Feature

TREMAYNE: ‘He’s the man who can see and bend air’ – Why Adrian Newey will be such a big loss to Red Bull

Hall of Fame F1 Journalist

David Tremayne
Share
Tremayne_on_Newey_V2.jpg

The 1988 Japanese GP came towards the end of my first full season of F1. And while it was ultimately a showcase – yet again – for the superiority of the turbocharged McLaren MP4/4 Hondas, which were the Red Bulls of their day long before anyone had ever heard that name – they were chased initially by an outstandingly attractive Miami Blue car driven by Ivan Capelli and powered by a proprietary, normally aspirated Judd V8 engine.

As champion-to-be Ayrton Senna recovered from a poor start and leader Alain Prost struggled with an occasionally baulky gearchange, Capelli squeezed the sleekly raised nose of his March 881 ahead of the McLaren as they crossed the finish line on the 16th lap, to huge cheers from spectators and media.

READ MORE: Red Bull confirm legendary F1 designer Newey is to leave the team

Of course, it didn’t last long. Prost had the inside line down to Turn 1 and another 100bhp to play with, and soon after he had reasserted himself the March was gone, its electrics dead.

Eyebrows were certainly raised over the performance of the relatively low-funded team, with a 3.5-litre atmo engine developed by John Judd’s modest company in Rugby that hadn’t had anything like the budget Honda had sunk into their 1.5-litre turbo.

But what really lay beneath that stunning performance was Adrian Newey’s understanding of aerodynamics, and that season was really the first manifestation of that in the F1 arena.

Ivan Capelli, March-Judd 881, Grand Prix of Germany, Hockenheimring, 24 July 1988. (Photo by

Ivan Capelli at the wheel of his Adrian Newey-designed March-Judd 881 in 1988

It wasn’t just technical knowledge, either; he had honed his practical skills on the 230mph ovals of IndyCar racing working for March between 1984 and ‘86.

Small wonder that in some circles he is known as the man who can see and bend air, since he has such an uncanny ability to envision its flow characteristics almost as if he has no personal need for that greeny-yellow flow-vis paint teams sometimes use in a weekend’s first free practice sessions.

BEYOND THE GRID: Red Bull's legendary designer Adrian Newey on the secrets behind his immense success

With his 1989 March CG891 and its Leyton House brethren, he demonstrated that further, to the point where Patrick Head at Williams grabbed him for 1991.

That set up the series of hi-tech, super-aerodynamic FW14s and FW15s that made champions of Nigel Mansell and (for his fourth time) Prost. Senna himself was attracted by Adrian’s genius and left McLaren for Williams for 1994, but sadly didn’t live long enough to benefit from it.

Adrian Newey, Patrick Head, Alain Prost, Williams-Renault FW15C, Grand Prix of San Marino,

Patrick Head snapped him up for Williams where he helped design title winning cars for Mansell, Prost, Hill and Villeneuve

But Damon Hill won the 1996 title in an FW16, and Jacques Villeneuve repeated the feat in 1997 in the FW17. Then Adrian decamped to McLaren, where boss Ron Dennis was all too aware that he'd missed a trick not hiring him sooner. Legend has it that, always the renegade, the first thing Adrian did was have his office painted duck egg blue. Ron, with his love of grey, was reportedly unamused.

Titles followed for Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999, but Adrian didn’t always get it right; his shrink-wrapped MP4-18 never actually raced because he had cut the limits just that bit too fine.

INSIGHT: A closer look at the 12 constructors’ title-winning cars Adrian Newey has designed

He nearly escaped to Jaguar in 2001 before Ron’s hounds dragged him back, but for 2006 he could not resist Dietrich Mateschitz’s offer to join Red Bull.

