Motor Racing: Williams' Newey blow

David Tremayne finds Formula One's pace-setters facing a second departure
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It is not just Formula One's driver market that is in a state of flux. Paddock rumours at Monza suggested that Williams' chief designer, Adrian Newey, may be following Damon Hill out of the camp. But where Hill was pushed, it seems Newey may leap.

Designers are like drivers: there are a lot of them around but only a few are really worth the big-buck salaries. Newey is one of the best. In August he signed a new three-year contract with Williams. Speaking to Autosport magazine he outlined his wish to expand, and to avoid stagnating, but when asked if he felt that he could do this with the team currently regarded as the best in the business, his answer was extraordinary. "I would rather not comment on that," he said.

Within Williams his restlessness was already doubtless apparent to Frank Williams and technical director Patrick Head. But this signalled to the world that all might not be well with a technical partnership which has yielded four constructors' world championships in five years, and two drivers' titles, and which has redefined the leading edge of engineering development.

Newey joined Williams in 1990 after quitting the now defunct Leyton House team, for whom his designs had been impressive if a trifle impractical, with cockpits that cramped their drivers in the search for minimal aerodynamic compromise. Head recalls: "Our focus then became much better balanced. You can see the continuity between the overall concept of our 1991 car relative to the Leyton House. Equally, Adrian came into a team that had a pretty well-developed active ride system, a pretty well- developed semi-automatic transmission, and already had pretty well-developed systems and procedures and methods."

Head kept Newey's feet on the ground while allowing his imagination full rein. "I employed him as senior aerodynamicist," he continued, "but within a week of him starting I changed his title to chief designer and put him in a position where he could, in effect, dictate the layout."

Their relationship gelled quickly, and was the key to the team's success. But each is thought to feel uneasy about the other's recognition, and Newey is said to have been disappointed that elements he thought had been agreed within his new contract have yet to be forthcoming. As the sharks sensed dissatisfaction, the approaches began. While Ferrari is pitching for Benetton's Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, McLaren's Ron Dennis has made a beeline for Newey, who is also highly rated for his ability to form race strategies. It would deal Williams a serious blow to lose him.

McLaren confirmed last week that the Finnish driver Mika Hakkinen will continue alongside David Coulthard in 1997, closing the door, as expected, to Hill, and also to Ralf Schumacher, who had entertained hopes of a drive. The Schumacher that Dennis really wants in the long-term is Michael, naturally. Gaining Newey could take McLaren and Mercedes-Benz one step closer to that and simultaneously destabilise Williams.

Hill, meanwhile, has greater concerns than Newey's future after his embarrassing gaffe at Monza threw away his chance of clinching the World Championship and summoned the old doubts about his ability. He could have won last weekend and raised the finger to Williams. Instead, he was fortunate that the mistakes of Jacques Villeneuve and his successor, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, prevented Frank from uttering the words: "See what I mean?" But a repeat next weekend must be unthinkable.