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The Great F1 Rivarly of the 1990s and 2000s: Adrian Newey and Rory Byrne

Adrian Newey being given a champagne shower by his favorite German driver

If there’s one name that comes to mind as being at the forefront of Formula 1 car design, it’s Adrian Newey’s.  Newey has been the brains behind several successful title-winning cars over nearly three decades, first at Williams, then McLaren and now at Red Bull.  During Michael Schumacher’s early years at Ferrari, one paddock pundit suggested that Schumi’s real rival wasn’t Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve or Mika Hakkinen; rather, it was Adrian Newey.  While Schumi was the class of the field among drivers during those years, the Ferraris he drove were often outclassed by the various cars produced by Newey at Williams and McLaren.

The heyday of the Williams team, of course, is becoming a distant memory.  Their fortunes began a long slide down a slippery slope once Newey left that team for McLaren.  McLaren won two titles with Newey penned cars, and when they didn’t win during the Newey years, it was largely because Newey’s chief rival in the design realm, Rory Byrne, had finally turned Schumi’s Ferrari into a world-beater.

In fact, for at least a decade, the most important rivalry in Formula 1 was between Newey and Byrne.  If you trace a line from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s, you’ll notice that the all world titles of that period were won by Williams, Benetton, McLaren or Ferrari, with either Newey or Byrne heading up the design efforts at those teams.

Rory Byrne being given a peck by his favorite German driver

For some reason, Newey’s name has always been more prominent than Byrne’s, yet it should be remembered that it was only this year, with the successful title coup by Red Bull, that Newey drew even with Bryne in the number of constructor’s championships on his resume. Byrne, who semi-retired from Ferrari after the 2004 season, had seven.  Newey, with the Red Bull trophy now on his mantle, has the same number.

A look at the statistics will show the effects of the departures of these two men on their respective teams, McLaren and Ferrari.  While McLaren hasn’t exactly imploded since then (as Williams seemed to after Newey decamped), they’ve won only a single driver’s championship since Newey’s last year at the team, in 2005.  Likewise with Ferrari: after 2004, Byrne began winding down his input at Ferrrai, ceding design leadership to his assistant Also Costa.  Since then, the Scuderia have won only a single driver’s title.  While both teams remain at the front, for the past two years both have been outclassed in terms of raw performance by the upstart Red Bull.

Rory Bryne is more or less inactive now, and while he still maintains ties with Ferrari, his official consultant’s role ended in 2009.  Newey, of course, is very much still in active mode.  Are we at the beginning of a period of Newey/Red Bull dominance during the coming decade?  With several phases of significant rules changes on the horizon, it will be interesting to see.

Newey’s great strength has always been in thinking creatively and finding a competitive edge when technical regulations are in flux.  His cars tend to lose a bit of that edge when the rules remain stagnant, and everyone has been copying everyone else for a number of years.  During the copycat years, designers find it a struggle to create even small performance gains over their rivals, as the best ideas have become widely disseminated.

With aero changes in the offing for 2011, however, along with a new tire supplier, and the return of KERS, coupled with new engines slated for 2013, expect to see Newey’s cars holding station at the front of the grid.

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