Features - Technical
OCTOBER 1, 1999
Adrian Newey-Simply the Best
BY PETER WRIGHT
Dominant in the age of the computer and now settled at McLaren, the super-team that oozes the latest and best in high technology, I was intrigued to discover not a single computer in Adrian's office at McLaren International's Woking headquarters; instead, there was just a drawing board large enough to lay out a Formula1 car in half-scale. No CAD station; no PC; no lap-top. Maybe, therein lay his secret.
Newey's title at McLaren is that of Technical Director. I asked him whether he saw himself primarily as a Technical Director or more as a designer, engineer or aerodynamicist, and how he would like to be remembered.
"I have never been big on titles, because a title is not a job description. The way I work is still the way I worked at Williams, which is to be heavily involved in the design, direct engineering and in the aerodynamics. What I enjoy is to get all the different disciplines to work and blend together, in an engineering sense not a managerial one. One of the things that appealed to me about McLaren, before I joined, was that they had existed for a number of years without a Technical Director, and so that meant to me that I could come in and not become an engineering manager, pushing pieces of paper around. They had obviously got the managerial systems in place that they could exist without that person. It has allowed me to come in and create my own job description. I have always tried to make my role that of the person who creates and supervises the performance of the car.
"I do enjoy aerodynamics; it is a major part of the performance of the car and so I am very involved in it. Equally important are the packaging of the car, the design, and the race engineering at the circuit, and so I am very involved in these too. One of the reasons I left Williams was that I was not sufficiently involved in the major decision-making about those other key aspects that affect the overall performance - drivers, engine and tyres. I have that involvement now at McLaren."
By any standards, Newey's career in motor sport has been mercurial. On leaving university in 1980, aged 21, he took his first job in motor racing working for Harvey Postlethwaite at Fittipaldi Automotive. Four years later he acted as race engineer for the March of one of the top CART drivers, Bobby Rahal. At 29 years old he was designing Formula1 cars - Leyton House Marchs - that on occasion made the top teams sit up and take notice of the sheer speed of these small, underpowered cars. Three years later one of his cars won a World Championship and, as he turns 40, he now sits right at the top of his profession. Nature or nurture? We cannot examine the role of the first of these, but there is no doubt that Newey's upbringing and his chosen educational path, when combined with an immense natural flair, were effective contributors to his rise to the top.
"My father was a veterinary surgeon and had a long succession of Mini Cooper S's and Lotus Elans which he built up from kits. He also had a small workshop with a lathe and basic sheet metal working and welding equipment. I used to help him with the road cars and we were always tinkering about with them. Also I used to build the little Tamhiya kits, Lotus T49 etc., which are great as they teach you all the names of the parts and how the suspension etc. goes together - the details are very good. That started my interest in cars and then I got fed up with building kits and started making my own models in my father's workshop. At quite a young age I learned to use the lathe and the other workshop equipment.
"When I was about 13, I fancied having a Kart. My father, and I cursed him at the time, had this aberration that many parents have of wanting to re-live their childhood through their children. He wanted me to get a Zip Kart and offered to throw in a pound for every pound I could earn. Doing newspaper rounds and mowing the lawn didn't earn me much and so I actually got a Barlotti-Villiers, which was hopelessly uncompetitive, and the only thing to do was to make it quicker. I rebuilt the engine and built an electronic ignition system for it and started to use the tube welder to make a new frame.
"I enjoyed both the driving and the engineering side at the time, but over the years the driving interest fell away and the engineering stayed. I went to a boarding school, Repton, and one of the problems with that was the difficulty of doing anything like Karting during the term time. I left at 16 because, among other reasons, I didn't fancy doing Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and so I did a National Diploma at the local Technical College. I was advised by the Careers Adviser that it was exactly the equivalent of A-levels and I thoroughly enjoyed it; it was intensely practical and got me into university. However, when I got to Southampton University I found that my Maths was two years behind. At the end of the first term I nearly chucked it in went to work at March. I met Ian Reid, who offered me a job there, but advised me that I would be much better off finishing my Degree. So I sorted out my Maths and completed university.