Adrian had never been one for being told how to behave or dress, and Red Bull was a haven compared with the strait-jacketed atmosphere chez McLaren. Yet again, he thrived, and this time the beneficiary was Sebastian Vettel who stamped his authority from 2010 to 2013 as Adrian’s expertise embraced blown diffusers which generated even more downforce.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 25:  Sebastian Vettel (C) of Germany and Red Bull Racing celebrates

At Red Bull, Newey helped make Sebastian Vettel a four-time world champion

The first turbo-hybrid era was a power race and the pendulum swung in Mercedes' favour until 2021, when Adrian’s RB16B with Max Verstappen finally – albeit controversially – unseated Lewis Hamilton.

And nobody understands better the latest ground effect rules which came into force in 2022, than Newey. Verstappen is clearly as special a driver as the greatest past champions, but nobody would deny, least of all Max himself, that the greatest weapon in his armoury is the car designed by Adrian Newey.

READ MORE: 35 years after he first made his mark, surely Newey is now the greatest designer in F1 history

It's hardly surprising, then, that Adrian has been rated by many team bosses as every bit as important as the best drivers, in some cases considerably more.

Having Adrian Newey penning your latest car in full scale on his drawing board, before others transfer it to cadcam is a virtual (ironically) guarantee that success – probably even domination – will ensue.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 08: Adrian Newey, the Chief Technical Officer of Red Bull Racing looks

Newey is known by some as 'the man who can see and bend air', such is his genius for aerodynamics

And the extraordinary thing, when you look at his towering achievements – which have been enacted on a very different stage to that on which Lotus boss Colin Chapman was able consistently to break new ground by employing different technology in F1 in the 60s and 70s, or McLaren’s John Barnard to introduce a revolutionary new material allied to an all-new manner of construction in the 80s – is their depth and range are not all that has been remarkable.

The two deepest factors are that Adrian has just got better and better, and yet remained a fundamentally modest and self-effacing fellow. How many F1 people do you know, with whom you might not have spoken in any depth for a while, who greet you with the words, “It’s nice to have a catch-up”?

READ MORE > TECH WEEKLY: The incredibly intricate cooling details so crucial to the Red Bull RB20’s concept

Or, as he did last year when we arrived in Miami and, having been the first to the luggage carousel which precedes immigration direct from his front-of-plane seat, quite happily stand round talking to other passengers who approached him even though his bags were just about the last to arrive?

But there has always been a restless gene, too. This quiet genius has produced cars that have won 13 world championships for drivers (Nigel Mansell 1992; Alain Prost 1993; Damon Hill 1996; Jacques Villeneuve 1997; Mika Hakkinen 1998 and 1999; Sebastian Vettel 2010 to 2013; and Max Verstappen 2021 to 2023) and 12 world championships for Constructors (Williams 1992 to 1994, and 1996 and 1997; McLaren 1998; Red Bull 2010 to 2013; and 2022 to 2023).

And those numbers are likely to increase to 14 and 13 respectively by the end of 2024.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull

Newey's latest design, the RB20, is again the class of the field and will surely help Verstappen and Red Bull wrap up both championships again this year

Now, just as Red Bull seemed to be such an excellent fit for a self-confessed maverick, it seems that restlessness will take him elsewhere. Perhaps he just needs a change and yet another new challenge.

As he once wrote, “You might say I’m lacking sentimentality, but I prefer to think of it as taking a clear-eyed view of the future.”

ANALYSIS: Adrian Newey's Red Bull exit is confirmed – what next for the star designer?

Mercedes? Would he fit into Toto Wolff’s carefully crafted structure? If I were a betting man, I might be tempted to have a flutter on Aston Martin, with whom he already had links via the state-of-the-art Valkyrie road car and from whom he received a reportedly huge offer in Jeddah. Just imagine the upheaval that would cause the three major teams…

But having been blindsided by Lewis leaving Mercedes for Ferrari, I’m bound to say it wouldn’t surprise me if Adrian decided on one last blast with the sport’s most famous team, so I’d cover with a bet on that too.

Lewis, in a Newey Ferrari, going for that elusive record eighth world championship, with Charles Leclerc as team mate – now there’s a thought!

What makes Adrian Newey so good?

Share

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Coming Up

Coming Up

Feature

What the teams said – Qualifying in Imola