John Barnard on Formula 1 today


I enjoyed a nice chat with John Barnard last week.

John and I are old friends going back to his days as an Indycar designer for Vel’s Parnelli Jones and Jim Hall’s Chaparral team more than 30 years ago. I wanted to talk to him about his formative years designing Indycars before he rose to world the of Formula 1 prominence with McLaren and Ferrari through the ‘80s and early ‘90s. John has been retired from F1 for more than 10 years and has turned his hand to designing furniture, but inevitably our conversation eventually moved around to F1 today.

“I haven’t had a good look at the latest crop of F1 cars,” Barnard (above with John Watson and Ron Dennis) remarked. “But the ones that I’ve seen have got this pretty horrendous notched nose. I would find it difficult to make something like that for my own personal aesthetic appreciation. Unless somebody could show me there was an amazing effect in the wind tunnel by doing that, I don’t think I could do it. It’s just too damn ugly!”

Barnard went on to ruminate about the structure and organisation of today’s giant F1 teams. “It amazes me that these F1 teams today have so many separate departments for everything,” he observed. “I can’t see how you can produce a technical person with enough experience of the overall picture to sit on top of these great organisational pyramids. I guess the last person in F1 who sits on top of it is probably Adrian Newey. But look at the other teams and apart from Adrian it’s hard to say who the chief technical guy is in lots of the teams.

“Adrian is basically an aero guy. I don’t know how much Adrian knows about other aspects of the car – the gearbox or suspension geometry and things like that. But the fact is aerodynamics is so important he probably doesn’t need to know these things. He says, ‘this is how I want it aerodynamically’ and he knows enough about that to get it right and make it a winner.

“Personally, I still think an F1 team needs a pyramid-type of organisation. It needs a guy sitting on top of it technically who is responsible for all the technical aspects of the car design. And it needs somebody sitting on top of it from a commercial and – to use modern terms – a human resources point of view.

“You want these two pyramids to work under the people sitting on top of them, and everyone needs to be able to work together. They need to be able to communicate and work out what they’re going to do together and from there on down they control their own pyramid. I think that is the way F1 works, or racing works, because you need decisions constantly and quickly, and if you make the right decisions you move forward faster than the other guys.”

Barnard pointed out that F1’s increasingly thick rulebook eliminates new concepts and makes the sport ever more a potential legal imbroglio. “I suppose in a way you’ve got to look at the rules and regs too,” he commented. “They are so complex now and the teams are fiddling with a great many little details and a major part of it is to, let’s say, invent the loophole and get it past the ruling body. The whole business of looking at some tiny little loophole is almost a department in itself. Every year there’s a squabble over some new loophole. You almost need a legal department to deal with that alone!”

JB (below with Niki Lauda) emphasised how difficult, if not impossible, it has become to design anything different, let alone revolutionary. “In my day the regs were so much looser that you could do different things,” he remarked. “Whether they were right technically was another issue. If you wanted to come today and do a car from a clean sheet of paper, certainly in F1, you’d have a hell of a job to make anything that looked different. Apart from the details, it would be very similar.”

He joked about the waste and futility in much of today’s F1 costly aerodynamic development. “I was talking to someone the other day who’s still designing F1 bits and pieces and they were talking about these amazing front wings they have now with bits and pieces all over them. They reckon that half the time they’re playing with a radius on the end of a flap or something.

“They’re asking, ‘Should it be a 10, 15 or 20 millimetre radius?’ And they’ll make half a dozen different models and try them and decide which are the best and then make half a dozen full-size flaps to test and, of course, through this they throw away the least effective bits time and time again!

“We were lucky to get away with making a new wing, never mind six with different radiuses on the end of the flaps. Of course, you’ve got to know what radiuses to fiddle with, but it’s a little like putting a thousand monkeys in front of a typewriter and eventually they’ll write the great novel.”

Barnard continues to design furniture and is enjoying life after racing. “I’m still playing with furniture. I manage to keep busy one way or another. There’s a potential road car project that I may be involved in, but I haven’t heard yet whether it’s going to happen. We’ll have to wait and see. But that piques my interest because I haven’t done that before.”

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