Driven by design

The greatest racing car designer of his generation was curious: how would it feel it away from the drawing board and be let loose in two of his own creations spanning 20 years of Formula 1 evolution? When Adrian Newey asked, we were thrilled to oblige

BY DAMIEN SMITH

Early September, a couple of days after the Belgian Grand Prix and a few before the Italian at Monza. Christian Homer has just walked into the Silverstone garage, still sporting a healthy tan from Formula 1's four-week August break, and yet somehow he's milkier in pallor than we've ever seen him. The engineers and mechanics look on edge, too. Red Bull Racing is used to handling the odd bit of pressure, but this is something different. The team's most valuable asset — perhaps the most coveted in all of Grand Prix racing — is about to head out on track, putting himself at mortal risk behind the wheel of not one, but two of his own perfectly sculpted, frighteningly rapid, creations.

Adrian Newey is an F1 visionary, the most gifted and influential race car designer of the past 30 years, and the only man to draw, by hand, World Championship winners for three different teams. What he's not is a racing driver, at least in F1 terms. Sure, he's quite handy driving historics, as he'll show later in the month at the Goodwood Revival where he'll win the TT Celebration for a second time, with Martin Brundle in a Jag E. But in F1 cars, his experience amounts to... not very much. At all. "If I hurt him today, Christian's going to have my kids' fingers," mutters ashen-faced test team manager Tony Burrows.

We sympathise with Tony's concern. Truly, we do. But after the best part of three years talking about it, we're just relieved it's actually happening. As back-to-back tests go, this is special: two Grand Prix cars, conveniently separated by exactly 20 years, pedalled by a man burning with curiosity to discover exactly how it feels to drive what he drew. Here are the poles of two decades of F1 evolution.

In the 'Miami Blue' corner (or turquoise to you and me), the beautiful little Leyton House CG901, the final car of what in hindsight could be described as Adrian's three-year audition for greater Grand Prix glory. And next to it, in royal blue, the outlandish and plain-ugly-incomparison Red Bull RB6, the car that secured Newey's unique place in history and made Sebastian Vettel the sport's youngest World Champion in 2010.

Newey takes no time at all to get to grips with the Leyton House, a car of which he remains ferociously proud. Ex-Red Bull driver and now BBC man David Coulthard tracks him in RB6 during the short run in CG901, complimenting Adrian on his commitment. Now Newey has pushed 'fast-forward' 20 years and is nestling into the Red Bull. His further commitment in the modern car will leave his friend and team principal Homer praying for it all to be over. He desperately wants his design genius back in one piece.

"I'd spent four years in IndyCar and [March co-founder] Robin Herd said, 'right, we're now ready to do an Fl car'," says Newey as he recalls how the adventure began. Japanese businessman Akira Akagi had forged a partnership to take racing car constructor March back into the Big Time. But the team would run under the puzzling guise of Leyton House, Akagi's lifestyle marketing exercise — based bizarrely on a colour. It wasn't just the name that was unconventional. But with youthful 'secret weapon' Newey and the promising Ivan CapeIli in the hotseat, Leyton House was about to play a great Fl cameo, with lasting consequences for the sport.

"In those days Fl was a split formula," says Adrian. "All the top teams had turbo engines and at the back end of the grid they were 3.5-litre normally aspirated, down on power by about 150hp. At the time the turbo cars were really quite clumsy. People had become lazy in their design — they had so much power that to find more downforce they would just bolt on ever-bigger wings. It was all about containing that power.

"With our 650hp Judd V8 we had to find the speed elsewhere, from aerodynamic efficiency. So we designed it very much from an aero perspective, making small compromises in the mechanical packaging to achieve this. And in that way these are the cars that personally I'm most proud of. I think it's fair to say the approach changed the design direction of F1."

