Adrian Newey: 'My top six F1 cars'

My top six Formula 1 cars

Formula 1’s finest technical brain of its generation – arguably of all time – is retiring from the sport in a few weeks. Adrian Newey, frustrated at the ever-greater restrictions imposed by the technical regulations, is seeking to challenge himself in other areas. Having spurned the opportunity of a mega-bucks move to Ferrari, he will retain a position at Red Bull, his home for the last eight years, from where his next move will be launched. But it will not be F1-related. So the quarter-century Newey era of F1 draws to a close. An appropriate time, then, for him to pick out what he feels are his six stand-out designs from a career spanning March, Williams, McLaren and Red Bull.

March 881

My F1 career actually started at Fittipaldi, where I arrived at the end of August 1979, hired as junior aerodynamicist… which turned out to be senior aerodynamicist as well. It was a funny team, a merger of Wolf and Fittipaldi, but nobody had left or been dismissed so there were two chief designers, Harvey Postlethwaite and Richard Divila. Richard had kind of been doing the aero but stepped aside when I joined, so there I was just out of university and in charge of the aero of an F1 car, the Fittipaldi F8. Luckily I’d done my final year project on ground effects, so had some idea of what I was doing. We’d troll off down to Imperial College one week in three with a quarter-scale model. All very basic, one full-time model maker and a few of the fabricators would lend a hand when they could. I used to drive the Vauxhall Chevette van from Reading to Imperial, help unload it with the model maker, set it up. I was involved with every model change. It was very hands-on, which was great, I enjoyed that. But the F8 was designed before I got there.

From Fittipaldi I went to March as a race engineer and junior draughtsman. I then designed the sports car [83G] and the Indycar. So I designed the ’85-86 Indycars. I had a brief foray with Beatrice in F1, which didn’t last, then ended up race engineering Mario Andretti in Indycars in ’87 before Robin Herd gave me the call to return for F1 in ’88. That Indycar experience was incredibly valuable: the huge range of circuits that we went to – street tracks, road tracks, short ovals, superspeedways – gave me a greater breadth of experience. With the speedways and, especially, the short ovals it wasn’t so much about engine power but aero. It instilled in me a way of working that developed and I’ve adopted it ever since – it’s stood me well through my career. It’s about concentrating on aero together with layout as a package and then only going into design once you’ve got an aero form that fits that general layout and package.

At that time – 1988 – it was coming out of the turbo era in F1, when it had been about winding more and more boost into the engines to be able to carry the biggest and ugliest rear wing you could possibly carry. Cars of that time had become aerodynamically clumsy – I don’t think the mid-80s was a classic period. We had a normally aspirated Judd engine and, if I’m honest, we’d have been better off with a DFV. We obviously had a huge power deficit to the turbos, so clearly the only way we had any chance of competing was to have an aerodynamically very efficient car. With that small team of people – there were only two of us on the aero team and about five engineers in total – we drew the car front to back, unbelievable in today’s terms. The 881 was – I don’t like the term, but in this case I think it’s justified – ground-breaking in as much as it was a much smaller package than anything else. We concentrated first and foremost on aerodynamics and it was the first car to treat the nose and front wing as an integrated unit, with a raised front to chassis and nose. It had sculpted front wing endplates and very carefully sculpted diffuser etc – aerodynamically very efficient. With that very small team we were able to punch above our weight and it did kind of change the direction of design up and down the grid, because you could see the 881’s genes in cars that came out subsequently. In those days the regs were sufficiently free that you could come in as a very small team and come up with something that could punch above the weight, budget and size of the team. Unfortunately that’s not possible in today’s F1 and I think that’s a great pity. It’s a fact of life and things change.

With the 891 we were over-ambitious. We thought, ‘If you reckon the 881’s good, just wait and see what we do next time,’ but we overcooked it. I’ve done that twice in my career – that and the McLaren that didn’t race [MP4-18]. We sorted it out with the 901 and came close to winning at Ricard, but I wouldn’t put it as one of my top six.

Williams FW14/14B

These were essentially the same car, but with active suspension applied for the B. The money had been drying up at Leyton House and Patrick [Head] offered me a job initially as head of aero at Williams, but when I joined he changed it to chief designer. I had offers from other F1 teams, but the chance to work with Patrick and find out how a big team operated was very enticing. He was very, very good when I joined, gave me a free hand. He had a passion for gearboxes and on the 14 he drew the gearbox himself and I really did the rest of it. If you look at a 901 Leyton House alongside an FW14 they are very similar. The 14 was really what would have been the March 911 I’d had in mind, but using the extra resources and research facilities of a big team.

