For­mula 1’s car­bon-fi­bre pi­o­neer was a leg­en­dar­ily tough cookie, known as the ‘Prince of Dark­ness’ (at Mclaren) and the ‘Go­dalm­ing Scud’ (at Benet­ton). Has time mel­lowed the fa­ther of some of F1’s most beau­ti­ful cars?


For­mula 1’s very own dark lord of de­sign: John Barnard

THE 72-YEAR-OLD FRAME might be more ven­er­a­ble, but the grey-blue eyes pos­sess the same in­tense stare you’ll recog­nise from count­less pho­to­graphs. As John Barnard strides pur­pose­fully into the Se­grave Room in the Royal Au­to­mo­bile Club’s clois­tered Pall Mall club­house and en­closes your hand in a firm grip, you no­tice he has de­vi­ated some­what from the dress code… and briefly won­der if the door­man braced to ap­pre­hend him for ar­riv­ing with­out a tie was si­lenced by a look. “Un­like Scuds,” Barnard is said to have quipped when he learned that his Benet­ton col­leagues likened him to a bal­lis­tic mis­sile, “I al­ways ex­plode when I land.”

That was then. This, in­du­bitably, is now, and Barnard has been ab­sent from F1 for al­most two decades, prin­ci­pally oc­cu­py­ing him­self by sketch­ing el­e­gant be­spoke fur­ni­ture. He’s break­ing his si­lence to pro­mote a highly de­tailed bi­og­ra­phy that lifts the lid on a ca­reer that took him from a mi­nor de­sign role at Lola to an unas­sail­able po­si­tion as one of F1’s most in­no­va­tive – if tru­cu­lent – vi­sion­ar­ies. He re­mains one of a se­lect few en­gi­neers who can gen­uinely claim to have changed the sport: car­bon-fi­bre con­struc­tion and semi-au­to­matic gear­boxes are de rigueur to­day, but came about only through his re­lent­less fix­ity of pur­pose.F1 Rac­ing: You had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing very un­com­pro­mis­ing to work with. So it was in­ter­est­ing to see dur­ing the Q&A with your book’s au­thor that many of your old col­leagues were in the room. John Barnard: Yes, I was sur­prised at that!

F1R: Is it true that your nick­name dur­ing your time at Mclaren was the ‘Prince of Dark­ness’?

JB: Yeah, it was Tyler Alexan­der who came up with that one. He was the mas­ter of the sound­bite. I’d worked at Team Mclaren [as a ju­nior de­signer] and knew it well. I’d then gone to Cal­i­for­nia, come back and joined Ron Den­nis at Project Four, and then we were brought to­gether by Marl­boro [who were frus­trated by Mclaren’s se­rial un­der­per­for­mance] as a new or­gan­i­sa­tion, Mclaren In­ter­na­tional.

As tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor I wanted to change things be­cause I felt very strongly that all the de­sign, all the parts, had to come out of the draw­ing of­fice and had to be done to a draw­ing, be­cause oth­er­wise I couldn’t keep track of ev­ery­thing. Lots of the small bits and pieces, oil cooler brack­ets and so on, would be made by a me­chanic. Then the guys on the other car would make their own brack­ets, so there would be these tiny dif­fer­ences ev­ery time. I couldn’t have this go­ing on.

In chang­ing the sys­tem, I earned my­self that rep­u­ta­tion as the ‘Prince of Dark­ness’. I was tough and I up­set plenty of peo­ple. Many of the old-timers there didn’t like change and quite a lot of hos­til­ity built up. It was a Kiwi team, let’s face it, and the Kiwi ethos was very much ‘we can build it in our back shed’ be­cause that was ex­actly the way they had worked back in New Zealand. It just wasn’t go­ing to work for me.

F1R: You’ve said that when you first worked at Mclaren in the early 1970s you were hired as “a pen­cil” – just a de­signer of var­i­ous

pieces. When you came back in 1980 you’d un­der­gone this big pro­fes­sional trans­for­ma­tion and had a very clear idea of what the fu­ture was go­ing to be like – what brought that about?

JB: When I left Team Mclaren in 1975 to go over to Cal­i­for­nia, I’d been of­fered the job as chief de­signer with Vel’s Par­nelli Jones [an Indycar team] by Jim Chap­man, the team man­ager, who I knew from my Lola days. It took me about half a mil­lisec­ond to say “Yeah, fine, when do I start?” We got our stuff to­gether – I’d just got mar­ried – and within two weeks of get­ting mar­ried we were off to Cal­i­for­nia.