In 1988, the year of McLaren-Honda neartotal domination, CapeIli played the plucky underdog, even passing the mighty Ayrton Senna at Estoril, and briefly leading at Suzuka. Remarkably, the 881 outscored the Williams FW12 over the course of the season to be best of the Judd-powered cars, and it also broke new ground, pre-dating Harvey Postlethwaite's high-nosed Tyrrell 019 by two full years. "The things we did with it, in terms of raising the underside of the chassis to treat the front wing, the nose and the chassis as one aerodynamic device, sculpting the front wing endplates, putting a lot of effort into the diffuser and packaging the car as small and tight as we could, it was all something that spread through the field," notes Newey.

But the following year the good work began to unravel. Over-ambition, a lack of frontline F1 experience, Akagi's failing financial security and intra-team politics — it would all erode the early promise. The CG891, its initials added in memory of Capelli's close friend and key Leyton House cog Cesare Gariboldi who'd died in a road accident, failed to live up to expectations. And its 1990 successor, based on the same chassis with new aero, looked to be a flop, too. But a mid-season discovery would change everything, bringing a new meaning to 'fast food', as engineer Andy Brown explains on page 60. From the French GP in July 1990, the CG901 became a contender, Capelli leading 45 laps at Paul Ricard having failed to even qualify for the preceding Mexican GP. But it was all too late for Newey. Adrian had already quit the team and would start his new job at Williams the Monday after the British GP.

"I'd been in at Leyton House pretty much from the start and although we made mistakes I thought as a team we were moving forwards," he says. "Had Leyton House continued to have proper funding we could have done a decent job, perhaps — who knows — start to win races. But Akagi was clearly in financial trouble and it was pretty obvious which way it was going, which is why I left when I did. And frankly I'd had a big fall-out with the accountant [Simon Keeble] who Akagi had appointed to run the team, and with whom I got on very badly. You can't appoint an accountant to run a race team. It's never going to work."

Akagi would later be arrested for fraud and the team, back under its March moniker, would fold on the eve of the 1993 season — by which time Newey was being hailed as the new genius of F1.

"The first two times I drove on track were both in F1 cars," says Adrian with a smile. "The first time was an 881 at Vallelunga where we were testing towards the end of the year. Both drivers [CapeIli and Mauricio Gugelmin] found the cockpit cramped, which I've had a lot of stick for since! Ivan said, 'you drive it and see what you think'. So I did. I did the outlap, got as far as the final hairpin — and spun coming out. So that was my circuit debut.

"My second time was in a Williams at the end of 1993 where the team organised a day for journalists to drive at Paul Ricard, and Patrick [Head] thought it would be a good idea if he, I and Bernard Dudot from Renault had a play. Unfortunately, it was chucking it down so it was a bit daunting.

"So this is my third time in an F1 car if you discount the Goodwood hillclimb, which is not the same thing. And in preparation for this, I have to admit the guys at work — and Christian primarily — thought it would be a good idea if I tried a single-seater before being let loose in an F1 car. So I went up to Snetterton last week and jumped into one of Jonathan Palmer's F2 cars. My head was hanging off after about 15 laps, just from not being used to driving cars with a significant amount of downforce."

Newey's short on experience, but not in confidence. He looks at home in the car almost immediately, and as you can see from our pictures, his confidence was inspired by its immaculate preparation, thanks to owner Patrick Morgan and his Dawn Treader Performance team. At the Festival of Speed this year, former F3 racer Gary Ward set the fastest time of the weekend in this car. Both Adrian and Coulthard, who also enjoys a few laps during our session, relish the chance to backtrack to a 'purer' time when racing cars were made in the right proportions, and weren't littered with the turning vanes and aero flaps Newey himself must specialise in today.

"It actually felt very comfortable, funnily enough, considering I haven't driven a car like that," says Adrian. "Good visibility all round thanks to the low cockpit, which from a safety point of view you could say left the drivers quite exposed. A very tractable engine, and the physical act of driving the car is simple. Obviously it's Patrick's car and I didn't want to take any chances with it, but it felt beautifully balanced: direct steering, good brakes and very little buffeting, which was surprising because I'd had a lot in the F2 car. It just felt like an old glove, which is peculiar given that I'd never driven it before."

