Adrian Newey is the most successful Formula 1 designer of all time, with 12 F1 constructors’ titles powering seven different drivers to F1 titles thanks to his cars. But how did the journey begin for the sport’s Genius-in-Chief?
Born in December 1958, the Briton is of the so-called Boomer Generation. Long before iPhones, the internet, constant live TV even Fax machines! Tape recorders and landline telephones were the cutting-edge technology of the time.
Hence, the youth of that era spent time outdoors and, if a petrolhead – apart from going to school, of course – life consisted of racing bikes around the hood, building soapbox cars, racing Scalextric, reading as many racing and F1-related magazines and books as humanly possible, going to every race weekend possible… and building Tamiya models.
In an enthralling interview on Beyond the Grid podcast, Red Bull’s technical boss Newey recalled his childhood and the early inspirations that launched his remarkable career: “The bit of my Dad’s make-up, or interest that did definitely rub off, was that he was a huge car enthusiast.
“He had Mini Cooper S’s and then Lotus Elans and so forth. He used to enjoy tinkering with them and modifying them and so forth. He had a small workshop in his garden, which had basic metalworking equipment and welding equipment, and so forth.
“Using that workshop was probably quite key to me. When I was about eight to 10, then I’d buy these 12-scale models. The first one was a 1967 Surtees Honda, and then the second one was the Hill Lotus. Those 12 scale models were great actually, because all the parts are labelled so you got the terminology. In assembling them, you started to understand how the chassis side of the car works.”
I started to become bored of building other people’s designs
Newey continued: “But by the time I was about 11, I started to become bored of building, effectively, other people’s designs. So I started sketching my own designs and then used my dad’s workshop to make the fold-up bits of aluminium and bits of fibreglass and so forth, to create these 12 scale models. The bits I couldn’t make, like the tyres and the engine, I just cannibalised off the old models.
“I probably exceeded ‘those’ 10,000 hours… Long boring summer holidays, I would sketch away and then make it. Whilst of course, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I think the practice of sketching and then turning that into a 3D object was great practice from a very young age,” ventured Newey.
While the young Adrian was dabbling on the mechanical side of car engineering, his interest was very much in aerodynamics and he explained why, at 19, he pursued that route: “I figured that racing cars were closer to aircraft than anything else.
“That would have been 1977. I’d avidly read every magazine I could find that had anything vaguely technical in it. I visited a few races, particularly Malory Park, which was close to where I went to school, and that was a great little paddock because you’d walk around and I could watch all the F2 cars and F5000s, and so forth.
“In those days, there wasn’t actually a lot of television or coverage of motor races. So actually seeing the cars, hearing them, smelling them, looking at them in great detail, and the paddock was completely open, so nobody minded this spotty little kid poking around.
“In fact, the opposite happened. A lot of them would actually explain what they were doing. That was that was without doubt key, combined with my attempts to go-karting. I said I’d love to go karting so we went along to the local kart tracks and my dad made the very obvious observation that, as far as he could see, a lot of the kids were there, not because they were really passionate about it, but because their Dads were.”
My Dad said if you want to go karting you’re going to have to buy your own kart.
“My Dad said, I’ll double your money,” recalled Newey. “For every pound I earned, he would put a pound in. I started washing cars, doing the newspaper rounds, picking plums from the orchard and selling them outside our veterinary practice.
“Even with the doubles, I didn’t earn very much. Anyway, the bottom line is I bought this very tired old kart, with a Villiers engine in it, and tried racing it. A combination of it and me was absolutely hopeless. It wasn’t actually the driving that really interested me. It was how to make the kart go faster.
“I then took myself on a welding course at BOC, British Oxygen Company, in North Birmingham, which was an hour’s bus ride from Stratford where I grew up. I was about 15 when I did it so I got a bit of peer pressure from all the other guys who were on the course because I actually turned out to be reasonably good at welding and brazing.
“I became the lecturer’s pet, which I got a bit of flak for. It was actually a good lesson because it made me start to learn how to fit in. I developed my Brummie accent, which was quite easy, but I think the combination of going to Mallory Park, Oulton Park, the karting, it all just helped to develop me and to understand that I needed to get to university,” he recalled.
Nevertheless, at 64, talk of Newey’s retirement was inevitably broached during the wide-ranging interview. He said of the prospect: “It’s difficult to answer. I remember when I was about 50, my father always wanted to retire when he was in his early 60s, which he did and retirement didn’t suit him that very well, to be honest. So I kind of thought in my 50s I would also retire soon, but here I still am now!”
Why? “I love it. Of course, things change and the way you do your job changes. I do now enjoy more and more working with the team and helping develop. Just working with all the engineers and seeing them develop is very rewarding.
“That’s an aspect which I particularly enjoy. I do also involve myself and other things now. So we’re doing this track car project. And I tried to take a bit more holiday time. So things do slowly change. Whether it’s F1 or something else, I need something to keep my brain active,” concluded Newey.
The Englishman’s longevity as the sport’s preeminent race car designer probably depends on how much winning the driver/s of his cars are doing. Right now, the remarkable ‘Newey-penned’ (with his substantial team of Guru’s of course) Red Bull RB19 has only been beaten once this season in 16 races.
Despite the 2023 F1 Constructors’ title being settled already, and the Drivers’ one set to be wrapped up, letting the car down at this point in time, in terms of results, is Sergio Perez – who appears to have forgotten how to drive it after the first half dozen races despite winning two GPs with it!
The reality is that both RB19s are capable of being one-two every race weekend (apart from the Singapore anomaly) if the driver of the #11 car could just get it together again, and shadow his uncatchable teammate in the #1 RBR, the Blue cars will probably be unbeatable in the six remaining races on the 2023 F1 Calendar.