Interview- Robin Herd C.B.E

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Mike Lawrence

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These days Robin Herd is a remarkably elusive man, setting up an intervtew was like trapping a shadow. Half of his year is now spent in the States where over fifty percent of March’s production is sold. Then there’s the Japanese market to take care of. March has won the Japanese F2 Championship for the past eight years and the company is now involved with Nissan in Group C. On top of that there are F3000 customers all over Europe and future protects and customers to consider as well It’s hardly surprising, then, to learn that he has flown more than 1000 times during the past three years.

“It’s as well that I enjoy flying,” he says “You’re supposed to feel tired after a transatlantic flight burl look upon it as seven to eleven hours away from the phone, with a chance to think.” On his desk was the main reason for his being back at base tickets for the Milk Cup Final at Wembley the next day. Robin is a vice president of Oxford United (which won). Not so visible was his other excuse for being back at base, his RS2000 rally car which he was going to spend the afternoon driving.

March Engineering has undergone a new lease of life during the past six years. In 1981 the company entered the American Indycar market for the first time and has entoyed phenomenal success. As well as corporate prosperity. March’s achievements have been marked by personal honours to Robin himself, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Designer’s Prize, 1985 and, in the New Year Honours list, the C. B. E. Its slightly ironic that the man attracts awards for being a designer at a time when he has largely become a businessman and a super-salesman.

“Don’t ask me why I got the C B E – when the letter arrived from 10 Downing Street, I thought ‘Good Heavens. Mark Thatcher’s after a drive!’ Secretly I think that C B E is a reference to Bernie Ecclestone’s initials. But you’re right that these honours have come when I’m not actively designing and I certainly miss being at the drawing board.

“When I left Farnborough and moved to McLaren one did more or less single-handedly design a car and one could do that because the cars were far less complex and because we knew so little — you had to guess so much I was not an artistic designer like Colin Chapman or Gordon Murray, but much more of a pragmatc designer like Patrick Head.

“The days of the one man design team are now gone though. When you hear it said it means either that they’re not producing good enough cars or else they’re not giving credit where it’s due. It’s a team effort now, just like designing an aeroplane.

“If you take Indycar, which is our main market, we have five or six engineers working with the teams getting the input from this year’s car to form the imprevernents to next year’s car. We’ve got own research facility here and in fact we’re building our owen wind tunnel with rolling road which I think will he the best wind tunnel in the world. A major car manufacturer has already approahed us to buy a couple though we do not particularly want to part with the technology. We have five people here working full time on aerodynamics with another one joining us soon and then there you go into research into composite structures.

“We have our field engineers, and our research engineers, and they feed in information to a concept engineer whn creates the concept of a car which is then detailed by a team of designers. The concept engineer who might be Adrian Newey (Indycar) Andy Brown (F3000) or Gordon Coppuck (GTP) then has to get the concept exactly right or else we’re in trouble.”

March Engineering is now a fairly big business, employing 150 people and feeding 5,000. Its 1986 production should finally work out at 45 indycars. 20 for F3000. 20 for Mini-Indy. 15 for Japanese F2 and ten for GTP which includes the Nissan powered Group C cars Mini Indy, incidentally, is series similar to F3000 but which calls not only for a control tyre but also a control chassis (based on the March 85B), a control engine (Buick) and even guaranteed engine rebuild costs. Formula Two is nearing its end in Japan and will he replaced by F3000 in 1987 but March has won the Japanese F2 Championship for the past eight years and is set to win again in 1986.

 When you stop to consider March, it’s easy to fall into the habit of considering it mainly in terms of statistics. A March car has, for example, taken pole, lastest lap and the chequered flag in the past four Indianapolis 500 races. In this year’s race there was only one non-March (Al Unser Juniors fifth placed Lola) in the top ten while 24 of the 33 qualifiers used cars from Bicester.

None of it is Formula One, and March’s achievements have been less lustrous there, but the company is still number one in its chosen markets. “A number of major car makers have approached us with a view to building a Group S rally car” (something which is now, so suddenly an obsolete concept) “and we have been collaborating with a major manufacturer on another protect.” Off the record. Robin outlined the progect and a few others as well, some extremely interesting. Obviously one wondered whether a possible future protect might be a return to F1 “If the right sort of deal was put to us. In the past we did F1 on ridiculous money. When we ran Ronnie Peterson in 1976, I think you’ll find he spent more laps in the lead than anyone else that season and our total budget was just £50,000. We basically never had the money to do the job right or else made a mess of the opportunities we had.

