HIGH SCHOOL DROP OUT
OR WORLD'S MOTORSPORT LEADING AERODYNAMIC DESIGNER
For a lad who left school at 16, the plum job of
technical director at the McLaren International racing team would probably
seem like a lofty and impossible dream. You just don't get that kind of
post if you've flunked college, do you? Well, yes, actually you do. And
Adrian Newey, the new incumbent at McLaren, is living proof. Not only did
he drop out of school but, when he eventually got himself into higher education,
he almost failed to finish that as well. "At one point I almost dropped
out of university altogether," he says. "I was thinking: 'I just can't
do this.' "
It's an extraordinary admission from a man who
is now acknowledged as world motorsport's leading aerodynamic engineer.
A quiet, slightly self-effacing 39-year-old, Newey is in such demand that
he is in a position to choose who he works for, rather than a team choosing
ADRIAN NEWEY AT THE McLAREN
His current expertise is the peak of a lifetime's
slow accumulation of knowledge, starting with some very rough-and-ready
self-taught mechanics. The son of a Warwickshire vet, Newey was always
fascinated by cars and spent hours as a boy assembling the popular Tamiya
1/12th scale model F1 kits. "They were great because they taught you about
all the components of a racing car," he says. "All the parts were labelled
'rear upright' and 'rear top wishbone', which taught you which bits were
which as well as the terminology involved."
Despite his technical interest, it was driving
that first attracted him to motorsport. "When I got into my teens I wanted
to go karting, but my father said: 'Well, I'm not going to spoil you, so
I will give you a pound for every one you earn on a paper round'.
"So the money available for karting wasn't great.
I bought this knackered old Barlotti kart with a Villiers engine and off
I went. It was hopeless, but it did teach me to maintain and modify it,
which I think sparked my interest in the technical side."
Unfortunately, Newey was too busy wrestling with
his education to think about a full-time career in motorsport - and he
wasn't a star pupil. "I left school early - under a bit of a cloud, I have
to admit," he grins. "Then I did an OND [Ordinary National Diploma] at
the local technical college, which helped me get into Southampton University.
To be honest, I was lucky to get in because this OND wasn't really equivalent
to A-levels. I had a struggle keeping up."
Once there, however, Newey luckily met Ian Reed,
who offered him a job when he went on to become one of many draftsmen at
March Engineering. "To March's enormous credit, it recommended that I carry
on with my degree course," he says. " Just as well, because it was only
that, plus some timely encouragement from my lecturer, that persuaded me
to stay on."
He graduated with a degree in astronautics and
aeronautics and, at his subsequent position with March, at Bicester, quickly
gained a reputation for aerodynamic innovation. "I'd done that particular
degree because I felt racing cars were closer to aircraft than to road
cars," he says. "As a result, my final-year project was on ground-effect
aerodynamics. That proved very useful, because when I was subsequently
writing to every racing team for a job I could point to this fact. It was
also lucky timing, I suppose, because this was 1980, the year when ground-effect
technology in F1 was really taking off."
March boss Robin Herd was something of a mentor
to Newey and the diversity of the company's business meant that the fledgling
engineer learned a lot in a short time. The company was involved in F2,
sports cars and even built a special closed-circuit record car, but it
was on the high-speed ovals of the US Indycar championship that Newey really
honed his skills. It led him to the post of chief designer with the March
team when it returned to F1 in 1988, a role which he retained until 1991
when he accepted an invitation to join Williams to work alongside Patrick
Yet, as Newey concedes, even by that time the
days when a single individual was almost solely responsible for the design
of a specific grand prix car had long passed. Now, as he is quick to emphasise,
it's a question of teamwork. "I try to be good at delegation," he says,
"but I suppose you should really ask the people I worked with at Williams;
it might be a bit early to ask that question at McLaren! I think it's important
that people are given a reasonably free rein so that they can express themselves
in engineering terms - provided it's within the overall team structure,
So does he feel that leaving Williams late on
in 1997 for McLaren was a career step - to graduate from chief designer
to technical director? "I think, ultimately, Patrick [Head] and I got on
well, but when it came to it he was my boss," Newey reflects. "The title
'technical director', as such, doesn't interest me. But I wanted more freedom,
a fresh challenge. I'd been at Williams for seven years, remember.
