March 881 – 1988
The first all-Newey Formula 1 car was fairly light on results, but the reasons for that were other than its aerodynamic properties. The car was years ahead on that score. The March 881 was aggressively conceived with a tiny frontal area – barely enough cockpit space inside for the drivers' feet to fit the pedals – a raised nose and sculpting in the shaping of the wing endplates. The latter are common features now but were radical then. But its most startling aspect was only properly appreciated when seen alongside rival cars – it was tiny.
The car's Judd engine had a serious horsepower shortfall, the team was inexperienced and the Ivan Capelli/Mauricio Gugelmin driver lineup was good but not outstanding. As a result of these factors, it achieved only a few podium results, yet its performance through fast corners left every F1 designer under no illusions a new aero benchmark had been set. Newey says today that had Williams run the car and Mansell driven it, it would have won races.
So it's somewhat ironic that the car that dominated the season – McLaren's legendary MP4/4 took 15 victories from 16 races – was a rather less progressive design than this minnow of a car. Despite a horsepower deficit of around 80hp, Capelli was able to finish on Alain Prost's tail in the Portuguese Grand Prix, and to cheekily take the lead from him in Suzuka, continuing to hound him until engine failure put him out. Getting such form from the car consistently wasn't so easy given the newness and resources of the team, but when balanced it was recognized as having no peer through high-speed, aero-demanding corners.
A yet more extreme version of the car, the 891, with a narrow-angle engine and inboard gear cluster to make for a bigger diffuser, had its moments once various development problems – including a major wind tunnel glitch – were overcome. This design carried into 1990, when only mechanical unreliability prevented possible consecutive victories for Capelli in the French and British grands prix. By then, however, Newey was gone, already hard at work on the Williams FW14.
McLaren MP4-20 – 2005
With this car, McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen lost a straight title duel against Renault and Fernando Alonso in 2005, but it was without doubt the season's fastest car. Had its Mercedes-Benz V10 been more reliable, it would have blitzed the championship.
Everything about MP4-20 screamed Newey, from aggressively elegant front wing to the obsessive drive for weight saving that allowed it to have the most forward-biased weight distribution by use of ballast. It was his “comeback” car after the MP4-18 debacle of 2003 (see sidebar). While he'd been trying to make that radical concept work, a different aero group had conceived the disappointing MP4-19 of 2004. The MP4-20 incorporated the aero ideas Newey had been trying for on the ill-fated MP4-18 but with less radical construction.
This was in the days of the tire war, when new compounds developed almost by the race. The aggressive rubber combined with two key regulations: 1) limiting the rear tire width to only slightly more than that of the front, and 2) the same compound had to be used on all four tires. Consequently, rear tire life became the limiting factor in how grippy a compound you could use. Newey endeavored to get as much weight as possible off the rear and onto the under-worked front tires and he achieved this with a then-remarkable 48-52 percent front-rear split. The MP4-20 could often use a whole step softer Michelin than the more rearward-biased Renault R25, to the benefit of grip.
What the MP4-20 could also do – again because of the front-biased weight distribution – was have a lot more downforce for a given level of drag. Because aero distribution generally has to be matched to the weight distribution, it followed that the McLaren derived a greater proportion of its total downforce from the front than other cars. Front downforce carries negligible drag penalty whereas rear downforce is very draggy. The McLaren was significantly more aero-efficient than the competition.
At Barcelona, the season's most aero-demanding track, Raikkonen was able to build up such a lead in the opening 24-lap stint that he was able to make his first pit stop and rejoin without losing his lead to the chasing Renault of Alonso. Unfortunately, the car was just as likely to pull aside with smoke wisps from its nether regions. With the MP4-20 it was all-or-nothing.