Lord of the black arts

He weaves magic from carbon fibre, whether revolutionising Ferrari in the ’80s or creating fabulous furniture today. Yet John Barnard refused to join the establishment – until it suited him
By Anthony Rowlinson

This is a tale of a beautiful idea, a beautiful mind and some beautiful Formula 1 cars. It’s also a tale of soaring ambition thwarted by the lowest politics; clarity obfuscated; passion quelled; inspiration, deceit, guile and cunning. It’s the story of John Barnard’s F1 adventure with Ferrari. Fitting, then, that more than a decade on from his last dance in scarlet, Barnard can be found in a beautiful place, filled with beautiful objects and people. Fitting, but also unlikely, for in the galleries of Established & Sons – a textbook-minimalist East End shrine to some of the world’s most expensive designer furniture – Barnard, dressed in low-profile jacket, slacks, shirt and loafers, looks, well, ordinary.

Nothing about this 64-year-old shouts ‘design guru’: no label enslavement, no F1-obligatory watch-of-ludicrous-expense. But if the attire gives few clues to what sets him apart, the table and chair at which he’s sitting say so much. Yep, that scalpel-sharp study in carbon composite that’s two metres long yet barely two millimetres thick at its edges – strong enough to bear the weight of an old Mini; cost £36,000 – is the work of J Barnard and his modern-day design partner Terence Woodgate.

That a man whose name is woven into the history of ’80s and ’90s F1 design should now be creating these pieces is as logical as it is initially surprising: he pioneered the use of the carbon-fibre monocoque in F1 with the 1981 McLaren MP4-1, while an example of one of his later works, the Ferrari 641 of 1990, is now on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art – not some motor museum, but the world’s most prestigious art gallery.

That car, in which Alain Prost came within an Ayrton Senna Suzuka harpoon of winning the drivers’ title, remains the zenith of Barnard’s two-stint Ferrari association.

His tenure stretched from 1986-97 (broken by a three-year Benetton pause from 1989-91) after Barnard was called to Ferrari – as this fractured fairy tale demands – by Enzo Ferrari himself. In one of his final significant decisions, Enzo decreed that in order for Ferrari’s eminence to be restored, this English designer, whose MP4 series of cars had been winning races, then championships, since 1981, must join the Scuderia. But it wasn’t going to be that simple…

Barnard: “What you have to remember is that fundamentally Ferrari was an engine company. Almost until the day he died the dyno sheet went in front of Enzo, across his desk. He realised that – they hadn’t won for some time when I joined at the end of ’86 – he needed some fresh chassis and aero thinking, so he came after me and then lots of politics ensued! He played with people. He set people against each other to see who would come out on top.”

But Barnard was no patsy (he chuckles at the ‘Prince of Darkness’ nickname accorded him on account of his ultra-demanding work methods) and he was well aware of his F1 market value in the mid-80s. And – Enzo or no Enzo – he wasn’t moving to Italy. If Ferrari wanted him, they’d have to let him work from the UK.

Ferrari did want him – so much so it agreed to fund the setting up of the storied Guildford Technical Office (GTO) to lead Maranello’s own technical departments. This concession was surely indicative of the straits in which Ferrari had found itself – pincered by thrusting McLaren and Williams – but, maintains Barnard, GTO was a logical concept, given Ferrari’s notoriety for internal squabbling: “The deal was I didn’t want to go to Maranello. I had a family and I knew that if I was in Maranello I wouldn’t be able to sit down and design. In those days a technical director was actually a chief designer. I felt that I’d get pulled into politics, sit in meetings for four days a week and design-wise be able to achieve bugger all. So I set up GTO from the end of ’86 through to early ’87.”? The vision was clear. But the reality? With the detached dispassion so often the hallmark of the hugely bright, Barnard recalls: “Well… it was a bit shocking. Something that struck me and I never realised when I was at McLaren was how far ahead we’d got with the wind tunnel stuff. We were running ride-height change with the wind on and pitch change from very early on, probably 1980-81. When I got to Ferrari, they were building their first wind tunnel – which was going to be decent, but they had no idea about running ride height, pitch control and using a moving model. This was the end of ’86, so it wasn’t even functioning until well into ’87. I remember thinking: ‘Christ, we’re miles ahead of these people!’ And the car showed it on track. The McLaren could cope with fuel change from a 220-litre tank and ride-height change and bumps – lots of things that had come from using a movable model. We’d been so far ahead, I couldn’t believe it.”

