Adrian Newey’s not-so-greats – Part One

Adrian Newey is a legend among Formula One fans, a timeless genius who needs no introduction. If you’re a Red Bull fan, he is the man to whom you devote your undying gratitude; should you be a passionate supporter of any other team he is the man you most want to lure to your camp.

However, not all of Adrian Newey’s many Formula One designs have been winners. Indeed, since his maiden effort with the March-Judd 881 in 1988 there have been at least five Newey machines that, by rights, should have secured Championships for their respective teams. But why didn’t they? What was it that let the manufacturers down? Newey or the drivers? Read on…

The Williams FW14 penned by Newey for the 1991 season was a real stunner. Streamlined, packed with high-tech electronic wizardry and propelled by the exemplary 3.5 Litre Renault V10 engine, the Didcot-based squad were hopeful of ending a prolonged period of Mclaren dominance that had begun at the end of the 1980’s. Returning to the team after two seasons at Ferrari was the fiery Nigel Mansell, partnered by the reliable Ricardo Patrese who was in his fourth year with the team.

In the opening races of 1991 the car seemed an overly-ambitious project doomed to failure with Mansell and Patrese finishing just two of the first eight races between them. The Canadian race at Montreal proved to be a turning point though when the FW14’s filled the front row and romped off into a convincing lead for the first half of the event. Patrese eventually faded to 3rd with a malignant gearbox problem while Mansell appeared to stall his own engine on the final lap, losing a certain victory. Still, it was a sign that things were all well with the FW14 after a tricky start.

The FW14 went on to form the basis of Williams engineering right up to 1994.

The FW14 went on to form the basis of Williams engineering right up to 1994.

Four wins on the trot during the summer propelled the two Williams cars back into the title fight, with further victories in Italy, Portugal and Spain. Despite remaining in contention for the title up until the penultimate race in Japan Mansell needed nothing short of victory to wrest the championship from the ever-flamboyant Ayrton Senna. Those hopes ended when he skittled his way across a kerb and came to a rest in a cloud of gravel.

VERDICT: The FW14 lost out thanks to a combination of designer and driver error – whichever one was the deciding factor is immaterial. A compelling argument can be made for neither. Whether the electronic failure in Spa or his finger trouble in Canada cost Mansell the title is immaterial taken alongside his five retirements across the year.

The death of Senna was a blow to all involved in the sport, but nowhere was it felt more keenly than in the Williams camp. A mere four races into the partnership that Frank Williams had worked several years to achieve, the man hired to front his ‘superteam’ was gone. It fell to Damon Hill to carry their hopes against the emerging talent of Michael Schumacher, which he did with great aplomb considering it was only his second full season in the sport. Hill secured six victories over the year, but only beat Schumacher twice on equal terms; Hill inherited a win when Schumacher was disqualified and won both the races the German was forced to sit out subsequently. The Englishman also managed to pass the Benetton driver when a gearbox problem forced the eventual champion to slow at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Williams FW16b

Both Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill claimed the FW16 was difficult to tame in pre-season testing.

The Williams FW16 was itself a development of the aforementioned FW14; so good was that design that it was carried forward into 1992 (FW14B), 1993 (FW15), and 1994, eventually culminating in the car that claimed the life of the greatest driver the world has ever seen. That was itself the product of the radical rule changes introduced for 1994 after the 1993 generation of machinery was branded ‘too advanced’ on account of the numerous electronic gadgets, ranging from traction control to active suspension. Think of it as a space shuttle being flown by rank amateurs; with the electronic ‘brains’ stripped away the FW16 became a fast and dangerously unpredictable machine. After the pain of Imola it was astounding to many that the Italian courts should insist Frank Williams, Patrick Head and Newey himself appear in court to answer manslaughter charges; indeed in some circles it was seen as a product more of the Italian law system than any serious attempt at finding the cause of the accident.

VERDICT: Aside from the failure which caused Senna to pitch off the road at San Marino with such dire consequences, failures were few and far between for Hill in 1994. The difference was the crushing tally of eight victories for Schumacher that put paid to Hill’s title ambitions, and that’s even taking into account the two disqualifications and two-race ban imposed on the German.

Ultimately, the argument can never be settled. There are still those who maintain the Benetton B194 was using illegal technologies that rendered the FW16, and indeed every other car fielded against it, comparatively obsolete. While this cloud of suspicion hangs over the season no single reason can be given for the Williams failure to win the 1994 drivers championship, although the lack of results achieved by Benetton’s number two drivers Jos Verstappen and JJ Lehto would go some way to disproving the ‘illegal tech’ claim. The FW16 was fast – just not fast enough.

David Coulthard managed a single win at the wheel of the 1995 FW17, although he did claim five pole positions across the season.

David Coulthard managed a single win at the wheel of the 1995 FW17, although he did claim five pole positions across the season.

The following season’s car, the FW17, was the beginning of a new design philosophy by Newey and Williams. It was the first of his efforts to feature the now-customary ‘raised nose’ profile, and to begin with it seemed nothing could stop the reigning Champions as Damon Hill and David Coulthard regularly topped the timesheets. After the San Marino Grand Prix Hill even had a small but significant lead over perennial rival Schumacher that was all too quickly squandered when mistakes began creeping into his driving; spinning off in Canada, Europe and Japan was supplemented by crashing into Schumacher at both Silverstone and Monza. Other than a solitary win in Hungary his summer season was barren and brought no reward in terms of points. The title was already gone when he won at the season finale in Adelaide.

VERDICT: Unquestionably this particular Newey design was let down by its drivers rather than its designer; eleven poles from seventeen races was proof enough of that, as much as five race victories are proof of driving deficiencies. So badly did Hill succumb to the pressure heaped upon him that Williams even lost their constructors crown to their Benetton rivals.

Part Two to follow soon…


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