"At Williams I had a great degree of autonomy,
but no influence in other areas. I have more responsibility here at McLaren,
and not just on the technical side. That's obviously the side I'm good
at, but it's nice to be involved in other things like drivers, the new
factory and so on."
Newey has already surprised other engineers with
some of the ways he likes to do things. For instance, he still likes to
map out his F1 designs on a drawing board, working to half-scale. "I just
like to have everything laid out in front of me to a reasonable scale,"
he explains. "One of the limitations of a CAD/CAM system [Computer-Aided
Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing] is the size of the screen. It is just
one of my personal preferences."
Ironically, at a time when Newey has gained more
administrative freedom at McLaren, the new 1998 narrow-track, grooved-tyre
F1 regulations have conspired to tighten even further the design straitjacket
within which grand prix car designers have to operate. Does he find that
frustrating? "It can be," he admits. "From a technical point of view, it
would be nice if the rules were less restrictive. The days of active suspension,
anti-lock braking and traction control were tremendously interesting. Even
so, I am optimistic that we have done a good job with the new MP4-13 and
we are all upbeat about the coming season."
You wonder if he might have any particular formula
for creating the right environment for his design work. Does he, perhaps,
like to have music playing in the background while he concentrates on the
high-tech intricacies of his work? The answer was instant and decisive:
"At the end of my first-year exams at college,
I listened to music all the time I was revising - and failed dismally!"
he laughs. "I'm afraid that's one thing I struggle with: noise and distraction.
I like peace and tranquillity to do my thinking. That's obviously in pretty
short supply when I'm at a race track, but it's certainly the priority
when I'm back here at the factory.
"I have a pretty varied taste in music. I like
blues, then general rock and pop, I guess, but not when I'm trying to work!"
So does he like his racing car designs to be
aesthetically pleasing, or does he believe that a car's looks must always
be secondary to out-and-out performance?
"No, I do like cars to be aesthetically satisfying,"
he admits. "Given two solutions in the wind tunnel which are aerodynamically
identical, I will try to choose the pretty one. But ultimately you've got
to go with the wind tunnel results and, of course, one has to satisfy the
regulations. I have to say I think the new breed of narrow-track cars are
less attractive than the previous ones.
"You have to realise that these changes for 1998
- the combination of narrow track, grooved tyres and wide chassis - represent
the biggest technical change since the introduction of the flat-bottom
rules at the start of 1983. But I think that rule changes through the years
have proved that the teams that are quick before the changes remain the
ones which are quick afterwards."
Looking at the opposition for 1998, Newey clearly
regards Williams and Ferrari as the ones to watch. "And the Jordans, perhaps,"
he muses. "Difficult to know, of course, but they were definitely showing
good signs last year."
Newey freely admits that he would be interested
in designing a road car at some time in the future, but the helter-skelter
intensity of life in F1 means that he is concentrating exclusively on a
single ambition: to build the best grand prix car in the business for McLaren.
The average working day sees him leaving the
factory at 8pm for the brief 20-minute drive to his new home in nearby
Ascot. Current pressures mean there is little time to indulge his passion
for old cars. He has a pre-war Jaguar SS100 and took part in the historic
Monte Carlo Rally a few years ago in, of all things, a Wolseley 1500. "Good
fun, but a little bit like banging your head against a brick wall," he
jokes. "It was nice when it stopped. I'm not sure I'd do it again."
The proof of Adrian Newey's contribution to McLaren's
F1 fortunes will be seen on the grand prix circuits of the world during
the coming season. Yet he has already stamped his identity on the company
in one small, but decisive way. Shortly after joining, he changed the rather
intimidating mahogany decor in his personal office for a more relaxing
shade of duck egg blue. Word has it that Ron Dennis briefly lost the power
of speech when he saw it for the first time!