Quickly, Barnard came to understand what Ferrari internal politics meant. Having been wooed by Enzo (“let’s face it, headhunted by Enzo means something in racing”) and enticed by the prospect of having control of an in-house engine department, he was rudely awoken. Laughing now, Barnard voices the Ferrari design chief’s eternal lament: “Having ‘control’ of the engine department wasn’t as easy as it sounds.” And that was just the start of it.

“Ferrari,” Barnard stresses, “were very serious about winning and they were happy to make a lot of changes, go through a lot of politics, when presumably the easier thing would have been to say ‘oh, let’s just carry on’.? The trouble is that a lot of people inside, a couple of levels down from the top, had been brought up in an environment where their first reaction is ‘have I covered my back?’. After that you worry about doing the job and winning. That was there for a long time, with people who worked there many years before I came along, and would continue to be there many years after I went.”? All seemed set fair for a snafu: a bolshy TD, brimful of confidence, hand-picked by the Old Man and set on doing things his way. From Surrey.

But it did start to work. The F1-87 (a chassis Barnard calls “the fattish one”) finished 1987 as fastest car, helping Gerhard Berger to back-to-back wins in Japan and Australia. Barnard had started to pen the F639 – the car that would see the light of day in 1989 as the paddle-shift F640 – with the intention of running it in ’88.

But it rapidly became clear that such a radical departure was too much, too soon, for the combined Guildford and Maranello tech teams, and it was decided to race in 1988 with an F187 tweaked for the 2.5-bar turbo boost regs: the F187-88C. Result? A McLaren red-and-whitewash as Prost and Senna in their peerless MP4-4s took 15 wins from 16 (Ferrari’s sole win came at Monza: a Berger-Alboreto 1-2, 28 days after Enzo’s death).

Come 1989, things would be very different, as Barnard produced the car some consider F1’s most gorgeous: the 640. By now GTO’s numbers were up to 25, with an autoclave and full manufacturing facilities to complement the design brains. Barnard had recruited key lieutenants such as Gordon Kimble (a mate from Chaparral days), while Joan Villadelprat, a buddy from McLaren, was installed as chief mechanic. Constantly shuttling between Guildford and Maranello (as well as fitting in a race and test schedule) Barnard began to see the fruits of his vision. But the near-impossible time demands meant he couldn’t be everywhere at once. “I’d been able to say to Enzo in ’87 that I’d have to stay more in England and concentrate on the design of this new car. That meant I was less in Maranello.” And while the cat was away…

“A lot of politics built up in Maranello. Don’t forget Harvey Postlethwaite was still there and it became known to me that Harvey and Jean-Claude Migeot, who’s the aero guy, together with Piero Lardi Ferrari, had been encouraged to, let’s say, push off on their own.”

It became clear to Barnard that while Ferrari had hired him on the strength of his reputation for ground-breaking design excellence, post-Enzo there was huge resistance to the radical 639/640. Wind tunnel models were delayed or not built. Aero tests were cancelled or not completed. The very stuff of race-car manufacture became… difficult. Barnard became… angry.

“I knew what was going on – I had enough contacts of my own – but I ignored it for a while, because I had to concentrate on the car. It ran for the first time, as a test-bed, in May 1988 and there were real politics going on, so I somehow had to pull the whole thing together.” ?‘Somehow’ meant a visit to the senior management team in control of racing activities after Enzo Ferrari’s departure to set up Ferrari’s celestial division. It was Barnard’s ‘back me or sack me’ moment. “Things changed, thankfully. People got moved. Even Piero Lardi Ferrari got taken away from racing. That was huge! Can you imagine?” 640 development would now proceed unimpeded – almost.

“From the first 639, this was designed with no conventional gear-change mechanism. The original requirement was to have an electro-shifting hydraulically operated ’box. The idea of steering wheel paddles came later. It could have been push-buttons, it didn’t make any odds. But after Enzo died, a guy in charge of FIAT, [Vittoria] Ghidella, came to Ferrari and, in his own words, had to take on Enzo’s role. He was super nervous about the gearbox, because ‘what happens if it doesn’t work?’ Blah, blah, blah! I remember having a huge argument/discussion with him in Maranello where I said, ‘I believe this is the way to go. That’s what I want to do.’” ?Endorsement from Nigel Mansell (“after three laps of Fiorano he said ‘I never want to drive with a gearstick again’”) helped Barnard’s cause, but still, he was in a corner, fighting.

