Words and photography by Vijay Sankar

A Masterclass in Race Car Development by Formula 1’s Greatest Designer

Adrian Newey’s autobiography elegantly chronicles the design philosophies behind a select 11 Grand Prix cars that he championed over an illustrious 40-year long career. Anyone with a casual interest in automobiles, motor racing or aerodynamics will find this book to be a sure-fire stimulant. Plus the added benefit of subtle British humor and snark – there is so much to love and rave about.

Adrian Newey’s Autobiography is a lot more than just a spotlight on his engineering masterclass that raked in many constructors’ championships and worldwide acclaim.

With every turn of the page, you find yourself gushing over this genius who paved his own path in F1 with Williams and McLaren, turned down ridiculously large financial offers and film-star lifestyle to go to a nobody team called Red Bull Racing down the paddock, only to dig unfathomably deep, build it up from ground zero, and win four drivers’-constructors’ titles in a row.

Evidently, it’s a lot more than just a spotlight on his engineering masterclass that raked in many constructors’ championships and worldwide acclaim.

In his own words: It speaks of the tragedies he weathered in the process (cue Senna’s passing in Imola 1994), navigating the choppy waters of a sport that first entranced him as a car-obsessed child and subsequently accompanied him into adulthood, when he discovered a talent for turning his madness into a reality, and was fortunate enough to find paid work doing it. He comes across as a fierce competitor – though never one to pass off some indulgence in serious merrymaking – clawing back every bit of speed and performance after the FIA comes up with more restrictive regulations, trying to slow down cars for safety, year-on-year.

It is appropriate to describe him as a prima donna with an immense sense of his own value – he could call the shots and name his prize for the genius he is – and Ron Dennis of McLaren had to (regrettably) let him go for that in the mid-2000s. His uncanny ability to unravel complex engineering design problems with sheer doggedness, apply his decades of rich experience in the pressure cooker scenario of a Grand Prix race to perfection (refer Abu Dhabi 2012 – Vettel’s front wing, and Brazil 2012 – sidepod damage) and the natural ability to understand the racing driver’s mind – all add up to making him the ultimate Chief Designer-cum-Race-Strategist with no equal. Newey has, in fact, surpassed the late great Colin Chapman of Lotus. In current era of massively rarefied engineering subsystems, he could make mid-race strategy calls that could swing championships to his side. I should also add the observation that he would rather his car broke in the lead than it secured a safe second place.

Well, Ross Brawn comes a close second to Newey in my books when in comes to setting the bar for Design Innovation in F1, but Brawn does score more points in the team management side. The latter has, of course, got a championship winning car bearing his name for that reason.

How to Build a Car has managed to capture every little detail from the story of how Harvey Postlethwaite offered Newey his first opportunity as full time engineer at Fittipaldi, to his March/IndyCar and Leyton House days that truly shaped his underlying design philosophies, the heydays at Williams, the resurgence with McLaren and his bold switch to Red Bull Racing. It comes a full circle.

What the book does not downplay is Renault’s integral role in the glory of Red Bull Racing – history does overlook this to a great extent. The aerodynamic benefits reaped from the double-blown diffuser and hot-blowing off-throttle during the corner entry phase all owe their success equally to Newey’s vision and Renault’s responsiveness to make them work.

In the end, Newey’s life and work boil down to the quest for a few fundamental answers: How can we increase performance? How can we improve efficiency? How can we do this differently? How can we do this better?

Also worth a mention: Some exceptional drawings are included in the book from his design catalogs spanning three decades for you to pore over. Go figure!

Here, I cite some of my favorite technical excerpts from the memoir:

1. On the Eternal Battle between Designer and Regulator

So to get a better measure, we conducted the simple experiment of bolting lead to the roll hoop during testing to establish a center-of-gravity-height-to-lap-time ratio, and to look at how it affected tyre degradation and handling.

We conducted this test at three different tracks, and each one showed downforce to be the dominant term. It is a philosophy that has served me well over the years; to this day Red Bull run more rake than any of their rivals.

In short, the intention of the FIA had been to cut downforce by 30 per cent compared to the start-of-season 1994 cars. With the FW18 we had recovered all of it.

