THE MOLE

A different view

History is a funny thing, thought The Mole the other day, while savouring the delicate flavour of his four o'clock cup of Earl Grey. Regular readers of the column will know that The Mole is a bit of an Epicurean and just happens to know that the secret of Earl Grey's popularity is that the black Chinese tea is flavoured with bergamot oil, which is extracted from the skin of citrus aurantium bergamia.

The reason it was named after the Earl was that he happened to be very partial to the blend, a recipe which he was given by a Chinese mandarin. And there was the irony. Grey, thought The Mole, was a great man with forward-thinking ideas. It was he who battled for reform in the 1830s in an effort to rid the British political system of its most basic electoral abuses in the Reform Bill of 1832. Were it not for Earl Grey's pursuit of democratic principles by democratic means British history might have been very different.

And today the masses remember him only because he liked a certain type of tea.

This brought The Mole's thought process to the subject of John Barnard, who was back in the news this week having decided to leave behind the world of Formula 1 and try his hand at motorcycle racing.

Barnard was the brains behind two of the major technical breakthroughs in Formula 1 in the modern era, both of which played a vital role in the shaping of the sport today. He was the first designer to build an entirely carbonfibre monocoque and was also the man behind electronically-controlled gearboxes. Since those days there have been very few technical breakthroughs of the same magnitude and today most F1 development is done by chipping away at existing ideas and, to use that horrible phrase so loved by F1 people, "maximising the potential of the technical package".

There are some in the sport who will tell you that Barnard is out of date in Formula 1 and others will tell you that he is too demanding. The Mole has heard the same things being said of all kinds of other engineers in the sport. Barnard is 56 but age has nothing to do with it. Rory Byrne celebrated his 59th birthday last Friday and no-one is complaining about the cars he comes up with down at Maranello. Patrick Head is 56 and the Williams-BMW is the car that took pole position at almost half the races last year.

Barnard is demanding. He is a perfectionist and a man who believes that his way of doing things is always the right way. But he is not the only one. Patrick Head is not exactly Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Success and innovation demand respect and even if young engineers sometimes complain that Barnard is tough to work for they all admit that he is a man of vision.

So why has he gone off to race motorcycles?

Barnard admits that his desire to innovate has been strangled by Formula 1 regulations. By the end of the early 1990s Barnard's interest in F1 as a design exercise was already waning because he felt there was no room left for a big breakthrough. His curiosity led him to other areas of the sport in which he felt he could make a difference. Instead of looking at the cars, he looked at the tools which help to make the cars. He found and developed a string of very good windtunnel facilities at Filton (for Ferrari), Farnborough (for Benetton) and Bedford (for Arrows) and looked at ways to speed up production techniques by designing fewer parts and working out technologies to build them. He was at the forefront in the successful development of welding and fabricating titanium parts, something which other engineers had tried and failed to do.

And then for a while he stopped F1 completely and designed surgical instruments for a surgeon he knew and when that was done he turned his hand to garden design, having been inspired by the well-known British designer Gertrude Jekyll. As Barnard never does anything by half he went out and bought a huge secondhand bulldozer and attacked his garden with his customary enthusiasm

When he came back to F1 after that he wanted new challenges and often talked about the need for F1 to become a world of real innovation once again. His desire was to see F1 meeting new technical challenges and overcoming them in such a way as they had a relevance to the motor industry. He argued hard for a completely new engine formula with F1 cars having small turbo diesel engines rather than the over-developed gas-guzzling 3-litre lumps which are of little use in an automobile industry which wants fuel-efficient cars.

The Mole has always agreed that F1 does not offer enough real innovation. Now is the season of the car launch and what do the F1 Media have to look forward to this year? The finger food? How long is it since there was anything really radical to discuss?

They always say that the initial development phase of a new kind of engine is not the bit that costs the most money. The huge investment comes when the basic concept has been defined and engines have become efficient and need to be improved. Formula 1 has been working on the normally-aspirated V10 for 15 years. There is a vast bank of information which has been created and finding an extra edge is very difficult and very expensive.

The freeing up of the technical regulations could do much to make the sport interesting and more relevant. And perhaps then the innovators might return.

Click here to read previous Mole columns: The Mole Archive

Print Feature