Newey on the problems facing F1

"If a team has more money, it will just find ways to spend it. I don’t see it as healthy or unhealthy. What is unhealthy is the restrictive regulations that hinder new ideas," says Adrian Newey, the legendary F1 designer.

Adrian Newey, the Chief Technical Officer of Red Bull Racing.   -  Getty Images

A perfect team… Red Bull Racing’s Chief Design Engineer Adrian Newey celebrates on the podium with winner Sebastian Vettel at the Indian Grand Prix in 2013.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

Adrian Newey, the Chief Technical Officer of Red Bull Racing, is arguably Formula One’s most successful designer, having designed title-winning cars for three different teams (Williams, McLaren and Red Bull).

The 57-year-old British legend, who still prefers to work old style using a pencil and drawing board instead of CAD systems, was recently in Chennai as a doting father accompanying his son Harrison Newey, who was competing in the final round of the MRF Challenge.

Newey spoke to Sportstar about the problems facing F1 with declining audience, possible solutions, and more.

Question: Is F1 still a competitive sport especially with the perception now being that the machine matters more than the driver?

Answer: Yes, it is absolutely a highly competitive sport. There are three parts to it: the driver, the chassis and the engine. It is important they stay in a balance. It is possible to win with a decent combination of those, though it is a problem now since the engine is so dominating.

You have been critical of the new rules that focus more on the engine. But critics say that when Red Bull were winning, the focus was on the chassis and the aerodynamics that played to your team’s strengths. So why the double standard now?

I think, first of all, though we managed to win four titles, in 2010 and 2012 the battle went down to the wire. Secondly, with aero and chassis, it is out on view; people can see, understand and copy. We did that by reading the rules and regulations well and not with a huge budget. With the engine formula, it is difficult to copy. The only way to catch up is with huge investments and with people moving from one team to another. Ferrari improved, but it cost them a lot of money and needed people from Mercedes. It is a hard job for an engine company if they don’t take people from successful teams.

How has F1 evolved in terms of man versus machine from the time it started?

F1 has managed to keep a reasonable balance where it has always been a combination of the car and the driver. If you see two cars lining up on the same row, that shows it is car dominated. The biggest change has been the amount of money available to the teams and the amount they can invest in research. In the late 1980s, when I was with Leyton House, we had a team of 50 people. Now a mid-grid team has more than 400 people.

Do you see it as a healthy trend?

It is down to the money that comes to the sport. If a team has more money it will just find ways to spend it. I don’t see it as healthy or unhealthy. What is unhealthy is the restrictive regulations that hinder new ideas. That’s why you see no difference in how cars look, and if you were to paint all cars white you won’t know the difference between the teams.

How do you strike a balance between more open regulations without allowing the possibility of creating a spending war where teams spend huge sums of money because they are free to do so?

One possibility is to restrict aerodynamics testing. The biggest performance differentiator with respect to the chassis is aerodynamics. It costs in terms of hiring aerodynamics engineers to design and then manufacture these parts. There have been suggestions to impose cost cap, but it is difficult to police especially since the major car manufacturers have divisions. We need to reduce wind tunnel testing and use CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics), and restrict the computer cluster size for CFD, so that would limit how much testing you can do. With that, you also put a restriction on the number of people working on it. Another option is to reduce the number of updates you can bring to cars in terms of number of front wings and rear wings — like one update for four to five races or so.

You have reduced your involvement with Red Bull. Do the proposed 2017 regulations excite you to make a fulltime comeback to F1?

For the 2017 regulations, the initial idea was to make the cars difficult to drive with more downforce, and also to improve the overtaking. Now the cars are badly affected by the turbulent air from the car in front. The idea is to make it more physical. Now the drivers are getting out of the car hardly sweating, which is a big contrast to what it was a few years ago. That was the idea behind the new regulations. Unfortunately, the drafting of these regulations is done by a committee with members from all teams, and, of course, there is no agreement. Everyone goes in different directions. In the regulation-making procedure now, the individual teams have a vote, the FIA has a vote, the FOM has one, and even circuits and sponsors have a say. The bottom line is that, once you have a committee where no one agrees, nothing changes in the sport. The situation we are in, there is a feeling that the sport is not that healthy at the moment. But there are no significant changes. The cost of the engines will be reduced, which is good, but we have to address other fundamental problems.