"I chose Southampton because, at that time, it had good connections with the motor racing industry - March, Brabham, McLaren etc. - and took aeronautics because I felt it was the best engineering discipline for racing, rather than any particular interest in aircraft. I did my final year project on ground effect aerodynamics as applied to a road-going sports car, which was a pretty useless application, but ground effect was really coming in then (1980) and so it was useful for me as it was a fairly fundamental study. That project helped me to get my first job in motor racing.
"I did the usual thing and wrote to all the teams I could find addresses for. About half didn't reply and those that did said: ÔThanks, but we only take people with experience.' It is the old Catch 22 problem. I was on the verge of staying on to do a PhD on helicopter rotor blades, though I did have an offer from Lotus Engineering, when Harvey offered me the job at Fittipaldi."
Although Newey's father had provided that first stimulus and encouragement of his interest in cars and racing, he had warned him, when he was 16 and leaving school, that engineering was a poorly paid industry. Little did he realiseÉÉ.
The short time Newey spent at an under-financed Fittipaldi gave him the experience that applicants for jobs in motor racing so badly need. In 1982 he joined March, working initially on the GTP cars and then, in 1984, race engineering Bobby Rahal's March in CART racing.
"CART gave me a lot of experience in a very short time. You can gain the same experience in Europe, but it probably takes longer. While it does not have any particular relevance to Formula1, I enjoyed the wide variety of circuits. The ovals are very different when it comes to setting up the car. For instance, on a road circuit if you have high speed understeer while neutrally balanced in the slow speed, you would probably put some more front wing on it. If all the corners are the same speed and you have understeer, you don't know whether it is mechanical or aerodynamic. In some ways it was more difficult to engineer: to get it roughly right is perhaps easier, but to get it spot-on is more difficult."
It is one of Newey's very early Formula1 cars, the 1988 March, that he remembers with the most affection. Most other teams were running works-supported turbo's, whereas the March had a normally-aspirated Judd V-8. Newey considers the turbo's had become "big, fat and clumsy" and the March took everyone in a new direction. Smaller than most and aerodynamically efficient, the '88 car and the succeeding two Marchs for which he was responsible, demonstrated the potential of really refined flat-bottom aerodynamics. The '88 car was the first to explore the potential of a raised nose, but exhibited sensitivity to ride height, performing best on smooth tracks. "We didn't set out to make that car ride height sensitive, in fact just the opposite, but we learned a lot of tricks as we went along."
Those tricks have shown up in all Newey's cars since then. When he joined Williams in 1990, the brief active suspension era was in its infancy. "The '92 and '93 Williams were the most technically interesting cars I have worked on because of all the things you could do. Active was created to optimise the aerodynamics, so once you had active suspension you could do things with the aerodynamics that you couldn't do without. I found the relationship between those two disciplines very interesting indeed."
The 1999 McLaren, Newey's first "full" McLaren, was "Éa reasonable but not startling step". With little freedom in the Technical Regulations, success comes from the package that embodies the best integration of all the components to produce optimum weight distribution, power and aerodynamics. Newey is a master at this, working closely with Mario Illien, an association that goes back to his last couple of years at March, to produce the neatest and most refined Formula1 car. He is at pains to emphasise that the car is not just him, but the fruits of immense effort by the R&D, design and engineering teams at McLaren and Illmor. One of the major areas re-designed for 1999 was the transmission. "There was good scope to improve that area, in terms of size and weight. We made the back end of the car a lot smaller than previously and re-did the packaging. We also got some weight off there and were able to re-distribute it. Steps in future are going to be a lot smaller. I am sure there are further gains to be made, but it is difficult to see where big steps will come from."
When I suggested that some risks had been taken in the design of this year's car, which had resulted in the early-season unreliability, Newey countered this: "It was a variety of silly little things, none of them were a direct result of the re-packaging. As is so often the case, the areas where we thought we might have problems were fine, and it was the silly little things that got overlooked that caused problems. It is true that as the components have got lighter, vibration is getting worse and that was a cause of quite a lot of the failures.
