Many years have passed since he had any direct involvement with Formula 1, yet every car on the grid today bears two of his design signatures. As father of both the carbon chassis and the semi-automatic paddle-shift gearbox, John Barnard remains one of modern motor racing’s most influential figures. He is also, as far as we know, the only man to have crafted an Indianapolis 500 winner on a drawing board in a North Wembley living room. Probably about time, then, that Motor Sport treated him to lunch.
In recent years Barnard has lived mostly in Switzerland, although he plans to relocate to the UK and one of his next projects is to renovate a house that will allow him to be closer to his grandchildren. That, though, has been delayed while he waits for roosting bats to commence their seasonal migration, so that work can continue.
He suggests we meet in Wimbledon, which like many London suburbs has been ravaged by identikit coffee shops but retains a selection of fine restaurants. One such is San Lorenzo, a short stroll from the station, where John orders a glass of Pinot Grigio to accompany gravadlax and, subsequently, one of the world’s more generous portions of pennette mozzarella. Next stop? White goods, oddly…
“I come from a family with no racing heritage,” he says, “but both my parents had engineering backgrounds and could turn their hands to almost anything. I started building things when I was knee high to a grasshopper and I suppose the racing thing came from getting interested in cars, as most boys do. My first recollection is helping my dad change the clutch on his Morris 10 when I was about nine. I was observing rather than doing anything, but that’s where it all started. I recall riding pillion to Crystal Palace on the back of a mate’s Velocette Venom 500 when I was about 16 and I went to a couple of Brands Hatch meetings, but it wasn’t something I did very often.”
After graduating with a HND from Watford College of Technology, Barnard began his working career with electrical firm Osram GEC before moving on to Hoover in Perivale. “I was assistant to a guy whose job it was to monitor rival products – washing machines, spin dryers and so on. There was a workshop with lathes and welding gear, but it was caked in dust because nobody had ever used it. I remember taking apart a washing machine, cutting a hole in the side and then fitting a see-through plastic panel so I could watch the mechanical action and write a report. They were all amazed that anybody should do such a thing. There was nobody telling me what to do, so I just got stuck in. After a few months, though, I decided I couldn’t be doing that until I was 65 – it would drive me nuts.
“I was still following racing, so started writing to teams and received a reply from McLaren. I went to see them in Colnbrook but wasn’t offered a job, because I didn’t have any experience – dismantling tumble dryers didn’t count, which was fair enough. I’d also written to Eric Broadley, when Lola was still in Slough, and he gave me an interview. At the time I was thinking about building a Lotus 7-type car, using all my own drawings, and I was explaining all this to him. He said, ‘OK, start in the drawing office on Monday’ and I was away. There are lots and lots of us who owe a huge debt of gratitude to Eric and Lola.
“The first thing I worked on was a Can-Am car – I designed an oil cooler mount or something – then after a few months Eric wandered in and said, ‘We need to build something for a new formula that’s starting, Super Vee, would you like to have a go?’ That was the T250 and it was a fantastic experience. I made a quarter-scale clay model and would take it home at weekends, tinkering with the shape, trying to get things right. When everything was finally done, they said, ‘You’d best put that on a trailer, lad, and take it to the racing car show’, which of course I did. Talk about an all-round education…”
The kind of thing, sadly, that simply isn’t available any more, with the spread of one-make formulae having killed off most volume racing car constructors and their cottage-industry counterparts. “Racing is now fundamentally different,” Barnard says. “F1 is so vast, so expensive… It has almost in a way killed creativity. Everything as far as I can see is done by groups and the people at the top are technical managers, directing expertise into specific areas. It’s a system that doesn’t produce people with wide-ranging experience. I worked on all kinds of different stuff with Lola.”
It stood him in good stead.
“Like many people who get involved I wanted to end up in F1,” he says, “but there was no prospect of that at Lola and I moved on to McLaren, although I honestly can’t recall how it happened. I don’t think I applied for a job, I just remember morphing from one to the other, walking into what was a very small design office and getting on with the M23, working with chief designer Gordon Coppuck and one or two others.
“I focused on F1 for about 18 months, but also got involved on the Indy side, redrawing and modifying the M16. In 1973 I designed the M25, an F5000 version of the M23. I was just given an M23 and told to adapt it. Denny Hulme was positive after testing it at Silverstone, but the project didn’t go anywhere because it was too expensive to build.” [The prototype did eventually race in F5000 spec, in the UK’s ShellSport Group 8 series, but not until 1976, when Bob Evans drove it twice.]