“People say that we were very shrewd to move into the Indycar market in 1981 but it wasn’t shrewdness, it was simply luck John Macdonald asked us to design him an Fl car and. in order to attract sponsorship to allow him to call it a March (the 811) “This, we ventured, bore a striking similarity to the Williams FWO7s which John Macdonald had been running in 1980 “There was a general similarity,” conceded Robin. “but then the Williams was more or less a tidied up Lotus 79” We pointed out that the Williams FW07 and March 811 designs were not only of similar concept but identical dimensions “You’re right, it was a direct copy.

“It was clear to us in 1981 that the bottom was dropping out of the F3 and F SuperVee markets. We had built this F1 car and thought it might be fun to build an Indycar. It was just that, an idea. We came to an agreement with Ralf that we would leave the F3 and F SuperVee markets alone and, in return, Ralt would give us a clear run at Indy.

“Our car, based on the March 811 served us, with modifications, from 1981 to 1984, both as an lndycar and as a Can-Am car, and we brought out brand new designs last year and this. During that period we have become the market leader for the time being — it’s a very fickle business — and we’ve also seen considerable changes. In 1981 there were no fewer than 110 entries for the Indy 500 There were ten serious entries and most of the rest were junk. This year there were only 67 entries but the overall standard was very high. We have, with Lola, been able to provide better equipment but have at the same time got rid of the sort of runner who’d turn up with a three year old car and a wild dream of qualifying at Indy.”

Tom Sneva opened the scoring for March in 1981, winning two races including the most important one of the season to win, which is always the last race of the season March marketed the car well and sold 27 cars to 14 teams in 1982. Seventeen March 82Cs started at Indy and although a March didn’t win, Rahal, Sneva and Rebacque gave the marque victories in the CART Championship. For those of us who remember Rahal in F2 and Rebacque in F1, these successes put CART racing into perspective.

In 1983, Sneva gave March its first Indy victory (Teo Fabi sat on pole) and midway through the season the Penske team set the seal on the March success story by abandoning its own cars (All American, build in Dorset) and switching to March chassis. The following year March had 90, of the Indianapolis grid and the first 14 places in the race, but Mario Andretti still won the Championship in a Lola. Last year March took 1-2-3 in the Championship and the Indy 500 as well.

This year Rick Mears qualified his March for pole at Indy at an average speed of 217.58 mph (which constitutes the world closed circuit record) and Rahal’s winning average was 170.722 mph. Cut it as you will, that is serious motoring. The only trouble is that American product liability laws are such that if something went wrong with a car then March could be sued out of sight.

“I’m sure one day it will happen and there’s nothing we can do about it, insuring against it would be prohibitive and, besides, once people know you’re insured, it encourages them to sue. We could sell our cars through a front company but if someone’s determined enough, he’ll find his way through a dozen front companies, the only way we can protect ourselves is to keep the capital value of the company as low as possible. Then it’s not worth anyone’s while to sue us.”

That put us in mind of a recent conversation with Max Mosley who had been impressed by an assertion by the economist J.K. Galbraith that power and wealth once lay in land, then in the means of production but now it lies in talent. Most of the people March employ are young, in their twenties and they form the greater assets of the company.

Max Mosley, of course, is the ‘M’ in the March to Herd’s ‘H’ When he decided to leave March in 1977 to join FOCA, it meant the end of March’s works F1 effort and Robin becoming less of the designer and more of the businessman. He regrets not spending more time designing and says he hates the Idea of selling cars. but he’s so good at it that you wonder whether he can be serious. He has that rare gift of being able to make whoever he’s with seem like the most important person in the world to him at that time. Someone who is such a natural salesman surely cannot hate it that much, someone who is that non-commital about business doesn’t run a company with a current turnover of more than £13 million.