"I get the biggest buzz from designing a car from scratch; the time I find most enjoyable and challenging is when there is a big shake-up in the regulations, such as for 1998 when the track was narrowed and grooved tyres were introduced; then one gets the opportunity to explore new avenues. Once the regulations have become stable for a while it becomes increasingly difficult to find new areas in which to proceed."
Although Newey started in motor racing before the design and engineering processes had become so dependant on computers, he prefers the current process of creating a new car to the older, more instinctive approach.
"It has obviously changed, but in many ways I actually prefer it more now. The resources available to you are much greater and allow for a more structured research. The more you have in the way of simulation, CFD, FE or whatever it might be, then the more scientific the design can become. I enjoy the extra research and tools available to us, and obviously the number of engineers we have working for us, and I enjoy working with them. I don't design on CAD as I prefer a board for the layout work I do. With CAD you can either look at the whole package in small scale, or a tiny part of it in large scale. I want to see the whole in at least 1/2-scale. I also prefer to work with our engineers on data analysis and simulation, rather than do it myself. We have so many sophisticated codes to use that it is easy to be master of none of them.
"However, I do lament the ever-increasing tightness of the regulations. Of course it's not a simple issue as there is a conflict between the Driver's World Championship and the Constructor's, and speeds have to be constrained for safety reasons. I would like much greater freedom; though I find it strange how many other Technical Directors actually appear to like more and more restrictions. What I do lament is a recent tendency to ban, even before it runs, something that is genuinely new. For example, William's CVT, the energy-storage system that we were developing last year, and even our fiddle-brakes, though they were not really startling new technology, just a nice little trick. The first two were the results of partnerships with industry (CVT with Van Doorne; energy-storage with Mercedes), involved a lot of work and were both useful technologies that should be encouraged. There is no doubt that if Formula1 adopts a piece of technology it popularises it for road car use. Look at turbo's and button gear-change systems. If CVT's and energy-storage had been allowed, then we would see far more CVT and energy-storage road cars being developed."
Were there any areas of the car that still offered the potential for significant gains?
Newey: "Each year our simulations get better and better, but there are still areas of black art. One of the biggest is the lack of knowledge of how the tyre behaves. The tyre manufacturers themselves don't properly understand their product, not by a long stretch, and neither do we. It's a very complex area. Aerodynamics is another area. To be perfectly honest, we only simulate the aerodynamics. We run a model at less than full Reynold's Number, and the wind tunnel model doesn't get into some of the positions the actual car does on the track, so it is a simulation by definition. CFD is a long way off replacing the wind tunnel; it is only a design guide. I have to admit that there are still enough black art areas that I always get nervous before the first runs of a new car."
The next decade in Formula1 will see a major escalation in Manufacturer involvement, with many of the major players in the world automotive market slugging it out on the track as well as the dealer forecourts. America (Ford/Jaguar and Daimler-Chrysler) versus Europe (Daimler-Chrysler, BMW, FIAT/Ferrari, probably Renault and possibly Peugeot) versus Japan (Honda and Toyota). How did Newey see this affecting his work?
"I can only see ever spiralling resources. While it is good for the motor manufacturers to be coming in, major manufacturers won't want to lose, and so I think that the pressure and the resources involved are likely to take another step upwards. Only one of them can win and BMW will not like being beaten by Mercedes and visa versa. It's almost better not to be involved.
"We will be competing against manufacturers who have taken 2 or 3 years to prepare for an entry into Formula1 - BMW with their engine and Toyota with the whole car - and the lack of distraction of developing a current car is an advantage. However, the lack of focus, provided by actually competing with the car, is a disadvantage - it is six of one and half a dozen of the other. Usually when a new team comes in, if it is a good team, it may have a good first year and then struggle during its second year. It has had the luxury of being able to design that first car without racing, while the second car it designs it has to do while racing the first."