Those early days with Lola hadn’t just given Barnard a comprehensive racing education, they had also furnished him with useful contacts. Late in 1975 he received a phone call from former colleague Jim Chapman, by now working for Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in America. “He told me chief designer Maurice Philippe was leaving and asked whether I fancied having a go. I had the small inconvenience of getting married two weeks before I left for America, but we sorted ourselves out in the UK and took off for California.
“In theory I was supposed to be working on the team’s F1 car, the VPJ-4, but after doing a little bit of development work the project was canned after Long Beach 1976 and I focused instead on the VPJ-6, the first Indycar to use the Cosworth DFX engine. A guy called Gordon Kimball wrote in looking for work. He’d been doing summer work at Eagle, so he joined as my assistant. That was our design team. We drew absolutely everything – a great time, I gained lots of experience and was able to work at circuits all over America. By 1978, however, we weren’t doing a great deal of racing because sponsorship had dried up, though we had a few customer cars in action. Some of the guys had moved on to work for Jim Hall, running customer Lolas at Chaparral, and in mid-season I received a call telling me Jim wanted to build his own car.
“I went to see him, told him I had to do it in the UK because I knew where I’d be able to get stuff built, then left my wife in California for a while and flew home. We’d let out the house we bought before moving to America, so I ended up living with my father, who was by then on his own, and set up my drawing board in his front room. That was the start of the Chaparral 2K, the first pure ground-effects Indycar.
“Gordon Kimball came over to work with me and it was one of those projects that seemed to work perfectly – everything we drew fitted at the first time of asking. The car was built up around a dummy DFX and then flown to Chaparral HQ at Midland, Texas, where a live Cosworth was fitted. Our engine guy, Franz Weis, took the car around this funny little local track, Rattlesnake Raceway, then it went off to test at Ontario. Out of the box, in Al Unser Sr’s hands, it just ran and ran. From there it went straight to Indy. I flew back to the UK to oversee the building of a second car, as a spare, and missed qualifying. As it was Al put it on the front row, in third, but if I’d been there I’d probably have made a few more set-up changes and would like to think it could have been on pole.
“I flew back for the race and that was where the whole Chaparral thing collapsed. My deal with Jim was that I’d get recognition as the designer, but I arrived to find a massive billboard with a picture of the car, Jim and Al and a slogan about ‘Master of ground effects’, or something like that. I wasn’t mentioned, which blew it apart for me.”
Transmission problems forced the car’s retirement – and by the following year, when Johnny Rutherford took the 2K to victory at Indy, its creator had long since moved on.
“The 2K helped me to become noticed on a wider stage in racing,” Barnard says, “particularly by Ron Dennis. After leaving Chaparral I was approached by Peter Reinhart from the Rebaque team, which was looking to build its own F1 car. I pencilled a few sketches, but a promised sponsor failed to materialise and it didn’t go any further. Patrick Head [another ex-Lola ally] then tipped me off that Ron Dennis wanted somebody to design him an F2 car. I told him I didn’t want to do F2, that I’d come back to find work in F1, and next thing I know Ron is on the phone, saying, ‘No, no, no – I want to do Formula 1.’
“This was when he was still running Project 4, before the McLaren takeover, so I actually began work on what would have been the first P4 F1 car. It was the ground-effect era at the time and, having just done the Chaparral, I knew I needed maximum underwings. I didn’t want to be constrained by the chassis, so needed that to be narrower… but that would cost me torsional rigidity, so what could I do? That was my line of thinking. A sheet-steel monocoque? That would be too heavy. Carbon was out there, so I went to see British Aerospace, which was making RB211 engine cowlings in carbon, and decided it was the material for me.
“Once I’d done the drawings I took them to various British companies, but they said it was incredibly complicated and that we were way over our heads. They didn’t want to do it. Then colleague Steve Nichols put me on to Hercules Aerospace in America. We had a one-third wind tunnel model at that stage, so put it in a box and took it with us to Salt Lake City. It was revealing to see the contrasting attitude: the Americans said, ‘Yeah, that would be interesting – we’d learn a lot from that.’ I can’t recall the financial details, but they were doing it as much for knowledge as anything else.”
By the time the car came into being, Project 4 had taken over McLaren, with backing from Marlboro, and it was christened the MP4/1.