There was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere there – for ex­am­ple, if you want to go and set up your own com­pany, that’s fine. Move to a build­ing up the road… there are a lot of places you can put it. Ev­ery­thing was ‘no prob­lem, just do it’. And that can-do at­ti­tude is what I took from the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence.

I can best il­lus­trate it by when we started work­ing on the car­bon mono­coque [with Ron Den­nis at Project Four in 1980], and Ron and I had to find some­body to make it be­cause we didn’t have com­pos­ite fa­cil­i­ties. We vis­ited sev­eral UK com­pa­nies do­ing com­pos­ite work, such as he­li­copter blades, and we didn’t ex­actly get laughed out, but I’d taken a roll of proper com­pos­ite draw­ings with me, and at a lot of places they took one look at it and said: “That’s way too com­pli­cated. You are never go­ing to get that.”

We ended up go­ing to see Her­cules in Amer­ica. They made all sorts of things like rocket en­gines, and their at­ti­tude was, ‘Hey, we’ve never seen any­thing like this be­fore, but we’d re­ally like to have a go at it be­cause we will learn stuff.’ That was so dif­fer­ent to the re­sponse we got from the English com­pa­nies, and it still makes me sad in a way.

In Amer­ica, Barnard’s most sig­nif­i­cant de­sign call­ing card had been the Chap­ar­ral 2K Indycar, which suc­cess­fully im­ported the ‘ground ef­fect’ aero­dy­namic phi­los­o­phy in­tro­duced with such great im­pact by Lo­tus in F1. But it still seems like a con­sid­er­able leap from that to build­ing a com­plete car from a hith­erto lit­tleused and lit­tle-un­der­stood com­pos­ite ma­te­rial.

F1R: In terms of your per­sonal jour­ney, as it were, to be­com­ing an ac­knowl­edged tech­ni­cal guru, was that through a grow­ing con­fi­dence in your vi­sion? Be­cause you’ve said your Chap­ar­ral Indycar was the per­fect car…

JB: Ha! I said nearly per­fect. It was a com­bi­na­tion of grow­ing con­fi­dence, of be­ing in po­si­tions where I was able to call the shots, and a de­sire to do some­thing new. Ron Den­nis con­tacted me more than any­thing be­cause I’d just done the Chap­ar­ral and he thought it was a great car.

Ron’s pro­posal was that we should spend a year de­vel­op­ing the car­bon-fi­bre F1 car be­fore we raced it, and to be given that op­por­tu­nity in mo­tor rac­ing doesn’t come along too of­ten. So I was think­ing to my­self: ‘I need to make an­other step, be­cause I’m go­ing to get this op­por­tu­nity of a year with no rac­ing, just de­sign­ing for the fol­low­ing sea­son’. And I got into that frame of mind.

Then af­ter the Mclaren came Fer­rari… What am I go­ing to do? What’s my next step? And then I came up with what they call the dou­ble Coke-bot­tle shape and the pad­dle-shift gear­box and so on. So I’d kind of got it into my psy­che that I needed to be mak­ing steps. I mean, if I was go­ing to beat the op­po­si­tion I needed it to be not just a devel­op­ment ex­er­cise but a real fun­da­men­tal step for­ward. And I think, ul­ti­mately, it cost me in terms of race wins be­cause I was push­ing ahead with the new stuff, per­haps too soon, with­out hav­ing enough test­ing.

F1R: You’re known as the pi­o­neer of car­bon fi­bre in For­mula 1. It was in­ter­est­ing to see in your book how much credit you give to Arthur Webb – some­one who doesn’t re­ally fig­ure in main­stream For­mula 1 his­tory. Where did he come in?

JB: Arthur worked at British Aero­space at Wey­bridge. He was fun­da­men­tally a stress en­gi­neer. But he was old school – slide rule, cal­cu­la­tor and pen­cil – which suited me be­cause that’s what I was. He didn’t know any­thing about rac­ing cars but he brought the knowl­edge of cal­cu­lat­ing loads and stresses, and the ground rules of de­sign­ing in com­pos­ites as op­posed to de­sign­ing a struc­ture in me­tal. For in­stance, the first thing you want to do with com­pos­ites is to get rid of the joints. You want, as much as you can, to have one-piece parts, not all bits and pieces joined to­gether as you would with me­tal. So he had a lot of in­put into the con­ver­sa­tions around how we would go about mould­ing it, too – he was very im­por­tant to me in that first, early stage.

