Adrian Newey believes he “completely messed up” the switch from active back to passive suspension in 1994, which made that year’s Williams “very, very difficult to drive.”
The current Red Bull chief technical officer was going through another dominant patch in his career at Williams when heading up their design team in the early 1990s, but the 1994 season was struck with tragedy when three-time World Champion, Ayrton Senna lost his life at Imola after an accident at Tamburello, just a day after the death of Roland Ratzenberger at the same circuit.
Almost 30 years on from that dark weekend, Newey admitted that the Williams that year was “aerodynamically unstable” after huge rule changes were made to try and reel in the sport’s dominant force at the time – though Senna’s control of the car was “quite extraordinary”.
Adrian Newey describes ‘huge regret’ of 1994 Williams design
Senna left his long-held relationship with McLaren to join Williams in a quest for a fourth title, with the team having taken over from McLaren as the sport’s top performers.
The innovation of active suspension played a key part in that, but when it was outlawed, the switch back to passive suspension made the Williams a hugely different car to drive.
In the first instance, Newey – having worked with seven different World Champions throughout his esteemed career – elaborated on how Senna was different to the others.
“I mean, it was obviously a very short relationship unfortunately,” Newey told Formula 1’s Beyond the Grid podcast when asked about how it was to work with the Brazilian great.
“I suppose I’m not as bad as I used to be on this, but part of my competitive thing was that when you have somebody like Ayrton that you’re up against battling year after year, then you kind of – not demonise him – but he’s kind of the enemy.
“So I met him occasionally but never really talked to him until he first visited the factory at the end of what must have been ’93.
“So [I was] introduced to him and then straightaway it was ‘Can I see the wind tunnel model?’ So we walked around to the wind tunnel. Again, straightaway, he’s down on his knees, looking underneath the car, wanting to explain what we’d done differently, what was different about this car to the previous year’s car, why had we done this, et cetera, et cetera. He was phenomenally inquisitive.
“You could argue that he didn’t need to know that. But for him, he just wanted every bit of information he could possibly have, because that might be useful to him at some point in the future.
“I think probably more than any other driver that I’ve been involved with, that I would say is what I found unique about him.”
Reflecting on the 1994 season specifically, Newey acknowledged that the switch back to passive suspension came at a cost to the car’s driveability – which is something he would have changed on the car with hindsight.
“The ‘94 cars, one of my huge regrets, regardless of what was the cause of the accident at Imola, the one thing you could definitely say about the car is it was aerodynamically unstable,” Newey admitted.
“We’d had two years with active suspension and, it’s my fault, I completely messed up the aerodynamics of going back to passive suspension and the much bigger ride height range that that has to cope with.
“It was a very, very difficult car to drive and the bumpier the circuit, the worse that became. And of course, Imola was quite a bumpy circuit, so what he did with that car was quite extraordinary, and he could do that in qualifying.
“In Brazil, he managed to carry it but spun at the last corner near the end of the race, extracting that performance from it.
“Damon [Hill] didn’t try to extract that level of performance from it, and so he finished the race, but he knew it was unstable.
“Ayrton’s self-confidence and self-belief in his car control, he would always try it. His car control and his concentration was quite extraordinary.”
Given the seismic impact and aftershock the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger had on the sport, Newey admitted Williams were a “shattered team” in the aftermath of Senna’s accident.
So much so, that getting out of the sport entirely crossed his mind.
“I thought about it, I have to say, you’d be a fool or there would be something wrong if you didn’t question yourself and question what you’re doing,” Newey responded when asked if he considered leaving Formula 1 in the aftermath of Senna’s death.
“First of all, it would have been quite selfish because if Patrick [Head, Williams engineering director] or I or both of us had decided we’re stopping, we’d have left the team in complete disarray.
“Like all mistakes, regardless of what did cause the accident, you have to learn from the possibilities of what might have caused the accident and make sure that you react to that, and make sure that you try to take appropriate measures to stop that ever happening again.”