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Cooper Straight

The 'Neweygate' saga is one of the most extraordinary stories that we've seen in recent times, and if the chain of events makes Adrian look a little naive in the ways of the world, well, you might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

We can only guess at what sort of mental gymnastics he's gone through these past few days, but while he may have more capacity to spare than most of us for such contemplation, he must be in a right old state by now.

It really boils down to this. F1's greatest technical guru agrees to join Bobby Rahal, perhaps his closest friend in motor sport, in taking on the challenge of making Jaguar Racing successful. Contracts are signed on Tuesday, and from August 2002, McLaren has lost its single most valuable asset.

With the deal already confirmed, albeit not publicly, a desperate Ron Dennis sets to work on Adrian. From somewhere he produces an offer that Newey cannot refuse. So within 48 hours of signing, Adrian changes his mind about the Jaguar job and agrees to extend his spell at McLaren. So late on Thursday night he duly tells Bobby that he intends to stay put after all. Friends or not, an incredulous Rahal is not impressed. The press release announcing the done deal is not only written, it is programmed into the computer that will automatically distribute it worldwide first thing on Friday morning. Bobby concludes that he has no reason to stop it...

It duly comes out, and it includes a quote from Adrian who notes that "...the prospect of the exciting challenge that Jaguar Racing offers proved irresistible." The biggest F1 story of the year is confirmed, but little do we know that the man has resisted after all.

The first clue comes at lunchtime in the form of a terse one-line statement. "McLaren International and Adrian Newey wish to confirm that he will continue with the team beyond the term of his existing contract."

It is followed a few hours later by a fuller statement, in which Adrian proclaims to "...regret any speculation which has been caused by my conversations with my good friend Bobby Rahal."

But this was no casual chat between pals who've always had a desire to rekindle a working relationship that they both enjoyed. Adrian did not shake hands with Bobby and say he wanted to come and let's sort out the details later; he signed a contract with a division of the Ford Motor Company. You might regard Bobby Rahal as too nice a guy to be involved in the nitty gritty of F1, but he's no fool when it comes to business, and nor are Niki Lauda and Jaguar Racing's ultimate boss, Wolfgang Reitzle. Whatever was agreed with Newey earlier this week was done properly, you can be sure of that.

Adrian had apparently convinced himself that it was time to open a new chapter in a career that has been so carefully managed. Over the past two decades he's consistently traded up through his spells at March Engineering (learning the ropes by doing sportscar and Indy projects from scratch), Leyton House (fine-tuning his F1 knowledge), Williams (benefiting from the vast resources of a works-backed team) and finally McLaren (stepping out of Patrick Head's shadow to have a clear say in every aspect of the team). Jaguar seemed like the next step. The challenge was turning the team into a winner, while having a clear influence over the engine-supplier - the one thing that he'd previously lacked. And of course he would be working with his old pal Bobby.

Everything clicked together. But having signed, Adrian came under the spell of Ron Dennis. The question is this - why did Ron wait until after the Jaguar deal was done before playing his trump card? Did he think Newey was bluffing when he first mentioned the Jaguar talks? Did he even know talks had taken place? Was the contract signed before Ron had got all the pieces of his argument in place?

He must have made some sales pitch to persuade Newey to break his contract. Think of everything that Dennis has achieved in the past two decades as he built his empire up; the drivers he's signed, the deals he's done, the bold decisions he's made. And then imagine Ron effectively fighting for his company's life, distilling everything he's ever learned into persuading Adrian Newey that he should not be leaving the McLaren organisation, contract or no contract. Emotions must have been running high on both sides, not least because by sad co-incidence Ron suffered a family bereavement earlier in the week. And yet, or so it seems at the moment, he won.

Every word in McLaren's statement is there (or not) for a reason. Newey has apparently "...confirmed his commitment to stay at McLaren for a period of three years beyond the terms of his existing contract." It doesn't actually say he's signed anything yet.

Rahal insists that the contract Newey has with Jaguar is binding. Was Adrian naive enough to think that Bobby would be prepared to forget it just two days after it was signed? Is Ron prepared to go into a legal battle with a 'win at any costs' approach? Have the McLaren lawyers found some loophole or clause that will allow Adrian to walk away from his Jaguar deal? Don't expect any answers soon, because with a legal process pending, all parties involved will keep us in the dark.

It's an incredibly complex situation. Can Jaguar force Adrian to turn up and design a winning car if his heart is no longer in it? It also boils down to a battle between Ford and McLaren shareholders DaimlerChrysler. It could be argued that Adrian is potentially the single most important technical employee for either of those giants. On the other hand one can imagine that Reitzle and Ford boss Jac Nasser are not impressed by his behaviour, and thus may well be prepared to tell Newey where to go. It won't necessarily be Milton Keynes. But that of course may be just the negative reaction that Ron wants to stir up...