It was a step-change in circumstances for me but there was a bit of a transition phase on the aero. Williams had this little quarter-scale tunnel that used to be owned by Specialised Mouldings and it wasn’t very good. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to say I don’t think this tunnel is really up to the job, so we built a 40 per cent model and took it to the 11 x 8 tunnel in Southampton, which I knew well having been a student there. It made it a bit awkward because we ended up doing the critical surfaces – front wing, floor etc – in the 40 per cent tunnel and the less critical upper surface was done in the quarter-scale, meaning two models in a very short time period. I joined early in July so it was quite a compressed design time. But I enjoyed the great facilities, it was very well organised, the design office was super. It was manna from heaven for me – and Patrick was great to work with.

The 14 showed promise but McLaren – and even Ferrari – were probably a bit quicker in the first couple of races, but then we learned how to set it up and it became extremely competitive from about the third race on. We were very unlucky not to win Montréal when Nigel [Mansell] did his famous waving to the crowd. We’d been leading by a lap, it would have been my first F1 victory and then that. I was distraught. But two weeks later to get a one-two in Mexico was fantastic. We lost the championship to unreliability – with a few problems on our side, a few on Renault’s. I’d actually been working on active suspension at March/Leyton House, which was probably ambitious for a small team. It was slightly different from the Williams system. It was a platform control on the pushrod length that would have retained springs and dampers – not dissimilar to what McLaren did in ’93, which was on the damper platform. I don’t think that’s as good because your ride height goes all over the place. Unlike the Lotus system, it was not fully active. It was based on the system Williams had tried before in 1987-88, but a bit evolved. It used an AP self-levelling suspension system. We tested it through the winter in combination with designing FW15 – an evolution of 14, which we intended to introduce in the European season of ’92. But the active 14 was so quick over the winter, particularly once you started to adapt the aerodynamics to it. You realised you could be a bit more critical with front wing, diffuser etc. It became obvious our biggest enemy was going to be reliability rather than performance so we shelved the 15 and concentrated on making the active 14 reliable. 1992 was just the most amazing season as the car was so much quicker than anything else.

Although Williams had won races with an active car in ’87, it hadn’t really been night and day quicker than its passive car. The difference this time was exploiting the aerodynamics around the system. The point of active is to maximise the aerodynamics. Having that platform active meant you could redesign the aero while accepting there would still be ride height variation because you’ve still got bumps in the road and curves. We did a few other little tricks, like the low-drag bottom that raised the front, lowered the rear, stalled the diffuser and so gave us a fair bit of extra straightline. Like so many things it’s about how you combine the mechanical systems with the aerodynamics.

The car wasn’t easy to drive. The configuration of how it was controlled made it like a three-legged stool arrangement, so it had some funny movements, and certainly when you turned in the car would roll a bit. Riccardo Patrese found that very disconcerting and his reaction was to lift. Nigel Mansell just had the confidence in the car to not lift and just carry more entry speed in and let the aero do its work. That really was the difference between them. In the passive car in ’91 Nigel was generally quicker but not by much. In ’92 the difference was huge.

The ’93 15C was very much the car that would have run in ’92. While it was a championship winner it was very much an evolutionary car, therefore not something remarkable. The 16 was fraught with early difficulties but came back.

Williams FW18

The 18 was very much a development of the 17B – which we’d introduced at Estoril late in ’95. We’d had a huge regulation change for ’95, with the stepped bottom cars and raised front wing etc. As we were researching for the design of what became the 17, we realised quite late on that we needed a very narrow gearbox. There was a loophole in the regulations where we could effectively take the diffuser over the top of the plank and therefore get more diffuser exit area. But the standard Williams transverse gearbox was too high for that solution. So the ’95 car came out with that to start with. There was a lot of debate about how we should then do a narrow gearbox. I was pushing for a longitudinal box, Patrick didn’t like that idea and wanted to do a stepped-geared transverse ’box and that’s one of the very few disagreements we had technically. He prevailed on that – which was his prerogative. So we did this step-up on the transverse, raising it up out of the way. That was the 17B we first raced in Estoril. It was a very quick car and didn’t win nearly as many races as it should have – through driving mistakes frankly.

I was kind of worried that over the winter, with everyone having seen the pace of the 17B, that we’d lose our benefit. But our main rivals Ferrari and McLaren missed what we’d done completely. So the ’96 car had a huge advantage and that year was just between Damon and Jacques. I think the 17B read the regs right but didn’t get the results. The 18 was a nice evolution of that. It was a season I especially enjoyed because David Brown, who’d been Damon’s race engineer, left at the end of ’95, so we had a new guy out of the drawing office to replace him. He had zero experience, though, so I effectively ended up race-engineering Damon, which was quite fun. The 19 was a very conservative evolution but was enough to do the job.

