Red Bull’s Adrian Newey is the most successful design engineer in the history of Formula 1, winning over 100 races and 17 drivers’ and constructors’ championships. But he was kicked out of school and has no A level qualifications.
The story of how he turned his life around from wild teenager to the benchmark designer in the world’s most technically advanced sport is compelling. His career forms the spine of modern F1, along with his nemesis Ross Brawn and it features triumph and tragedy.
He has worked with many of the greats and is able to give context to Sebastian Vettel’s recent success. He also admits that he is still “haunted” by the death of Ayrton Senna in one of his cars in 1994.
James Allen spoke to him for an exclusive feature which aired on BBC Radio 5 live on Thursday 3 October. Here’s what the 54-year-old had to say about being kicked out of school, getting into Formula 1 and working with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Vettel.
You can listen to the whole thing here Adrian Newey Special
In Formula 1, how much is success down to the car and how much is down to the driver?
“It’s very difficult to put percentages on it. For me, what is fascinating about motor racing, particularly Formula 1, is that it is the ultimate blend of sportsman – the driver – and machine – the car. If you look elsewhere around the world, with the possible exception of the America’s Cup, there really isn’t a parallel outside the motor racing umbrella where you’ve got that complete interdependency of sportsman and machine.”
There’s a look in the eyes of competitive drivers, a rage to compete, and you have that look in your eyes too. How competitive are you?
“Frank [Williams] always used to say I was more competitive than his drivers, which I used to get upset about. Initially, I thought ‘that’s a bit unfair’, but I guess I’ve come to terms with that fact. I can’t help but take it personally, which is very satisfying when it’s going well and can be quite depressing when it’s not going so well.”
Were you always like that as a child? Did you always have to win at everything?
“No not at all. I was very average at sports at school. I guess I wanted to do well at university, mainly because I wanted to try and get into motor racing. My goal from an age of 8 or 10, which may sound a bit dull, was to be a designer in motor racing, so as I got into my late teens and early 20s, I worked hard to try and achieve that goal. Then as I became responsible for the design or performance of cars, initially with March and later with Leyton House, Williams, McLaren and now Red Bull, that competitive instinct as person who was responsible just grew and grew.”
You and Jeremy Clarkson went to the same school at the same time and you were asked to leave. Tell us what happened.
“I was asked to leave, just after O Levels – or GCSEs as they’re no called. It was a very Dickensian public boys school and I must admit I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I enjoyed art, I enjoyed doodling racing cars and that was my main hobby, but I just found school very restrictive. There was an end of term pop concert. There was no alcohol allowed, of course, in the auditorium, which was an 11th century building which was very historic with a stain glass window which the school was very proud of.
“The concert got under way and we’d smuggled in bottles of Coke with Bacardi and Tonic with gin. Towards the end of the concert, the DJ went off briefly, so yours truly jumped on the controls and slid all the sliders to the max just at the time the headmaster came in to see what was going in. I was caught behind the sliders and reprimanded. Then they found out in the morning that there were fairly large parts of the stain glass window which had fallen out. I got the rap for that and was asked to leave.”
You’re regarded as a pioneer in Formula 1, but many people might not know that you don’t have any A Levels…
“After that demise, I went to a local technical college in Leamington Spa. The obvious thing to get into university to study engineering was to study maths, physics and chemistry in those days but I had no real interest in chemistry, so I did what was known as an OND – Ordinary National Diploma – in technology.
“It was a very good little course which had a high practical content which appealed to me, but the big downside about the course was that the maths content was very weak. The only maths I had was advanced maths at O Level, and it didn’t advance over the next two years. I almost failed the end of the first year. I went a bit crazy. I discovered motorbikes and girls were suddenly on the horizon.”
“I was bit of a wild teenager. I have to admit I did go off the rails when I was 17 and nearly failed that first year, which would have been criminal as it was academically not a particularly difficult course. But it gave me a big shock so in the second year I got my act together and settled down. It was very tough to get into university, as universities found that people who went in on ONDs dropped out because they hadn’t got the maths. I was lucky enough to get place at Southampton to study aeronautics, which was my first choice anyway for the simple reason that Brabham, March and McLaren were all using the wind tunnel at Southampton so I knew the university had quite a good connection with motor racing.
“I chose Aeronautics because I figured racing cars were more similar to aircraft than any other engineering discipline so it was the obvious thing to study. That first year was extremely tough. I remember getting to Christmas and seeing my tutor who was really good to me. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude, as he told me I’d get through it if I stuck at it, and with his encouragement and help on the maths side, I got through it – and then it was much easier after that first year.”
Life is all about opportunities. How did you get your first job in Formula 1?