So what did Ron do to persuade Adrian to stay? You'd think that an alleged US$25m over five years would be enough to keep anyone happy, but it's human nature that once you get to that sort of level, you just want more. If Ron topped Jaguar's offer by just 20% Newey would be getting an extra $1m a year.

Another possibility is that he's been offered a stake in the business; that is of course what has kept Patrick Head tied to Frank Williams all these years. McLaren shares are owned by Ron, Mansour Ojjeh and Mercedes. Perhaps, during last week's panic, the three parties agreed to bring Newey on board as a minority shareholder as the only way to keep him. That would certainly be an attractive financial proposition, but the fact that the new deal (as announced) is for only three years suggests that there has been no such long-term commercial arrangement.

But the wording of the statement gives the real clue. It says that "...during the extended term of Adrian's contract with the team, he will remain technical director responsible for the design of the 2002 and 2003 cars." Well, according to my maths by the time the 'extended term' starts, the 2002 car will have been in existence for seven months, and work will have already begun on the 2003 model. Finishing it will take Adrian through the first five or six months of the 'extended term.' So what of the remaining two and half years?

Well, McLaren says rather enigmatically that "Adrian and the team will evaluate other sporting challenges, which they may pursue in the future." Dennis himself elaborates on this theme: "Clearly Adrian has been looking for fresh challenges, and he has now concluded that we can provide them from within our organisation."

A couple of years ago I asked Adrian if the current F1 rules frustrated him.

"There is so little space to do anything new that it does feel restrictive," he said. "When you do try to do something new, such as the regenerative braking we were working on last year [1998] or the third pedal braking system, then it gets banned either shortly after it's run or before it's even run, which I think is a shame."

So what was next on his meticulously planned career agenda?

"I don't know. It's a good question. I won't carry on indefinitely. Ultimately you start to get burned out, and at some stage you should move over for younger blood. And for personal reasons. It is very time consuming, and your family tends to suffer. But at the moment, I haven't thought about it..."

That was 1999, but to be honest it didn't sound like a man who intended to be immersed in the day-to-day grind of F1 until 2007, which is when his Jaguar contract ends. Whatever Ron has up his sleeve, it won't apparently involve F1. There will certainly be room to pursue other projects at McLaren's new Paragon base, so what could it be?

A much-vaunted land speed record attempt was quietly forgotten after Andy Green and Richard Noble breached the sound barrier, and as we know Ron does not like coming second. Adrian likes his motorbikes, but I can't imagine that two-wheeled racing will be of much interest to Dennis.

Any more traditional motor sport project will have to have a Mercedes base. It's pretty clear that after 1999, the Stuttgart marque has no interest in going back to Le Mans. After that, the options are limited, unless you consider Champcars. Perhaps there are plans afoot for a McLaren/Mercedes collaboration - maybe with a Chrysler badge - when the IRL and CART rules are harmonised and turbos are history? Ilmor built the Indy-winning Oldsmobile engine for Penske, so there's already a foot in the atmo water...

Speaking of water, there's no guarantee that we're even talking about sport with wheels. Could Dennis have some aquatic project in mind, involving the water speed record, the Blue Riband, power boating or even yachting?

Outside F1, the ultimate technical challenge in sport is building the most effective wind-powered craft, and as we know, Newey is the master of making things slippery. The Olympics or even the America's Cup could have their appeal. As far as the latter is concerned it's interesting to note that three weeks ago McLaren partner SAP was announced as the main sponsor of Team New Zealand, defending champions in 2003.

Adrian's original degree was in astronautics and aeronautics, and he's obviously qualified to get involved with aviation, a pet hobby of Mansour Ojjeh. But in sporting terms, flying is a non-starter. And Newey is stirred by competition.

All this is idle speculation of course. But the key thing is this: if Ron can't persuade Adrian to work on his F1 car, then he certainly doesn't want him working on anyone else's. Or as JFK once said of J Edgar Hoover: "I'd rather have him on the inside pissing out than the outside pissing in..."

A decade ago Gordon Murray claimed he'd had enough of Grand Prix racing, and Ron kept him off the open market by giving him the road car project. Whatever Ron has offered Newey must have ultimately been more appealing than five years' slog, however well paid, to make Jaguar competitive.

It will be interesting to see what emerges in Canada next weekend. Some sources suggest that Newey won't be going, which is understandable, considering the interest that the media will have in him. Perhaps the only winners will be Ferrari, where a stable technical team is safely in place until the end of 2004. McLaren has a few problems to sort out at the moment, and this week's turmoil won't have helped...

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