McLaren MP4-13

We had a big regulation change for ’98 with the narrow track and grooved tyres. I arrived at McLaren on August 1 1997. They had done some research work, but the only thing that came out of that and carried onto the MP4-13 was a longer sidepod, which they’d found beneficial. That was about it. I worked crazy hours through August to come up with the rest of the car, incorporating the long sidepods. The gearbox was essentially already done but the rest of the car was under my direction and the ‘low nose’ concept was part of it. Really, it was a hybrid nose, not a proper low nose like the MP4-16. It looked low in side view but it was a very V-shaped chassis and so in section it wasn’t actually that low.

It seemed to work well at the time, but I guess history would say it wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do. The ’99 car was very much an evolution, as was the 2000 car. With the 16 and 17 (2001-03) we lost our way a bit, in truth. They were okay but not great. The 18 was over-ambitious, like the 891. The 19B was a good car but the 19 was just a rebadged 18 and I don’t think should ever have raced. The MP4-20 of 2005 was very good. We had a rule change where the front wing was raised considerably and in early CFD work it became apparent that the vortices off the front wing were getting tangled up with the front suspension. I remember being on holiday in Barbados, looking through the results I’d brought with me on the plane and thinking we had to get the bottom wishbone out the way. To the annoyance of my wife I spent lots of time in the hotel room texting and e-mailing the designers to come up with the raised wishbone, which became known as the zero keel.

That, coupled with the progress we’d made with the chassis shape of the 19B, made a very good car. It won 10 races but somehow lost the championship – to a bit of unreliability and lot of driver mistakes. We should have breezed it. That was a frustrating year with a car that read the regs well.

Red Bull RB5

In arriving at Red Bull I treated it as a design-based job just as I had done at Williams and McLaren, but in truth Red Bull lacked the infrastructure to do that. We hadn’t got the correlation with the tools, we hadn’t got the people pulling together. I misjudged the task. It was a combination of a young team and a few – how can I put it? – slightly militant old-brigade Jaguar people who’d been around forever and thought, ‘This Red Bull lot will come and go and we’ll still be here’.

It was quite difficult to get that all to gel. It was really about a culture change and it took a bit of time – combined with getting the infrastructure in place. But the timing worked well because at about the same time as we achieved that, we had the big regulation change for ’09, for which we did the RB5 – initially as a single-diffuser car because we didn’t believe the twin diffuser was legal.

The testament to a car’s abilities is not just what it does in its year, but which of its features end up being adopted by others. If you went one or two seasons forwards and painted all the cars white, would it look like yours or not? The 881, FW18 and RB5 all ticked that box.

With the RB5 we had a really great design group. We did some good research, understood the flow physics and the packaging. With hindsight we should have persevered more with the KERS. We had a KERS system on it and ran it pre-season, but never raced it. We just felt we didn’t have the resources. We had enough pace from Silverstone onwards but were playing catch-up compared with the start the double diffuser Brawn had.

We ran out of races, but the RB5 was a forebear of the four cars that followed – up to RB9.

Red Bull RB7

The RB6 had been about really maximising the double-diffuser concept. On that car, towards the end of 2010, I had the idea of trying to do something different with the exhaust – initially mainly to blow the double diffuser. It proved very effective. But at the end of the season double diffusers were banned and a fairly draconian exit height was imposed on the diffuser, too. So it was all about whether there was a clever way of recovering the lost downforce. The answer seemed to be the exhaust. Not in the same way, but it was very clear that the area around the rear tyres was critical and if we could somehow use the exhaust to energise the flow it could be a good gain. We took that step more or less straight away. We took that decision and made it work. The first RB7 wind tunnel model in May-June had that feature. We got it to work. It wasn’t easy. We had a lot of early reliability problems with the exhaust, and how you did it was quite critical. The others had something vaguely similar but didn’t really get it to work. Then the whole research started developing… from steady-state CFD to tyre-dependent CFD and we worked with Renault to understand how the pulsing and the acoustics of the exhaust worked. We found there was a lot to be gained from that. It was important to understand that and to turn the engine into a gas producer, as well as the traditional role of giving horsepower. We hadn’t really done that in 2010. With the ’11 car the exhaust had a much bigger effect. It was all about mapping, understanding the pulses and getting the whole thing to work.

There have been a whole host of factors playing their part in my decision to leave F1, and a lot of mixed emotions. I felt it was time to challenge myself in something different and that’s certainly a large factor. But at the same time I do think the regs have become far too restrictive. We’re in grave danger, chassis-wise, of becoming GP1. Everybody’s converging on cars that look more and more similar. We’re back to ‘paint the cars white and it’s difficult to spot the difference’ – especially next year when we even lose the different noses. That’s all a great shame. Look at Austria. At one point we had one engine manufacturer with eight cars in the top nine.

It’s clearly very much an engine formula at the moment and to an extent a driver formula, but first and foremost an engine formula. I think that’s unhealthy for F1 and it isn’t stimulating for the chassis designers.

I must say, my fellow F1 technical directors have been like turkeys voting for Christmas on this.