Tug of war over top F1 designer

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The Independent Online

The fans never see him but he is the most wanted man in the world's most expensive sport. Adrian Newey, the technical genius behind scores of Formula One victories, is at the centre of a legal battle for his services between two of Britain's top racing teams, McLaren and Jaguar.

And last night, as the two sides moved nearer to the courts, it emerged that he may be planning to leave the sport altogether.

We are used to reading about the sexy lives of such Grand Prix drivers as David Coulthard, but in the world of Formula One it is the car designers and engineers whose minute adjustments often make the real difference. It is these that can mean a championship trophy one year and the loss of millions of pounds worth of sponsorship the next.

This factor has led to two of the biggest forces in motor racing becoming locked in a multi-million-pound contract dispute over a man whose skills have secured dozens of the most coveted races.

The row erupted 10 days ago when Jaguar issued a statement announcing that Mr Newey had signed a £17.5m deal to become their technical director when his existing contract with McLaren expires on 1 August next year. Their press release came complete with a quote from the man himself, confirming that he had been lured by the "irresistible" prospect of a new challenge.

Within hours, McLaren retaliated with their own release. In it they claimed that the designer had reversed his decision at the last minute and opted to stay put with them until 2005. Mr Newey was quoted again, this time saying that he had "agonised over" his decision and "regretted any speculation" caused by his "conversations" with his old friend Jaguar chief executive Bobby Rahal.

Since then, the so-called "Neweygate" saga has refused to die down, with the two sides issuing conflicting and increasingly pedantic statements almost daily. Last Thursday, it took a new turn when Jaguar successfully won an interim High Court injunction preventing Mr Newey from signing a formal contract with McLaren before a further hearing this coming Tuesday.

But this weekend, as the Canadian Grand Prix got under way, a further twist emerged when Autosport magazine reported that Mr Newey was secretly planning to quit Formula One altogether. The 42-year-old is said to have negotiated an annual £3.5m deal with McLaren allowing him to switch from designing racing cars to realising a long-cherished dream to build an America's Cup yacht.

McLaren bosses have declined to comment on these claims, but motor sport insiders believe that they would be willing to offer Mr Newey any deal to prevent him from being hired by one of their Formula One competitors.

One pundit said: "Those who know Newey know that he wants to go and build an America's Cup yacht. He has to see out his existing contract, but then McLaren have basically agreed to finance him for other projects that would interest him. McLaren's main aim at this stage is not so much to guarantee that they keep hold of Newey to design their own cars. Their attitude is very much 'if we can't have him, Jaguar can't have him either'."

However, Jaguar is showing no signs of letting the matter lie. This week, they will attempt to persuade a High Court judge that Mr Newey has signed a legally binding contract to work for them from the moment his existing McLaren contact run outs. A source at the company said: "As things stand, we have an agreement that we believe means Adrian will be walking through our doors on 1 August next year."

Meanwhile, some pundits predict that Mr Newey himself could emerge from the row as the ultimate loser. They argue that he has risked undermining the credibility of a hitherto meteoric career by allowing himself to appear indecisive and inconsistent.

David Tremayne, motor racing correspondent for the Independent on Sunday, said: "This whole affair has seriously undermined Newey's credibility. There is nothing to suggest he planned it this way, but he has made a big misjudgement by changing his mind over his contracts."

With the exception of his conflicting comments at the start of the dispute, the one person who has remained silent throughout has been Mr Newey himself. The designer is understood to have been working at the McLaren factory near Woking in Surrey last week, but anyone attempting to contact him there was referred to the company's press office.

McLaren's official explanation for his absence from Montreal is that he is "concentrating on a number of development programmes", and was too busy to attend. This weekend the loudest noise in motor racing is not the roar of the Formula One engines in Canada, but the silence of Adrian Newey in Surrey.