Patrick Head: The F1 designers I respected... and tried to beat

One of the key figures behind Williams' F1 championship-winning cars of the 1980s and 1990s, Patrick Head was locked in battle with other great car designers of the era. Here, he reveals three he admired through the heat of competition

Patrick Head portrait

Frederic Le Floc'h/DPPI

During my time at Williams I have been privileged to compete against a number of designers whose work I have respected but tried to beat on track. Outstanding among these were Gordon Murray, John Barnard and Rory Byrne.

Gordon rose to prominence at Brabham after Bernie Ecclestone bought the team. His first Formula 1 car, the BT42, was small, neat and fast. The BT44, a new car that developed the theme of the BT42, was a race winner with the two Carloses – Reutemann and Pace. A period with Alfa Romeo engines was not hugely successful, but included the BT46, an elegant car if its original surface radiator installation had worked, but it didn’t, and Gordon had to hurriedly include a front radiator and wide-nose configuration. The ‘fan-car’ version of this solved the radiator location problem, and won its only race at Anderstorp in 1978 before Bernie withdrew it. Probably a good decision, but I’m sure it disappointed Gordon.

The introduction of the turbo BMWs was an exciting time, as was Brabham’s re-introduction of refuelling into F1. In the early days with the BMW, while testing at Ricard, I saw a BMW engineer burst out of the caravan from which he was monitoring the real-time telemetry data, shouting to the pit “stop the car!”, only to hear at almost the same time a loud explosion from the main straight. Yet another turbo reduced to shrapnel… Eventually these problems got sorted and Nelson Piquet won the 1983 title with the BT53.

Nelson Piquet

Nelson Piquet won the 1983 title in the Gordon Murray-designed Brabham BT53 — after teething troubles

Grand Prix Photo

I first met John Barnard when I started at Lola Cars in 1970. John had been there a couple of years and was responsible mainly for the smaller single-seaters. I was very much the ‘new boy’ with a lot to learn, though I had an engineering degree from University College. Lola Cars, under Eric Broadley, was a great place to start.

From the archive

One project which John and I shared was the T290 2-litre sports car. The quarter-scale layout was done by Eric and given to John and I with instructions to have the car ready to test in seven weeks. We worked long hours. The car was a successful model for Lola with a series of updates keeping it in production for many years.

One of John’s projects with which I was very impressed was the Chaparral 2K, an F1-inspired ground-effects Indycar he designed for Jim Hall with Gordon Kimble as his assistant and built by Bob Sparshott. The car was outstanding, and in 1980 Johnny Rutherford won both the Indy 500 and the Indycar championship with it.

John then moved on to McLaren with Ron Dennis, creating the foundation and approach still maintained by the team. In this period the first true carbon composite chassis was introduced and the Tag Porsche turbo V6, although designed and built by Porsche, was very much to the specification dictated by John.

John had a reputation for being tough to work with. I never found that, but he did set very high standards for himself and those around him. He is now designing furniture and medical instruments, still to high standards I’m sure.

Rory Byrne I’ve had less contact with, but have always been aware of his design approach and tenacity. The latter he may have learnt from Ron Tauranac in the early days with Ralts and Toleman F2 cars. Rory progressed from Royale Formula Fords through F2 and then into F1. His cars were always very individual, but became more effective, and the first win came under the Benetton name with Gerhard Berger in Mexico. In 1994 came the first title with Michael Schumacher and a Ford engine, and then with a Renault in ’95. Michael persuaded Rory and Ross Brawn to join him at Ferrari, where Ross was the public technical face but Rory the design lead. He should take much credit for the incredible series of title wins achieved by Michael and Ferrari. Rory is still highly competitive, still retained by Ferrari, but lives mainly in Phuket.

I find it surprising that the achievements of all three have not been more widely recognised, as all have brought much credit and inward investment to the UK.