One could argue the greatest strength of Red Bull’s championship-winning car is the brain of Adrian Newey.
So, when a Croatian neurosurgeon stood at the foot of Newey’s bed after he fractured his skull in a cycling accident and said he had a 10 per cent chance of suffering brain damage, it did make him stop and think.
Nearly a year on, the 63-year-old’s grey matter is every bit as sharp as it ever was. Of the idea a potentially life-threatening accident might have made him think of taking a step back, he says: “No, I’m sufficiently pig-headed that it didn’t change much.”
He brushes off the accident as something stupid, one that was unlucky but could have been infinitely worse. Pedalling along a cycle path at night with his wife, Amanda, they moved either side of a group of children, but an unsighted Newey plunged six foot down onto a rocky beach and cut his head open.
By morning, it was clear something more serious was wrong. They went to hospital and an MRI scan showed a fractured skull and a bone chip above the upper eye muscle.
“The three wise men appeared at the bottom of my bed — a neurosurgeon, a maxillofacial guy and the anaesthetist,” he recalls. “With the eye, he said they’d need to act quickly or the bone could sever the eye muscle and I’d lose movement of the eye.
“Okay, what’s the risk of damage to the eye? ‘Oh, no risk.’ Any risk of brain damage? ‘Oh, not much.’ Give me a percentage. ‘Five, maybe 10 per cent.’ At which point I told my wife to get me out of there.”
Former F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone, with whom he had been holidaying days before, found him a neurosurgeon in London, and Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner joined forces with another friend to get him home and operated on in the UK.
It resulted in a month-long hiatus from work, but he returned to the pit-wall for the Turkish Grand Prix and was hands-on for the final seven races of the season leading to Verstappen’s maiden title.
Eleven drivers’ titles have been won in cars he designed and 10 constructors’ championships. He has worked with some of the greatest drivers in history: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and Sebastian Vettel.
Of his latest title hopeful, he says: “It’s unfair to compare drivers from slightly different eras, but Max is right up there. I think this image of the aggressive driver is over-egged. Perhaps in his early races in F1 he was quite aggressive, but last season that was unjustified.
“He’s very calm generally, very measured, he has tremendous reflexes and is a pleasure to work with.”
Newey, though, knocks back the suggestion there is anything in particular that defines a champion. He contrasts Vettel, who of all the drivers he has worked with spent the longest time in debriefs and analysing the data, in contrast to Hakkinen.
“Mika didn’t say much and sometimes you had to translate what he was saying, but if you translated those 10 words correctly, they were very insightful,” he said. “Great drivers — and I’d put Max in that category — know what they want from the car and know how to communicate with their race engineer as to what they want and how to achieve it.”
There is a danger that Verstappen could run away with the championship on current form, “which would be lovely from our point of view”, says Newey.
When I joined Red Bull, people thought I was committing career suicide
But does a man who Frank Williams described as the most competitive he had ever met not prefer the title races that go down to the wire, such as last season? “From a health point of view, I prefer the easier ones, but the more memorable ones are the tight ones, particularly if you’re lucky enough to get the result at the end,” he says.
Of all his eras in F1, Red Bull has been his most satisfying. His first job on the grid was with Leyton House, before they went bust. And while the eras at McLaren and Williams were special, they were already established teams. In contrast, Red Bull was virtually started from scratch.
“When I joined Red Bull, people thought I was committing career suicide,” he says. “It’s been the most satisfying because, along with Christian, we took it from the ashes of Jaguar to how we want it.”
For the first time, in 2010, that was the top of the sport — a position they also look likely to end 2022.