Now, you might say, But Adrian, by coming up with workarounds for those changes, aren’t you deliberately undermining the FIA’s efforts to improve safety in the sport? And I would have to agree — but only up to a point. First, that’s the name of the game: the FIA are always trying to come up with more restrictive regulations in order to slow the cars down, and our job, as performance designers, is to find ways to claw back that speed. That’s an integral part of the essence of Formula One, and if the FIA hadn’t come up with those regulation changes, we would have even more downforce. It’s an ongoing battle between designer and regulator.

2. On Ron Dennis, Ex-CEO of McLaren

Added to that, we had just moved into a new Norman Foster-designed factory. On the face of it, our new factory should have been good but, to appreciate why to some of us it wasn’t, you have to understand that one of the best ways to upset Ron Dennis is to sit down in his office, where he’ll usually have a few piles of papers neatly stacked on his desk, and just tip one of those piles by a few millimeters, knowing he’ll then focus on that pile for ages, because he won’t be sure whether you’ve straightened it or made it crooked. That’s him in a nutshell. He is very, very neat and organised, which of course are positive qualities until such time as they cross the line into becoming overly controlling.

To me the new building was oppressive in its ordered greyness. Reminiscent of something from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it featured rows and rows of desks with nothing out of line. Built by the Empire. Not an environment in which I, among others, found it easy to be creative. When we first moved in, we weren’t even allowed glasses of water at our desk, and absolutely no tea or coffee or personal effects. Somebody pointed out that it was probably illegal to deny workers water at their desk, so he had to relent on that, but not on the tea or coffee, and as far as personal effects went, you were allowed one family picture on your desk but it had to be stored in a drawer overnight.

Meanwhile, if you were part of the workforce, you had to enter the building walking down a circular staircase into an underground corridor with a grey floor and white walls; it felt like you were entering some Orwellian film. You’d then walk back up another circular staircase into the middle of the building, to your workstation. I hated walking through the corridor, so instead I would walk along the grass verge, then cross the inner road and enter through the race bay where the trucks were parked. I was spotted doing this by the constantly watched bank of CCTV monitors in the basement and sent an email warning me that if I did not revert to using the prescribed route into the office I would face ‘an internal examination’. Crikey.

3. On Diffuser Optimization for the RB7

The FIA now performed a U-turn. They’re very good at those. They I said that in fact, on second thoughts, now they’d come to think about it double diffusers do give too much downforce, so they were going to ban them for 2011. Now the challenge was how to claw back some of the downforce these regulation restrictions would impose.

How? Well, the side exhaust blowing into the double diffuser on the RB 6 had proved effective, and the drivers could feel the extra downforce from the exhaust system when it blew hard on the exit of low-speed corners. Using that seemed a way we might be able to recover some of the lost down-force. At the same time, we knew that, in theory, increasing the rake of the car, i.e. raising the rear ride-height, would give more downforce as it turns the whole of the flat floor into a gentle diffuser as well as lowering the front wing. The problem is that the tyre-squish area and the loss that the dirty jet of air from it causes, becomes more and more difficult to manage the higher the ride-height.

So I thought if we could arrange the exhaust system in such a way that it was pointing in the rough direction of the tyre squish, that could be a way of trying to manage it by having very high-energy exhaust gas blowing down and back into this low-energy squish area. The problem is that with the ride-heights we were targeting in low-speed corners, when squish really becomes a problem, the rear of the car is around 100mm above the ground. That means you somehow have to get the exhaust floor to drop that 100mm or so. That became the main focus of our work through the summer and autumn of 2010 researching the RB7.

Abu Dhabi GP 2012: Adrian inspecting the elements of the spare front wing mid-race to judge whether Sebastian Vettel’s damage warrants a pit stop (image from Red Bull Racing)

The answer was through lots of detailed work on the shape of the exhaust outlet and careful optimization of the surrounding bodywork, especially the vortex-creating fence on top of the floor, first introduced on the RB5, together with a much larger nose but highly cambered wings mounted to the brake ducts. Once we got it working, the downforce gains were absolutely huge, to the point that with the exhaust blowing hard we were back up towards where we’d been with the double diffuser in low-speed corners.

4. On Renault’s Role in the Red Bull Racing Saga

To maximize that effect, what we needed was for the exhaust to be blowing all the time. Normally, of course, as the driver brakes, changes down and enters the corner, he’s completely off throttle and there’s next to no exhaust flow coming out of the back, which means that in that critical braking-and-entry phase you’re not getting effective downforce from the exhaust — when you most need it. What you ideally want is for the exhaust to be working hard, not only on corner exit, which it does naturally, but also on corner entry.

