Dubai // The most successful designer in the history of Formula One, Adrian Newey remembers his passion for race cars started early, when he was only eight.
Soon, his father’s little workshop became his favourite place in their Stratford-upon-Avon house in England as he started sketching his own designs and making model kits, learning welding and other required skills in that shed, all before his 11th birthday.
Then came a pact with his veterinary surgeon father that, to use a Red Bull line, gave wings to his dream.
“We went along to the local kart track and my dad made an observation that as far as he could see, most of the kids that are karting wanted to kart because their fathers wanted them to,” said Newey, 56, who was at the Dubai Autodrome last month to watch his son Harrison race in the MRF Challenge.
“So he said if you want to kart, you have to demonstrate your determination. He said for every one pound [about Dh5.6] I could earn, he would put one pound in. So I washed cars and I mowed the lawns … that sort of stuff.
“That gave me the money to buy a really old go-kart and then I set about modifying it. Modifying that go-kart again reinforced my interest to come into motor racing as an engineer.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Kicked out of by his Repton school at the age of 16, Newey has no A-level qualifications, but he did gain a First Class honours degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the University of Southampton in 1980, and immediately started working in motorsport for the Fittipaldi Formula One team under Harvey Postlethwaite.
“I was very lucky to get into motor racing as a junior,” Newey said. “This was in 1980 and then from there, once you are in motor racing, it’s a little easier to move around.”
He has, indeed, moved around a fair bit, designing cars for drivers such as Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Sebastian Vettel.
Today, Newey, 56, stands alone as the only designer to have won the constructor’s title with three different Formula One teams – Williams, McLaren and Red Bull Racing.
His impressive resume boasts more than 80 F1 grand prix wins, 10 F1 constructor’s titles, including four in a row with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013. His designs have won two CART titles as well (1985 and 1985).
In an interview with The National, Newey talked about those years of domination with Red Bull, the problems plaguing Formula One, his work with Aston Martin to design a road car and his plans for the future.
What do you think of the proposed 2017 regulation changes in Formula One?
I have always enjoyed rule changes because it gives fresh opportunities. The regulations have become increasingly restrictive. If you go back to, let’s say the 1970s and the 1980s, you saw this huge variety of shapes of cars because the regulations were relatively free.
Now, if you painted all the cars white in the pit lane, you have to be quite knowledgeable to know which car is from which team.
Regulation changes give that opportunity to do something different. However, with the regulation changes that are being talked about for 2017, they are actually not that different to what we have now. Slightly wider tyres. Slightly revised aerodynamics regulations. No really fundamental differences.
Is Mercedes and Ferrari domination ‘unhealthy’?
For me, what’s unhealthy about F1 at the moment is that it is engine dominated. The chassis regulations are very tight, the engine regulations are very free. On top of that, if you take the engines built by Mercedes or Ferrari, when they supply those engines to their customer teams, the customers don’t get the same engine – not in the software anyway. The software becomes very important now.
So we are in this position where Mercedes have a very good, very powerful engine. Their customer teams don’t get the same specifications. So it is difficult for their customer teams to beat the Mercedes team.
Ferrari have an engine not quite as good as the Mercedes, but still a good engine. But the same problem with their customer teams.
Honda and Renault, so far, have been quite a long way behind.
So we are in the position where, at the moment, only a works Mercedes, and possibly a works Ferrari, win championships and races because it is so dominated by the engine.
I think that is a very unhealthy situation for Formula One, where only one, maybe two teams, can win. Maybe Honda in the future, but not yet.
What is F1’s biggest problem?
For me that’s biggest problem F1 needs to address at the moment because the result of that is that Mercedes and Ferrari control the sport. The voting system in F1 is democratic, which in principle is good.
But because the customer teams of Mercedes and Ferrari have to vote as their engine supplier dictates even if it is not in their interest, then it is effectively controlled by Mercedes and Ferrari.
I hope the FIA (motorsport’s governing body) takes control of the situation. F1 is at its healthiest when competitive engines are available for all teams. Then everybody can compete properly.
What are your suggestions to make the sport competitive?
The actual physical engine has to be the same, the ones supplied to the customer teams. But it’s not just the physical hardware, it’s also the petrol and the software. So the first thing you can do is to change the regulations so that customer teams have the same software and the same fuel, if they wish to, as the works team.
The second problem – how do you then maybe get new people in, Audi perhaps, is a more complicated one. The cost now to compete for the manufacturers in F1 now is huge, well over €200 million (Dh801m) a year. Probably nearer €300m. So it’s huge.
