Adrian Newey is the best Formula 1 designer of his generation – and arguably has been for the past two decades. Starting with last year's World Championship winner, we pick his five biggest hits.
Red Bull RB6 – 2010
Newey describes the double titles taken by this car last year as finishing off the work he started with the March 881 – beating the sport's giants with an independent team by sheer creative force.
There was innovation everywhere in the RB6 – from its pullrod rear suspension that created such a fantastic rear over-body airflow, to its pared-down sculpted nose and the anteater-like rake that the car could run while still meeting the stationary ground clearance requirements. Able to run its nose and front wing almost to the ground, despite having to be 25mm (0.984 inches) above it when measured, was in itself reckoned to provide downforce worth around 0.25sec per lap. The longer and faster the corners, the bigger the RB6's advantage.
The final flourish of the car's design was its exhaust gas-energized diffuser. This was widely copied by rivals, but still the RB6 held a convincing aero advantage throughout last season.
It was as if the upper-body airflow permitted by the pullrod suspension – because the suspension rockers are set down low, at the bottom of the wheel rather than the top – kept the diffuser from stalling even when the car ran with the rake necessary to get the nose so low. To achieve this nose-down stance required more than just rake, however. For it to be physically possible required the “tea tray” leading edge of the floor be flexible enough to bend upward as aero loads forced the nose down. Why? Because otherwise the floor would have dug a channel into the track! Yet that “tea tray” passed even the increased load test placed upon it from round 14 onward.
A vital key to the car's aero performance would therefore appear to have been some non-linear flexibility in the floor once past the test load limit. Red Bull Racing has invested a lot in computing power for calculating complex carbon lay-up patterns that give the precise combination of non-linear flexibility required. In the RB6, Newey harnessed such cutting-edge knowledge and technology to enable a vision that was (is?) simply beyond the scope of his rivals.
Around the long-duration turns of the Hungaroring, the car qualified 1.2sec faster than anything else. “Do you know how much more downforce you need to do that?” asked a stunned rival technical director. “About 20 percent….”
Williams FW14B – 1992
Keeping the car's basic platform level immune from the usual pitch, dive and roll of a conventionally suspended car enables a truly massive aerodynamic gain to be achieved. If you can computer control the movements so constant adjustments are made in reaction to huge input speeds of data, that aero leap will be reachable. That was the basis of the Williams FW14B's superiority in 1992 when it took 15 poles from 16 races, catapulting Nigel Mansell to a dominant World Championship.
Back in 1988, Williams' technical director Patrick Head recognized Newey's March/Leyton House designs were aerodynamically well in advance of what Williams' design office was creating at the time. Head handed over the role of chief designer to Newey and 1991's FW14 was essentially a marriage of the March aero package with Renault's superb V10. It was the season's fastest car, only early season unreliability causing Mansell and Williams to lose the drivers' and constructors' titles to Ayrton Senna and McLaren-Honda.
During that season, Head and Newey were in intense discussion about what Newey saw as the next logical step: active-ride suspension. The concept had been around F1 since 1983 when Lotus tried it. Subsequently both Lotus and Williams had won races with actively suspended cars in 1987 but abandoned the programs, unable to translate the theoretical benefits into reality due to computing power limitations. However, by the early 1990s Newey reckoned the real potential of active ride could now be accessed. Head was dubious, yet Newey was persuasive and was eventually given the green light.
The Formula 1 world reeled as the FW14B was given its head by the fearless Mansell, ignoring all the usual feedback traits to his body as irrelevant, knowing that all he had to do was have faith, that the car would grip despite the messages he was getting. It began the year in Kyalami qualifying 0.7sec quicker than the opposition, at the next race 1sec and in Brazil left Senna's McLaren 1.4sec adrift. By the time of Silverstone, midseason, Mansell was qualifying an outrageous 2.7sec faster than the fastest non-Williams.
That the car was superior was borne of Newey's extreme depth of aerodynamic understanding. That it was such a quantum leap was a combination of that with the white-hot intensity of his competitive will.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.Red Bull X1 – 2010
OK, this one's not real, just a virtual reality machine for the PlayStation Gran Turismo 5 game. But it was designed with the input of Newey and its theoretical performance – around 20sec per lap faster than a current F1 Red Bull – has been derived from Red Bull's simulation tools.
The X1 is essentially what a Formula 1 car of 2010 would look like were it not for the layers of restrictions the rulebook has imposed over the years in order to keep lap speeds in check. Enclosed wheels (banned since '61) and cockpit ensure a massively better drag figure than the comparatively brick-like open-wheelers. It is powered by a 3-liter, direct-injection turbo V6 – the optimum trade-off between physical size and sheer power – which gives it a theoretical 1,483hp at 15,000rpm.
Engine speed is relatively low, but the trade-off is a massive 527lb-ft of torque – around two-and-a-half times the low-down grunt of a current car.
Designed in conjunction with the Gran Turismo game inventor Kazunori Yamauchi and the GT coders Polyphony, Newey has specified a full ground effect chassis – the rear view shows vertical venturi outlets from the sidepods – with a fan-assisted underbody sucking the car to the ground. The diffuser is full-height/full-width.
Sebastian Vettel spent a while re-programing his head when trying the car on the simulator but once he'd done so, found he could lap the Nurburgring in 1min 04.853sec (real-life lap record 1m 18.354sec) while at Suzuka he knocked 20sec off his own pole position time from 2010! Sure, it's make-believe but the numbers are derived from F1 simulation, the accuracy of which pretty much guarantees this is precisely how the car would perform. To see Vettel's virtual lap of the Nurburgring translated into an outside view, see that breathtaking grip into the turns and to know that this is all totally feasible using current technology is to realize the level Formula 1 would naturally have reached if left to its own technical devices.
Aside from that, the car is achingly beautiful. Yamauchi says of his collaboration with Newey: “He did not seem like a hard-headed engineer type. Rather, he was an artist. The communication between Adrian and myself was very smooth and exciting. It was something like an improvisation between two jazz musicians.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the February 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.