Chatting with the Champ
Adrian Newey, OBE, Director of Engineering at Red Bull Racing, isn’t just the best of his time; he sits right up there with immortals – with Rudi Uhlenhaut, John Cooper, Colin Chapman, Patrick Head and perhaps a couple of others I’ll leave to your judgement. A shy and retiring man who loves driving nice cars as much as he loves drawing them, Adrian was in reflective mood when we chatted on the eve of the recent Italian GP:
So prodigious is the success of Adrian Newey, so synonymous is he with F1 technical excellence – and therefore with prodigious F1 race and Championship wins – that it is a surprise suddenly to be sitting down with him in that zone they call “the Red Bull Energy Centre” and to listen to him talking…as if he is a mere enthusiast:
“Whenever I think of Silverstone,” he says, back to the journalists crowding around Sebastian Vettel – and to a bevy of exotic “Red Bull girls” beyond that group – “my immediate reaction is to remember the first race I attended there. I went with my parents; we sat in the grandstand on the outside of Woodcote; and it was 1973. I remember Jackie Stewart coming round with a huge lead, followed by the rest of the pack, including a young South African who lost it in a McLaren in a fairly spectacular way. Amidst all the dust and the rubber I remember thinking, ‘So this is what F1 is like, is it? Pretty spectacular…’”
Adrian speaks in what Americans would probably describe as a “typically British, under-stated way” but which to you and I is the voice of well-balanced reason. One only has to chat to Adrian for five minutes to appreciate that he’s about as interested in celebrity, and in accentuating the first-person singular, as he is in market gardening. Money? Perhaps – but only if orientated towards an ex-Skip Scott GT40, or some other such delectable.
“I also remember,” he continues, “that in the excitement of watching the accident, I dropped my hamburger. I think it was the first time my parents had ever bought me a burger – they were pretty health-conscious and liked to keep me off junk food – and so, when the dust had settled after the accident, I ran round the back of the grandstand to look for it on the ground underneath our seats. Good for antibodies, I’m sure!”
A nice, scientific end to a little cameo that in many ways tells much of the story. Peerless Adrian would become – an aerodynamicst par excellence in all forms of the sport (from IndyCar, where he won dozens of races with March, to F1 with March, Williams, McLaren and Red Bull) – but at the core remains the genius, the child prodigy, the detailed enthusiast with his eye on the day as a whole rather than on an event in isolation.
Thus Adrian is as much a racer as he is an engineer who sets standards in a competitive world. He loves to drive, but recognized early that he loved even more the business of designing fast racing cars. He also loves to engineer on the pit wall.
“My first weekend as a race engineer was also at Silverstone,” he recalls. In the background, a heavy base is beginning to pound from the Energy Centre’s “social corner”. Adrian is oblivious. He is back in a grey day in Northamptonshire. “It was 1982, and I had just moved to the March F2 team from Fittipaldis. I’d literally never had a set of headphones on in my life before and they said, ‘Right, here you go. You’re engineering Christian Danner’. It was a cold, wet weekend – as miserable as it can be at a British circuit. To be perfectly honest I really didn’t know what I was doing. Christian was running second, I think, when the car broke down about one lap from the end, apparently out of fuel. I was hung, drawn and quartered, and promptly fired on the spot by Christian – but then it turned out that there had actually been a metering unit leak. Johnny Cecotto was also running in the works March team and he very kindly said that he would take me on instead, with Ralph Bellamy running Christian. Johnny was a great bloke; we had a really good year together.”
Interesting on a number of levels. Self-deprecating – “I didn’t know what I was doing” (yeah, right!). Sensitive: “Christian fired me on the spot”; and appreciative: “Johnny kindly took me on instead.” I knew Johnny back then; he was/is a great guy – a decent human being who had/has time for everyone. Not what you would call a “Red Bull”-type of guy – but then who is? The beat in the background throbs on, blasting out its message: “we are cool; we are cool”. Next to me sits Adrian. Conservative. Quiet. Sensitive. And also very “Red Bull”. Such is the spread of his influence.
I ask Adrian if he has been following the excellent progress of Johnny’s son, Johnny Jnr, in GP2.
“Yes, of course. It was nice to meet him after he won at Monaco this year. There seems to be a family resemblance – and it’s good see another father and son going through.”
Adrian’s talent as a driver is under-rated, I think. Rob Wilson trains him and reckons he’s definitely up there with serious players who have won their class at Le Mans or Daytona. So how does Adrian perceive his own talent? What does the engineer think of the driver?
“I guess I was a frustrated young racing driver,” he admits. “When I was around 14 or so I desperately wanted to go karting. My father took me along to the local track – Shenington, near Banbury – and, to be fair to him, he made the very accurate observation that, so far as he could see, a lot of the kids were there karting not because they really wanted to be there but because their Dads wanted them to race. So he said to me, ‘I’ll do you a deal. You can race if you want to but you’re going to have to show your determination. For every pound you earn, I’ll double your money…’
“Of course, doing the newspaper round, washing cars and mowing the lawn didn’t produce a lot of income, even if it was doubled, so I bought a very tired old 210 Barlotti-Villiers. I’m not exactly sure why I went for a gearbox kart instead of a 100, but nonetheless I turned up at Shenington and the combination of me and it was hopelessly uncompetitive. I qualified on the back row and finished pretty close to the back.
