If you spend 35 years in Formula 1, successively (and often simultaneously) as aerodynamicist, computer programmer, R&D man, engineer, technical director and design consultant, you accumulate an up-close and personal view of the drivers you work with – not to mention the team bosses, your rival designers and the rule makers. If you have strong opinions and have never been afraid to voice them, your assessments of the work you’ve done and the people you’ve done it with are always going to be pretty lively.
Frank Dernie is a very clever man who is also a highly competitive individual. “I decided at an early age that I would never be brave enough to be a racing driver, but I wanted to win races by having new and better ideas, and exploiting them before other teams could copy them.” In F1 he played a crucial role at Williams (twice), Benetton, Lotus, Ligier, Toyota and Arrows. In Indycar he did the same for Lola, and he was also closely involved with the MG Lola Le Mans car.
“When I came into F1 in the 1970s, entire design and technical departments consisted of one or two people. There’d be one aerodynamicist – me – who would have other key responsibilities as well. At Ferrari now, for example, the aero department is 160 people, and the head of aero has to spend all his time managing them. I’d be hopeless in modern F1. I’m not a manager, I would be no good sitting at a desk directing scores of other people. I’d want to get into the wind tunnel myself and see what’s happening.”
Frank was born in 1950. He and his musician wife Sheenagh have lived in the pleasing Oxfordshire market town of Wantage since his Williams days. We meet at one of his favourite pubs, The Bear, an old coaching inn whose history goes back to Tudor times. Frank opts for his favourite braised steak and ale pie: as an engineer, always looking for the optimum solution, he has discovered from careful and lengthy research that if he turns the pie upside down the gravy combines with the pastry more efficiently. He drinks orange and passion fruit juice.
“My dad was a land agent who played golf, but my grandfather was an engineer, one of those people who was born with a natural feel for it. From an early age I realised that in motor racing the car makes up a major part of the difference between winning and losing, and that fascinated me. [Cosworth founder] Keith Duckworth became one of my heroes, and I decided to go to Imperial College because it was his alma mater.
“While I was there he came to give a talk to the college motor club. The only decent textbook then was Costin & Phipps [Racing and Sports Car Design by Mike Costin and David Phipps, published in 1961] and Keith had written the appendices. In the Q&A session I put up my hand and told him I thought I’d found an error: surely so-and-so should be such-and-such? He said, ‘It’s too complicated to go into here. Let’s have a beer afterwards and I’ll explain it.’ In the pub he said, ‘You’re right to question it: nobody should ever take for granted what they read in a textbook without going back to first principles.’ In later life I got to know him well, and until he died we were still having three-hour phone conversations about such things as the behaviour of the dampers on his motorbike. A lovely man.
“For my third-year project at Imperial I managed to persuade the university that I could design a Clubmans car. The teachers weren’t interested in guesswork, which a lot of racing car design was then, but Imperial had two computers, huge things that would fill this room, and having done the computer engineering course I decided to write a program to optimise my car’s suspension design.
“At another motor club meeting we had a young speaker who was with a new team called March Engineering. His name was Harvey Postlethwaite. I collared him in the bar afterwards and told him about my program, and it turned out that nobody had done this before. In my youthful naivety it had never occurred to me that I could be the first.
“Harvey invited me to visit March, and I started doing some suspension geometry optimisation for them while I was still at Imperial. Harvey paid me for this out of his own pocket. After he went to Hesketh I carried on doing bits and pieces for him while I was serving my apprenticeship in the gearbox R&D department at David Brown. Then I got a job at Garrard designing high-quality record players. That was up another of my streets: I listen to a lot of music, and I’ve never had a hi-fi system that has cost less than my everyday road car. When Harvey left Hesketh to go to Williams, Nigel Stroud wanted somebody to do the sums on the latest version of the Hesketh 308, and Harvey told Bubbles Horsley he should hire me. I knew that Hesketh was pretty insecure, but an offer from any F1 team was an opportunity to do what I’d always wanted.