What stopped you from going to Ferrari?

I loved working at Red Bull. We did have a talk, but ultimately, I enjoyed the atmosphere at Red Bull.

How worried are you about the declining F1 viewership?

I am worried, and it’s a great shame. The seriousness of the situation is difficult to judge. These things are transient. A big battle between (Sebastian) Vettel and (Lewis) Hamilton would boost the figures again. But what is unhealthy about the sport at the moment is the engine regulations. The customer teams of Ferraris and Mercedes, all their engines are tuned down with a software. So, they can’t really compete with the works teams. Something needs to be done to bring the engines closer together. It’s wrong that customer teams are supplied with engines of lowest specifications. There is an interesting piece of history. The 3-litre formula came in 1966 and the Cosworth came in 1967. That was an exclusive engine for Lotus. There was a deal between Ford, Cosworth and Lotus. Only Lotus could use that engine. It became very clear that the engine was going to be sufficiently dominant. Any other private British team couldn’t compete with that engine. Then, Lotus agreed to waive its exclusivity to allow others to use it for the good of the sport. Unfortunately, that sort of attitude doesn’t seem to exist anymore. The manufacturers who have been involved in the sport are not willing to adopt that pragmatic view to help the sport. If the sport is not healthy, what is the point in winning?

What are the realistic targets for Red Bull in 2016 now that you are stuck with Renault engines albeit a modified one with the help of engine specialist Mario Illien?

Yes, Mario Illien is helping us and is a gifted engineer but in reality, with his small team and budget, even he can’t do miracles. Hopefully we’ll make some progress, and if we can manage (to close) the gap then we will be doing well. The top engines of Ferrari and Mercedes will be moving forward and Honda will probably make a big step. Gradually there is a danger that towards the end we will be further behind than we were last year.

You briefly worked with Ayrton Senna. How difficult was it to get past his fatal accident? Was it a bitter pill that his life ended in one of your cars?

It was a very difficult period for all of us in the team. It was not a bitter pill but just immense sadness that it happened. It was such a waste that Ayrton passed away and in circumstances that we will never fully understand.

Which driver, according to you, got the best out of your car?

It will be unfair to single out one driver. I have been lucky to win with great drivers. Each driver brings different things to the team. Sebastian Vettel understood the tyres and the mechanical grip while Mark Webber understood the aerodynamics — they kind of complemented the engineering team to improve the car.

At times in the past, your cars have been the quickest on the grid but lost out due to unreliability? Do you regret those missed chances?

It is a combination of reliability and sometimes drivers making mistakes at crucial times. In 1995 (Williams), 2005 (McLaren) and 2009 (Red Bull), we probably had the quickest car but failed to win titles. In 2005, with Kimi (Raikkonen) it was up and down with some reliability issues, and with Vettel in 2009, he was a bit too young. Reliability is always a difficult one. One of the spin-offs of more resources is that cars are now very reliable. Probably in those years, we focussed more on performance compromising reliability, but no one thanks you for a slow reliable car.

Do you think Vettel or Hamilton can surpass Michael Schumacher’s record?

Why not? When Alain Prost set his, no one thought it would ever be beaten. Records have the habit of being beaten.

Which is your favourite car that you designed?

I don’t have a favourite. I enjoyed working with all those teams and engineers. If the car does well, it’s personally satisfying. 1998 was surely satisfying to move from Williams to McLaren and win straight-out. 2009 was the breakthrough year in Red Bull; we didn’t win the championship but we had a good run at it.

What is your take on the MRF Challenge?

I have been following the MRF Series for some years now, as they were one of the support races during the Indian Grand Prix. They are doing an exceptional job with MRF and JA Motorsport. It is becoming bigger in Europe with lots of European drivers joining and it will be great if we can develop more Indian drivers.

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