We were just relieved he'd been able to squeeze into the v-shaped cockpit, given how infamous his Leyton House designs were for their shrink-wrapped proportions. It helps that Newey shows no visible sign of having any hips. "Yes, Ivan and Mauricio did complain about cramped cockpits and the difficulty in changing gear, which we made a lot better on the 891 and the 901," he admits. Patrick points at a blister bubble on the right flank — a rare aero concession to the drivers and the skin on their knuckles when changing gear. Newey smiles. "For me at my size there was enough cockpit space. I don't know what they were all moaning about!"

CG901 never won a race, but its importance to Newey and F1 as a whole is obvious if it is compared to the Williams FW14 of 1991.

"Certainly from Leyton House to Williams, it was very much the same aerodynamic philosophy," says Adrian. "As I joined Williams in July 1990, I had a relatively short time to get on with designing the following year's car. Basically I brought with me the knowledge in my head — not the drawings — of what would have been the Leyton House 911 had I stayed there." Note the important clarification within that sentence.

"Obviously, Williams had much bigger resources compared to Leyton House, and all the experience, particularly on the mechanical side. But I think it's fair to say that aerodynamically what we were doing at Leyton House was much more advanced than what they were doing at Williams at the time. So if you sit an FW14 beside a 901 you'll see more than a passing resemblance."

With the 'active' FW14B of 1992, Newey claimed his first World Championship, with beefy Nigel Mansell strong-arming his way to a dominant drivers' title. But in defiance of popular belief, Newey believes Williams didn't use the best active ride system that was available. Again, his experience at Leyton House told him differently.

"Our R&D man Max Nightingale began work on a system in '89," he says. "Of course Lotus and Williams had done their active systems very differently. Full active on the Lotus, and a sort of cobbled-up AP system at Williams. At Leyton House we worked on a platform control system, which is purely aimed at trying to control ride-height through speed and downforce variation as opposed to trying to deal with road inputs, and left conventional springs and dampers to deal with those. I believed that was the way forward. Small as we were, we were probably over-ambitious to start an active system. Ironically, it was the system that McLaren went on to use in 1993.

"It was the first research I'd done into active ride, but we continued with the AP-based 'three-legged' system at Williams for the 1992 car, which I don't think was as good as the platform control system. It basically had two front springs and a single rear spring. And then the bump side of the single rear actuator was connected to the rebound side of the front actuator, and that's what gave you the roll stiffness.

"It provided what we wanted in terms of compensating for downforce, but in the process of hydraulic tripod linkage you compromise the ride a bit, and that was what used to give Riccardo [Patrese] in particular some problems.

"The McLaren system which we'd used on the Leyton House was very simple. You put an actuator under the spring platform, and compensated the spring and tyre squash by extending the actuator. It was the better system. Had active not been banned at the end of 1993 Williams would have ditched the three-legged principle to go to a platform control system, but with the actuators on the pushrod instead of under the spring perch."

Newey's enthusiasm for the 'active era' is obvious. How frustrating was the ban on such devices at the end of 1993? "Very," he says. "It's a shame because I think it was a great time, that electronic era, and it wasn't just active suspension. By the end of '93 we had four channel ABS, electronic power steering, traction control, active ride and we had built and run the CVT, which was effectively a DAF Variomatic transmission system. We actually ran it here at Silverstone, it did a few laps. It sounded very weird to hear an engine at near constant rpm. But that was banned too. Unfortunately it was a case of 'Ferrari International Aid'. Ferrari and the FIA got together, and it was the usual Ferrari modus operandi: if they couldn't get something to work they got it banned. They couldn't get active to work, they certainly wouldn't have got CVT to work in a short space of time. So as a consequence the whole thing got closed down."

What he says next on the 'passive' FW16 of 1994 is fascinating, in the context of May 1 and the death of Ayrton Senna. The electronics ban hit Williams particularly hard, he says. "It was a big step back for us. We'd been on 'active' for two years, at least one year longer than our rivals. We had of course developed the aerodynamics around it, so when we went back we were a bit slow, in truth, to appreciate the problems of having a platform that was moving around a lot more. So the FW16 was aerodynamically unstable, frankly. The sidepods were too long, it would get into this huge floor-stall, and there was no way out of it. If you ran the car high you could avoid the floor-stall, but you lost downforce. If you ran it low it was unstable. It was a bit of pig at the start of the season, and it wasn't until we shortened the sidepods at Magny-Cours [in July] that we really got it sorted."