“My interest then focused on taking this tired old kart and making it go quicker. And so I rebuilt the engine, fitted an electronic ignition, learnt to weld and made a new frame for it and so on. I’m not sure I made it go any quicker but it did give me an extra flavour for the engineering side of things.”
We talk about cars – about racing automobiles that Adrian specifically likes: “In terms of all-time favourite classic cars I would have to divide it into categories of both sports racing car and formula cars,” he says in that precise way of his. “My all-time favourite sports racing cars are the Ford GT40 and the Ferrari 330 P4 – two of the prettiest cars ever built and from an era of motor racing which coincided with my childhood interest in raring cars. From Formula 1, my favourites would probably be the Lotus 49 and 72 for similar reasons.”
“How quick am I?,” he asks rhetorically, staring into the middle distance that is the RBR race truck(s). “I think in the historics, when I’ve driven alongside drivers like Bobby Rahal and Martin Brundle at Goodwood, I’ve generally been about a second off them, or just under a second. Then, when I’ve got to places like Le Mans and competed against the pro drivers there, and at circuits like Misano or Vallelunga, I’m probably about 1.5 seconds off. I’m sure it depends on the car. If I was to jump into a single-seater it would be much more.”
Which, to my mind, puts Adrian up there with Colin Chapman in the scale of designers-who-also-know-how-to-drive. The combined talents have to be an advantage. Have to be. And the comparative success of Chapman and Newey is of course no coincidence: it is predictable that both of them were/are prepared to push design tolerance to the absolute limit because they knew/know that a tenth of a second is everything, and that every racing driver worth his salt will take it on a plate, thankyou very much. Jim Clark may have been nervous about Chapman’s margins for error – but he still took every ounce of speed that Chapman would give him.
It’s one thing to be a brilliant aerodynamicist and Technical Director; it’s another to be a practical leader of men with the common sense of the truest of racers. Adrian has yet to start his own team from scratch, and to rise to the centre of the podium as a Team Principal, but he could do so if he so tried; of that I have no doubt. Like Chapman, Newey also has that burning desire to get things done.
In the meantime, his rapid rise is proof of the devastating talent: a fast March for the fragile Leyton House-sponsored team. A move to the more financially-secure Williams Grand Prix Engineering. With Patrick Head and Paddy Lowe, brilliant success with the Renault-powered FW14 and its derivatives. In 1996, a switch to McLaren. More wins. An even more corporate structure. A departure, then, for Red Bull – for a team that had yet to win and still lacked an infrastucture. That was the challenge.
“Motivation is an important part of delivering,” says Adrian, “and the hunger has to be there. Certainly when I joined Red Bull one of my prime motivators was the unfinished business from the Leyton House days, inasmuch that I’d been at Leyton House more or less from the start. I thought we were developing quite well as a very small team going forwards – two steps forwards and one backwards from time to time! – but if we had continued to have had decent funding then maybe as a team we could have gone on to win races. But the funding was pulled and it was time to get out.
“So I kind of always regarded it as unfinished business. Williams and McLaren were very established teams that had won races and championships long before my arrival. Perhaps in both cases they had lost a bit of direction in terms of design and specifically aerodynamics but as an infrastructure they had proved they could win championships. So my job on arrival at both of those teams was very much a design-based job. In joining Red Bull it was different, because it was also developing the infrastructure in all senses of the word – with Christian (Horner) on the race team and then, specifically within the engineering group, things like building up our tools, getting the guys to work together, establishing the flow between departments and so on. Indeed, in hindsight I think one of the mistakes I made in my first two months there was to treat it too much as a design-based job and not to spend enough time developing the rest of it. If I had concentrated more on the infrastructure and the strategies, if you like, we’d have made better progress.” Adrian is as motivated today as he was back in the 1980s: “ F1 remains a fascinating business in which to work – in my particular case for its many facets of design and innovation, both personally at the drawing board and also working with my fellow engineers at Red Bull around the factory. Then, of course, it’s very enjoyable to be able to work with the drivers at the race weekends.”
Adrian’s and Red Bull’s progress was by most standards meteoric, of course. Such, though, are the expectations of a racer. None of this “it’ll be a three-year programme” stuff from Mr Adrian Newey, OBE.
We finish with some talk about the BRDC. Adrian loves it: “I think the BRDC is very important to British motor sport in as much as it gives a solidification to all the members; I think all the members feel proud to be a part of the club, as demonstrated by the way that drivers like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart always used to wear the BRDC badge on their overalls. Obviously it’s hugely bigger today than it was then but, when you visit it, there are always people there that you know. There’s camaraderie about it. I think the only thing that’s a little bit of a shame,” he says, rising to leave, “is that the end-of-year function is now a lunch rather than a gala dinner.”
No more bun-fights, in other words; no more Chapman-like hijinks.
A racer, as I say, to the core.
This article was originally published in the Autumn, 2012 edition of the BRDC Bulletin