“Sheet steel? That would be too heavy. Carbon was out there, so I went to see British Aerospace”
There would be two key moments that summer. The first was at Silverstone, when John Watson moved to the front of the field – aided in part by the pace-setting Renaults’ unreliability – to score the maiden win for both Dennis-era McLaren and an all-carbon F1 chassis. The second came at Monza, where the Ulsterman had a huge accident. “That smash put myths about the carbon monocoque to bed,” Barnard says. “I’d seen people suggest cars would explode in a cloud of dust in the event of an impact like that, but now people could see the safety benefits. It was a scary-looking accident but Wattie was unharmed. After that the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] contacted me and asked if they could take a look at the tub, because they were trying to write rules for carbon planes. That’s the level at which it was being monitored, so it was a huge stepping stone.”
McLaren would score more victories with Watson and F1 returnee Niki Lauda over the next two seasons, but it was from 1984-86, with the TAG-funded Porsche 1.5 V6 turbo, Lauda and Alain Prost, that the team won three straight titles.
“There’s a 1984 McLaren team photo that was taken outside the factory in Boundary Road, Woking,” Barnard says, “and I think there are about 75 of us. OK, it didn’t include any of the engine people, but that was a world-beating F1 operation at that time. It wouldn’t even be a test team nowadays.”
He admits, though, that success didn’t enhance his enjoyment. “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “The racing was necessary because it was the end of the line, but my interest in going to events reduced. Once I’d started to try new things, which really began with the Chaparral, I felt I needed to keep doing that, but by 1986 we’d been running more or less the same car for three seasons, bar minor regulatory tweaks, and I was thinking, ‘What the hell do I do next?’ Looking back, after ’84 I should probably have based myself at the factory for a year to think about the next big step. We obviously did enough, because we carried on winning, but maybe my time would best have been spent having a think.”
During the summer of ’86, he did have renewed cause for thought. “I was called by a guy in London – all very cloak and dagger. He told me a team in Europe wanted to hire me and I said, very simply, that I didn’t want to work overseas. The kids were settled at schools in the UK and family came first. I didn’t initially know it was Ferrari, though by a process of elimination it seemed most probable. Then he came back and asked whether I’d consider a move if I could set something up in the UK – not my suggestion at all. Eventually a so-called secret trip was arranged and they organised a private jet to Bologna. I explained that I couldn’t be seen to be visiting Ferrari, because I was still with McLaren, and it all had to remain hush-hush, but as I was driven towards the factory there was a bloke standing with a camera…
“I went to see the Old Man and we had lunch in his private room at the Cavallino. It was all done through his right-hand man Marco Piccinini, who acted as translator. When they wheel you into an environment like that, with all this Ferrari stuff around, it is overwhelming. They asked me to sign a letter confirming my interest – it didn’t commit me, but it did add pressure. I could have walked away, but thought, ‘To hell with it, if I can set up my own thing in the UK I’ll still be able to go home for lunch…’ I was 40 years old and the financial rewards were good enough, so I thought I’d give it a go.”
Thus Ferrari’s Guildford Technical Office – GTO, a very suitable acronym – was born. “I think they’d envisaged me having six or 10 people, but I told them you couldn’t do design work with composites without the ability to manufacture – and to be honest I didn’t trust Ferrari to make critical composite components, so the chassis had to be made in the UK. That’s how I ended up with a reasonably sizeable facility. I couldn’t contemplate drawing pictures and sending them off to Italy in the hope that they would make it the right way.”
Is it true that one of his first tasks at Ferrari was to abolish the long-standing tradition of lunchtime drinking? He laughs and says, “Just after I joined, Piccinini asked me how we’d operated at McLaren. I’d said that lunch was usually a quick coffee and a sandwich, perhaps 15 minutes, then everybody would get back to work. At Ferrari in those days they’d get out the tablecloths and the bottles of Lambrusco, so he asked whether I thought cutting that out would be wise and I said, ‘Well, yes.’ He told me to leave it with him, did the deed and said in the papers that it had been my decision, but I didn’t mind because it needed doing. You simply couldn’t work like that any more.”
By the time Barnard joined, the Gustav Brunner-penned F1/87 was all but finalised for the following campaign, so he set to work on a car for 1988. “That was to be the final year of turbo engines and I felt we should run a naturally aspirated V12, to start that programme as early as possible,” he says. “But because we were setting up a new facility we were a bit late on the car side, the engine people were also slightly behind and – following a bit of politics in Maranello – it was decided that the turbo car would continue into ’88 with a few mods.”
Barnard’s original ’88 project, the Ferrari 639, would effectively become a test bed for his next big idea: semi-automatic transmission. “It came from me hating the mechanical aspect of the gearshift. We had this horrible linkage running down the chassis, through the fuel cell, around the engine, then I had to have a bump in the cockpit for the driver’s hand – how could I get rid of so much crap?