The MP4/1 proved the virtues of car­bon fi­bre as a struc­tural ma­te­rial very quickly – within months John Wat­son had won the 1981 British Grand Prix and then had a sub­stan­tial ac­ci­dent at Monza, where the car didn’t just dis­ap­pear in a cloud of dust as many pad­dock sooth­say­ers had pre­dicted it would. But it was

still run­ning the same nat­u­rally as­pi­rated Cos­worth V8 as many of Mclaren’s com­peti­tors, and Den­nis was busy woo­ing Niki Lauda to make an F1 come­back – the idea be­ing to prop­erly es­tab­lish Mclaren as a lead­ing team again.

F1R: When did the be­spoke Tag-porsche V6 turbo ar­rive on the ta­ble? Was that Ron’s idea?

JB: No, no. That was me. At that time [1981] there were still five di­rec­tors of Mclaren In­ter­na­tional: Ron, me, Creighton Brown, Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexan­der, and it was very clear that in terms of pure horse­power we were go­ing to need a turbo en­gine. I had looked at some of the op­tions. Ron and I vis­ited BMW in Mu­nich. Teddy had come along with draw­ings of the Re­nault V6 Lo­tus were us­ing. I re­mem­ber him say­ing, “If it’s good enough for Lo­tus it’s good enough for us, isn’t it?” And I just said: “No. It isn’t.” [In Barnard’s book, he says of Mayer: “I found him to be a par­tic­u­larly an­noy­ing char­ac­ter, a frus­trated de­signer who was al­ways try­ing to press upon us his ideas about how he thought some­thing should be done just be­cause he’d seen it done that way on an­other car, or read about it in some magazine.”] Be­cause both of them were, ef­fec­tively, road-car en­gines. They weren’t de­signed to go into a rac­ing car chas­sis.

We were still con­cen­trat­ing heav­ily on ground-ef­fect un­der­bod­ies, so I said to Ron: “We need to find some­one to build us the en­gine that I want, and the en­gine I want has got to have all the pumps down be­low, not on the side. It’s got to be as slim as pos­si­ble down there.” Ron said: “What about Porsche?” And I said: “You’ll be lucky!” Ron be­ing Ron, he picked up the phone and got hold of some­body over there, and off we went to see them. And be­cause we were pay­ing the bills, I was able to con­trol what they were do­ing in terms of the pack­age. I con­stantly went back and for­ward to Porsche to make sure it would fit the way I wanted.

And we ended up, or would have ended up if they hadn’t changed the ground-ef­fect rules at the end of 1982, with an un­be­liev­able ma­chine. We were pro­duc­ing some in­cred­i­ble num­bers in the wind­tun­nel with our model. F1R: Is it true that if you thought Porsche were de­vi­at­ing from your out­line, you’d ring them up and scream at them?


JB: Oh, I’d be over there! There was one in­stance where they’d put some sump-to-block bolts out­side the pro­file line. It would have re­quired a tiny bump on the un­der­body, and I said, “No, you’ve got to find an­other way of do­ing it.” And they did. They could do it. They just had to be told to do it.

F1R: Be­ing a clean-sheet de­sign, it took a while. Niki Lauda pushed for it to be in­tro­duced ear­lier than planned, in 1983. Was that some­thing you ap­proved of?

JB: No! I was an­noyed. Niki was pol­i­tick­ing with Marl­boro and push­ing and push­ing. I think Ron was try­ing to keep all that away from me un­til, I sup­pose, even­tu­ally the pres­sure be­came too much. Marl­boro were go­ing to pull the plug. So we had to take an MP4/1C chas­sis, mod­ify it for the turbo en­gine, and that took time that would have been bet­ter spent on the MP4/2, which had been de­signed from the ground up to fit the Tag-porsche en­gine.

F1R: Even so, Lauda won the cham­pi­onship in 1984 and then Alain Prost took the next two, so the MP4/2 still proved to be fan­tas­ti­cally suc­cess­ful.

JB: It was a fab­u­lous car be­cause the aero­dy­nam­ics worked fan­tas­ti­cally well, and a lot of it was down to the whole rear-wing pack­age with those lit­tle winglets – and with the turbo en­gine it ab­so­lutely flew. And then the rules changed again for 1985 and they at­tacked the aero; we had to take all the winglets off. We strug­gled to gain some of that back. We never gained all of it back, but we gained enough of it, with the en­gine and ev­ery­thing else, for Prosty to win the ’85 cham­pi­onship as well.