I tried to draw Newey out on drivers, but he politically correctly declined, as the questions would be "Édifficult to answer without upsetting somebody". He emphasised the importance of building a good rapport with a driver and had particularly done so when working with Bobby Rahal. "That rapport is essential to get the best out of the car and the best out of the driver. It doesn't necessarily have to be that the driver is a good engineer, he just needs to have a good feel for the car and to be able to report that back. The driver's role is just as important now we have all this data. The problem with data recording is that it reports just what the car is doing but, lets say that the driver has a problem with nervous entry, then he will change his line and it may look on the data as if the car is understeering. Data recording can only go so far in telling you what the car is doing, but you still have to talk to and understand the driver. For me, the driver's comments are still first and foremost, above what the data says. When I first started, data recorders hadn't come in; it is an extra tool for the race engineer, which you then marry with the driver's comments. Some drivers, like Mansell and Prost, didn't actually need a race engineer, they needed a bookkeeper to make sure they had fuel and tyres; and they almost set-up the car from the cockpit. You can go to the other extreme, where the driver only reports what is wrong with the car and then takes no further interest in what the engineer changes on the car to address those problems. I think the balance should be in the middle."
Newey was equally cautious in making comparisons between Williams and McLaren. "At the shop floor level there are not big differences. The biggest difference is that McLaren has a very organised management structure, whereas Williams tend to evolve in its day-to-day management from Frank's (Williams) and Patrick's (Head) inputs. Both have been successful over a long period, and which style is the most effective is open to discussion - they are different techniques but the resulting differences are small."
Newey's views on McLaren's current closest competitor, Ferrari, are from outside the organisation. "They were, in days gone by, a very chaotic and emotional team. Very passionate, but perhaps sometimes that passion clouded judgement. The modern Ferrari is an altogether different team. It has a very substantial English contribution at the higher end of the company and I'm not sure that now, in other than name, Ferrari has much link with the Ferrari of the past."
For much of the time that Newey has worked in Formula1 his cars have tended to beat the others, and so it is perhaps not surprising that it is cars from before this period that impressed him most. Top of the list are the Lotus T49: "Éintegrated, pretty and elegant - the last classic", and the T78 and T79 Lotus: "Éfor their aerodynamics; I talked to Mario Andretti about the T79's mechanical side: he said he could drive along the straight and actually watch it flexing." It is therefore not surprising that Colin Chapman is the designer that most inspired Newey during the Ô70's, as he worked his way towards a career in motor racing.
Adrian Newey has reached the top of his profession, aged just 40. He is now the person that aspiring designers and engineers strive to beat. How long will he continue to defend his position, or are there other mountains to climb?
"No, I don't want to do this forever. I enjoy it, but it is hard work and very un-social. It is also quite high pressure - you can't avoid that - and I think it has actually become worse as it has become more public. You can't go down to the local pub and drown your sorrows after a bad Sunday, because someone will come up and want to know all about what happened. There aren't particular other things I want to do in motor racing, though I sometimes think it would be good to go back and do a bit of race engineering in CART, but it would just be too frustrating. It would have to be something very different - Le Mans maybe.
"I've always had an interest in road cars, especially small sports cars like the Lotus Elise - a nice piece of design. I'm not a frustrated yacht designer or architect, though I do have an interest in aircraft, but I wouldn't want to go and work for a large aircraft company."
For relaxation Newey plays tennis and water skis, and owns a pre-war Jaguar with which he participates in one or two rallies each year: "You could say that is a busman's holiday, but it is so completely different from my work."
He has a young son and daughter and, though he would not push them in anyway towards becoming engineers, he considers that motor sport engineering has now become a respected engineering discipline, and that it has certainly turned out to be a good career for him, contrary to his father's advice. Times have changed.
Adrian Newey is currently in great demand, with rumoured offers from Ford and Ferrari that rank his worth amongst that of the best drivers. If he accepted one of these offers, and this seems unlikely as he is apparently very happy and fits in well at McLaren, he must surely be one of the best paid engineers ever. In spite of his established worth, he is quietly modest and at pains to give others credit. However, he exudes a confidence based on his deep understanding of what it takes to make a Formula1 car fast, and which must also originate from knowing that he is simply the best.