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APRIL 25, 1999

Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite-an appreciation


Dr Harvey Postlethwaite was an intellectual racer whose motor racing career spanned more than a quarter of a century. He understood all aspects of Formula1 from the technical to the political and commercial, and he loved it. He brought an almost academic technical approach to Formula1 car design in the era before computers enabled every aspect of design to be analysed, and later matured to the role of mentor to the young technical experts that accompanied the computers. However, it was the racer in him that guided his career, electing to work with those with a similar love of racing, such as Enzo Ferrari and Ken Tyrrell, and with drivers such as James Hunt, Jodi Scheckter, Keke Rosberg, Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi. These qualities and the depth of his experience must have influenced Honda to choose him to lead their proposed entry into Formula1. His untimely death has left a big hole in motor racing and his approach to the sport will be sadly missed.

Harvey's cars, whether he actually drew them or led the team that designed them, always displayed a clear focus on what needed to be achieved. His formative years in Formula1, with Hesketh, Wolf and Fittipaldi, provided an environment that demanded just that. None of these teams were big budget teams and their only chance of success was to be smarter than the competition. Having learned at Hesketh that it was possible to win a GP with a simple, low cost car and a talented driver (Hunt), he really made his mark as a designer with the 1977 Wolf WR1. The small, neat, good-handling WR1 provided Jodi Scheckter with his and the car's debut win, and finished second in the World Championship that year. 1977 was the year that ground effect arrived in the shape of the Lotus T78. It was a great surprise to us at Lotus that all the other designers did not copy it the following year - only Harvey did so. While most dismissed ground effect as being a mixed blessing and not the main reason for the T78's success, Harvey knew immediately what its potential was. When the WR5 appeared at Monaco, we were alarmed to see that Harvey had given the car the definitive design of skirt, essential for the effective application of ground effect. His basic arrangement of a board sliding in a box remained the only way to seal the sides of the body to the road until skirts were finally banned.

However, it was Harvey's next car, the WR7, that brought him to the attention of Enzo Ferrari. His monocoque construction method, using sheets of folded aluminium/honeycomb, eliminated the rivets and joints that were so often the weak points of a fabricated monocoque. When Enzo Ferrari finally realised that there was more to a racing car than the engine and that he must import knowledge and expertise, he approached Postlethwaite to invite him to revolutionise the Italian team's approach to chassis design and to bring them up to date with the methods used by the British constructors. Supported by Ferrari himself, Harvey put in place the infrastructure to design and build sandwich-construction and CFRP components. Working mainly behind the scenes, he also introduced Ferrari to the necessity of fully embracing aerodynamics. His influence on the chassis of the 1982 126C2 and 1983 126C3 enabled Ferrari to harness the power of their turbo engines to win the Constructor's World Championships in both those years.

Harvey relished the passion for motor racing that is Ferrari and enjoyed the Italian way of life, their cars, their food and their emotional language. He also showed a remarkable ability to survive the politics at Ferrari. When Gilles Villeneuve was killed in the new aluminium/honeycomb 126C2, at Zolder in 1982, somewhat ridiculously the construction of the chassis was questioned by the Italian Press. It must have taken all of his technical ability and political skills to survive such an inquisition. The arrival of John Barnard at Ferrari in 1987 must also have been a difficult time and ultimately resulted in Harvey leaving to join Tyrrell. Once again in total technical control, he produced a series of simple but effective, low-budget cars that delivered more than could be expected from the limited resources available. His 1990 Tyrrell 019 awoke other designers to the importance of the aerodynamics of the nose and front wing. With Jean Alesi at the wheel, it outperformed the other Cosworth cars and often embarrassed the multi-cylinder, works-engine teams. Alesi loved the car, finding it exactly suited his driving style.

Following Enzo Ferrari's death in 1988, the new Fiat-appointed management attempted to recreate the team that had last delivered success, recalling both Barnard and Postlethwaite. The approach did not work and Harvey found that much of the passion he had relished during his time there before, had gone. After a brief sojourn at Sauber, hoping to become a key element in Mercedes Benz's entry into Formula1, he rejoined Ken Tyrrell, taking control of the technical and racing side and becoming a part-owner of the team. With a tiny budget and customer engines, Harvey led a loyal band of designers and engineers with the result that Tyrrell never disgraced themselves until taken over by BAR in 1998.

The sale of Tyrrell provided Harvey with the means to take early retirement if he had so wished. Instead, he embarked on perhaps his greatest challenge: to prove to Honda that they could succeed as a team in their own right in Formula1. With a small group of designers, engineers and mechanics - basically what was left of Tyrrell after BAR had absorbed what it wanted - and working with Dallara in Italy, he turned up in winter testing with a car that showed Honda, and many other established teams, that it was possible to get the basics right without spending millions - the smart approach.

Dr Harvey Postlethwaite will probably go down in history as the designer and Technical Director who could get the most out of the least. The true Postlethwaite cars did not win World Championships, although one came close. However, his influence was key to Ferrari's last two world titles - a fact for which he will long be remembered in Italy. Even when working with tiny budgets he was prepared to innovate and take risks:

· Rubber suspension on the 1975 Hesketh

· Sliding skirts on the 1978 Wolf

· Folded aluminium/honeycomb sandwich monocoque-1979 Wolf

· 1990 Tyrrell aerodynamics

· Hydraulic passive suspension on Tyrrells from 1995

However, it is not the record books that will portray Harvey in his true light. Harvey will be remembered by those who knew him as a highly intelligent, pragmatic engineer who loved fine cars and motor racing. He invoked a tremendous loyalty among the designers, engineers and mechanics who worked for him. Many of them owe him a debt for his teaching and the encouragement he gave them to achieve their ambitions. He loved the passion and excitement of Formula1, and the inevitable humour that accompanies any high-pressure activity; Formula1 is full of black humour and quite a lot could be traced back to Harvey!

The only period during which I have actually worked alongside Harvey, as opposed to competing against him, was during the last 5 years, serving as a co-member of the FIA Advisory Experts Group, chaired by Professor Sid Watkins. Harvey brought experience of the day-to-day reality of designing, building and testing a current Formula1 car, to the work the Group carries out on researching safety systems for Formula1 and other classes of motor racing. His contribution in bringing down-to-earth some other more outlandish and bizarre ideas brought to the group for assessment, was invaluable. The fact that he always found time during a punishing schedule to make a contribution to safety, says a lot about the man.

One remark of Harvey's that I shall always remember sums up his approach to racing. It was in 1987, while discussing drivers and the difficulties of satisfying them with cars with which they were happily, Harvey commented dryly: "Anyone who thinks that a 1,000horse power, flat-bottomed car, with 2,000lb/inch springs and qualifying tyres will ever be Ônice' to drive, is crazy." His ability to bring one back down to earth, and his contribution to keeping Formula1 on the rails is going to be sadly and sorely missed.