They're off again this month. But, asks Kate Battersby, is the sport's best designer off, too?
Expensive business, Formula One. Merely trundling around at the back of the field requires around £60 million annually, and anyone with so outlandish an ambition as victory would call such a sum loose change.
As the Formula One travelling circus sets off to Melbourne for the first race of the 2014 season on 16 March, top teams Red Bull and McLaren are in the process of objecting to a proposed annual budget cap of £126 million. Along with Ferrari, they each wave goodbye to upwards of – gasp – £200 million every year in pursuit of the chequered flag.
For the last four seasons, only Red Bull has seen a return on the mega-investment, monopolising both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships since 2010. Given that all four of those drivers’ titles belong to Sebastian Vettel, you might reasonably assume the charismatic German is the sport’s key player. But even the most superlative driver on Planet Petrolhead cannot win if the car is a dud.
Step forward the deeply unglamorous figure of Adrian Newey, 55, whose dry-as-dust official title of Red Bull’s Chief Technical Officer conceals the fact that his unmatched engineering genius in aerodynamics has created more championship-winning cars than anyone else in Formula One.
Not just Vettel but such names as Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen have all been propelled to world titles in Newey-designed cars.
His skills don’t come cheap. How much do Red Bull cough into Newey’s bank account every season? Somewhere in the neighbourhood of £10 million. And that’s a very respectable neighbourhood.
For many years he has lived in Berkshire in a stucco-fronted Georgian former vicarage sufficiently exquisite to give any self-respecting Hollywood location scout the vapours. Chris Evans is a near neighbour and, as a fellow petrolhead, a good mate.
Will the new car tank?
Newey has come a long way from his first job, where he was fired as a trackside engineer when driver Christian Danner wrongly believed Newey had failed to give the car enough fuel; further still from the 16-year-old boy who was expelled from Repton after pushing up the sound mixing levels at a school concert until the roar blew out a stained glass window.
But suddenly these are turbulent times for him. Pre-season testing this year has been an unqualified disaster for Red Bull. While Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari have looked blistering, the Red Bull has barely completed a lap without breaking down or crashing.
All the 2014 cars are radical redesigns as a result of the latest round of regulation changes. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner has described his contender, the RB10, as “the most complicated car in the history of the sport”. Whether that amounts to a compliment is unclear, and stories are rife of all-out rows in the team garage.
It is far simpler in Formula One to make a reliable car fast than it is to make a fast car reliable. Currently Newey’s offering for 2014 looks neither.
All of which will pour premium-grade fuel on the fire of rumours about Newey’s future which have been smouldering away for a good year or more.
Despite the fact that he is contracted to Red Bull until 2017, some say he has had his fill of Formula One and wants a new challenge. Five-time Olympic sailing champion Sir Ben Ainslie has gone public with his ambition to involve Newey with a British America’s Cup challenge. Others believe Newey capable of getting his own team on to the Formula One grid.
Certainly his future in the immediate short term involves unfamiliar territory. In the absence of a peculiar miracle, defeat appears inevitable in Melbourne on 16 March and possibly beyond.
Merely getting the Red Bull to race distance will be something of an achievement. And in the £200 million game of Formula One, that is nowhere near enough.