What next for Adrian Newey? Jeremy Clarkson’s schoolmate turned genius behind Red Bull

Adrian Newey - Adrian Newey: Jeremy Clarkson's schoolmate turned genius behind Red Bull
Adrian Newey has designed cars that have won a combined total of 25 drivers' and constructors' world championships - David Davies/PA

Thirty years to the day after he was deeply involved in the sport’s greatest modern tragedy, a British figure from Formula One’s shadows has been catapulted into the limelight.

Adrian Newey, 65, is revered in racing. As a designer he has been dubbed “The Wind Whisperer” for aerodynamic skills which have propelled multiple teams to victory, including current world champions Red Bull. He is celebrated for using his drawing board to express his genius ideas to the world in an era where computer-aided design (CAD) software has taken over.

He represents the fight for what F1 once stood for, a bastion of traditions set over more than 50 years of motor racing, yet steers himself well away from the limelight as he operates in the shadows of the paddock and, for more than half the year, back at the team factory in Milton Keynes.

Now, however, Newey has decided to move on, unsettled by the off-track controversy engulfing the team and its principal, Christian Horner as well as other political wranglings within the team.

Newey (L) and Christian Horner at the Bahrain International Circuit
Newey (left) and Christian Horner at the Bahrain International Circuit - Getty Images

Only once has he previously come to the attention of a public beyond F1 fans, in connection with the death of the superstar driver Ayrton Senna exactly three decades ago.

The Brazilian multiple world champion died on May 1, 1994 as a result of a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in a Williams car designed in part by Newey, who was then a young man still establishing his reputation. “People ask me if I feel guilty about Ayrton. I do,” Newey wrote in his autobiography. “I was one of the senior officers in a team that designed a car in which a great man was killed.”

Newey, along with other Williams team members, was prosecuted in Italy after the crash and acquitted of manslaughter in 1997 before further proceedings were finally dropped in 2005. It was a lengthy and worrying process, and the traumatic events of that day stayed with him for many years. “I’ve had one driver die in a car I’ve designed,” Newey wrote. “Ayrton. That fact weighs heavily upon me.”

The aftermath of the crash that killed Ayrton Senna at the Imola circuit in 1991
The aftermath of the crash that killed Ayrton Senna at the Imola circuit in 1991. Newey was one of the designers behind the Williams car - Jean-Marc LOUBAT/Getty

The designer was born on Boxing Day, 1958 in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father was a vet and his mother had driven ambulances during the Second World War. He was educated at Repton public school, where a fellow pupil was the Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson; but Newey was asked to leave following an incident at a school concert in which he adjusted the sound system’s amplification levels drastically upwards, with shattering results for ancient stained glass windows.

He moved on, via a technical college, to Southampton University, where he gained a first class degree in aeronautics, and very soon afterwards he was working with one of the lesser Formula One teams.

Newey at the Saudi Grand Prix in March
Newey at the Saudi Grand Prix in March. The gifted designer has been a background figure for most of his career – but remains one of the most influential figures in the sport - Reuters

He did not stay at the back of the grid for long, moving first to March, then Williams, where despite the tragedy of Senna’s death he contributed to multiple race victories and world championships. Newey headed on in 1997 to further glory at McLaren, and joined Red Bull in 2006. In all, so far, he has designed cars that have won a combined total of 25 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, and more than 200 individual grands prix.

Those numbers seem sure to tick upwards again this year, when Red Bull has been dominant on the track. Off it, however, the team has been riven by controversy surrounding Horner, who was accused earlier this year of controlling behaviour by a female employee. Horner denied all allegations and was cleared by an independent investigation, the verdict of which has been appealed by the colleague.

This has distracted from the extraordinary achievements of Newey and his design team, whose latest creation, the Red Bull RB20, has seemed all but unstoppable in the hands of reigning world champion Max Verstappen.

While Verstappen employs his brainchild to devastating effect on the track, Newey plays a less prominent role in public; though often present at race weekends he is mostly to be seen in the background, a close-cropped and stubbly figure prowling the starting grid with a clipboard in hand, always alert for the slightest design tweak on rivals’ cars, or perched among the technicians on the pitwall during the race, murmuring tactical advice into his headset microphone.

'He's very special, maybe exists once,' said Aston Martin's owner
'He's very special, maybe exists once,' said Aston Martin's owner - Getty Images

If the drivers and Horner, who is married to the former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, may seem more glamorous, Newey is no bloodless technocrat. He not only enjoys designing fast cars, he enjoys driving and racing them.

In the heat of competition he has caused very expensive levels of damage to two classic sports cars, a Ford GT40 at the Le Mans Classic and a Jaguar E-Type at the Goodwood Revival meeting. He suffered no more than a cut finger in the incidents, though he was briefly hospitalised after a crash in a sports car race at Snetterton in 2010.

Nor does he restrict himself to such gentlemanly vehicles as classic sports cars – he has competed creditably against professional drivers in contemporary sports cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and demonstrated with gusto one of his own high-technology Formula One creations, the Red Bull RB5, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Newey has been married three times and has four children. Harrison, his son by his second wife Marigold, has competed in single seaters and sportscars without ever ascending to the highest levels of the sport.

As his 70s loom on the horizon, Newey might be forgiven for wanting to spend more time with his family – and his car collection. But the lure of another challenge may prove too tempting. Perhaps at Ferrari, Formula One’s most celebrated team, where the budgets and the adulation of the Italian public are equally limitless. After all, Newey is said to earn around £15 million a year at Red Bull, more than all but the finest drivers on the Formula One grid.

Aston Martin, a British-based team with a great heritage hungry for the contemporary achievement to match it, may be another suitor. Like Ferrari, it also has a stable of road cars that might benefit from Newey’s input. For though wind-tunnels and computerised analysis are now standard across the sport, it is Newey’s vision that, decade after decade, has given teams an edge.

There is no doubt of the high regard in which he is held. “I think Adrian’s a unicorn,” Aston Martin’s owner, the billionaire Lawrence Stroll, declared. “He’s very special, maybe exists once.”

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