An alternative which is being proposed by the FIA is that there should be a different engine, an FIA engine, that the small teams can use, an engine that will be competitive. I think that will be a very good solution. But the manufacturers don’t want it, so it’s a battle.
How do you regard the Red Bull years of domination?
In many ways, it started in the year we didn’t win the championship – in 2009, where we had a big regulation change. We didn’t win the championship for various reasons that year, partly because we didn’t have the double diffuser. We were told initially it wasn’t legal, then it was declared legal, etc.
But also, I think as a team we just weren’t ready to win the championship. We were very young still, only the third year of Red Bull Racing. Sebastian Vettel was only really in his second year of Formula One, so he made some mistakes as well.
So it didn’t quite happen, but it laid the foundations for the car of the following four years. Because we had a very good car in 2009, we were then able to steadily develop it through the following four years.
We developed, in particular, the exhaust, where were using the exhaust pipes very heavily to create rear downforce and we were able to work well with Renault to complement the engine mapping with that exhaust technology.
We just managed to maintain that gap, if you like, by developing the exhaust, developing the aerodynamics, getting everything together. The engine itself was reasonably reliable – probably not quite as powerful as the Mercedes, but we worked very well with Renault on the mapping. So the package worked.
If you can get that continuity going and you have a good package, and you can develop it each year in a careful and steady way, you can have these periods of dominance.
It’s what Mercedes have at the moment – they have a good car, they have a fantastic engine and they are able to just develop that engine and that car incrementally each year and stay just ahead.
What is it like working for India’s MRF Challenge?
I have always tried to remember to support what, in English, we call the grassroots motor racing, which is the lower Formulas.
After all, if we didn’t have the lower Formulas, we couldn’t have the higher Formulas. You got have that staircase.
So I have always tried to keep my feet on the ground. And I think it’s great that MRF are supporting this series because it allows young drivers to come out and develop themselves in great circuits such as we are visiting in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, here in Dubai and Chennai … all very good locations.
And, of course, I have brought my son as well. He is starting in motor racing. He’s just done his first full season in karts and it’s quite nice as a father-son relationship to spend time together.
Plans for the future?
My role in F1 … I have stepped back a little bit at the moment to look at different projects. I have hugely enjoyed my career. It’s been a fantastic career. I would like to be involved in some other areas of engineering before I finally retire.
So I am planning to get a little bit involved in a road car project. I have also done a small amount of work on an America’s Cup boat. So different things just to stimulate myself because I must admit that at the end of those four championships years [2010 to 2013], I was quite tired.
F1 is quite high-pressure. If you do it year-after-year, it can be quite exhausting. So I just felt I needed a little bit of a break and I have just stepped back a little at the moment. Still involved, but stepped back a little bit.
Best car you have designed?
I think in some ways the car I look back with fondness is actually my first F1 car, which was the Leyton House March Racing Team’s March 881 in 1988. It didn’t win a race, but it was built with a very small team and it is in the days when you had a mix of turbo engines and a 3.5 litre V8.
Because we had a power disadvantage, we tried to design a very small, a very aerodynamic package and the car, for its engine, was very quick. It even led a race and finished on the podium. So it is kind of what, if you like, launched my career. Without that car I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have had since.
Who are the drivers you have enjoyed working the most with?
Again, a very difficult question. In some ways, the driver I look back with as being the most educational for me is Bobby Rahal. He was an IndyCar driver. My early career was in IndyCar and I had a very close relationship with him. We understood each other very well. I was very new, so he was very patient with me and we developed together.
Favourite drivers of all time?
It’s very difficult for me to say, because, not least, I don’t want to leave out drivers … any such exercise is very subjective and emotional.
I would say Bobby Rahal because he is just a fantastic guy that I had a very close relationship with in IndyCar. Ayrton Senna. Ayrton was just an amazing person – not only a driver, he had a real presence to him. When you met him, he had this aura.
The others would be drivers I really enjoyed the company of – Damon Hill, David Coulthard – both as people and friends, as well as drivers. Nigel Mansell as well, as a friend and as a driver.
The drivers I have mentioned are all from the 1980s and 1990s. As F1 has grown and become bigger and bigger, friendships are not as common because the team is so big, and we are also busy.
In the evenings, there are sponsors and other things. So we don’t seem to form close friendships as we perhaps did back then. A change of life.