“Inevitably Hesketh collapsed, but in 1977 I managed to get a job with Frank Williams, just after he’d set up the new company.” Frank Williams Racing Cars, based at Bennett Road in Reading, had been in uneasy partnership with Walter Wolf, who had purchased most of the old Hesketh equipment. But Frank’s relationship with the ebullient Canadian millionaire was difficult, and he was feeling more and more marginalised. When Wolf brought in Peter Warr from Lotus to be the new team manger, Frank decided it was time to cut free. He left to set up Williams Grand Prix Engineering, taking with him Patrick Head, whom he’d hired not long before as chief engineer.
“The FW06, the 1978 car, was the first proper Williams, and Patrick drew that more or less on his own. I got involved in the FW07, and did all the aerodynamics for that. In fact from then on, for 10 years until I went to Lotus, there wasn’t a single bit of aero on a Williams that I didn’t do. The aero department was just me on my own, until later we got a model maker, and then a technician to run the tunnel.
“I was the first person in F1 to propose getting an in-house wind tunnel. We’d been using the two wind tunnels at Imperial, which had a moving ground to simulate the track passing under the car and rotate the wheels, both of which are crucial. All the messing around we did in testing, trying different suspension, dampers, diffs, it made bugger-all difference. But every time we went into the tunnel we came back with a faster car. I said to Patrick, ‘What we really need is a tunnel of our own.’ Patrick knew, from his Lola days, that Specialised Mouldings had an old tunnel stored in a hangar, so we drove over to Huntingdon and did a cash deal on the spot to buy it.
“By now I think Williams was 23 people, and we had a young R&D technician called Ross Brawn. I designed a moving ground for our tunnel, and Ross made it. We bought a process control computer – Windows and all that stuff didn’t exist, of course, and the computer cost more than the tunnel – and I wrote all the software for it.
“I’m afraid I’m going to brag a bit now. I was the first person in Formula 1 to use computer-aided design and computer-aided engineering. Williams got CAD in 1985 because I wanted it. The Calma system was going to cost more than £50,000, but I persuaded Frank that we could get it for nothing in return for stickers on the front of the sidepods. And I was the first to put a digital data-logging system in an F1 car.
“I wasn’t the first to come up with active suspension, because Lotus had been trying it, but I reckon I was the first person to make it work. I’d noticed in the wind tunnel that the car’s attitude, its angle and height above the ground, made a huge difference to performance, and I wanted to find a way to control that. Lotus was trying a very sophisticated system, but all I wanted to do was control the ride height. A guy who’d worked for Lucas on a stability system for ambulances brought it to us, and it was completely wrong for racing, but I thought the basic idea was good. So I changed it around, made a mechanical version and put it on an FW09.
“We took it to Silverstone for Nelson [Piquet] to test, and after a few laps he said, ‘Wow, it rides like a Cadillac. Trouble is, it handles like a Cadillac.’ It was so difficult to control mechanically that I decided to go for something electronic. I found two young guys, one to do the hardware, Steve Wise, and one to do the programming, Paddy Lowe, who is probably the cleverest guy I ever hired. Steve became head of electronics at Williams, and of course Paddy is now technical director at Mercedes.
“At first Nigel [Mansell] wanted nothing to do with it. At Lotus it had collapsed on him a few times, and he thought it was dangerous. Then when ours won a race first time out [Piquet, Monza 1987] he had to have one. Actually I was worried too because, if the hydraulics failed, the car would dump itself on the deck. So I built in some safety details which meant it couldn’t quite run at its optimum, but I was happier.
“At Williams Patrick really ran the place day to day. Frank made the big decisions and went out to look for the money, while Patrick focused on getting things done. That’s why, when Frank had his dreadful car crash in March 1986, the team was able to keep going. Without Patrick we’d have been in deep trouble. Working with Patrick was so much fun. He and I were in and out of each other’s offices all the time: he’d come in and say, ‘What the bloody hell’s going on with this?’ or I’d be saying, ‘The brake barrel on that new rear upright, are you sure they’re machining it right?’
“One of my first contacts with Bernie Ecclestone came at an FIA meeting – there was no such thing as a technical working group then – and Patrick was meant to be one of the team representatives. But he never wanted to go to those things, so he sent me. Colin Chapman was flying to Le Bourget in his aeroplane with Bernie, and I went with them. I was in awe, because Colin had been one of my heroes since I was a little boy, but he and Bernie just spent the whole flight discussing deals.