The ’86 car [the MP4/2C] was essen­tially the same chas­sis, en­gine, and gear­box pack­age we’d been run­ning since ’84, with a few changes to the out­side bits and pieces, and some… neat­en­ing. I got KKK to make me left- and right-handed tur­bocharg­ers so that

ev­ery­thing was per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal on the en­gine – the ex­haust sys­tem and the turbo in­lets. And that was re­ally the last time I de­vel­oped the same pack­age over a pe­riod of sea­sons.

De­spite Mclaren’s suc­cess on track, all was not har­mo­nious in Wok­ing, and as Ron Den­nis’s power grew, Barnard felt side­lined as a part­ner. There was also the ques­tion of a salary re­view which Ron, al­legedly, never got round to ne­go­ti­at­ing. Barnard now says he un­der­es­ti­mated the dif­fi­culty and im­por­tance of Ron’s role as com­mer­cial hunter-gath­erer. F1R: It seems very much – from an out­sider’s point of view – that you and Ron were al­most cut from the same cloth, be­ing sin­gle­minded per­fec­tion­ists. Do you think, in hindsight, that it’s be­cause you were so sim­i­lar that you were in­evitably not go­ing to get on?

JB: To be hon­est, if we both looked back on it, I think Ron would re­alise that he never came back to me on the ques­tions I’d asked him at the start of the sea­son. I got en­ticed away by the magic of Fer­rari. Ron’s been ex­tremely suc­cess­ful any­way, but I think we could have stayed to­gether be­cause we knew it worked. We were be­ing suc­cess­ful, so it had to work. The ups and downs, me los­ing my rag and so on, Ron not telling me ev­ery­thing… we prob­a­bly needed to get all that ironed out. He needed to tell me ev­ery­thing and not hide things he thought would up­set me. Be­cause when I found out, I did get up­set. On the other hand he was great at his job and I was good at mine.

But by the end of 1986 I needed to be able to step back for some fresh think­ing. And I thought that’s what the Fer­rari op­por­tu­nity would do – give me that fresh start with some­thing that was com­pletely new. I knew it wasn’t go­ing to be easy, but it turned out to be a whole new bag of prob­lems.

F1R: So Fer­rari ini­tially ap­proached you through an in­ter­me­di­ary. What was your first meet­ing with Enzo Fer­rari like?

JB: The first meet­ing I had, they flew me out on a pri­vate jet to Maranello on a Sun­day to meet him. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Ital­ian, so any­thing we spoke about had to go through Marco Pic­cinini [the team’s sport­ing di­rec­tor]. But, you see, Pic­cinini was a very canny op­er­a­tor; a very smart guy. He was re­ally mak­ing the de­ci­sions. Some­times Marco would go to a FOCA meet­ing or some­thing and he would have to play the card of: ‘Oh, I’ll have to go back and talk to the Old Man.’ But we all fun­da­men­tally knew that Marco was go­ing to make the de­ci­sion and just get the ap­proval from the Old Man.

At the end of that first day they put a let­ter in front of me and said the Old Man would be very pleased if you would sign this

to show a gen­uine in­ter­est in com­ing to Fer­rari. And I said I was very sorry, but I didn’t want to sign a mean­ing­less piece of pa­per, just to keep them happy. But then I kind of felt al­most obliged. I signed it! They were very as­tute op­er­a­tors.

Fer­rari ac­ceded to Barnard’s con­di­tion that he be al­lowed to de­sign and man­u­fac­ture their race cars from a base in the UK – an unas­sum­ing in­dus­trial unit in Shal­ford, Sur­rey, that is now home to Gor­don Mur­ray De­sign. De­spite be­ing la­belled Il Mago (‘the ma­gi­cian’) by the Ital­ian press, Barnard was un­able to work much of a spell on the 1987 Fer­rari, which was de­signed by Gus­tav Brun­ner, elect­ing in­stead to push ahead with a V12en­gined clean-sheet de­sign that would fea­ture a rad­i­cal semi­au­to­matic gear­box. But the project was dogged by var­i­ous de­lays that meant it wouldn’t be ready in time for the 1988 sea­son – and

Barnard even­tu­ally learned that the source of the hold-ups was a splin­ter group, led by Enzo’s il­le­git­i­mate son Piero, who were pur­su­ing an en­tirely separate car project.

F1R: You’ve al­ways said you didn’t ‘do’ pol­i­tics. How did you man­age to deal with the Fer­rari in-fight­ing when you weren’t ac­tu­ally on the ground at Maranello?

