A senior engineer with Ferrari and McLaren in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Gordon Kimball retains very clear memories of his time in Formula 1… and a few things that were kept quiet in period
writer Gordon Kirby
California native Gordon Kimball graduated from Stanford University with a degree in mechanical engineering and started his career as a part-time mechanic at Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. Two years later, while working with Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing, he met John Barnard – an introduction that would eventually pave his way to Formula 1.
“I always wanted to design race cars,” Kimball says. “When I was growing up I did soapbox derbies and pestered the guys at AAR. I wrote them some letters and they never said ‘no’, so I showed up one morning and ended up working in the shop in the summer of ’73 while I was still at college. I managed to find my way into the Formula 5000 race team for the next year.
“I did two summers with AAR and after graduation I went to work full-time for Vel [Miletich] and Parnelli. During the first season I served as a mechanic on Al Unser’s car in the last year of F5000 in the United States. It was a great series and I really enjoyed working with Al.
“That’s where I met John. He was working alone in a little design office, and when he found out I had an engineering degree he scooped me up. I started working with him on the Parnelli-Cosworth VPJ6B and 6C, but at that point Vel and Parnelli decided to get out of the race team business.
“Then John got the deal to design the Chaparral Indycar for Jim Hall. I went over to England and worked with him. John said we were going to set up a company to design and build cars, but when Jim got the car that idea went away. Jim didn’t want anybody else running it. It was his deal, so John and I went our separate ways.”
From there Kimball moved to Pat Patrick’s team in 1980, designing and building Wildcat chassis – one of which Gordon Johncock used to win the ’82 Indy 500. Concurrently, meanwhile, Barnard had been back in the UK working on the original carbon-fibre F1 car, the McLaren MP4, which made its debut in the 1981 Argentine GP. “John kept saying there was a job for me if I ever wanted to come over, so finally I agreed and I worked there with him from 1984-87. Then he left to go to Ferrari and I worked with Gordon Murray for a while, but John offered me another position at Ferrari and that was a great opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
“John was hard to work for at the best of times. All you got was criticism. There was no credit, no praise. A meeting with John meant there was only one man in the room. When he asked whether I’d like to work in Italy, though, that really appealed. It was a difficult culture, ruled by fear, but there were times when Enzo would come into the shop and hand out 10,000 lire notes to whoever he wanted. They loved him and feared him, so it was good and bad.
“If you had a problem and made a decision on how to fix it, they wouldn’t believe you. There was a blame culture, so people did dumb things like putting brand-new parts on the car so they wouldn’t be wrong. It was very interesting dealing with this approach. In England, where there’s movement of people between teams, everyone kind of rides the spiral staircase together in knowledge, expertise and technology. But at Ferrari, in some areas they were so far behind they were in the dark ages and in other areas they had gone down some side roads. It wasn’t necessarily wrong, just completely different.”
Ferrari’s turbo-era cheat
“In 1988 I was engineering Gerhard Berger in the F187/88C. That was the year McLaren dominated with Honda and Bernie did all he could to help us. It was the era of turbos and pop-off valves and we had a low-pressure passage that went past the pop-off valve and would pull it open, so we could run more boost. We kept pushing that further and further, waiting to get caught, but we never were. I guess Bernie wanted somebody to try to beat McLaren, so he helped us.
“Enzo was not in good health at the time. When I started he was in the office pretty regularly, but then he started coming in less and less. I was there the last time he came to the factory. They drove him into the factory to show him the new car with a normally aspirated engine. They helped him get out, he walked over to the car, looked at it and said, ‘Bella motore!’ Then he turned around, got back in the car and they drove him away. He really didn’t care about the car. He went to look at the engine. Most Ferraris were hard work to drive, but the engines were beautiful.
“Enzo died in August, Monza was the next race and we finished one-two. When they went to measure the fuel capacity the scrutineers checked it four or five times. I don’t know how they did it, but we finally passed the capacity check. Obviously, if they’d disqualified the winning Ferrari at Monza there would have been a riot.
“As Enzo became increasingly frail you could see the guys at Fiat were itching to get in. He kept them out until the day he died, but the following day they were there. Cesare Fiorio had run the [Lancia] rally team and had some management experience but, honestly, the technical guys Fiat brought in were buffoons. Then they hired Enrique Scalabroni and the biggest discussion I had with him was a two-hour meeting about what size the steering wheel should be. After that I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work’.”
McLaren Indycar scuppered by Senna
Kimball contacted Ron Dennis and proposed a new McLaren Indycar project, not least because his children were growing up and he thought it might be a good time to return his family – his son Charlie is nowadays a top-line Indycar driver with Ganassi Racing – to its roots.
“Ron agreed that he’d like to build an Indycar, so we did a fair bit of planning. He came to California and we looked at areas and buildings that might work. Then Ron made the mistake of mentioning the Indycar to Ayrton Senna, who didn’t approve. He insisted Ron keep his focus on F1 – and if I was Ayrton I’d have said the same thing. He believed it would be a distraction and that put the kibosh on the project. Ron tried to say the economic downturn was making it difficult, but it was Ayrton who stopped it.”
In May 1990, however, Dennis got in touch and said they could use Kimball’s help on the F1 car. After three years with Ferrari, Kimball returned to McLaren and hooked up once more with Berger, now working alongside Senna.