In 1997, as Jacques Villeneuve headed towards Williams's fourth Neweyinspired drivers' World Championship in six years, Adrian quit the team for a fresh start at McLaren. When his elegant MP4-13 won the opening race of the new narrow-track era in '98, the transition from one team to another appeared to be as seamless as the gearshift technology that would be a feature of his McLarens.

"The transition certainly wasn't easy," he counters. "To work at McLaren compared to Williams felt very different. Williams is very much Frank and Patrick's hobby shop, which could be frustrating at times. But it had that sort of homely feel to it, and Patrick was very good to me in the freedom he gave me. McLaren is a little more IBM-like. Not that I've worked at IBM, but it feels like a big company that has methods and standards, and this is how you must operate.

"I joined on August 1, 1997 so it was a really tight design schedule for the new car. Through August to October I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to catch up. The big regulation change was a chance to do something different, which was definitely an advantage. Had I joined with stable regulations for the following year it would have been much more difficult."

His struggles with life under Ron Dennis are well documented. In 2001 came close to leaving McLaren to join his old friend Bobby Rahal at Jaguar — which would of course eventually become Red Bull — only to pull out late in the day (see p62). "In truth, I stayed at McLaren a couple of years too long," he says. "The 2002 car was decent, but David [Coulthard] only won a single race in it, and it wasn't a championship winner. I made the judgement mistake of trying to be aggressive with the 2003 car, and that was the MP418 that never raced. But there was a lot going on at that time..."

Patrick Morgan, who worked for Ilmor, the company that builds Mercedes' F1 engines, interjects: "I remember we had 16 different specs of crankshaft at that time, and we were doing a rotary-valve engine that never raced and was banned before it made it into a car. Then there was the 'M' engine to support the MP417 which was raced in 2002 and '03, and the 'P' which was your low centre of gravity engine for which we drew up that weird connecting rod for you. And then there was the development of the twin-clutch going on at the same time, plus the carbon gearbox...

"Yeah, it was too much," says Newey. "And the 18 was the result. It was over-ambitious. Ferrari had come up with a great 2002 car [it won all but two of the 17 races], I felt we needed to make a big step, and we made mistakes. Aerodynamically it was unstable for a reason that didn't show up in the tunnel but showed up quickly on track. Kimi [Räikkönen] had a massive accident in the last turn at Barcelona, just through the car being aerodynamically unstable at low ride-height. We realised what the problem was and we canned the car.

"Towards the end of that year I wanted to do a new car to get on top of those problems, but Martin Whitmarsh and some of the other engineers believed the car that didn't race could be made quicker by putting the twin-clutch gearbox on it and so on. Frankly, I got overruled and I should have left then. There was a huge amount of politics at McLaren and a lot of posturing. At that point we raced what became MP4-19, but was in fact the 18 with a different badge on it, and of course it wasn't a very good car. But the 19B, which made its debut mid-season and won at Spa, that was a big step forward, a decent car. Had we had it from the start of the year we might have been able to challenge for the championship. But it all left a bad taste."

The 2005 McLaren would be Newey's last at the team, and again Newey offered innovation in the so-called 'zero-keel' suspension configuration. Despite 10 wins shared between Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya, another title to add to those claimed with Mika Häkkinen in '98 and '99 slipped away. It was time for a new challenge.

"With Red Bull I felt I'd come full circle," says Newey. "The attraction was it felt like unfinished business from Leyton House. Here I had a chance to join a team more or less from its start, develop with it and get to the point where we could perhaps win races."

Newey, famously, still works at his drawing board, just as he did at McLaren, at Williams, at Leyton House and March, at Fittipaldi and at Southampton University from where he graduated in 1980.