In the early days, it was Max who drummed up the business “In the early days, if we’d known how difficult it was going to be we’d never have done it. It was the ignorance of youth, we were in our late twenties. I was 29, if I’d been 39 there is no way I’d have done it because I’d have known a lot more. Being so young made it difficult dealing with drivers, particularly Amon, for we were about the same age and there’s no doubt that if you’re a generation or half a generation older than your drivers you’re in a better position to be able to control them. A lot of the problems of 1970 came because we were too young.

“We didn’t know enough we were bloody arrogant and bloody ignorant and everybody could see that except us and we couldn’t understand why people didn’t like us.”

“When we started Max was put in charge of publicity and, as ever, went into things thoroughly. All we had was 3,000 sq ft of workshop here in Bicester, and a telephone. Soon after they connected the phone, Max had sold ten Formula One cars, including for the current World Champion (Jackie Stewart), and Chris Amon, Mario Andretti and Jo Siffert and we had eleven weeks to produce them in. In those eleven weeks I lost a stone and a half and one has to say that though the car was inexpensive to produce and relatively crude, it nevertheless did win three from its first four races and it was first and second on the grid for its first race. Later Ferrari got its act together and the Lotus 72, which was streets ahead, took its rightful place on the grid. But I should add, not in defence but as a matter of record, that Stewart’s average place on the grid was higher in 1970 with a March than it had been with Matra the previous year when he won the World Championship.”

It’s noticeable that the one driver whose picture hangs in the inner sanctums of March is Ronnie Peterson. We wonder how much, for all March’s success, Robin missed that intimate triangular relation which arises between a designer, a driver and a car. “I really miss that very much. Ronnie was a great person as well as a great driver. The week before he died he came over and said, he never really master the English language, ‘Robin, when you shall do your own proper Formula One team then I shall come and drive because then I shall feel I be coming home.’ a week later he was dead. But being able to work with a driver is special and I want to be able to get back to it.”

March, of course, also brought on Niki Lauda and Robin earned something of a reputation for being a talent spotter. “There was this buck-toothed Austrian who’d been hopeless in F3 but we recognised the talents all right but they were the talents of the New Testament, money. Niki had £35,000 worth of talent so far as we were concerned, we needed the money because we were about to go bankrupt for the 87th time.

“The first time I thought Niki might be any good was when we took Ronnie and him to Thruxton for back to back testing. Niki had done a couple of F2 races and hadn’t shone particularly. Niki went out for ten laps to set a base time and then Ronnie went out in the same car and I drove with Niki round the back to watch Ronnie. Ronnie came round on the warming up lap sideways on, it leapt into the air off the bump, the tyres were smoking, it was the usual Ronnie. Niki took one step back and he literally went pale and went absolutely quiet and he said ‘Robin, I could never, ever, drive a racing car like that in my life.’ And you could see his whole spirit had gone.

“Anyway, Ronnie did his ten laps and we headed back to the pits and on the way I asked Niki what time he thought Ronnie had done. Niki thought and said, ‘I did 1m 14 0s. he must have been two seconds faster — say 1m 12s ‘ Ronnie’s lap was, in fact, 1m 14.3s. I thought then that maybe this guy’s going to be good.”

Robin Herd is enjoying enormous personal and business success. March is not only making racing cars but is marketing the expertise it acquires along the way. The international businessman who maintains a house in Indianapolis and who takes off in an aeroplane on average every day except Sunday, hasn’t forgotten his roots and, one suspects, he longs for a simpler life where one man designs a car and another drives if We chat about how he got hooked on racing through reading ‘Motor Sport’, the early days of his amateur rally career (still pursued), tha sad decline of the standards of Arsenal FC and other homely English things.

It’s an English pub we go to for lunch and it’s not far from RAF Bicester where, according to Robin, the Hampden bomber took off on its first test flight. Apparently the station was popular with fliers because Bicester had two claims to fame it starred in some fine limericks, and it had more pubs per head of population than anywhere else.

It’s close to Oxford as well, where Robin took a double first in Physics and Engineering. There are those tickets to see what was to be Oxford United’s finest hour upon his desk and, awaiting him too, the clubman’s rally car. In motor racing, as in every activity, when the sun shines, you buckle down and make hay and you do not ask the sun to stop shining while the hay is there to be made. Robin Herd knows how to fork the hay better than most but he’s also a man who knows how he’ll spend hts time when the sun goes down. — M.L.

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