John Barnard has always been fascinated by motorcycles. So when he was offered the chance to become chief engineer at the Banbury-based Team Roberts MotoGP outfit, he couldn’t resist.
The very different challenges of making a motorcycle go round a race track intrigued Barnard, who had spent much of the previous few decades revolutionising Formula 1. He was certainly fascinated by the lean angles achieved in MotoGP – currently 64 degrees from the vertical, but slightly less than that when he joined King Kenny Roberts’ operation in 2003.
“When you start looking at the lean angles you scratch your head and think, it just can’t work, can it?” he says. “The angles are mind-blowing, but science says these are the numbers and this is how it works, so get on with it. Relatively speaking the contact patch is very small, so the tyre frictions are massively high.”
Barnard is nothing if not a scientist, and science is what he wanted to bring to bike racing, a motor sport that often seems to think it exists somewhere beyond the laws of physics in a nebulous realm where muscle is more important than metal.
He found that Team Roberts was indeed flying by the seat of its pants, designing chassis with artisan know-how rather than through hard numbers. So Barnard set off on a data-gathering mission. He fed chassis stiffness, centre of gravity and aerodynamics numbers into the computer, then built his first motorcycle chassis.
His creation (above) certainly caused a stir when it was rolled out in the pitlane for the first time at Le Mans in May 2003. As usual, Barnard had brought his original thinking to the project and done things differently. Instead of fabricating the chassis in the traditional manner with sections of pressed and welded sheet aluminium, he had the main frame sections and swingarm machined from solid aluminium billet. Italian factory Aprilia had used similar technology in its RS3 MotoGP bike, but Barnard took it to the next level.
Barnard’s method offers several advantages, including much improved consistency of manufacture and the ability to accurately create flex in certain areas of the chassis by spark-eroding the core of the billet to adjust wall thickness. If you walked down a MotoGP pitlane now you would notice that the Japanese factories also use CNC-machined sections in their chassis.
Unfortunately, Barnard arrived at Team Roberts just as it was completing its own V5 engine. It was beset with all kinds of problems that were a disastrous drag on the project which never recorded a decent result until the team installed a Honda V5 some time after Barnard’s departure. Roberts was moved to call Barnard’s chassis “a work of art” while he called his own Proton-funded V5 “a boat anchor”.
While at Team Roberts Barnard was struck by how a motorcycle needs to be tailored to each individual rider. “The integration of the rider to the engine and bike is much more critical than in F1. Witness the whole Casey Stoner/Ducati thing. He’s the only guy who’s been able to ride that bike competitively and it’s not like the others aren’t any good.”
This is the source of that feeling that motorcycles are somehow more human than mechanical. And that’s why Barnard met resistance to some of his ideas. “It’s a biker problem – they’re very anti-different and anti-new. If somebody tried something once a few years ago and it didn’t work out of the box, then it’s no good.”
Given the time, Barnard would no doubt have countered such resistance with incontrovertible science. But the budget wasn’t there and he left Team Roberts after just over a year, believing it would have taken another two for his ideas to come to full fruition.
“I’d have loved to have a go at getting there, but the resources aren’t there in bikes,” he says. That is perhaps the biggest technical difficulty in motorcycle racing – a lack of the kind of R&D budgets that might allow serious development of radical new ideas.