Atlas F1 Woking Man Bitten by a Cat


McLaren design guru Adrian Newey is the most sought-after technical director in F1. So why is he addicted to rallying in a 1938 Jaguar?

Given what Adrian Newey does for a living, it's not a little strange that his idea of spare time bliss is driving a car that would make any other F1 aerodynamicist weep into his wind tunnel. His 1938 Jaguar SS100 is unrepentantly brash, an unreconstructed totem of the days when men were men and their cars were... well, slightly silly.

"Oh sure, it's a brick," says Adrian, cheerfully. "Aerodynamically speaking, it's truly awful. And in its day, it was a bit of a cad's car. It got its name from the fact that it could do 100mph, which was a big deal in those days, but remained affordable - a bit like the E-type in the 1960s. Wealthy motorists looked down on the kind of people who bought SS100s."

There is something weirdly incongruous about a discussion of pre-war vintage cars when you're sitting in Adrian's office at McLaren International. High technology is everywhere evident, from the window blinds that open and close automatically in response to the strength of sunlight, to the complex technical drawings on the big white board near his desk. At this time of year Adrian's expertise is devoted full time to next year's car, and he looks almost relieved to talk about spoked wheels, straight sixes and double de-clutching.

"One might say that vintage rallying is a bit of a busman's holiday for somebody like me," he admits. "However, whilst it still involves cars, obviously, it's completely different to Formula One. It's a total escape from the pressure of F1: you get all the spirit of competition, but few people take it ultra-seriously: it's much more laid back." Adrian bought his 3.5-litre, six-cylinder Jaguar in 1988, shortly after he left Indycar racing. At the time it was, in his own words, "a complete wreck". "The guy who'd owned it had no idea, and he'd taken it apart to rebuild it," says Adrian. "I inherited a bag of bits, basically, and all I could think was: What on earth do I do with this?"

"I eventually found a vintage car expert in Colchester, Essex, who agreed to rebuild it for a nominal fee in return for the chance to use it as a reference from which to build replicas. He did it as a kind of hobby in his spare time, so it wasn't back on the road until 1992. But he did a fantastic job."

Adrian grew up with fast cars: his father owned several Cooper S Minis and Lotus Elans, and his first sports car was an Elan given to him by his father for his 25th birthday. His first experience of vintage motorsport, though, didn't come until 1994, when he took part in the Monte Carlo rally retrospective in a friend's Wolseley. He hugely enjoyed it, and realised that the Jag would be the perfect car for the job.

"There are several categories you can race in," he explains. "Pre-war, war to mid-50s and 1960s. Each of those is divided into sections for different engine capacities, so there's something for just about everyone. "I've done quite a few rallies in it now, with various friends. Mostly the events consist of timed legs between points, or average speed legs where you have to maintain a constant speed between A and B, aiming to arrive at a precise time. It's usually 50-70km/hr, and it can be very difficult. If you make a navigational error, for instance, you can easily find yourself having to really push the pace afterwards to get back on schedule."

Isn't that tricky in an old car like the Jaguar? "Well, it slides quite a lot because the narrow tyres don't have that much grip," says Adrian. "Actually, it's enormous fun to drive hard. You have to concentrate because the steering's heavy and it's a bit lively over bumps. I've done forest legs, and driven over the Ardennes and the Alps into Tuscany along those winding, hairpin roads. That's great fun, although the sheer drops at the sides are a bit sobering. I once came round a bend to find that another car was half hanging off the cliff - like the bus in The Italian Job!"

One British idea, at least, Adrian's had only one real accident, when he bent the suspension in a pothole during a Welsh rally. Parts for his Jag aren't expensive, fortunately, but the experience has put him off British rallies. That and other things. "I've done a few one/two-day rallies in the UK, but they're a bit short and you always end up eating your evening meal in some dingy motorway service station. To be honest," he adds in a half whisper, "British dos are a bit anoraky. In continental events, like the Rome-Liege which I've just done, there's a better atmosphere. Europeans have more flair." Sounded a lot more fun: vintage hill-climbing. Adrian tried it once or twice, but came away disappointed. "There was no way the cars in my category were standard," he says. "All of them had been tuned up for more power, which a lot of people are doing to vintage cars these days. I think it's silly. These are marvellous machines and should be left as they are: I'm totally against tuning them up by using technology that wasn't available when they were built."

Adrian adheres firmly to this principle, daring to take his unimproved Jag on British roads from time to time. "It's powerful enough to keep up with the traffic, and goes fine, but it's not a lot of fun on motorways," he admits."I prefer A- and B-roads, where it can still be very entertaining. All the same, I prefer to enjoy a vintage car for rallying, not normal driving. For that, you need something else."

For Adrian, that 'something else' is a Lotus Elise that he has just acquired for everyday use. "A friend is turbocharging it," he confides. "It should end up having about 300bhp."

Three hundred horse in an Elise? Won't that be a bit of a handful? For a second, his eyes twinkle with a smile more reminiscent of the 25-year-old who has just inherited his father's sports car than a mature technical director of a top F1 racing team. "I certainly hope so."

Atlas F1© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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The article appears courtesy of TAG-McLaren Communications Office