Berger: ‘More natural talent than Senna’
“Gerhard was enormously naturally talented. He was intelligent, perceptive and very good, but I think it came so easily to him that he never worked hard at it. When he saw how Ayrton operated he understood there was more to the job. Gerhard was having the time of his life and I think it was only with hindsight and maturity he began to realise he should have put more into it.
“He probably had more physical natural talent than Ayrton, but Ayrton worked very, very hard. Gerhard could do things so easily and quickly that I think it frustrated Ayrton a little bit, but in the long term Ayrton’s efforts paid off. He was way more determined and winning was everything to him.
“It was a lot more fun to be around Gerhard than it was Ayrton, because Ayrton was so driven, so insecure, so paranoid and so everything else. I really liked Gerhard, but in racing terms he was harder work because he had no mechanical aptitude. With Ayrton you could ask one question and it would lead a long way down the road.
“I spent a whole day with Gerhard at Monza in 1990 and we were struggling with a brake problem. He said, ‘The car won’t stop. There’s something wrong with the brakes.’ We changed the entire system, but couldn’t fix it. The next day Ayrton got in the car. He went out, did one run, came in and said the brakes weren’t big enough. He felt we needed to put the 32mm discs on because there was just not enough retardation with the 28s. ‘And by the way’, he added, ‘I think there’s something wrong with the right front upright. After I bang over the kerbs it knocks the pads back, so I have to tap the brakes to bring the pads back for the second chicane.’ Ayrton could describe things very specifically and Gerhard just couldn’t do that.”
McLaren’s close call in 1990
Kimball had rejoined the team mid-season, initially as an observer during a post-British Grand Prix test. “I wanted to watch for the first day, to see what I thought,” he says. “The car looked awful. The back end was jumping around on corner entry, they were locking up under braking and the minute they put the power down it understeered and just wouldn’t turn. It was the worst of a race car. To try to fix it they had done a number of weird things to the set-up. When I asked why, they really didn’t have an answer. Among other things they were running a lot of droop restriction in the front [limiting the amount of down travel in the suspension].
“I said to Ayrton, ‘Let’s talk about this droop restriction’ and he said it helped the front end.
I said, ‘No it doesn’t, because the car doesn’t know it has droop restriction until it starts to lift the inside front wheel. Then you have no suspension at all because it’s bottomed out.’
“We talked about it for quite a while, he asked questions and looked at me. Then he didn’t say anything and I realised he had completely the wrong idea of how the front end worked and what the effect on the car was. Now that I’d explained it to him and he understood it, he wasn’t going to admit that he didn’t know or that he was wrong.
“Ayrton accomplished a lot but he was a very difficult character.
“At that test we didn’t do anything other than unwind a bunch of the odd things that had been done. The car improved and the next race was Hockenheim, where I had to be the luckiest engineer in the world. It was still the old Hockenheim with long straights, a big power track. McLaren had tested there before Silverstone and was 1.5sec off. We showed up with an improved set-up, but it wasn’t a track where handling was critical. It was about power and Honda brought an engine that was something else. The car was fast and I looked like a hero when in reality it was the engine that made the difference.
“We won the championship, but if Alain Prost and Ferrari had known how close it was we might not have done. We managed to fix a mechanical problem, but by the time we addressed the aero problem the championship was too much in the balance. Ayrton said, ‘I know what we’ve got, so let’s not try to sort this out through the last three races. Let’s go with what we know’.”
Unhappy coda at Benetton
At the end of the year, with the Indycar project canned, Kimball felt it might be time to return home and work independently, but then – as he puts it – he “fell victim to Flavio Briatore’s sales pitch and got sucked into Benetton for a year”. He subsequently returned to the States, where he has since run Kimball Engineering, a freelance design agency that currently works mostly with sports car teams, where the regulations remain free enough to allow people to produce their own parts.
“People started asking me to design stuff, so I decided the work could come to me and I’d choose who I wanted to work for. So that’s what I’ve been doing since. I’ve done a bit of stuff outside racing, but the only interest I have is racing although even that’s gone away a little because of all the spec series.”
And that year at Benetton?
“Tom Walkinshaw didn’t have a nickel to put into the team, so he took authority by putting his own people in place. I had some other offers, but we had moved to England, then to Italy and back to England. Between the politics and uprooting the family again, I’d had enough of Formula 1. I was an engineer, not a politician, and thought it was no longer fun.”
Father of an Indycar racer
Indycar race winner Charlie Kimball was born in the UK when his father was working for McLaren. After growing up in California he came back to Europe from 2004-08 to race Formula Fords, F3 and A1GP cars.
“It’s great to see one of your children being successful at something he loves,” Kimball says. “It’s a big challenge to make a career as a race driver. It’s a tough business.
“I don’t know if I get the credit or the blame but I guess I’m the one who got him started.
I didn’t encourage him to race as a kid, but after we moved back to California I made the mistake of buying him a kart. He raced it and we had a great time. It was a good father-son time and it gave us leverage for his school work. We had a rule that you had to have straight As to race. I don’t think either of us thought it would go on beyond high school.
“Then I made the second mistake, which was giving him a test in a Formula Ford. He did five or six laps and came in with a big smile and said, ‘That’s the most fun I’ve had in my entire life!’ I said to him that the karting was ours, something we did together, but Formula Ford was his. I could help him, but he had to do it on his own. It was up to him to make it happen. And he did it.
“The way he’s done it makes me proud.”