“Bernie said to me, ‘Now this is FOCA’s position, when they come to you you’re to say that we want this, and this, and this.’ So in the meeting we’re talking about fuel flow limitations, they go round the table and come to me, and I say everything that Bernie has told me to say. Then Bernie interrupts and says, ‘That’s complete nonsense. Engineers always come up with rubbish like that.’ He’d just set me up so that he could disapprove of something, muddy the waters, get the meeting on his side and get approval for what he really wanted. That taught me a lot about Bernie. I’m a big fan. Where would F1 be without him? He does take a very big slice of the cake, but what a big cake it’s become.”
In those days, at work and away from the public gaze, the engineer was very well placed to know his driver’s true ability, and his personality. “Alan Jones was brilliant, He was at Williams from 1978, and won the world championship for us in 1980. He went from being something of a journeyman driver to being champion, and that was as much down to us as it was to him. He had confidence in the team, and he and Patrick were like brothers.
“Jonesy didn’t tell you what to do: he just told you the problem and let you decide how to solve it, which is what the engineer prefers. It’s much worse if you’ve got a driver who thinks he knows how the car works, like Mansell did. Jonesy didn’t want to muck around unnecessarily: he wanted to finish the job and go and have a steak.
“So he’d come in and say, ‘I’ve got too much understeer at the hairpin’ and you’d say, ‘We’ll soften the front bar.’ Then he might say, ‘OK, but the car’s a bit loose in that fast corner.’ Up to then he hadn’t mentioned any problem on the fast corner, because it wasn’t slowing him down yet. He would always focus on the most important problem first, and he wouldn’t mention another problem unless he was concerned that your fix for the first problem might exacerbate the second. So you could dial in the car very quickly.
“The racing highlight of my career was Montréal in 1979. As usual we used the Sunday morning warm-up to measure fuel consumption, tyre wear and brake pad wear. Montréal was always very hard on brakes and tyres. After the session I measured the fuel consumption: we weren’t going to finish, the tank was too small. And I measured the pad wear: the brakes weren’t going to last either.
“I talked it through with Jonesy. You use most fuel and brakes when you’re heavy, so we agreed he’d take it easy for as long as he could, until late in the race when I’d hang out a signal – we agreed that it would say ‘pump’, which wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else – and then he could go for it.
“Gilles Villeneuve was the only driver that Alan respected, and the Ferrari was on pole with Alan next to him. Gilles led, Alan followed him in second place, taking care of his fuel and his brakes, and then at two-third distance I hung out the signal. At once Alan was all over Gilles, got by him, and he won the race by 1sec.
“Carlos Reutemann was with us in Jonesy’s championship year. He could do unbelievable things in a car, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone better. But Jones demoralised him. I think he must have been reading his tea leaves or something, because he was superstitious. If he thought things were going to go badly, then they did, almost as if he had made it happen. By mid-1981, when we got to the British Grand Prix, he led Piquet, who was at Brabham, by 43 points to 26. We all thought he was going to be champion. But then he seemed to give up. We went to the last round in Las Vegas, and he could still get the title: all he had to do was beat Piquet. He was ahead of him, and then the Brabham went by apparently without difficulty. Nelson said afterwards, ‘I come up to overtake, and he just open his legs for me.’
“Keke Rosberg replaced Jones for 1982, and won the championship in his first year. I ran him for all of his four seasons. He was such fun. Fantastic car control, great sense of humour. I loved the man, although he could get a bit arsey if things weren’t going well. After he’d done his last year at McLaren and decided to retire, he gave me a little box. Inside was a beautiful Ebel stopwatch. Engraved on the back it said, ‘To FD from Keke, thanks for 1982’.
“Nigel Mansell joined Williams in 1985. A brave driver, a great overtaker, a real racer. But you can’t get away from the fact that he was difficult. As far as he was concerned, he never made a mistake. If he won, it was because he was just better than everybody else and he had carried the car on his back. If he didn’t win, it was because somebody else had got it wrong. It wasn’t a popular approach with the mechanics: he wasn’t very good at keeping the boys on his side. For a while Patrick ran him, and Patrick’s voice can be pretty strident. I remember once, during the noise of the race, and with my own headphones on, I could still hear Patrick shouting into his radio: ‘For f**k’s sake, Nigel, stop whinging and just drive the f**king car!’