“By that time electro-hydraulic valves were around and the aircraft industry had electro-hydraulic systems that worked well. I thought, ‘Surely, I can have a button the driver can push, instead of a lever?’ I didn’t see how it could be difficult. As we went into it we realised we could include a rev limiter, so the driver could no longer buzz the engine, and with the clutch actuated via the wheel it did away with the need for three pedals, so you could have a narrower footbox – you start to build up all these advantages. The first time we tested the 639 we ran it as a full automatic, although the rules changed and forbade us from doing that.
“After the Old Man died in August 1988, Fiat management stepped in and I had a huge row with them about the paddle-shift. They didn’t want to go down that road, because they didn’t think it would be reliable, so I had to show them my contract and point out that I was responsible for technical matters. If it didn’t work, fine, I told them they could take my contract and do what they liked with it…”
And then it made a winning debut, courtesy of Nigel Mansell’s 640 at Rio in 1989.
“We had terrible reliability during pre-race testing and team manager Cesare Fiorio was all for starting on half tanks, because he wanted to put on a show, lead for a while and then come up with a reason for why the car stopped. I didn’t like that idea, because you never know your luck, and we did have luck. Halfway through, two of Nigel’s three steering wheel-mounting bolts fell out. He was leading and came on the radio, screaming about his wheel coming off. He was having to force it against the boss to steer. Fortunately we had a spare but, given the complexity, the electronics guys weren’t confident everything would match up, but it did and he went on to win. Talk about a fairy tale.”
The car wouldn’t finish again until France – the seventh race of the season – but…
“At that time the V12 ran with a four-bearing crank, which was supposed to reduce friction losses and give more power, but it allowed the crank to bend around inside the engine, so it was doing all sorts of funny things and was prone to throw off a pulley that drove the alternator… and when we lost electrical power the first thing that stopped working was the gearbox, so that got the blame for several retirements when the fault really lay elsewhere. Having won the first race, though, there was no turning back. We ended up winning three races that season, which was a shame because my deal said I could keep a car if we won five…”
Former cohort Prost was lined up for 1990, but Barnard was unaware of as much. “Had I known, perhaps I’d have stayed,” he says, “but I knew that what we were doing hadn’t really worked, with me in the UK and travelling to Maranello every 10 days. I decided to start looking for opportunities in the UK and was button-holed by Flavio Briatore late in 1989. He started making me promises, so I did a deal – which turned out to be a bad move. It was all in the UK and I was going to be in charge of building a new factory near Godalming – but there were politics and I was never really happy.
“The 1990 season was reasonable, but then I started changing things and people didn’t like that. ‘We’ve always done things this way, why stop?’ Well, they hadn’t been getting anywhere, had they? I did a lot of the dirty work for them, bought in new equipment and schemed out a new factory, but the deal fell apart because Benetton wouldn’t sign things off. I feel I took the team forward technically and gave them a lot of information, then all of a sudden they didn’t want me. I should never have gone there. I should have stayed with Ferrari – or, arguably, McLaren. That would have made life easier!”
Late in 1990 Ayrton Senna invited Barnard to his Monaco apartment. “Benetton had approached him for 1991 and he wanted to know whether I thought it would be the right move. I knew how committed he was, the way he always pushed for more, and I don’t think the team would yet have been ready to handle that kind of pressure. Maybe later, but not then. I told him as much, which I think was the right advice.”
FOLLOWING HIS DEPARTURE from Benetton Barnard joined TOM’S Toyota, which was working on an F1 project that never got off the ground, and then Ferrari called again. “Niki Lauda was there as a consultant and made the initial approach,” he says. “I said I didn’t think I could work in the same way as we had before, but Harvey Postlethwaite was in Maranello and could run the racing side while we focused on designing the next car from the UK. Unfortunately they’d just sold the old GTO factory to Ron Dennis, to build the McLaren road car, but another unit came up on the same industrial estate, so we took that and set up FDD, Ferrari Design & Development.
“I’d told Luca di Montezemolo that I could set up a facility in the UK with our own wind tunnel programme, our own design office and some manufacturing capability, so we could test new composite parts and so on without being distracted by the racing, but within four or five months Harvey had buggered off, at which point Luca came on the phone asking what we were going to do for the next race. I thought, ‘Here we go, people aren’t listening…’ It had been the same when I joined Benetton. I’d warned them it would be a three-year project, to which they’d said, ‘Yeah, yeah, fine.’ Then when you’re not winning after about three races people start jumping up and down.”
