Modern Times

The unseemly fight between Jaguar and McLaren — and thus, between the giant resources of the Ford Motor Company and Daimler-Chrysler AG — over who should pay Adrian Newey 170,000 a week for his design talents underlines a crucial shift in the whole structure of Formula One.

It has long been a truism that if you put Michael Schumacher in a Minardi he’d be hard put to score a point. Moreover, Gaston Mazzacane might not win the World Championship if he drove for Ferrari, even with Ross Brawn and Jean Todt to help him: but he might pick up the odd podium.

For obvious masons, the teams with the best cars tend to get the best drivers. But there are at least eight drivers on today’s 1l grids who, if they were lucky enough to find themselves in a McLaren, would be piling up the championship points, and probably the victories. (That assumes, of course, that the car could get itself off the line without stalling).

The only true comparisons of driving talent are those between teammates, in identical machinery. One of the unanswerable questions of this season is how Jenson Button and Juan Pablo Montoya might have fared had the Englishman been able to stay at Williams and the Columbian ended up at Benetton. My guess is that Jenson might not have muscled past Schumacher in Brazil; but he would have qualified better, finished more races, scored more points, and probably not hit the bathers in the opening laps at Monaco. Instead, he’s struggling with an underpowered car and learning a lot of character-building lessons at the far end of the grid, which probably won’t do him any harm at all in the long run. But you have to make a conscious effort to remember that this is the youngster who, on his first F1 visit to Spa, outqualified Schumacher.

What all this adds up to, as if you didn’t know, is that Formula One is becoming ever more a test of car, and thus of chassis designer, aerodynamicist and engine builder, than of driver. The latest rule changes, admitting electronic traction control, computerised launch control and fully automatic gearchanging, exacerbate the process further.

You will still win more races if you have a Michael Schumacher in your cockpit — which is why Schuey’s new contract with Ferrari, which takes him through to 2004 at a salary of £1.3 million a race, is thought by Fiat and Marlboro to be a good buy. But Schumacher himself only re-signed when he knew for sure that Ross Brawn, Jean Todt and designer Rory Byrne, the architects of his success, had extended their contracts too. Meanwhile, other F1 designers are finding themselves much in demand. Big bad Toyota has poached Gustav Brunner from minnow Minardi to be design chief of its new F1 project, much to the rage of Minardi boss Paul Stoddart, who claims Toyota coerced Brunner into breaking a firm contract Mike Gascoyne no doubt did his take home pay a lot of good by leaving Jordan for Renault-funded Benetton, while Jordan filled the gap by pinching Eghbal Hamedy from Arrows.

You’re going to be seeing more and more of the front-running teams’ budgets being steered towards getting, and keeping, the very best designers. The one or two real superstars of Fl car design will soon be earning the same sort of money as the drivers: eventually, perhaps more. For the thing about F1 is that, in the end, you are measured by results, and that goes for designers as well as drivers. Imagine you’re Jaguar, with all that Ford money at your disposal, and all that Ford pressure from the bosses in Detroit, who don’t really understand why the funny little green car for which so much was promised has not yet made them world champions.

If you want to keep your job, you simply can’t afford to go on being a mid-grid team. Having a driver of the undoubted talent and determination of Eddie Irvine isn’t enough to change where you are. And where you are means you’re not going to find it easy to recruit a top-four driver, however much money you pay. But if you can persuade today’s best designer — who also happens to be today’s best aerodynamicist — to come on board, that could break the mould. It could move you up the grid, and up the points tables, further and faster than a superstar driving the car you’ve got today. It could turn you from an also-ran into a winner, and that’s worth serious money. It’s also worth along and expensive court battle. Race-car designers’ salaries are not a matter of public record, but the commonly accepted view is that Adrian Newey was paid £1 million a year at Williams in 1997. Cars designed by his team won four drivers’ and five constructors’ championships in six seasons. For 1998, Ron Dennis persuaded him to come to McLaren for 12 million a year, and in the next two seasons his cars won two drivers’ and a constructors’ title. Ron reportedly said that the cost of Newey was well justified because, in terms of competitiveness for the team, it had a double effect: the gain for McLaren, and the loss for Williams.

So, not surprisingly, the prospect of Adrian Newey leaving was deeply worrying for McLaren. It seems Jaguar offered him 1,17.5 million for a five-year contract On the Friday after Monaco, Jaguar announced that he had agreed to join them at the end of his McLaren notice period in July 2002, and their release included a quote from Newey saying how much he was looking forward to working with his old friend Bobby Rahal. (Newey, while working for March in IndyCars in 1986, engineered Rahal’s championship-winning campaign). This was almost immediately followed by a release from McLaren saying that Newey was not leaving, and later the same day by an announcement that Newey had decided to extend his contract with McLaren for another three years — presumably in return for a salary offer similar to, or better than, Jaguar’s. By Saturday morning, it seemed it would all end up in court. In fairness to Adrian Newey, I suspect that these huge sums of money were not really central to his deciding what he wanted to do. Like all the best people in F1, he is an enthusiast. I frequently spend weekends between grands prix going to hillclimbs, a delightfully British type of true club motorsport which is guaranteed to restore my sense of proportion after too much exposure to the unreal world of F1. At Wiscombe Park, in sylvan Devonshire, I noticed an old set of F1 racing overalls sprouting out of an immaculately-prepared and hard-driven pre-war S S100: this was Newey relaxing. And he told me he had no desire to improve the car’s non-existent aerodynamics, or tweak its cart-sprung chassis: he just wanted to have fun grappling with it as it was. (Ironic that the car was *guar.)

Racing-car designers have always been intriguing, enigmatic individuals who set their own targets. They generally tend to be people who are motivated by technical challenges rather than money, power or plaudits. In the 1930s Dr Ferdinand Porsche designed both the prototype for the Volkswagen and the original V16 Auto Union GP car — related yet very different designs for very different Third Reich requirements — but he was naïvely unaware of politics, and horrified the Fiihrer’s minions by greeting him as plain Herr Hitler. In the same way, the best of today’s F1 designers prefer to remain remote from the politics of the paddock. Gordon Murray, so innovative at Brabham and McLaren, eventually declared himself stultified by the artificial restrictions of the F1 regulations, and turned with a sigh of relief to the brilliant McLaren F1 road car.

Of course, many great racing-car designers have managed to remain loyal to one team throughout their careers. Consider Mauro Forghieri, the gentle, studious and approachable Ferrari designer who from 1962 to 1984 was responsible for several generations of the Scuderia’s racing cars. He effectively devoted most of his working life to the Prancing Horse, but never sought the limelight.

Then there have been designers who have themselves been the boss. Colin Chapman was Lotus: while he surrounded himself with brilliant subordinates, many of whom went on to design success in their own right, his initiatives dominated grand prix development for 20 years. Interestingly, while running Lotus, he also acted as a chassis consultant to BRM on their P25 and to Vanwall, before he took his first hesitant steps in Fl. Today, Formula One is so complex an undertalcing that no one man can design a competitive car, let alone run the team as well. Each technical chief heads a phalanx of specialists: for example, even a smaller team like Arrows employs four aerodynamicists.

There are separate design personnel for chassis, suspension, gearbox, brakes, composites and electronics, not to mention fabricators who are responsible for the making of every bracket and conduit So, rather than driver against driver, modem F1 racing is army against army: a dangerous and frighteningly expensive technological war between a dozen sides. The battles take place on Sunday afternoons, the war lasts eight months, and the spoils of victory are fame, and money. Small wonder that each army wants to get the best generals, and is prepared to fight for them.