“Nelson arrived a year after Nigel, and in my view he was the faster driver up until that accident at Imola in 1987. He hit the same wall at Tamburello that killed Ayrton Senna, and he was badly concussed. Gerhard Berger had a bad accident there, the time his car caught fire. Michele Alboreto, too, all serious crashes. A lot of people said to the circuit owners, ‘You’ve got to do something about that wall.’ But they always said, ‘We can’t. There’s a river behind it.’ It took Senna’s death to make them put in a chicane. Nelson’s eyesight was affected by that accident for some time – his short vision was bad, so he couldn’t read the dash – but even after that I still think he was as quick as Nigel.
“Nelson was a very hard worker. There was a time when we had to have a test quickly, to check a new modification. We called Nigel, and he said, ‘I’m in the Isle of Man, I can’t come.’ Nelson was in Brazil visiting his mother. When we called him he was on the next plane, did the test, then flew back to finish seeing his mum.
“After 10 years at Williams I decided to move on. With Patrick there, obviously I could never have total technical responsibility, and I wanted to be a proper technical director. Nelson had left us to go to Lotus, and he didn’t think their car was as good as it should have been. After his first season there he said to me, ‘I’m going to call you at 8am every morning until you agree to come.’ Which he did, and I finally gave in and became technical director at Lotus.
“It was a mistake, because they didn’t have the budget to do any proper R&D and wind tunnel work. Peter Warr was running the team – Colin Chapman had died six years before – and I know not everybody liked him, but as an individual to work alongside he was very good. He couldn’t have been more generous to me, but by the end of 1988 he was gone.
“For 1989 I designed the Lotus 101. Unfortunately its Judd engine was massively down on power. Cosworth offered us the old DFR when the HD came out, but we didn’t have the money to make the switch. The car was aerodynamically quite good, but then Goodyear brought out the new tyre they’d developed with McLaren, who had the heaviest, most powerful engine, and we had the lightest, least powerful engine. The tyres didn’t match the car at all. Before then we’d been all right, not looking stupid, but once we had to use those tyres we were never quick again.
“The 102, with the Lamborghini V12, was basically the same car. We hadn’t done any proper aero development, and then Martin Donnelly had his accident at Jerez, which threw us a lot. The barrier was right on the edge of the track and Martin hit it at nearly 90 degrees, which almost never happens. His legs were very badly broken, but he survived – maybe the worst accident anyone had survived since David Purley at Silverstone in 1977.
“Ligier was chasing me hard, and my two-year contract with Lotus was up. So it was off to France for 1991. I loved Guy Ligier. He reminded me of my own dad: brash, quick-tempered, strong-willed. He was difficult to work for because you’d agree what the plan was, he’d be supporting you 100 per cent, and then he’d read something that Johnny Rives wrote in L’Équipe, or Jabby Crombac in SportAuto, and he’d say, ‘No we’re not doing that, do this instead.’
“I pretty much inherited the bulky 1991 car, but I did the next one, the JS37, which was much more compact. The drivers were Thierry Boutsen and Erik Comas. I was a big supporter of Boutsen – until Alain Prost tested the car. Prost was hoping to use his political contacts in France to force Guy to hand over the team to him, and when he got in the car he was so much faster than Boutsen it was astonishing. Part of it was he really wanted to humiliate Boutsen, because Thierry was a close friend of Ayrton Senna, and of course Prost hated Senna.
“It seemed that Prost’s takeover of Ligier was going to happen, and we went to the first race of the 1991 season, Phoenix, expecting Prost to be our new No1. We had his seat in the car, his pedal set-up, everything. Then Guy told us the deal hadn’t happened, and we’d be running Boutsen and Comas again.
“For 1993 I was headhunted by Ross Brawn to go to Benetton as chief engineer. Ross had worked for me at Williams, and now I worked for him. Ross is just brilliant. He didn’t go to university, and when I first met him he was just a front-end mechanic at Williams. But he is a born engineer. You can take somebody who is good at mathematics and put him through university so he gets a first in engineering, but at the end of it he won’t be an engineer unless he’s got the feel for it. It’s surprising how few people have truly got that feel, and Ross has it in spades.