“I literally had to put my contract on the table to get it done,” he says. “I said to Ghidella: ‘My contract says I’m technically in charge. OK, if it doesn’t work, I’ll go, you don’t have to pay me what’s due’. So that’s how we went forward. It was hairy days but I was convinced. I get very entrenched when I want to do something in a certain way. And we made other changes to the car: torsion bars and all the rest of it and we ended up running it like that, but it was touch and go. There was a lot of pressure to not run it, to put a conventional gearshift in.” Barnard has been on a roll, hurrying through mental recall, fighting, once again, those Maranello brawls. It’s quite a moment when sunshine breaks over his face at the memory of 640’s debut-race win, at Jacarepagua, driven by Mansell. Pretty special?

“Absolutely! It was… unforgettable, especially when Nigel came in and changed steering wheels. The thing fell off, basically. The wheel was held on by three bolts onto the hub and two fell out – a mechanic problem – and Nigel came in, jamming the wheel against the flange with one bolt wobbling around in it. Luckily we had a spare wheel and a paddle-shift with an electrical connector ready to go. The electrical boys said there’s no way the contacts would match up, they hadn’t had a chance to set it up… And bugger me, they jammed it on and… Joan ripped it off, I handed him the other wheel and he mashed it on and off he went. We couldn’t believe it still worked.”

Mansell describes the win as “preordained”, in a car that had never completed a race distance in testing and which would clock eight more retirements before Nigel next finished: second, in France. The 640’s technical woes before and after its epic debut were widely reported as being “gearbox”, but Barnard wants the record set straight. Investigations at Maranello would reveal the four-bearing 3.5-litre V12 was subject to a high-frequency crankshaft vibration that caused the alternator drivebelt to fly off. Result? No electrics. Inconvenient for a car with an electro-hydraulic gearshift.

So fragile was 640, that on Brazilian GP race morning, team manager Cesare Fiorio discussed with Barnard only half-fuelling the car to allow it “a good show” before the inevitable retirement.

Chuckling merrily, Barnard relates: “I said, ‘Well, you never know. Let’s fill it up. We might be lucky.’”? Vindication for Barnard – but only so far. “At Ferrari, I always felt big pressure to come up with something new. It became my undoing because I should have looked back at what I did at McLaren which was develop one idea – effectively developed from ’81 – while keeping a lot of the same principles. But I always got pressured to make leaps. I’d get Di Montezemolo saying: ‘what have you got that’s new for next year?’”

It’s not without irony that the most successful Barnard Ferrari by far was 1990’s 641 – a fully developed 640 with a bigger fuel tank and better electrics. Prost drove it to five wins, Mansell to one and Ferrari was second in the constructors’ standings.

But Barnard could only look on at the success from another garage – Benetton’s – where he had been lured at the end of ’89 by a “fairly impressive” offer. Two seasons and three wins are the bald summary of JB’s ill-starred Benetton sojourn and it wasn’t long after his ’91 split from the team that Ferrari came calling again. ?“I’d been sitting at home feeling disillusioned, redesigning dog rings and not doing much when Ferrari called. Niki [Lauda] had told Di Montezemolo to call me, so we got talking.”

Barnard’s terms were similar second time around: no move to Maranello; a design office in Guildford, built from scratch as FDD – Ferrari Design Department (GTO having been sold to McLaren to build its F1 road car [!]); a clear role as the team’s R&D head, with freedom from the day-to-day pell-mell of being an F1 tech chief. On paper it looked perfect, and past experience should have alerted all to potential pitfalls.

“That was the theory. But it wasn’t six months before Postlethwaite had gone elsewhere and Luca was saying [mimics panic] ‘What are we doing for the next race?’ and before we knew it we were back in the same situation. This wasn’t what I signed up for, but what could I say?”

Once again Ferrari found itself on the wrong end of a caning from McLaren and Williams, whose FW14B was a class apart in ’92 and showed the way forward for active suspension. Once again, JB’s hands would be fully ‘on’.