Jean Todt arrived at Ferrari in 1994 and Barnard maintained his remote collaboration. “Nobody ever seemed to appreciate what it took to run a factory,” he says. “I’d present realistic budgets and Ferrari would always be looking to cut 15 per cent, which I told them wasn’t feasible. Then, when it became clear that Michael Schumacher was joining for 1996, Jean was telling me to buy whatever equipment I needed ‘because Schumacher was coming’. I pointed out that we should have done that three years earlier, so that we’d have been fully ready when he arrived… That kind of thing really annoyed me.”
“After the Old Man died, Fiat and I had a huge row. I had to point out that I was responsible for technical matters”
Was it possible that he could have continued in the long term under the Todt regime? “Yes,” he says. “Jean told me he wanted to bring everything back in house at Maranello, which I fully understood, and he asked whether I wanted to go there as technical director. I said, ‘Thanks, but no.’ We started talking about who they should get. When Rory Byrne’s name came up I said, ‘Well if you get him, you’d better get Ross Brawn, too.’ Rory could do the design side, less so the man management, so they needed Ross for that.”
As the Todt/Schumacher/Brawn/Byrne axis began to reshape Ferrari’s fortunes, Barnard acquired FDD from Ferrari, renamed it B3 Technologies and set up as a freelance consultancy. “The first thing I did was a deal with Tom Walkinshaw at Arrows, but I found it difficult to work with him. He’d tell me there was money available for things when there wasn’t and I can’t operate like that. I came on board in April 1997, we made changes to the car and I actually returned to working in the garage, with Damon Hill. We moved up the grid, things went quite well with just a few basic changes, and we came close to winning in Hungary, but I knew we needed a better wind tunnel and did a deal with a company in Bedford. I probably pushed too hard, too soon for a small team, but nobody told me to stop, or that we didn’t have a budget for the kind of deals I was trying to negotiate. Nobody said a word.”
The team’s 1998 car, the Arrows A19, would be the last F1 design credited fully to Barnard, but its eponymous, Brian Hart-designed V10 lacked development resources and proved unreliable. There would subsequently be consultancy work for Prost Grand Prix, but the French team’s closure before the 2002 season heralded the end of Barnard’s F1 activities – although he subsequently worked in the 500cc motorcycle world championship, with Kenny Roberts’s Proton-backed team.
“That came about through Les Jones, whom I’d known at Arrows. He called and told me they needed somebody to sort out their technical side. I’d never done bikes but found them interesting, so decided to give it a go. It was very different. I think they just regarded me as another F1 wally that does very little other than spend money, but I had to sort out the drawing office and get in some proper CAD systems – and with Les on the workshop floor I had some support.
“It was a strange beast, though, because it was essential to test a lot and we didn’t. You’ve also got to have a team working together and there seemed to be several separate groups, from some of whom it was very difficult to get any information. It needed a big sort-out, and at the same time we were trying to build our own engine against the likes of Honda, Yamaha and so on…”
In his post-racing years, Barnard has forged a reputation in a rather more static field – that of furniture design. “The pace of life is more acceptable!” he says. “It came about after I was elected into the RDI [Royal Designers for Industry]. One of the previous inductees was Terence Woodgate, a furniture designer. Terence had an idea for a carbon table, but didn’t know how to get there, so I looked at it and did the engineering. It’s obviously less complex than an F1 car, but not without its constraints. We made a prototype at B3 and the whole thing subsequently developed – Jonathan Ide the Apple designer has one and we’re doing him another. It’s such a leisurely pace of life, relatively speaking, but that suits me. It’s a bit like an early turbocharger, with a slow response.
“I also came up with an idea for a folding bike. Ron Dennis looked at it and agreed that McLaren would build a prototype, but then he got booted out, so I’m not sure that will ever see the light of day.”
Furniture apart, other projects include building the aforementioned home and promoting his recent biography, The Perfect Car, written by Nick Skeens. “I’d had the idea for a while,” he says, “but didn’t think it a good idea to do a book about F1 while I was still involved. Nick contacted me because he was writing about furniture design – he knew nothing about my racing background – and it evolved from there.”
So how does he describe himself nowadays?
“When I fill in forms,” he says, “I always put down that I’m retired.”
It doesn’t much sound like that.
“No,” he says with a grin, “it isn’t.”
Buy John Barnard’s new biography, The Perfect Car, here