Has Adrian Newey been bad for Formula 1?

Adrian Newey

As he prepares for his final race as a full-time F1 designer, we question whether Adrian Newey’s genius has been bad for the sport.

Adrian Newey can see the air. 

So goes a popular Formula 1 saying which offers a tongue-in-cheek assessment of the Englishman's genius. The long-established master of Formula 1 car design, Newey stands alongside the likes of Colin Chapman, Gordon Murray and Rory Byrne as one of the greatest minds ever to find its creative outlet in grand prix racing. Perhaps he cannot quite see the air, but he knows exactly what it’s doing.

If you’re talking records his success eclipses even Chapman. Newey’s cars have won a combined 20 drivers’ and constructors’ world titles, as well as more than 100 races. It is no exaggeration to say that there are drivers who would never have won a grand prix had they not found themselves in Newey’s cars. You could even argue that he made world champions of a few relatively average racers.

But Newey is now scaling back his day-to-day involvement with Formula 1. After almost a decade at Red Bull Racing, which has seen the Milton Keynes-based squad win four drivers’ and four constructors’ titles, he is moving into a less hands-on role. He’ll still be there to offer guidance, but F1 will no longer be his full-time job.

And some feel this is a good thing. Because there is an argument that Newey is simply so good at what he does that it actually harms the sport. 

His F1 break came at the dysfunctional Leyton House March team in the late 1980s where Newey designed beautiful cars that were made all the more stunning by their lurid turquoise liveries. The 1988 March 881 was particularly successful, scoring two podiums thanks to Ivan Capelli. 

He was fired in mid-1990 but was not out of work long, soon finding a new home at Williams. That’s when the magic really began. The first car he worked on, 1991’s FW14, won seven races and might have taken the world title but for reliability issues and the brilliance of Ayrton Senna in the McLaren. The 1992 car was better still, and is remembered as one of the most dominant in F1 history. 10 wins, nine of them for Nigel Mansell, saw the team take a commanding constructors’ crown and the Brit the drivers’ title. The ’93 was just as good, winning 10 races and earning Alain Prost his fourth championship. 

1994 was Newey lowest ebb, with Senna losing his life at the third race in San Marino. Still, six wins for Damon Hill and one for returnee Mansell earned the team the constructors’ crown. There were four more wins for Hill in ’95, though no titles, but in 1996 the Brit finally claimed the championship, while the team were constructors’ victors again. The final Williams he worked on, 1997’s FW19, secured both titles, Jacques Villeneuve taking the drivers’ crown. 

Newey then relocated to McLaren and, while Williams went into decline, the Woking-based squad began to flourish, winning the drivers’ and constructors’ title in 1998 and the drivers’ again in ‘99, both thanks to Mika Hakkinen. Newey continued to build race-winning cars - notably the ludicrously fast MP4-20 - but he endured a relatively long gap before his next title success. He departed McLaren in 2006, moving on to newcomers Red Bull. 

It wasn’t until his third car, 2009’s RB5, that the team began winning, but once they’d got going there was no stopping the team - particularly Sebastian Vettel. The German has clinched 39 race victories and four world titles in Newey-designed cars, while Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo have added a further 12 victories. The team has also racked up four constructors’ crowns. 

Newey’s brilliance is plain to see both on and off the track. His cars are things of beauty, while the record books mark him out as the greatest designer in the sport’s history. That is why Red Bull have given him a pay rise to do less work - they knew it was worthwhile to keep Newey away from Ferrari.

But there is a feeling that his cars are just too good. Some have been so dominant that they have led to very dull world championships - think of 1992, ’93, 2011 and 2013 in particular. In a sport that is increasingly obsessed by entertainment and 'the show', the presence of one man who can produce far better cars than anyone cannot be healthy. While those seasons were great for supporters of Mansell, Prost and Vettel respectively, they didn’t conjure much excitement from the rest of the fanbase. F1 is fighting for an audience in an increasingly competitive marketplace; this sort of dominance does not help viewing figures.

Perhaps his brilliant machinery has also led to some skewed driver successes, too. When the car is so far ahead of the competition, this sort of thing becomes inevitable. Without naming names, there are a few people who owe their CVs as much to Newey as to their own skill. 

The counter argument to this is that Newey’s rivals simply didn’t do a good enough job. Perhaps at times he did make the sport dull, but that is not entirely his fault. During the early ‘90s, the once-dominant McLaren had fallen from grace while Ferrari were caught in a rut that seemed it would never end. When Newey was a McLaren man Williams failed to replace him properly, while in recent years Ferrari have not managed to keep pace with his Red Bulls.

And boredom is subjective. Perhaps some fans did find Vettel’s nine successive wins last season yawn-inducing. Then again, others may have marvelled at the sheer brilliance of the RB9 he was driving. If you enjoy seeing the ultimate creative minds applying their genius to the world’s fastest racing cars then Newey has undoubtedly been good.

Ultimately the answer comes down to what you’re looking for from Formula 1. If it's close racing and the best drivers always coming out on top he’s had a negative impact. However, if that’s what you’re after, F1 probably isn’t your cup of tea. It is not a spec series and there have always been dominant teams.

If you appreciate technical brilliance and pushing the boundaries then he has been good. That is not to say you need to have enjoyed every moment of his cars’ dominance - that would be a little strange. But deep down, most F1 fans will admit to having great respect for Newey’s achievements and the soft-spoken manner with which he greets each record-breaking success.

With his reduced input next season, Formula 1 unquestionably loses out.