Back in 1994, when I was at Williams and we last had exhausts blowing the diffuser, I had approached Bernard Dudot, technical director at Renault, to ask him whether it would be possible to keep the throttle open around the lap and regulate the power in some other way, e.g. with spark cut to individual cylinders and ignition timing. Bernard’s team had started development work on this idea, but when blown diffusers were banned in the aftermath of Imola the project was scrapped.

Seventeen years later, I asked Renault, now under the technical leader-ship of Rob White, to relaunch the project. While the Renault V8 was less powerful than the Mercedes, in this area they did a superb job of blending cylinder cut, ignition timing and throttle position to give what became known as ‘hot-blowing’. It was the key to our success in that 2011 season.

Ferrari put their exhaust in a similar place, just in front of the rear wheel, but didn’t appear to get as much out of the system as we did; McLaren had come up with an incredibly complicated exhaust system trying to achieve a similar thing, which, frankly, just didn’t work, and having struggled through pre-season testing, they then did a depressingly fast job of simply copying our exhaust and having it on the car for Melbourne, overnight making them very competitive.

5. On His Current Role in Red Bull Racing

But given my diminishing passion for the sport as it currently finds itself, I still needed to rethink things at Red Bull. l didn’t want to leave; equally, I didn’t want to be flogging my guts out trying to find competitiveness in a car that couldn’t compete on engine performance. And I wanted a new challenge. Motor racing has been a fantastic career that had absorbed me from the age of 21 at Fittipaldi’s in 1980 through to 2014, during which time the number of engineers in a top team has gone from around 5 to well over 200.

So, after lots of discussions with Christian and Jayne, we agreed the best way forward was for me to step back into a less hands-on role. I’m still involved in the design of the cars, and still spend roughly half of my time on the Formula One side of the operation — the car continues to have some features that have come off my drawing board — but most areas are now the responsibility of other senior members of the team, giving them the space to develop and grow.

6. On Creating the Aston Martin Valkyrie

Some years previously, in early 2010, Sony PlayStation had approached me to ask if I would be interested in designing a ‘no rules’ F1 car for their game. As luck would have it, we went skiing shortly afterwards but the snow that year was poor, so I used the idle moments to come up with ideas, a spec sheet and some sketches. All a bit of fun, but I enjoyed the process and the chance to come up with ideas without the constraints of the regulatory chains that we normally work within.

The Aston Martin Valkyrie (image from Red Bull Racing)

One of my other ambitions ever since I’d been a boy was to design a road-going sports car, and that had been my final-year project at university. Looking at the high-end road-going sports cars available, I felt there was an opportunity. Cars, including sports cars, have generally become very big, heavy and clumsy, with technology such as four-wheel steer then introduced to attempt to make them feel light again — while adding yet more weight! Hasn’t the point been missed?

The first thing you always have to think before you design anything is: what am I trying to achieve here? So I sat and thought: Okay, if I had the opportunity to design a road-going sports car from a clean sheet of paper, what attributes would I want from it? And the shortlist I came up with was: it must look beautiful and be a piece of art, so that even if you never drive it, you still derive joy from owning it and looking at it.

Second, when you do drive it, you must feel a tingle of excitement before you get in; maybe even trepidation that this thing is slightly intimidating, but also the confidence that you can master it as long as you are respectful and have your wits about you. It must sound great. It must be small, nimble and responsive. It should be the kind of car you can take to a circuit and lap faster than any other road car around, which again means lightweight coupled with high power. It also means that downforce becomes a necessity.

For the combustion engine, the choice really was twin turbo V6 or naturally aspirated V12. The core engine of the V6 is clearly much smaller and lighter, but to that you have to add the turbos, and the intercoolers to cool the charge air. In the end, I came to the conclusion that a high-revving solid-mounted V12 (that is, the engine also forms the structure, as on a Fl car) would be a similar weight but would require less overall cooling and would, of course, sound much more dramatic.

To keep such a high-revving engine tractable in traffic I felt we needed a small electric motor to work with it, this motor then performing many other functions: starter, alternator, reverse gears. It couples to a new transmission concept that I hope will combine very quick gear changes with a much lighter solution than the current double-clutch gearboxes used by top-end sports cars.

Complement ‘How to Build a Car’ with the following reads:

Total Competition by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr, The Perfect Car: The Biography of John Barnard and The Unfair Advantage by Mark Donohue

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