ADRIAN NEWEY INTERVIEW
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
IMOLA WAS THE FIRST TIME I’D EVER BEEN AT A CIRCUIT WHEN SOMEBODY LOST THEIR LIFE. YOU HAVE TO MAKE A CHOICE, DO YOU CARRY ON BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DESIGN OF RACING CARS?
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.
FERRARI WERE OFFERING ME THE CROWN JEWELS; IT WAS A DIFFICULT DECISION BUT I DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE RED BULL. TO WALK OUT WOULD BE UNFAITHFUL
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 www.harpercollins.co.uk
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