap­proach from the start? AN: Very much so. We tried to keep it as a rac­ing cul­ture, en­cour­age good com­mu­ni­ca­tion, make it feel smaller than it was rather than ap­pear­ing to make it feel big­ger and clum­sier than it was.

F1R: Go­ing back to Mclaren, you men­tioned the walls be­ing grey but in your of­fice they were blue: is that cor­rect?

AN: That’s right, yes. I’d been there for two or three weeks, work­ing in what had been John


Barnard’s of­fice, which had dark brown car­pets, floor-to­ceil­ing ma­hogany pan­elling, black win­dow frames and a black chair and a ma­hogany desk. When I was work­ing un­til one in the morn­ing, I al­most felt like slit­ting my wrists. For me it was just a very de­press­ing of­fice to work in. I was due to go to Hun­gary for the race. Just be­fore we left, I gave some colour charts to the fac­tory man­ager and said: “Can you paint the walls a duck-egg blue? Then put in a light-tan car­pet and a lighter colour chair. Just brighten it up a bit.” They did a nice job over the week­end.

When I came back in on Mon­day morn­ing, it im­me­di­ately struck me that be­cause every­thing else in the fac­tory was grey, in­clud­ing the engi­neer­ing of­fice just out­side my door, it was al­most like sit­ting in this colour­ful of­fice and watch­ing a black-and-white movie through the door.

Ron came in that evening to see how I was get­ting on. He stood at the door­way and started gulp­ing like a gold­fish, his mouth open­ing and clos­ing. Af­ter about a minute, he went deep pur­ple, still not say­ing a word, just gulp­ing. Even­tu­ally, he spun on his heels and walked off. That was that.

F1R: Over­all, though, you had happy days work­ing there with Mika Häkki­nen and David Coulthard?

AN: I did a lot of the race engi­neer­ing for Mika and thor­oughly en­joyed it. Mika was an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter be­cause he didn’t say very much. Early on, when he tried to de­scribe what the car was do­ing, it was easy to get con­fused. But I man­aged to de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with him where he started to un­der­stand what he felt the car was do­ing and what he wanted out of it. Then, with Mark Slade (Häkki­nen’s en­gi­neer), we’d trans­fer that into setup changes. It was a very re­ward­ing time.

F1R: Dur­ing this pe­riod, there were dis­cus­sions with Jaguar Rac­ing, for you to join their For­mula 1 team. How far along the line did those con­ver­sa­tions go?

AN: It came very close. As I say, I was happy at Mclaren but Ron was play­ing hard­ball on my con­tract, which had been four years ini­tially and was up for re­newal. De­spite the fact that we’d won two driv­ers’ cham­pi­onships and a con­struc­tors’ ti­tle, he wanted to of­fer me less money than I’d been earn­ing over the pre­vi­ous four years. Not that I con­sider salary as the most im­por­tant fac­tor in de­cid­ing where I work, but it just seemed a kick in the teeth.

So when Bobby [Ra­hal] – who I’d worked with in Indy­cars and, by then, had be­come the team prin­ci­pal at Jaguar – ap­proached me, we started to talk. In the end, Ron and his wife Lisa did a su­per job; as a dou­ble act in full tilt, they were very per­sua­sive. But I of­ten won­der how dif­fer­ent life might have been had I gone to Jaguar – or Fer­rari.

F1R: Fer­rari? How close did that get?

AN: In ’96 I had a choice: stay at Wil­liams, go to Mclaren or go to Fer­rari. And that was a very dif­fi­cult call. Then, in the first year of the hy­brid en­gines in 2014, Re­nault was patently be­hind Mercedes in par­tic­u­lar. That hap­pens. But the prob­lem was that there didn’t seem to be any real drive and

de­ter­mi­na­tion by Re­nault to in­vest the re­search and the money into turn­ing that around. It was: ‘this is the way it is, so stop moan­ing’, which is quite a de­press­ing thing to hear, from a chas­sis de­signer’s point of view.

Once again, I had three choices: stay where I was, go to Mercedes, or go to Fer­rari. Mercedes didn’t feel right be­cause they were the dom­i­nant team with the best en­gine. Ross [Brawn] was in the process of leav­ing and I felt I’d be tro­phy hunt­ing; I’ve al­ways gone to teams where I feel I can con­trib­ute and pull them up, rather than sim­ply hav­ing the chal­lenge of keep­ing them there.

At Fer­rari, Luca di Mon­teze­molo was of­fer­ing me the crown jew­els; it was a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion. I ac­tu­ally didn’t want to leave Red Bull. I felt if I did so, it would be be­cause Re­nault were push­ing me into leav­ing. I’ve been with Red Bull al­most from the start. Chris­tian [Horner] and I have moulded it in such a way that, to an ex­tent, I feel it’s our team. To walk out would feel like be­ing a bit unfaithful.

F1R: On the sub­ject of Red Bull, could you re­flect on Se­bas­tian Vet­tel and Mark Web­ber’s re­la­tion­ship and their clash in Turkey in 2010? How did you cope with that?

AN: I think it’s a great shame the way 2010 and sub­se­quent events un­folded be­cause both Mark and Se­bas­tian brought a lot to the team in dif­fer­ent ar­eas, but par­tic­u­larly engi­neer­ing. Mark was very sen­si­tive to the aero. Se­bas­tian was very sen­si­tive to tyres, en­gine map­ping and to the low speed bal­ance of the car. As a pair, they com­ple­mented each other from an engi­neer­ing stand­point.

I had a lot of time for both of them. Se­bas­tian was very young; still quite ag­gres­sive. Mark was more ex­pe­ri­enced but per­haps ul­ti­mately didn’t al­ways have the raw pace that Se­bas­tian could demon­strate. It could have so eas­ily played out as a sort of the young Prost ver­sus the older Lauda-type bat­tle [at Mclaren in 1984-85] and it’s a shame it didn’t.

Mark, through the lean years of ’07 and ’08, had been a real stal­wart for the team and in many ways it would have been great if he could have won the 2010 cham­pi­onship. But his in­tense ri­valry with Se­bas­tian was un­for­tu­nately his un­do­ing, par­tic­u­larly at that wet race when he spun off in Korea. I think he was so des­per­ate to show the team that he was as quick as Se­bas­tian, he over­cooked it and lost the cham­pi­onship in the process.


F1R: And to­day you’ve got young Max Ver­stap­pen. It must be very ex­cit­ing to see tal­ent like that com­ing through. And you’ve got Daniel Ric­cia­rdo too, who is top-qual­ity. How good does that feel?

AN: Yes, it’s the same sit­u­a­tion re­vis­ited but, if you look at the points on the doors, that’s what counts. Daniel is han­dling the sit­u­a­tion bril­liantly; his men­tal at­ti­tude is so im­pres­sive. Give it an­other two years, of course, and Max will smooth out his raw edges and his in­nate speed will shine through. F1R: And that will be an­other chap­ter for the next edi­tion of your book. I look for­ward to read­ing this one. Thanks for your time.

AN: Not at all. Hope you en­joy it…

How to Build a Car: The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of the World’s Great­est For­mula 1 De­signer by Adrian Newey, published by Harper Collins is out now. See

Hav­ing worked for Frank Wil­liams (be­low, right), Newey moved to Mclaren in 1997 and took the team to cham­pi­onship suc­cess

Be­fore mov­ing to Wil­liams, Newey worked for small teams in­clud­ing Fit­ti­paldi, and be­tween 1988-90, at Ley­ton House March

A high­light of Newey’s time at Mclaren was help­ing to en­gi­neer Mika Häkki­nen (above, left) to two world cham­pi­onships

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