When Ron Dennis ‘absolutely lost it’ and almost fired Adrian Newey… over paint

Henry Valantine
Red Bull chief designer Adrian Newey with Mika Hakkinen at the Miami Grand Prix. Miami, April 2023.

Red Bull's Adrian Newey with Mika Hakkinen at the Miami Grand Prix.

Adrian Newey recounted the story of when he was almost sacked at McLaren after only two weeks, for having his office repainted duck egg blue.

Having moved over from Williams in 1997, Newey set to work on the first of two title-winning cars at McLaren, but he moved into an office that was not to his taste.

Asking for it to be redecorated went firmly against team boss Ron Dennis’ wishes though, with the McLaren colour scheme deeply rooted in grey, black, silver and white at the time – to a degree where it almost cost him his job.

Adrian Newey redecorating almost cost him McLaren role

Having already won nine Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles with Williams, Newey made the move across to McLaren mid-season in 1997 to try and revive their fortunes.

Appearing on the Formula For Success podcast, Newey and fellow panellists Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard expressed their respect for Dennis’ achievements in his career, though following this moment, Newey only found out much later on that Dennis’ rage in the moment almost cost him his job.

“He went to McLaren and he decided with Ron, as a kind of a special character, as we all know, so everything has to be either silver, grey or black,” friend and former eponymous team principal Jordan said.

“So Adrian decided, as the chief engineer and aerodynamicist there, to paint his office duck egg blue. Whereupon Ron came into the office, and he absolutely lost it.”

At this point, Newey himself took up the story.

“I had only been there for about two weeks, so I was working crazy hours trying to get the design of the ’98 car ready,” he said.

“The office I inherited was John Barnard’s old office, and it was kind of floor to ceiling mahogany panels, there was a dark mahogany table, a black chair, it was really dark brown, dingy carpets – it was just depressing.

“So as we were leaving for Hungary, I said to the factory manager: ‘Can you brighten up a bit over the weekend?’ And I gave him a duck egg blue paint chart, and [asked to] put a tan carpet in and change the chair for something a bit lighter and so on and so forth.

“And he got that all done over the weekend, came back on Monday and it was kind of my office.

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“Anyway, that evening, Ron came in about six o’clock to see how I was going on, and as he came into the doorframe, looked up, and I heard ‘Hi Ron’, and he started.

“He didn’t say a word. He started gulping like a fish, like a goldfish and, as he gulped, he went redder and redder until he went purple.

“I thought ‘Christ, he’s going to have a heart attack here and now!’ and eventually, still not single word, gulping, he spun on his heels and walked out and never said another word.

“I think for him, there are two sides. First of all, that his factory now had a bit of colour in it and, secondly, it all happened without him knowing. He’s a bit of a control freak, which is fair enough – probably in motor racing you need to be.

“It turned out years later, I found out from Lisa, his wife, that he came back that evening and said: ‘That’s it! Get rid of him. I’m going to fire him in the morning!’ She talked him down a bit. He wasn’t happy.”

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