“It was my first contact with Michael Schumacher. He was very shy, he never quite looked you in the eye. That’s why people thought he was arrogant or stand-offish, but he wasn’t. He was just a nice guy. And he was a massively hard worker: he’d pore over the data, but he was another who’d tell you the problem and let you come up with the solution. You could zero in on the optimum set-up for him very quickly. And, of course, he was a totally ruthless racer. The best ones always are: Senna was ruthless.
“The team boss at Benetton, of course, was Flavio Briatore. Flav had no interest in motor racing whatsoever: he only came into it because he saw how big the turnover was, and he realised there was money to be made. He was just a profiler, really. He never came to any tests, obviously, so the first time I was conscious of him was at a Grand Prix. I was going through the data sheets with Michael when he came over and started looking at them with us. I thought, ‘Maybe he is interested after all’ and started to explain something to him. Then abruptly he walked away. I turned round and saw a TV cameraman who’d been filming us. As soon as he turned off his camera Flav went.
“In 1995 Flav bought Ligier, and seconded me back there. I found the car I’d designed 18 months before being run at all the wrong ride heights, so it was quite easy to go from where they were at the back of the grid up to mid-grid just by getting the set-up right. The drivers were Olivier Panis and Martin Brundle. I hold Martin in high regard – anyone who could beat Senna in F3 was exceptional – although he’s not a big fan of mine for some reason. Olly was a great guy, a long way from being an aristocratic Frenchman, more of a street fighter. He always had a good go.
“After a year at Ligier I went back to Benetton, where I was still chief engineer. But my three-year contract was coming to an end, and Flav said to me, ‘I’m selling Ligier to Tom Walkinshaw. Go and have a word with him.’ It sounded good: I’d hired some great people while I was at Ligier, an excellent aero guy and good race engineers, and the team had potential. But unfortunately I signed a contract with Tom, instead of with Ligier. Bad move, because in the end he didn’t buy Ligier, he bought Arrows, and I ended up there.
“But I never had any trouble with Tom. He was totally straight and honest with me, and he never asked me to cheat. Actually no team bosses ever asked me to cheat. If there were some dodgy things going on they wouldn’t involve me in it, because I talk too much. And I was known to object to that sort of thing. I reckon you can never feel you’ve won if you’ve done it by cheating.
“Going to Arrows I believed, if you had the right money and the right people, you could build a successful F1 team in five years. The problem with Tom was, he wanted to do it in two. I remember him escorting a bunch of British press around the new factory he’d built at Leafield, and he told them: ‘Behind that door we are currently making our new chassis, so I can’t take you in there.’ Behind that door was nothing but earth floor, they hadn’t even concreted it yet. I hadn’t finished designing the chassis because he hadn’t yet done an engine deal. It was massive expectation for something that had no chance of happening immediately.
“There were a lot of things that aggravated me along the way, and the last straw came in August. John Barnard’s company was making these beautiful magnesium uprights: they were massively costly, but Tom wanted them. I found that the weight saving of each upright was almost exactly the weight of two brake pads. so we ran a test on the four-post rig, then took the brake pads out, did the test again, and there was zero difference. I went to Tom and said, ‘We don’t need these. We can spend the money on something that makes a difference.’ He said, ‘I don’t care what you think, we’re having them.’ I resigned later that day.
“It was the middle of the season, and I felt I was letting Damon Hill down. He wasn’t Michael Schumacher, but he was a clever guy who worked very hard at getting the best out of the car. And in the wet, which I always feel is a good indicator of talent, he was brilliant.
“The car with which Damon almost won the Hungarian Grand Prix was my car, the A18. We’d just built a new front wing that effectively moved the weight distribution forward. I thought it would match the Bridgestones very well. We tested it just before I left, and it gave a massive gain in performance. Damon qualified third, and was leading right at the end when there was a gearbox hydraulics problem. Such a shame.