“Life is partly grit, determination and genetic ability but an awful lot is luck as well. My final year thesis at Southampton was on ground effect aerodynamics, which was relatively new stuff, so as the end of university approached, I wrote round to all teams I could find addresses for to ask if I could have a job and added that my final year project was on ground effect aerodynamics. Most didn’t reply and those that did gave the catch-22 answer that they only take people with experience.
“I was on verge of going to work for Lotus cars, on the road car side when the late Harvey Postlethwaite, who was technical director at Fittipaldi’s team at the time, rang me up and said: ‘Can you come in from an interview?’ I rode off on my motorbike as I didn’t have a car at the time. I was sitting in the reception area when Harvey came out and saw me sitting in my leathers and said: ‘Oh you’ve obviously got a motorbike, what have you got?’ I said: ‘A Ducati 900SS’. He replied: ‘That’s great, I have a Guzzi Le Mans’, which was a big rival to the 900SS, ‘Can I have a go on the Ducati?’ I said: ‘Of course, be my guest.’ So off he went. I could hear him rumbling round the industrial estate. He came back with a big smile on his face and said when can you start? That was the interview and I was in.”
The word genius is often applied to you. What is genius and who do you consider to be a genius?
“What does it mean? I don’t know. I can only talk for myself. My modus operandi is to try and concentrate on the areas I feel I’m reasonably good at – which is on performance of the car. So I spend most of my time trying to do that in a varied way, partly working with all the talented engineers we have back at the factory in Milton Keynes and partly standing with my drawing board trying to come up with fresh ideas, which I can then discuss with them. What I try to avoid is the managerial side. I try to delegate that and some of the stuff that goes with F1 which could be time consuming if you don’t avoid it.”
Where do you get your ideas from?
“Very varied, sometimes it is in the shower! I do find ideas sometimes just pop up. The brain is an amazing thing. The way I try to work is consider various problems around the car, not just one specific problem, in any given week and try and absorb them. If I get stuck, I walk away and do something else and quite often subconsciously, the brain seems to work away and an idea will pop up and you’ll come back to it. There are then times when it’s just about hard graft.”
How highly do you rate Sebastian Vettel?
“I think Sebastian is a remarkable young man. I think it’s completely unfair to try and rank drivers I’ve been lucky enough to work with but Sebastian is outstanding. First of all, he’s only 26. To achieve what he’s done is remarkable. His focus is incredible and he’s very calm and very focused. He’s a bright lad who makes mistakes like all of us – and always learns from them. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice. He gives good, concise feedback. I think Sebastian and Mark, while they have unfortunately had their differences, they have been from an engineering point of view very good team-mates because they both contribute in different ways. Mark is very sensitive on the aerodynamics of the car, Sebastian is very sensitive in other areas like tyres and suspension characteristics, so they have complemented each other.”
There was an awkward moment in Malaysia when Sebastian Vettel disobeyed team orders, overtaking Mark Webber to win the race. What do you do in a situation like that?
“I was involved, very heavily, on the pit wall. I must admit, I didn’t intend to talk to Sebastian as I never normally talk to drivers these days. I couldn’t find the button so I asked Christian to talk. It’s a very tricky one, because in truth it wasn’t just Malaysia. Unfortunately there have been a few incidents stretching back to Turkey in 2010 and in Brazil at the end of last year. Those things kind of fester a bit on both sides. They’re like a married couple. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just one of those things when passions run high and sparks will fly occasionally. They’re both racing drivers and when they’re fired up, they are going to do things which perhaps they wouldn’t do in the cold light of day.”
You’ve won races – and championships – with Williams, McLaren and Red Bull – but there’s onbvious omission – Ferrari. Why have you never gone there?
“I guess it’s a whole combination of reasons. Generally, it’s been timing to be honest. Back in the mid-90s, I had young children at the time and I didn’t completely feel comfortable trying to move my family to Italy when the kids were established at school in the UK. More recently, when I felt in my latter days at McLaren that I was going a bit stale, I felt I needed a new challenge. While the Ferrari job would have been a challenge, it was still an established team, where Ross [Brawn] had been for some time with a considerable amount of success. I didn’t fancy stepping into that one.
“I needed a fresh challenge and that was being involved in new team, more or less from the start, and seeing if we can develop it into something that could win races and then go on to win championships. In many ways, it was trying to finish off unfinished business from the Leyton House days. When I first came into F1 with Leyton House, having been at March already, the team came in very strongly given our size, which was tiny. We had decent results, a few podiums here and there, and we were going in a very positive direction, but unfortunately, we lost our funding. If you lose that, you’re only going one way so I left and joined Williams, which was a great opportunity and the right decision at the time. But it has always wrangled me that we never had the opportunity at Leyton House to prove what we could have been competitive so to have another crack at it with Red Bull has been fantastic.”
What are your memories of your time at Williams?
