Adrian Newey's F1 evolution


Some things are worth the wait, and the December issue of Motor Sport is a prime example. At least, it is for me.

We started talking about the cover story for this edition about three years ago. I was starting to think it might never happen. But I hadn’t banked on the strength of Adrian Newey’s desire and curiosity to drive a pair of his own perfectly crafted Formula 1 cars. Grand Prix racing’s most influential and brilliant designer of the modern age just wouldn’t let it lie – thankfully for us.

Here’s how it happened.

Late in 2009, Andrew Frankel enjoyed one of the great tests of his life (and that’s saying something giving how many great cars he’s driven). Patrick Morgan, son of the late Paul Morgan who co-founded engine specialist Ilmor, has a small but eclectic collection of racing cars that his Dawn Treader Performance company preps. Now, fortunately for us, Patrick is an arch enthusiast who just loves his cars to be not only seen but also driven, as often as possible.

So Andrew found himself squeezing into a 1997 Penske PC26 Indycar, the US team’s last race-winning self-built chassis, for an unforgettable blast on an English airfield. Late-model Indycars from the pre-IRL era are some of the greatest, most powerful single-seaters ever, and they don’t come our way all that often. Andrew couldn’t believe his luck.

During conversations at the test, Patrick mentioned what else he had in his collection. When he said a 1990 Leyton House CG901 our ears pricked up. The turquoise racers never won a Grand Prix, but they have a special place in F1 history, largely because of the significance of the young designer who drew them. They also happen to be among the best-looking F1 cars of their time.

Leyton House (or March in ‘Miami blue’ disguise, to be more accurate) offered Newey the perfect finishing school before his graduation to a team with the resources to do justice to his talents. He transferred the ideas he developed at the tiny outfit directly to Williams when he joined Patrick Head in the summer of 1990 – and it led to the creation of the FW14, the first car in an amazingly successful and groundbreaking F1 dynasty.

Since Andrew’s Penske test, both Patrick Morgan and I broached the subject of Adrian driving a car that remains a favourite of his each time we bumped into him. No surprise, he loved the idea. As all Goodwood Revival visitors know, Newey is a keen driver himself. The problem is he keeps himself fairly busy, what with being a genius innovator on F1’s cutting edge and all. Finding a time and a place to do it would not be easy.

Then our story idea took a further twist at the end of 2010. This was the year of breakthrough double world title success for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, and to thank Adrian for his huge contribution owner Dietrich Mateschitz presented his star designer with an RB6 of his own. Not a bad bonus, eh?

We knew Adrian would clearly be desperate to drive his new toy, so the next time I saw him I tweaked my pitch: how about we organise a test where he gets to drive both the Leyton House and the Red Bull together, giving him the chance to compare and contrast two of his designs that just happen to be conveniently separated by a timeframe of 20 years. Pivotal F1 evolution at our fingertips. Again, he didn’t need much convincing.

But now with a busy F1 team involved, this had got even more complicated. I found a willing circuit and some dates – but Adrian couldn’t make it. Would this track test ever come together? My answer came from Adrian himself. He went ahead and booked the Silverstone national circuit himself, for September 4, two days after the Belgian GP and three before free practice at Monza. We were finally on.

As a filming day, the run would not contravene F1’s tough testing restrictions. But to hire Silverstone, and for Red Bull to send its test team and full support (two articulated lorries)… this was going to be expensive. Thankfully, the BBC joined the party to share the load, and their filmed version of our feature, featuring David Coulthard, should be a highlight of the Indian GP coverage this weekend. Look out for it.

The test day itself was nerve-shredding, for all involved except Newey himself it seemed. He was totally at ease in his Red Bull overalls. In contrast, the engineers and mechanics were terrified their prize asset would hurt himself, a concerned Christian Horner even turning up to watch from the pitwall. “He’s going too fast,” he’d murmur during Adrian’s run in the RB6.

Next door, Patrick was nervous that the Leyton House would let him down (it didn’t). And I was on edge that we’d get the story we’d craved for so long. It felt too good to be true. Would it really come together?

We only had a morning for Adrian to drive both cars, and for two camera crews – ours and the BBC’s – to get the shots we needed. Naturally, it was total chaos. On one lap, Adrian was supposed to trundle through Woodcote to be picked up by our waiting camera car, photographer Matt Howell hanging out the back of his own Ford Focus to get the best possible angle. But with so much to take in, Adrian got the wrong end of the stick.

We could hear him balancing the throttle through Luffield and then accelerate through the gears as he left the slow right-hander. He’d back off in a second – wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t. The Leyton House came flat chat through Woodcote to find a family estate with a mad bloke hanging out the boot, idling on the racing line. I closed my eyes.

Fortunately, for the sake of Adrian, Christian Horner, Patrick Morgan, this magazine, not to mention Sebastian Vettel and certainly Matt Howell, the Leyton House swerved and slowed. In truth, the Focus had been far enough down the track for the danger to be minimal. But it’s a moment I won’t forget in a hurry. Amazingly, Matt hardly blinked when I mentioned it to him later. All part of the photographer’s job, apparently.

By lunchtime, Adrian had driven both cars – and impressed everyone, including Coulthard, with his commitment in the cockpit. And of course, he’d had a ball. We had some fabulous photographs, the BBC had a brilliant feature – and Horner had his tech genius back in one piece. Everyone was happy.

As Newey told me during our interview, all the success he’s enjoyed in F1  – eight drivers’ titles (soon to be nine) and eight constructors’ titles (ditto the last statement) – leads back to Leyton House. He says the victories and championships at Red Bull have been particularly sweet, because he views this team as the “unfinished business” he left behind him at the start, when he quit Leyton House with a heavy heart as the team began to unravel.

Now, Adrian Newey has come full circle. And I’m proud to say we were there to watch it. Enjoy the story.

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