“After Arrows I was pretty fed up, and I decided to set up my own consultancy. And Lola came to me with a problem with their Indycar. The Reynard was turning out to be better, and no one was buying Lolas. I had worked out that the most important mechanical task is to get the weight distribution correct for the tyre contact area, so that you can get all four tyres to run at their optimum temperature. Carl Hogan was running Lolas, and he asked me to go to the first Indycar round at Phoenix. I’d never run an Indycar, never been to an oval before. First day of practice, I got the tyre temperatures and the ride height sorted, and we were quickest by lunchtime. Mind you, our driver was Helio Castroneves, and nobody knew how good he was at that time.
“And I did the aero on the little MG Le Mans car, which was a lot of fun. The aero on sports cars is nearly all lift, they produce lift on just about every surface, so the first thing I did was to cut away all the bodywork I could get rid of legally, and that gave a big increase in downforce just by not having it there. AER [Advanced Engine Research] did a four-cylinder turbo for us, but the head gasket supplier got their calculations wrong. So we had to machine the blocks to take Dykes rings, and it was just a question of how long they would keep going until they failed. But it was the first time – so far the only time – I’d been to Le Mans, and I thought it was wonderful.
“Martin Birrane, who owned Lola, promised me all sorts of things that never materialised. With everybody else I ever worked for, they always played straight, but after a while I told Martin I was going on holiday for two weeks and, if the money I was owed wasn’t in my bank account when I got back, I’d leave. It wasn’t, so I did.
“Then Patrick rang me. ‘Look here, chap, it’s a bit stupid having a clever bloke like you sitting out there wanking around.’ So I ended up back at Williams. They invented a title for me, chief project engineer or some such, and once again it was about getting the weight distribution right for the tyres, and optimising the ride height in corners. You’d assume that the more rearward the weight distribution, the better the traction would be. But grip is dominated by tyre temperature, and if the weight is too far to the rear you overheat the tyres. The only time it does give you better traction is at the start, when the tyres are cold and you’re pointing straight ahead. But when the car was at its fastest – as when Juan Pablo Montoya won for us at Monaco – we had 51 per cent of the weight on the front wheels.
“However, Patrick never accepted that what I was doing was right, and our starts weren’t as good. He said what I was doing was just masking the car’s true problems.
“Montoya was a bit like Nigel, a really hard racer, but more likeable because he was less obnoxious out of the car. He was a brilliant overtaker: if there was a car in front of him he was going to do whatever it took to catch it and overtake it. I think it’s a tragedy that he left F1 – for F1, not for him, because he’s happy as Larry in the USA.
“After Williams I went to Toyota. I knew the chief engineer there, Pascal Vasselon, because we’d worked together at Ligier, and he asked me to look at the new rules for 2009 and come up with some concepts. Meanwhile we got some big gains with the car, once again just with set-up changes. I stayed with Toyota until they pulled out of F1 at the end of 2009. I was coming up to 60, and I decided it was time to stop.”
There are lots of other areas of Frank’s working life that over our lunch we can barely mention. For example, he accepted an invitation to be a scrutineer in historic racing. Many of the cars in Thoroughbred Grand Prix he’d designed originally, 30 years before, and he was able to spot at 20 paces if a rear wing, for example, was not correct. He even worked as a scrutineer in powerboat racing.
But inevitably we have to talk about F1 today. “It’s always been the case that the best driver couldn’t win the race if he was in a lesser car. Even Michael Schumacher wouldn’t have won anything in a Minardi. But I do think the driver is a less important ingredient in victory now, because some elements of the car are so much easier. A DFV needed really skilful throttle control, because most of the power hit you on the first five per cent of pedal travel, and the next 95 per cent did little more. A modern F1 car matches torque to throttle, so five per cent more throttle gives you five per cent more torque. It takes very complex programming, but it makes the throttle as perfect as you could wish. And the gearbox: with the dog-engaged H-pattern change it took real skill never to make a mistake, never to miss a gear, never to over-rev. On today’s cars my mum could change gear as well as Fernando Alonso, because it’s just a switch.
“I think I’m massively lucky to have worked in F1 when I did. The 1980s was a period when we were starting to have a little bit more cash, we could try out a few of the ideas that we hadn’t had the budget to pursue before. But there was none of the huge staffing levels, the layers and layers of management, the seemingly endless piles of cash like today. The teams were still small enough not to require masses of meetings and reams of paper. So what I wanted to do when I first set out to become an engineer is what I did do. Yes, massively lucky.”