“They were great times. I arrived at Williams in the middle of 1990 and straight away charged into the design of the following year’s car. Patrick Head was technical director and I had the title of chief designer. Patrick was a great guy, he was very good to me in as much as he really gave me a free hand on the design of the car. He always had great interest in the gearbox itself and we had one or two tiffs about gearbox layouts but apart from that we got on very well. The 1991 car was my first car and straight away it was competitive.
“We got to Montreal and had a very good competitive outing. Nigel was leading by almost a whole lap, which is inconceivable nowadays, and that was when the famous incident happened. Coming up to final hairpin, half a mile to the finish, he started waving to the crowd and forgot to change down for the hairpin. He managed to stall the engine. I was in tears at that one. Finally after three years in business, I thought I could get a win here and it had slipped away. But that’s the frustration of sport. We just lost the title in 1991, but with the active suspension version of car, we had a dominant and extremely pleasurable 1992 season.”
Do you ever have a chance to relax?
“I do try to relax as F1 can be an all-consuming sport and it would be very easy to spend silly hours, seven days a week, at the factory. So I try to make sure I do have some free time to spend with my girlfriend, the kids and go on holiday or whatever. I enjoy doing the odd hobby race, too. I think I’ll only do two this year.”
You’ve done the Le Mans 24 Hours and also had some big smashes in other races…
“I did Le Mans 24 Hours a few years ago and it was an amazing event to do. I did it with three friends on a whim and somehow we got an entry. I think we were the only amateur team that year. Everyone else had at least one professional driver. I went there to enjoy it and we did. We kept it on the track and finished fourth in our class which was a great result. I’m almost reluctant to go back because it was such an amazing result and going back would kind of a disappointment. I do some historic racing which is great fun. Yes, I have had some accidents and I’ve possibly had some unfair press there. It sounds like I’m moaning, but I’m not. If I have good result, no one says anything but if I have an accident, everyone starts saying ‘oh, he’s crashed again’. But hey, I enjoy it.”
Do you think your racing helps understand the drivers better?
“Yes, I believe it does. I think at the base level it helps with what they go through psychologically, the pressures they face and particularly when describing feelings they get from the car and being able to relate to what they’re describing through my lowly amateur level racing.”
You worked with Ayrton Senna for a brief time at Williams. What was he like?
“There was an aura about him, it’s something difficult to describe. He most certainly had a presence. He was very personable, in terms of involving you and making you feel as if you were special. He was very involved at the factory and would want to know what we were doing with the wind tunnel model and I think that motivated people at the factory without a doubt. In the car, his results speak form themselves. I guess one of the things that will always haunt me was the fact that he joined Williams because we had managed to build a decent car for the previous three years and he wanted to be in the team which he thought would build the best car and unfortunately our 1994 car at start of season wasn’t a good car. With Ayrton’s raw talent and determination, he tried to carry that car and make it do things that it wasn’t capable of. It seems such a shame, and so unfair that he was in that position and by time we did get the car sorted out, he wasn’t with us any longer.”
How did you get past that?
“It was extremely difficult, a very dark time for all of us. Damon [Hill] did a fantastic job in only his second proper year in F1. He was straight away elevated to team leader in a difficult situation. For Frank, Patrick and myself, we had two choices – either stop or dig deep and get on with it. With all people that we were responsible for – the workforce – the first was the easy option but it wasn’t the proper option so we chose the second and that’s what we did.
“What happened that day, what caused that accident still haunts me to this day. Nobody will ever know. The steering column failure was it the cause, or did it happen in the accident? There is no doubt it was cracked. Equally, all the data, all the circuit cameras, the on-board camera from Michael Schumacher’s car that was following, none of that appears to be consistent with a steering-column failure. The car oversteered initially and Ayrton caught that and only then did it go straight.
“But the first thing that happened was oversteer, in much the same way as you will sometimes see on a superspeedway in the States – the car will lose the rear, the driver will correct, and then it will go straight and hit the outside wall, which doesn’t appear to be consistent with a steering-column failure.”
You’re the most successful design engineer in the history of Formula 1. Where do you go from here?
“It’s a good question, one I sometimes ask myself. The answer is I still really enjoy it. The pressure can be onerous at times if I’m honest. The hours are long and if you’re not careful it can be all-consuming but you get a tremendous buzz when it goes well. And that’s quite addictive. I’m 54 so I’m too young to do nothing, but equally at some stage I’d like to be involved in something different rather than only motor racing. When that might be and what that might be, I have no idea.
Can Sebastian Vettel match or eclipse Michael Schumacher’s records?
“It would be fantastic if Sebastian could go on to eclipse Michael’s record, but that doesn’t necessarily define greatness. When we talk about all-time greats, the names of Senna, Clark, Stewart, Fittipaldi come up as well as Michael and Fangio. In terms of championships, some of them have had a fraction of the success Michael has. There’s that intangible thing that defines greatness which isn’t simply results. What Sebastian is well on his way to doing is establishing himself as one of the all-time greats.”