Michael Schumacher’s biggest rival was not a driver but a designer: Adrian Newey.
So said K last week in the comments on an article about which driver won the most races. Journeyer suggested a graph showing how the seven-times world champion compared with the man who designed title-winners for McLaren and Williams.
Newey’s early cars
Working for the Leyton House team in 1990, Adrian Newey’s early design efforts transformed their prospects. Ivan Capelli almost won the 1990 French Grand Prix at the wheel of Newey’s CG901, only losing the lead late in the race when his Judd engine faltered.
Newey was already on his way to Williams and his first car for the team, the FW14, made huge strides in performance throughout the 1991 season, almost allowing Nigel Mansell to nick the title from Ayrton Senna’s McLaren.
In 1992 the ‘B’ version of Newey’s design, now with computer-controlled active suspension, was so much quicker than the opposition the team didn’t need to press its successor into service. Mansell won the title with a then-record nine wins (Riccardo Patrese took one) and the following year Alain Prost and Damon Hill took another ten between them.
The Schuey vs Newey era begins
Schumacher had made his debut in 1991 and the following year thwarted Mansell’s FW14B at Spa-Francorchamps to score his first F1 victory. But the Schumacher vs Newey era really got going in 1994.
The year began with an appalling blow for the Williams team. Not only did the FW16 struggle for pace, but at Imola lead driver Ayrton Senna was killed. Suspicion fell on the car and alterations made to it to improve its performance, and the team were embroiled in legal disputes over the accident for many years.
Schumacher won eight races to Hill’s six, and Mansell added another one for Williams. The following year Hill was routed by Hill and Williams.
Ferrari vs McLaren
Newey was also on the move, however, switching to McLaren for 1998. His final Williams design, the FW19, proved more than adequate for Jacques Villeneuve to beat Schumacher to the title despite an often lacklustre campaign.
The 1998 season brought a radical change in the regulations as grooved tyres replaced slicks and the cars were made 20cm narrower. Newey’s Mercedes-powered MP4-13 was vastly quicker than the opposition at the first race, and although Ferrari clawed back much of that advantage throughout the season, Mika Hakkinen took Newey’s car to the title.
Schumacher’s broken leg halfway through the 1999 season spoiled another promising round in the Schuey-vs-Newey war. But now Ferrari hit their stride, and Newey car’s struggled to get a look in from 2001-2004.
Tyres had become a decisive factor in the battle and McLaren failed to reproduce the kind of performance with their Michelins that Ferrari could get from their Bridgestones. In a desperate attempt to make up for lost ground Newey conceived the ultra-radical MP4-18 for 2003, which failed several crash tests and was never raced. It eventually spawned the disastrous MP4-19, which took Newey most of 2004 to transform into a race-winning car.
An illustration of how crucial tyres had become came in 2005, when a late change in the regulations swung the balance of power towards Michelin, and Ferrari only won the farce of a race at Indianapolis. Despite ten wins for Newey’s MP4-20, more reliability problems played a decisive role in holding Kimi Raikkonen back from the championship.
Retirement and Red Bull
Newey was soon on the move once again, switching to Red Bull in 2006. It was a watershed year for Schumacher too, who at the end of the season finally hung up his helmet after 91 wins.
Newey is yet to design a winning Red Bull but the offshoot car used by sister team Toro Rosso won the Italian Grand Prix last year in Sebastian Vettel’s hands.
With another radical change in the rules arriving this year, all eyes are on Newey’s Red Bull RB5 (below) to see if he’s sussed the intricacies of the new rules better than anyone else and built another-out-of-the-box race winner. But the man himself claims his days in F1 are numbered as cost-cutting regulations intrude ever further on the creativity of the designer.
Since 1991 Newey’s F1 cars have scored 102 wins. Though it would be foolish to try and compare the two and say which was better, we can say with certainty we’d have had a dull season’s racing if Schumacher had ever found himself in a Newey-designed car.
Read more: F1’s greatest winners (F1 in numbers)