"I'm too much of a dinosaur," he smiles. "Really since the March days, including the Indycars, I've always started the layout of a car by considering the aerodynamics first and then trying to fit the mechanicals around it. I've never quite understood how people operate differently. I guess things are changing now because the regulations are so tight and restrictive that to some extent the car does lay itself out for you. But I've never really understood how you can have a mechanical department that doesn't work in a very integrated way with the aerodynamic department. And you see it. You see cars where the aerodynamicist clearly hasn't communicated with the chief designer, and the thing looks like a camel.

"I graduated in 1980 long before CAD [computer-aided design] was even thought of in motor racing circles. CAD systems started to be used in racing in the very late 1980s, early 1990s. Probably with the exception of mine, all the drawing boards had disappeared from F1 by the mid-90s. It was a quick transition.

"To some extent the drawing board doesn't matter. For me, it's just a way of taking your thoughts, putting them down in a medium, developing them using that medium and then if it's an aerodynamic idea it's taken off to CAD and the wind tunnel. And I'm lucky enough to be in a position where I have two or three surfacing guys who scan my drawings and then turn them into solid models. But these days we couldn't, as a business, accommodate too many people like me because it would simply be too head-count intensive."

By 2010, 20 years after he'd left Leyton House and his CG901 for Williams, Newey felt his 'new' team was ready to win a championship. Success had been far from instantaneous. Even Adrian's genius would take time to come into effect at a team that, under its previous guise of Jaguar, had been mismanaged so badly. But now, with the RB6, the team made its breakthrough.

"The RB5 was in truth pretty good," he says of the car he designed for the new supposedly 'downforce-lite' regulations of 2009 — only for Brawn GP and its controversial double diffuser to reset the parameters. "Unfortunately there are no classes in F1, but it was the quickest single diffuser car. We got into the whole politics of whether a double diffuser was legal or not. But the decision was nothing to do with the technical regulation, it was part of the war between Max Mosley, McLaren and some of the other teams. We got caught up in that.

"Anyway, as a team we were too young. Sebastian was very young, Mark [Webber] was doing a great job, but had some bad luck and made some mistakes. And as a team we were making errors all over the place. The car wasn't reliable, our race strategies weren't often all that clever. So we needed another year at the front to learn how to do it properly."

Then in 2010, Vettel and RB6 came good — after more than a few stumbles along the way. "I've got good memories of this car. We had a frustrating start with a lot of DNFs through silly things — a wheel nut coming loose in Melbourne, Sebastian getting involved in incidents perhaps through inexperience. But in the second half of the year it all came right."

Vettel's late run of form and Fernando Alonso falling foul of Ferrari's strategy errors at the Abu Dhabi finale took them to that magical title. To show his gratitude, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz presented Newey with an exceptional gift: the RB6 you see here.

Horner's relief is palpable as Newey steps away from the car, and the effects of his summer tan are once again noticeable. Now it's all smiles in the garage. Newey sounded committed through Woodcote, although as a genuinely impressed Coulthard points out, dropping a couple of cogs for the usually seventh-gear Copse is a tell-tale that he's not quite ready to replace Vettel and become F1's only modern-day designer-driver just yet.

"I have driven a Red Bull a couple of times up the hill at Goodwood, so it's not the first time," says Adrian. "You forget how different it feels just sitting there. It's much more claustrophobic than the Leyton House because the cockpit sides are high, your feet are up in the air and the pedals are different: you've got a hand clutch and you have to left-foot brake. It feels much less familiar, more alien. The power delivery is impressive. It's a big kick in the backside. The Leyton House does that too, but this is even more again. And of course the engine note is completely different to anything you're used to. But that all fades after a lap; it's amazing how quickly you get used to it.

"It feels more of a fairground ride. To get to the point where you can slow things down in your own mind to drive that car quickly would take quite a while." But still, you were totally committed, we say. "Yes," he replies with that familiar enigmatic smile. "But then again I do know exactly what it should do." When you're Adrian Newey, you've got a right to have faith in your own work.