Adrian Newey, Chief technical officer of Red Bull Racing, is rightly held in high regard in the world of Formula 1, regularly described as a genius by his peers. He is the only designer to have won Constructors Championships with three different teams. Eight in total spanning from Williams’ domination of the early 90s, a 1998 McLaren victory and now two back to back titles with Red Bull Racing in 2010 and 2011. His cars have notched well over 100 race wins and 7 driver’s championships.
F1 racing has always been a spearhead for innovation in design and technology but more than ever the sport is developing into a mass of computer systems, automated design tools and programmed precision engineering. With each year the sport is moving further from its human roots, the days of drivers such as Graham Hill tinkering in a garage are a distant fantasy.
A classic charm envelops designer Newey, which immediately affects the atmosphere of the room where we meet, as he quietly takes a seat within the pressroom of Goodwood House during the 2012 Festival of Speed.
Today Adrian Newey is here as a driver, joining his Red Bull colleagues Christian Horner, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in driving the latest Infiniti Hybrid cars up the historical hill climb circuit.
Despite his impressive racing driver credentials, his mastery of design and his influences are the subject of our interview, and a subject he still seems boyishly excited to discuss, veiled beneath a calm and analytical thought process behind every answer.
In an age of endless technology Newey’s ideas still flow from a 2B pencil and a single sheet of A4 paper – he calls himself ‘the last dinosaur in the industry.’
“I think more than anything I am a creature of habit, as that is the way I grew up, which was before CAD systems became prevalent,” Newey tells Humans Invent. “But also, what I like about using a drawing board is that I can sketch. CAD systems still haven’t quite made that as easy as pen and paper.
Of course, Newey understands and respects the importance of modern technology and research tools in creating race-winning performance, adapting his free-hand design habits to the demands of a modern environment.
“Nowadays everything has to go onto a CAD system because you need to test it in CFD (computational fluid dynamics). Everything nowadays is researched and manufactured using computer aided machinery. I have a small team of people who transfer my drawings, scan them and transform them into solid models.”
When questioned on the development of the sport, Newey describes how dramatically F1 has changed since he first stepped foot in a garage.
“When I started on my first F1 car for Fittipaldi, as a team there was probably 50 people with only 8 engineers. Obviously as teams got bigger, and the industry in general has moved forwards, the tools changed. In those days you only had very basic research tools. Now, there are much bigger research teams who are able to look at things in far more detail – and that changes how you go about the design.”
“I think the major change is the understanding. If you look back to the 70s, the shape of Formula 1 cars along the grid were all hugely different to each other. A team would come up with a new car for a new season. If the new car wasn’t quicker after a couple of races, they would give up and go back to last season’s car. I’m sure the designer of that car had come up with an idea and thought it to be quicker otherwise he wouldn’t have made the change. And that’s because they didn’t have the research tools to give them a level of understanding to make sure that when they did something, it was going to be a step forwards.”
“That’s what has changed now, when you come up with ideas you can try to research them much more carefully, so that hopefully the first time it goes on the track it performs how you hope and expect.”
The transfer of Newey’s freehand sketches to modern design tools is a time consuming process but one that is a necessity for Newey, as his pencil and notepad rarely leave his side.
“I think generally it’s just important having your eyes open. The brain’s a strange organ. You see something and think its interesting and then there will be a problem and you will flick away through your sub-conscious for an hour, a day, a week and then an idea will pop up and you go from there.”
“I am always fearful that my memory isn’t very good. In fact I know it’s not very good! So I’ll usually make a note of a design on a stickit, or I’ll just draw it there and then. Very often I work on a 24-hour rule. If I still think it is a good idea after 24 hours I will take it further, if not I’ll screw it up and throw it in the bin.”
When asked what he aims to achieve when designing F1 cars, Newey quickly shuns any artistic ideals. “For us it is purely performance. I think that’s what makes Formula 1 different to other areas of design. There is no prize for the prettiest car, only the quickest car.”
Despite this, one can’t help but feel Newey uses his influences not only for performance but designs which are aesthetically attractive. The constant referencing of aeronautical design by Newey underpins a deep passion for clean lines. He holds a First Class Honours Degree from Southampton University in the subject and when questioned on what he believes to be his favourite design ever, he clearly and confidently says “Concorde” after a mere three-second period of quizzical contemplation.
“It’s a beautiful shape and ahead of its time by some way. Both the Russians and the Americans tried to copy it and failed. It flew reliably for all those years and I just think it was so ahead of its time.”
“I think that period of aeronautical development from the end of the war through to the mid 60s was quite astounding when you consider in 1942 we were in Spitfires, and then by 1962 Blackbird was flying at three times the speed of sound. Literally in 20 years it went from piston-engined fairly rudimental aircraft to something like Blackbird.”
Newey would seem a perfect fit for such an era. Arriving to work in a suit, endlessly sketching out designs hunched over his drawing board. A mild manner, air of confidence, a touch of eccentricity and undoubted genius, all harking to a period of maverick British design, allowing him to move in the same circles as historical greats such as Barnes Wallis and R J Mitchell.
Designing boundary-pushing racecars has obvious dangers and potential pit falls. In an interview with The Guardian, Newey spoke of the emotional trauma he faced following the death of triple World Champion and racing icon Ayrton Senna while behind the wheel of one of his designs at Imola in 1994. An event, which almost saw the end of his career within the sport. The 12-month period following the accident saw Newey face charges of manslaughter, as well as a personal in-depth examination of whether or not a design fault contributed to the death of Senna.
Newey believes after looking at all the data and the crash wreckage that the most realistic cause of the accident was a rear right puncture and not a design fault traced to his person. The undoubted stress placed upon Newey and his fellow Williams colleagues has clearly affected the man, mentally and physically. He believes the ensuing months of stress and turmoil resulted in his now identifiable bald head of hair.
This year’s F1 championship, with six world champions all vying for the title, as well as eight different race winners already, has been described as a new golden era of the sport, however the major talking point is about the new Pirelli tyres.
“They are very tricky to operate in exactly the right window and what we see
every week is some teams getting them to operate in the right window, and
others not. That’s the difficult bit to understand.”
At Silverstone, Red Bull’s tyre strategy secured a Mark Webber win and a Vettel 3rd place at the 2012 British Grand Prix. The call on tyres ensured Webber was able to pass race leader Fernando Alonso with only 4 laps remaining, to secure yet another career victory for Adrian Newey and one of his cars.
Alongside making the right calls, it’s an ominous warning for the rest of the F1 field that once again Newey’s design has delivered a car that is quick and capable of race wins. Just don’t tell him the Red Bull looks pretty.
Photo Credits: Silverstone Circuit Ltd, Infiniti Global and Red Bull Racing.
Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fueled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.