He arrived back to find his Italian brothers in disarray over this latest design innovation. For 1992 they had built the F92A, a double-bottom car that had produced fantastic downforce in the wind tunnel, but whose real-world performance was dire. Its extreme aero sensitivity was recognised and Ferrari planned to run with active suspension, in order to maintain the stable ride-height its tricky aero needed. But without a mature active-ride programme, the car raced with good ol’ springs and dampers. It was a pig.

Forward to 1993, which Barnard remembers as “a struggle”, but one that at least took the team to another JB stunner: 1994’s 412T1.

This svelte machine is one Barnard recalls fondly. He describes it as “one of the best-looking F1 cars ever” and it was intended as a wind-slicing missile whose lean curves enveloped a sophisticated radiator arrangement designed for minimal drag. The car’s top speed was excellent and Barnard remains miffed its speed-trap figures were attributed to a mighty engine. His belief is that Maranello’s engine department had snarled up the radiator arrangement, compromising his vision for an elegantly efficient super-smooth speedster: “About two-thirds of the flow was going through the small radiator and one-third through the big radiator. They hadn’t tuned the pipes on the engine to distribute the water, so we were struggling for cooling. We ended up chopping lumps out of the inlet to make it bigger and I remember flying to Canada with lumps of carbon in our suitcases to glue on to make the inlet bigger. It was all the bloody engine, which pisses me off to this day, frankly.”

1995 was memorable for the 412T2 that gave Jean Alesi his sole GP win, but also, at season’s end, for the arrival of Michael Schumacher. “When he jumped in the car for a test at Estoril, we’d decided to go for a V10 for ’96. Jean and Gerhard always said the 12-cylinder was sensitive to throttle lift-off, almost as though there was a lot of friction in the engine, and as soon as you backed off it gave you a big anchor at the back and they didn’t like that. But when Michael drove the V12 he was a second a lap quicker and said, ‘Oh, I could have won the [’95] title more easily with this car’. When he drove the 10 he complained he didn’t get any engine reaction! The way he drove he was literally balancing it on the throttle. Most drivers would have found it too twitchy, but that’s what he liked so we ended up with a seven-speed gearbox to allow him to tune the reaction from the back, with higher revs in each corner. His reactions and feelings were so sharp he could balance the thing on the throttle through the corner. It was impressive.”? Barnard’s 1996 car, the F310, is one he prefers to forget, describing it as “a bit of a wobble”, despite it winning three races; for ’97 the F310B was “a good basic car, enough to take Michael to within a whisker of the title”.

Ferrari, under Jean Todt, was edging towards its ‘Schuperteam’ pomp, but Barnard’s passion for this most romantic of teams had run dry.

“‘Todt-y’, who was building things around Michael, said ‘get what you want’. But it was two years too late. Todt wanted to move everything back to Maranello, which I couldn’t argue with. He asked if I wanted to be technical director in Italy, but I didn’t, so we set up B3 Technologies in Guildford. It was a shame. We never did get to do the R&D role we’d been set up for.”

There would be no fairy-tale ending for JB at Ferrari, just a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ proposal from one F1 grandee to another. He left.

B3 worked for Arrows and Prost, which kept Barnard in F1, but he’d never be part of Ferrari’s monstrous run of success from 2000.

It’s no surprise that he feels no regret for missing Ferrari’s dominant years. What does raise an eyebrow is this, from a man of such competitive intensity: “What really turns me on is the technical side and trying to do something new. I can take or leave the races. I liked testing, where I could try things and see the result without the ballyhoo around the racing.”

Not for Barnard, then, contemporary F1, with its scant test days and a team-first tech ethos that clouds the superstar (Adrian Newey being the sole, welcome exception). “The era of rolling it out two weeks before the first race is dead and buried, and you can see why. I don’t think any team would build anything radical that hadn’t been tested to death first. It’s become about managing hundreds of people who are doing the minutiae. And that’s not my bag. I probably couldn’t operate in today’s F1.”

An expensive-looking cup filled with doubtless exquisite tea arrives, and is welcomed by this English gent. Barnard pours in some milk and it gushes over the too-small spout, filling the saucer. “I’d better design a milk jug next,” he grins.

A carbon-fibre milk jug. In red. With a paddle-shift gearbox. Fit for MoMA.?