JB: I flew to Italy and spoke to Gi­anni Razelli, the manag­ing di­rec­tor at Fer­rari. I ba­si­cally de­liv­ered an ul­ti­ma­tum and said it was them or me. When it got back to Enzo, he pretty much threw Piero out – and banned him from com­ing to races.

Barnard’s Fer­rari over­came early teething trou­bles caused by the en­gine throw­ing off its fan belt. Alain Prost, armed


with a devel­op­ment of it in 1990, pushed Ayr­ton Senna for the world cham­pi­onship. An ex­am­ple of that car, the Fer­rari 641, now re­sides in New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. But by the end of 1989, Barnard had grown tired of the pol­i­tics at Fer­rari and was duly tempted away by an of­fer to join Benet­ton, again on the pro­viso that he could set up a de­sign and pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity near his Go­dalm­ing home. His B191 won one race, but the re­la­tion­ship with Benet­ton’s Flavio Bri­a­tore ended badly

– for le­gal rea­sons we will di­rect you to the very care­fully writ­ten chap­ter in Barnard’s bi­og­ra­phy – and John was soon in­vited back to the Maranello mi­lieu.

F1R: You’ve said that af­ter a cer­tain point, rac­ing be­came less in­ter­est­ing for you than en­gi­neer­ing as a purely tech­ni­cal ex­er­cise. When did that start to hap­pen?

JB: I think it was prob­a­bly my se­cond time round at Fer­rari when rac­ing started to be­come less of an in­ter­est. It be­came more about look­ing for a step, some­thing new – and the plea­sure of get­ting the de­sign right, even on small parts of the car, where I could look at it and think, ‘I re­ally like that.’ Or I look at it and think, ‘Ahh, we could have done a bet­ter job there.’ That’s kind of what drove me, what re­ally got me go­ing.

F1R: So you were con­tin­u­ing to chase the no­tion of the per­fect car?

JB: Yes. I was al­ways look­ing for that next step – but maybe, as I’ve said, I was push­ing them through too quickly. The 1994 Fer­rari, the 412 T1… that was a huge dis­ap­point­ment to me. The ra­di­a­tor pack­age was de­signed to be zero drag, and we did all sorts of test­ing with it with MIRA, us­ing hot-flow test­ing, to prove the con­cept. The car looked fan­tas­tic, “a peb­ble washed by the sea” the Ital­ian me­dia called it. But we got roy­ally screwed by the en­gine peo­ple be­cause they never did a proper wa­ter-flow check with the ra­di­a­tors [the car suf­fered ma­jor over­heat­ing prob­lems as a re­sult of this, and the flaw in the wa­ter flow cal­cu­la­tions was dis­cov­ered only af­ter the 412 went through a ma­jor re­design, giv­ing it shorter side­pods]. If they had done that, we would never have had the cool­ing prob­lem, and the prob­lem it­self would have been eas­ily fix­able with­out com­pro­mis­ing the car’s aero.

It won the race at Hock­en­heim with the short pods. That car still had a very high top speed, which every­one put down to the en­gine hav­ing loads of horse­power. But it wasn’t just that – it was be­cause we’d found re­ally low drag. When you have a sound con­cept like that, and it’s com­pro­mised by pol­i­tics, it re­ally is im­mensely frus­trat­ing.

The Per­fect Car: the Story of John Barnard, Mo­tor­sport’s Most Cre­ative De­signer, by Nick Skeens, is avail­able now, priced £40, from Evro Pub­lish­ing.


F1 Rac­ing meets the ‘Prince of Dark­ness’ – now a de­signer of be­spoke fur­ni­ture – at the swish Royal Au­to­mo­bile Club on Lon­don’s Pall Mall

John Wat­son wins the 1981 British Grand Prix, prov­ing the virtues of Barnard’s ground­break­ing car­bon mono­coque

The en­gine Barnard had cus­tom-built by Porsche was rushed through (against his will) for 1983, but even so, Niki Lauda col­lected the ti­tle the fol­low­ing year

The rules changed for 1985, but Barnard man­aged to claw back enough aero for Alain Prost to take that year’s ti­tle

Prost pushed Senna hard for the 1990 ti­tle, in the beau­ti­ful Barnard-de­signed Fer­rari 641, which is now on dis­play in New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art

Barnard raises the Sil­ver­stone tro­phy won by John Wat­son for Mclaren in 1981 – it marks his first tan­gi­ble suc­cess in F1 as a de­signer

De­spite its good looks, the Fer­rari 412 T1, driven here by Jean Alesi, suf­fered prob­lems with over­heat­ing, due to a lack of test­ing by the en­gine team

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