Features - Interview


John Barnard


John Barnard left the Benetton Formula 1 team in the mid-summer and has been sitting on the sidelines ever since. Watching. We asked him to examine the technical progress in Grand Prix racing this season.

John Barnard left the Benetton Formula 1 team in the mid-summer and has been sitting on the sidelines ever since. Watching. We asked him to examine the technical progress in Grand Prix racing this season.

John Barnard needs little introduction. For almost 10 years he has been Formula 1's great innovator: initially t McLaren then later at Ferrari and, most recently, Benetton.

Looking back, how does Barnard see 1991 in terms of technological progress?

'Well, to be quite honest,' he says, 'I don't see any major breakthroughs. There has obviously been quite a lot of development going on with front wing endplates, raised noses and so on.

'If anything you've had the big manufacturers doing pretty heavy and continual engine development. Behind Honda, Renault and Ferrari the others are pretty stationary on the engine front. That's more than anything a cost thing.

'I think what has happened even more this year has been the fuel situation. That has got stronger and stronger. I did a lot of talking about it in 1990 and, in some cases, I got a lot of ribbing about it. Ferrari started in with Agip and now that the Hondas and Shells and the Renaults and Elfs have got onto the bandwagon what you now have is fuel competition at high level, with the big companies. That means that the thing starts to gain some momentum and that there has been been quite a bit of horsepower gained.

'If you look back before 18 months ago the normal pace of fuel development was next to non-existent. I don't want to say I told you so, but nobody has come up with a way of controlling it with regulations. You still cannot get people to agree on a single fuel formula or come up with a good way of making it work. Really fuel develoment is something new, it almost goes on a par now with the basic engine development itself.

'If you look at performance across the board, you've got tyres, driver, engine and chassis. Now you can add fuel and if you don't have a big fuel deal you are going to be out of the picture.

'In some ways you can pull tyres out of that picture because all the big teams are now running on the same tyres. It is pretty significant to me that they just started running the Benetton B191 on Goodyear tyres and, by all accounts, the thing is a different motor car.

'You may even fill the tyre spot with fuel. The current performance situation now has the engine pushing up to perhaps 30% with the driver and chassis 25% each and fuel at 20%.'

But was there nothing really exciting in aerodynamics and chassis development?

'There's not been much which has really impressed me,' he says. 'Williams have obviously done a good job, but you cannot say that there's anything different or revolutionary about it. They've just done a good job. What else have we got out there? Leaving aside the Benetton, if you look at the Jordan it appeared to go well. I have to say, and I suppose I'm a little bit biased, that they fundamentally had the same engine as the Benetton power-wise. Everything was so confused with the tyre situation. I know we (at Benetton) looked at the Jordan type of aerodynamics and were not greatly impressed by it. I was a little surprised on occasion how well it went. Having said it it is so difficult to know when you have an oddball situation on things like tyres. It's difficult to compare. Maybe the Jordan fitted in right where it should have done with that kind of engine, a sensible chassis and Goodyear tyres. Having said that I think Jordan did a good job with the sort of resources they had.'

And the disappointments of the year. How does Barnard analyse what went wrong with Tyrrell, the Porsche V12 engine and Ferrari?

'I think they are a good expample of teams and companies which start off without someone setting down the proper direction. In the case of Porsche and Tyrrell they completely lost their way technically. They lost all technical momentum and all semblance of the technical department knowing what is required. Porsche started off on the wrong foot. Perhaps Mercedes in sportscar racing is an even better example. You have people coming into the sport who just don't know enough about it before they start. They set off in their own way saying: "They must all be idiots, we are going to show them all we know more about it that they do." That kind of approach I see from Mercedes and Porsche.

'I suppose both of them to a certain extent suffer from a sort of German arrogance of superior engineering skill. They are good engineers, there is no doubt about it, but it's a different thing to make road cars. Sometimes I think that message doesn't get across.

'Ferrari, I think lost all cohesion in technical matters and what tended to happen then was that strong personalities reigned. When you have what is, effectively, a number of different departments without anyone pulling it all together, you end up with the departments with the strong characters in charge becoming dominant. They tend to ignore the importance of the other departments. In the case of Ferrari I think the aerodynamic approach took control, ignoring all other aspects of the car. You cannot do that. You need a compromise between all aspects. How much value is placed on each area of the car is down to the experience and knowledge of the guy who pulls it all together.'

Would it be fair to say, therefore, that Barnard is disappointed generally with technical progress in Grand Prix racing in 1991?

'Yes. If all things had gone well at Benetton from the end of 1990, I was hoping to pull a lot more stuff in this year. I would certainly have started a lot more new stuff. Unfortuanetly I got nobbled before I could really get it up and running.

'The problem I believe is that F1 these days seems to be such big business and so highly technica that there is no room for a bit of lateral thinking and individualism. It is a shame. I think it is partly due to the vast amounts of money people put in there and the presssure that we have to gain results. It is getting to the point where no-one is willing to take the risk on anything a bit different because you've got to be somebody extremely powerful to do something different.'

Surely the McLaren-Honda MP4/6 is a good example of a conventional car that goes on winning?

'McLaren didn't win,' reckons Barnard. 'Williams lost. They threw it away. I always felt that their gearbox had not done enough running before the start of the season. Historically, I have been the sort of guy who pulls a car out at the last minute and goes racing. That's okay providing you have the basics tried and tested. You need the fundamental pieces which make the wheels go round to have been tested to some degree. McLaren still plays the game that way. They will come out at the very last minute and just about scrape together three cars for the first race, but they work. I think Williams didn't do enough with the gearbox. The semi-automatic 'box, however well you do the job, needs a lot of testing time spent on it. I don't think Williams spent long enough on it and, consequently, they had some problems at the beginning.

'They made a number of stupid errors, team errors. The obvious one was the wheel nut in Portugal, but I think there were other team errors made through the year. It could have been so different with one more result. I think Nigel threw it away in Japan, for example, but it's easy to say that. He ended up with a tremendous pressure on him because of things like the wheelnut, so I think Williams bungled it and McLaren kept doing their usual, rather conservative, uninspiring and unexciting thing, but they did an extremely capable job. They like to say that they can out-resource anybody now, and that's more or less the way they won the championship. It is test, test, test. They are testing here, they are testing in Japan, they are running all over the place: gearboxes and God knows what else. The end result is that they don't make silly mistakes. The stuff they have is not particularly exciting, but it is tuned to the very highest state possible. They have all the right ingredients and they get the job done.

So what about the future? What can we look forward to from atechnical point of view?

'The problem with things like composite suspension is that the performance benefits are getting smaller and smaller. If you look at the financial climate that sort of thing might be put back a couple of years simply because you just don't have the finances to go deeper into the fine technical stuff. To a certain extent that goes for active suspension too. You are going to end up with just a few teams able to afford that stuff: Ferrari, Mclaren, Williams. But even with their budgets they have to think harder about what to attack to get performance gains.'

It is a call we have heard gradually getting louder all season. F1 is pricing itself out of the market. The world's financial slump is hitting F1 from all sides: in terms of sponsorship, but also in technology. F1 may be the leading edge of technological advance, but the leading edge is getting blunted...