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Adrian Newey - The man who can 'see air'

Jim K 05/02/2024
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Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

Even among multiple world champions Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, and Michael Schumacher, Adrian Newey is one of Formula 1's most illustrious figures. Newey's mastery, however, lies not in the cockpit but in the design studio, where he shapes the destiny of the drivers fortunate enough to drive his machines.

This F1 expert isn't a Christian Horner or Toto Wolff, whose leadership abilities brought success. Instead, Newey's talent seeps into the very DNA of the cars the drivers race in, and his legacy boasts dominance in multiple decades. He has more championship titles than Hamilton, Verstappen, and Schumacher combined, but who exactly is Adrian Newey?

The Racing Roots of Adrian Newey

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

It was sports car racing where Newey truly made his mark, with the March 83G surging to two successive IMSA GT championship wins. Encouraged by his prowess, March moved Newey to CART, IndyCar's predecessor next, and more championships followed. CART titles and the illustrious Indy 500 race came March's way, but Newey didn't remain focused on American racing for long.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

A New Direction

His innovative designs, unsurprisingly, had caught the attention of F1's racing fraternity. Williams and McLaren were taking all of the championship glory throughout Newey's time in the sport, so it was no surprise he worked for one of them once he became a free agent. Williams was the one to swoop in, with the team's technical director and co-founder, Patrick Head, soon hiring the out-of-work designer.

Head was already a renowned technical force in the sport, with his work helping Williams to titles and wins over the 1980s, with Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, and Keke Rosberg becoming world champions with the team. Head and Newey combining, together with the considerable resources at Williams paved the way for Newey's first spell of domination.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

Newey's aerodynamic designs propelled Nigel Mansell to long-awaited championship glory thanks to the all-conquering FW14B. Together with teammate Riccardo Patrese, the car stormed to 15 pole positions in the 16-race season and 10 victories, often being over a second clear of the nearest challengers in qualifying.

A Move to McLaren

With Newey never being able to surpass Head in the Williams team structure, despite his abilities, frustrations led to rival teams seeming appealing. Furthermore, Ayrton Senna's death in the 1994 San Marino GP was inside a Newey-designed car, and the subsequent possible manslaughter case added to the pressure inside Williams' Grove HQ. Although the Williams staff, including Newey, were acquitted of all charges by late 1997, a changing of the guard was around the corner.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

McLaren had become a shell of their former glory years in the 90s, finishing P4 in the standings between 1994 and 1997 after a decade of always being in the top two spots. Newey's arrival changed everything. A rule change arrived in 1998 that saw F1 racing with grooved tires and a smaller chassis, and Newey's understanding of the regulation change was immediately apparent.

Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard arrived at the season-opening Australian GP and qualified over seven-tenths clear of Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. The race saw the pair crossing the line over a lap ahead of all 20 other drivers in a display of team domination rarely witnessed before. Newey's gardening leave had allowed him the time to understand the rules and adapt far better than everyone else.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

The Red Bull Revolution

Though Newey remained at McLaren as the 1990s made way for the 2000s, the 1999 Ferrari triumph began an era of dominance for the Italian team as Michael Schumacher stormed to five successive World Drivers' Championship wins.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

By 2006, Newey embarked on a groundbreaking partnership with Red Bull Racing, the brainchild of energy drinks magnate Dietrich Mateschitz. This switch was a marked difference from his other team transfers, as Red Bull had only entered the sport in 2005. Although they had a sizeable budget, the team had no F1 history as Williams or McLaren did, meaning Newey's task was to transform a fledgling outfit into a championship contender.

It's a sign of Newey's brilliance that it only took four seasons since he joined for the team not only to win but become a frequent challenger for the top spot. Furthermore, Newey was also contracted to Red Bull's junior team, Toro Rosso, to guide their car design, and the smaller outfit brought home his first win for his new employers when Sebastian Vettel won the 2008 Italian GP.

Vettel would become Red Bull's first F1 champion just two years later, driving the RB6 alongside Mark Webber to the 2010 constructors' title, too. As Schumacher did at Ferrari a decade earlier, this championship began a multi-year spell of championships for both team and driver. Although it wasn't always with clear domination, Vettel did end the 2013 season with an incredible run of nine successive race victories with Newey's RB9 to conclude F1's V8 age.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

F1's Relentless Change

However, a sweeping regulation change in 2014 had the pendulum of power swing away from Red Bull. Their engine partner, Renault, hadn't adapted as well to the turbo-hybrid power units as Mercedes, so no matter what Newey could design, the power deficit left Red Bull needing plucky strategies to win. Even though Mercedes were now the powerhouse team, Red Bull Racing still clinched victories every year since, aside from a disappointing 2015 season.

An opportunity to close the gap appeared when the COVID-19 pandemic delayed a milestone aerodynamic regulation alteration, and Newey took it without hesitation. The rule change delay meant the 2021 cars were iterations of the 2020 entries rather than wholly new designs, and with a solid foundation in the RB16, the RB16B brought Newey back to title-winning ways. Coupled with a Honda power unit and a young, hungry Max Verstappen, Newey's RB16B saw the Mercedes-Lewis Hamilton domination end.

Adrian Newey

Image: Red Bull Racing

The Red Bull love affair would not last forever, though. In early 2024, Newey announced he would leave his role as the team's Chief Technical Officer. Seeing as neither Williams nor McLaren won any constructors' championships since Newey left, it's a bitter pill for Red Bull to take.

We don't know where Newey will move to at the time of writing, but it's bad news for Red Bull, if he stays in F1. As Williams' Patrick Head said of Newey nearly 30 years prior, "Having him contributing to Williams was a plus, and having him contribute to another team was a minus. So, if you add the two together, it is a big loss."


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