How to Build a Car by Adrian Newey

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It was back in 1992 that I first got close to an Adrian Newey car.  It was Nigel Mansell’s FW14b and there it sat, slightly damp, in the Williams pit at Silverstone.  Saturday qualifying was just finishing, “Our Nige” was chatting to Jonathan Palmer of the BBC as we were being shown around by Mansell’s race engineer David Brown.  Such were the perks of our Labatt’s family backing.  I had just “met” Ricardo Patrese who had taken his ire out on me, as I was in his path between the back of the garage and the motorhome.  I’m told he really is a nice chap, but I learnt my first Italian swear words that afternoon.  The car, though, was a work of art.  In Adrian Newey’s autobiography, How to Build a Car, we learn about the incredible FW14b and so very much more.

 Adrain Newey in "fizzy drink company" colours.

Adrain Newey in "fizzy drink company" colours.

Newey’s early life seems terribly of an age.  Star crossed parents (with a quickly covered mention of violence), public school and trouble.  A love of cars and motorcycles shared with his father is what seems to have set young Adrian off on his path, as did his father’s shed.  In the shed, the cars and bikes were stored, repaired and tinkered with.  Out of this came a love of the mechanical and seed sowed.  The tales are of life at Repton school, with Jeremy Clarkson causing suitable havoc and then to Southampton University for a degree in Aeronautics.  All of this carefully selected to find a role in motor racing, as aerodynamics was taking a firm hold on the design the latest generation of cars.

 Nigel Mansell in the Williams FW14b

Nigel Mansell in the Williams FW14b

A brief stint at the Fittipaldi team lead to March and an incredible apprenticeship.  From race engineering in F2, to designing Sports Cars and then his first major successes in IndyCar with Bobby Rahal.  You can feel the affection Newey has for this period.  His March 85C and 86C cars were wonderfully successful, winning the Championship and the Indy 500.  But F1 was calling and the March/Leyton House team.  The initial car he designed for the 1988 season, the March 881, would lay the template for a lot of the design features he would evolve over the next few years, especially the sculpted monocoque.  Newey describes with affection the years at Leyton House, but trouble within the team meant he moved to Williams.  The incredible development of the FW14, FW14b and FW15c, three of the most advanced cars ever to race in F1 is wonderfully told, as is the approach of the autocratic Williams bosses, Frank Williams and Patrick Head.  

For me, the vital section of the book was the tale of the FW16, the car Aryton Senna left McLaren for and would die in.  Even now, 23 years later, I remember that sunny Sunday afternoon vividly.  Me, like millions of others, watched our hero spear to the right, halfway through the Tamburello corner at Imola.  The crash was huge, as were the design changes that followed, under the guidance of Professor Sid Watkins (and detailed brilliantly in his book Life at the Limit).  Newey takes us through the development of the car, through the issues it faced, how they had identified them and had a fix in the works, just one that had not come through in time for Imola.  It is sensitively told and analytically described.  The book it worth buying just for this tragic story.  It is something I've never really gotten over.

 Newey (left) with Aryton Senna and David Brown

Newey (left) with Aryton Senna and David Brown

The later years at Williams and then the McLaren years are fascinating as the power plays with Williams, Head and Dennis are explained.  These stories are the stuff of F1 legend.  The book is framed against each of the cars he designed throughout his career.  Newey describes his philosophy and the design behind each of them.  The 1998 McLaren MP4-13 was designed for the major rule change brought in for that year.  I remember vividly the long wheelbase McLaren dominating early on.  The long wheelbase seemed counter intuitive to the layman and, it appears, most of the F1 field.  Newey takes us through his thinking and I still can’t make sense of it.  Which is why I write a blog and he has 10 World Championships.

How to Build a Car is fascinatingly good sports autobiography.  When it arrived on Saturday morning, I intended to only read the first chapter.  I ended up reading in a single sitting.  What makes it so engaging is the openness of Newey.  The triumphs are celebrated but it is the mistakes and tragedy, professional and personal, from which he has clearly learned, are explained and analysed with what seems a refreshing level of honesty.  Except maybe the “Multi-21” controversy from the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, which doesn’t get a look in.  But, he still works for Red Bull.  When the leading light of his generation writes an autobiography, you don’t often get one as engaging as this, nor one that opening thanks the ghost writer at the end.  Even if it takes more than one sitting, I highly recommend Adrian Newey’s book.  It is rather special, much like the cars that emerge from his pencils.

How to Build a Car by Adrian Newey is out now from Harper Collins, who kindly provided this review copy.