THE LONG INTERVIEW
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  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?
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
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
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
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.
THE 412 T1 WAS A HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT. THE CAR LOOKED FANTASTIC, “A PEBBLE WASHED BY THE SEA” THE ITALIAN MEDIA CALLED IT. BUT WE GOT ROYALLY SCREWED BY THE ENGINE PEOPLE
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