How to build a Racing Car Designer

Adrian Newey is arguably the greatest technical director of his generation. But his passion for motor sport started with plastic kits. Here he explains where it all began and discusses his greatest achievements

“That Tamiya Lotus 49 kit was where it all started,” says Adrian Newey about a model he badgered his dad to buy him as a kid. As he explains in his new book How To Build A Car (review: page 181), completion of that kit didn’t lead to him wanting to build a collection of them, but to modifying them – or improving them, as he firmly believed. Ensconced within the Milton Keynes base of The Hobby Company – the UK distributor for Tamiya, among others – Newey talked about the creative process, how it has unfolded within him over the years to produce the longest blockbusting sequence of landmark F1 cars of any designer in history – and for five different teams over almost 30 years.

Although Newey’s creativity is expressed within a tightly regulated formula, many of his innovations seem to have arisen from the abstract. Like many musicians, he keeps a pad and pencil close by for when a great idea might wake him in the middle of the night. He takes his inspirations from all sorts of places outside racing, sometimes just in everyday things. His subconscious brain seems always to be working, neurons making vital links and connections, joining up the unconnected in the way of an artist. Only then does the left-brained analytical engineer within him start figuring out how the abstract solution can be made real.

“I’ve been lucky in that my father had quite an analytical mind and my mother was quite artistic,” he says, “and I seem to somehow to have inherited both traits. I really enjoyed painting and sculpting when I was in my teens – and sketching. But the thing I was passionate about painting and sketching was racing cars. So the two were a natural marriage. I did art O-level but my portfolio was all of racing cars! If I’d gone in that direction, I guess it would have been the Michael Turner route; the painting of racing cars.”

That’s all very well, but Newey is the man Frank Williams once described as ‘the most competitive person I’ve ever met,’ and that quality has driven his creativity, given it immense power and traction. Where did that come from? “That’s a good question and I have asked it of myself. When Frank said that, I thought, ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say,’ but over the years I’ve reflected that actually coming from Frank it is a compliment. Then I began to accept that I am competitive. The honest truth is I don’t know, because I certainly wasn’t competitive at school – sports and stuff I wasn’t bothered about at all. I think even when I started in motor racing at Fittipaldi, say, I wasn’t competitive. I just loved the design engineering.” He’d joined Fittipaldi F1 team straight from university in 1980. When it folded he joined the March F2 team (and was infamously sacked by Christian Danner, continuing with Johnny Cecotto instead). In 1987 he race-engineered Mario Andretti in Indycars for Carl Haas’s team.

“As you start to compete – particularly as a race engineer where it’s very immediate – the competitiveness sort of creeps in. As a designer or aerodynamicist you’re just that one step removed from the coal face, but as a race engineer it smacks you every Saturday afternoon in qualifying and every Sunday in the race.

“Also the fact that I never fitted in that well at school maybe had something to do with the competitive thing. I felt the need to prove myself a little bit better, perhaps. Similarly when I got to university, the struggle I had to get through it – because I hadn’t done A-levels – kind of taught me determination. Determination and competiveness are reasonably close bedfellows.”

AS YOU WILL READ, while Newey discusses the root of various innovations he has made over the years, downtime seems to be key, freeing the mind of the immediate necessity of fulfilling tasks, allowing the brain’s right-sided part to go into overdrive. Probably the single most innovative car of his whole career was the March 881 – which took shape in his mind during the many transatlantic flights he was obliged to make in 1987 when in a dual role of designer in the UK and Andretti’s race engineer in the States. The pivotal idea behind a super-fast McLaren came when on holiday. Flying out to Barbados during a break from work at Williams, the shape of the plane’s engine cowling inspired a big improvement in the ’96 car’s performance. So surely there’s a conflict between the creative process and actually doing the slog of an F1 season? “Yes, well identified. It is a problem. When you feel under pressure to get through a fairly heavy work schedule, what can then suffer is the downtime when you’re dreaming about nothing very much. Sometimes it’ll be driving in the car where you’ve missed the junction because you’re dreaming away and on auto pilot. Those things… it can be as simple as going to the loo for a pee, doing something mindless. A problem might have been bugging me for anywhere between five minutes and a month and suddenly a solution will pop up from nowhere. The subconscious brain is remarkable, silent processes that just keep churning away.”

So the note pad and pencil stay by the bed? “No. They were, but I found it was giving me sleepless nights – just because it was there! So I then moved them to the bathroom. So now it has to be an idea good enough to be worth getting up, putting the light on and going to the bathroom!”

Here we have chosen six of Newey’s F1 innovations – many of them features that came to be generic F1 but which Newey thought of first – as case studies to bring out the shade and light of how the whole mysterious creativity process works.