Adrian Newey's How to Build a Car Proves How Draining a Life in Formula One Can Be

Photo: Mark Thompson (Getty)

So you want to build a race car just like ten-time Constructors’ Championship-winning Formula One engineer Adrian Newey. You think there’s no better place to start than his book, so aptly titled How to Build a Car. Well, folks, I’m sorry to report that this book will not unveil all the tips, tricks, and trade secrets that make a successful F1 car—but you should read it anyway, because it’s still one of the best damn books about auto racing you’re going to find in bookstores today.

(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This month, we’re looking at How to Build a Car: The Autobiography of the Greatest Formula 1 Designer by Adrian Newey, which follows Newey’s progress through racing via the cars he designed.)

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I’m going to be entirely honest—I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to think of this book. I’d had it recommended for the book club several times, but usually with some caveat that it would be “hard to understand for a person like me,” (that is in fact a real email that I received) and I wasn’t sure what exactly that was supposed to mean.

Maybe he assumed that all good rootin’-tootin’ gals from Texas can’t see over their impressively large bouffants? Does he think all Texans live like Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, too busy running away from Chigurh’s bad hair to sit down to read a book? Or maybe he thought I truly could not use my brain power for anything but navigating the cultural crisis that comes with dating a Canadian (poutine? queso? WHICH IS THE BEST DRUNK FOOD????).

I am here to report that this book was not particularly difficult to understand, no matter the size of your hair, where you’re from, or what kind of drunk food your significant other consumes! If you’re a fan of racing in any capacity, you’re going to be able to put it together and fill in any knowledge gaps you might have with a little inference.

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I spent two(-ish) years on a Formula SAE team—which is basically a college program where students design, build, and compete with their own race car. (I was there in a strictly English major capacity—writing blogs, taking photos, updating social media. I cannot actually build a car. I did, however pick up a very rudimentary understanding of basic engineering concepts). There was nothing in Newey’s autobiography that was more difficult to understand than that.

I knew very little about Adrian Newey before I picked up this book, and what I did know has been tinged by his association with Red Bull Racing as the team’s genius designer who brought them multiple championships. I can tell you everything you want to know about F1 from 1960-1979, but my knowledge of racing that took place between 1980 and 2005 is limited (this is my way of admitting that I didn’t know much about Newey’s legacy with McLaren and Williams more than passing mentions). For some reason, I was thinking he had a similar personality to Christian Horner—namely, a very unfortunate one.

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The personality portrayed in this book, though, is of a man who knows how to work hard but also enjoy the fruits of his labor. I was, to put it simply, quite pleasantly surprised.

This is also where I would like to note that Newey “claims moral right to be identified as author of this book”—a phrase that in UK speak basically means this is Newey’s content, and no one else can take any credit for it. He doesn’t mention any ghost writers or significant editors. We’re to take this as his own words, straight from his brain to the page.

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Newey starts off the book “On the Grid”—or, as a child prepping for a career in designing cars. A trouble maker in school, he didn’t initially seem to have much promise outside of wreaking havoc and making life hell for his teachers. He grew up around his dad’s car collection and at a young age started sketching designs based on models he was putting together, but it didn’t click that he could do anything with that.

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At least, until he went to boarding school. As a way to fill the time, he devoured books on motorsport and took to karting at a local track. He was convinced for a while that he was going to be a racer, but he didn’t have a whole lot of success. He did, however, find something truly fascinating about the process of working on and reworking his kart to make it better, faster.

He finally settled on an Aeronautics and Astronautics course at university—unheard of for aspiring automotive engineers at the time. This was the late 70s, after all. No one had quite yet realized that you could apply the qualities of an airplane or space ship to a race car. But Newey was ahead of the game.

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From there, Newey talks about each of the cars he’s designed over the years. It’s not a strictly technical book by any means, but you can expect engineering terminology to be used but also subsequently explained. This is less a detailed explanation of how to build a car and more a recounting of how Newey’s life and growing experience influenced the way he specifically built cars—and also how their success or failure impacted his life.

For example, Newey accepted a job with Bobby Rahal’s IndyCar team just after getting married, but the stress of having to move across the world spurred the first signs of struggle for Newey’s domestic life. His wife didn’t acclimate to the U.S., so she moved back to England. Newey stayed in America.

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That kind of singular focus on motorsport is one of the defining features of the book. Newey’s life outside of racing seemed more like a footnote than anything else. Sometimes, car design requires long hours and weekends at the shop. That was Newey’s priority—not his wife, not his kids, not even his second wife.

Still, he comes across as sympathetic. At no point was I like “wow, what an asshole, just abandoning his family like that.” It was more, “man, that’s a shitty consequence of having to work on a really bad car that no one can figure out.” At least, that’s how Newey portrays himself—I can’t speak for how his family felt about his obsession with work, but it at least reads like they were unfortunate bystanders as he carved a path to success in F1.

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I was surprised by how much I actually really loved this book—I can’t recommend it enough, honestly. Newey is a skilled and engaging author who really makes you give a shit about what he’s saying. When he’s lighting things on fire at school, you’re laughing. When he’s mourning the death of Ayrton Senna in a car he designed, you’re grieving along with him.

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The book reminds me a bit of Mark Donohue’s biography in the sense that Newey doesn’t talk much about himself. He discusses his personal life only as it relates to how it impacts his mindset as he designs, and his personality comes through more in his writing than in Donohue’s, but the effect is the same: this is a man truly given over to his passion for his career. Anything outside of racing is just a way to pass the time.

And, to contrast it with another book we’ve read—I liked this on a lot better than Sid Watkins’ Beyond the Limit. There’s some overlap in time periods here and a discussion of some of the very same subjects, but Newey’s narrative is more comprehensive, stringing together important events and highlighting important characters, but with a far more cohesive feel. Watkins fell into the trap of trying to summarize too much and thus not summarizing enough. Newey gives you his whole life story in a way that makes you feel like you lived it right along with him.

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Don’t be scared off by the title or by slightly aggressive dudes who email you about this book a lot telling you that you just won’t understand it (you mean that doesn’t happen to the rest of you?). It’s a fantastic read on how to design championship-winning cars—alongside plenty of frustrating flops and mediocre successes. You might not be able to sit down with pen in hand and sketch the next best F1 car, but you’ll better understand the lives of the men and women who churn these designs out year after year.

And that’s all we have for this month’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on March 1, 2019. We’re going to be reading Breaking the Limit: One Woman’s Motorcycle Journey Through North America by Karen Larsen. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!

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About the author

Elizabeth Blackstock

Staff writer. Motorsport fanatic. Proud owner of a 2013 Mazda 2.