Features - Technical

NOVEMBER 11, 1996

John Barnard


Why would Ferrari, the pride and passion of Italy, risk all the complications of splitting its design office from its manufacturing and racing teams in Maranello, Italy, and site it near Guildford in England? It must be more than the desire to place it in that 50 by 100 mile rectangle that accommodates eight out of the top ten Formula 1 design offices.

Why would Ferrari, the pride and passion of Italy, risk all the complications of splitting its design office from its manufacturing and racing teams in Maranello, Italy, and site it near Guildford in England? It must be more than the desire to place it in that 50 by 100 mile rectangle that accommodates eight out of the top ten Formula 1 design offices.

Enzo Ferrari believed that the role of the chassis was to carry around the engine, and that if the engine was a Ferrari engine, it would as often as not win the World Championship. There is evidence today that this belief is as robust as Catholicism, deep down inside Ferrari. The shock of discovering that the new aerodynamics of the 1970's made it worthwhile compromising the engine to achieve superior chassis performance, was quickly followed by an even harder lesson to bear. The turbo-era suddenly transformed the science of Formula 1 engines from the attainment of the highest possible RPM, into the computer control of the highest possible cylinder pressures. It is no coincidence that Bosch equipped the first engines (BMW and TAG) to power "turbo-World Champions". When the Japanese brought their detailed and rigorous analytical approach to engine development, Ferrari had to face the fact that not only was the engine no longer the dominant part of the car, but also that Ferrari no longer necessarily built the most powerful engines.

Enzo had partially faced up to this turn of events when he employed Harvey Postlethwaite to bring Ferrari up to date in aerodynamics and structures. But the ethic that had been applied to engines - design it exquisitely and make it beautifully - dies hard. Enzo, knowing that he had to find someone to design Ferraris who would do so to this ethos, turned to John Barnard - the designer's designer.

Examination of the racing records clearly shows the effect Barnard cars have had on the fortunes of a moribund McLaren team in 1981. A similar effect was achieved on Ferrari during John's first sojourn with the Scuderia from 1986 to 1989 and the following year when a development of his 640 - the 641 - was campaigned. The treatment having proved too harsh for the patient (or was it the physician's bed-side manner?) the remission of 1990 quickly reverted to a renewed decline in the subsequent years, until John was summoned to restart the treatment in 1992.

It is not about survival, but about restoring Ferrari to full fitness and the ability to win World Championships again. The next two years are the crunch years for Ferrari and by implication for John too. Everything is in place: a design facility that has had three years to settle in and lay the ground work; Schumacher - the only driver around who is talked about in the same breath as Senna; a choice of V-12 and V-10 engines; and the usual Ferrari mega-budget. Can they win the Championship?

John: "I think we can, yes. It will be like having quintuplets - ultimately painful. I am most worried about what will follow after that. There is likely to be such an exhalation of collective breath that the whole of Italy will lie down exhausted throughout the following year."

Just as Ferrari needs Barnard, he needs Ferrari. He is a designer whose brilliance must be matched with the resources to turn his drawings into metal and composites. Such fine design is based on technologies, development programmes and processes that do not come cheap. No other team have attempted to follow Ferrari's lead in lightweight titanium and carbon fibre gearbox cases. He has nearly always been able to work this way, and he is now at the stage in his career where almost only Ferrari can supply the working environment and support he needs, and about the only thing left to prove is to provide them with the car that enables them to win the World Championship.

The path to becoming the finest Formula 1 designer of the last 15 years started, surprisingly, with light bulbs! Having completed a sandwich course at Brunel Technical College at age 23, John joined the GEC Group to design high speed production machinery for mass producing light bulbs.

"After 6 months I thought: "I can't do this, nine to five, for the rest of my life." Interesting to a point, it didn't grab my attention, and so I wrote around. I had been interested in racing for a while, but never participated and had never been encouraged to get involved, though I had built road going specials.

"Eric Broadley asked me to come and see him at Lola's in Slough, so I did and that was it - within 9 months I was designing a racing car."

The grounding that John received at Lola laid the foundations for his future, providing experience in all aspects of the business that is hard to come by today.

"I remember it distinctly. It was Lola's first Super-Vee, the T250, and I drew it all out - space frame; engine modifications; suspension, based on discussions with Eric; clay model - and even made some of the parts and assembled them. Finally I ended up taking the prototype up to the Racing Car Show and being on the stand selling it! That just about covered the whole spectrum.

"The learning curve was frightening. One progressed by feel, not with hard facts or computer-aided analysis. Development relied heavily on drivers like Frank Gardner, and we gained so much experience. Though Eric laid out the basics of the car, I feel the T250 was the first Barnard car. It was even quite good."

"I didn't really get the right education for racing car design. I would have been better off with a more aircraft orientated course, with more structural design content. But having been raised in an engineering environment, both my parents being engineers, I had some sort of feel for engineering matters and college taught me to think things through properly.

"Even today I see mechanics and engineers without mechanical feel. I can spot them after two or three minutes when they are using tools, and it stands out very clearly. Gaining a feel for things mechanical was what apprenticeships were all about."

While the Lola Super-Vee was the first Barnard car, it was the Chaparral 2K Indy car that brought his name to prominence. It is also the car that John considers to be the most significant of his career.

"I had been in California for about three years, engineering Parnelli Jones' cars. Al Unser and Hughie Absolom had left and joined Jim Hall in Texas. They suggested that Hall talked to me, and so I had a couple of meetings with him. A hand shake later and I was back in the UK designing Chaparral's first Indy car.

"It is the last car where I virtually drew all of it, though I was helped by Gordon Kimble, whom I had met in the States. It was a ground effect car but we didn't use a wind tunnel. I had a conversation with Patrick Head, who had just started running a ground effect Formula 1 car in the Imperial College 1/4 scale tunnel, and he said: "There's a hell of a lot here if we can control it!". I couldn't do any tunnel work as there was no time, no money and no basic set-up to do so. I just drew what looked right to me.

"Looking back on it now it was an excellent illustration that doing a car with a low number of people (Specialised Mouldings built the body and the car was built at Bob Sparshott's) reduces the number of cockups and allows you to keep control of everything. Virtually everything fitted first time, and it was really quite a nice, simple car."

It also worked very well, changing the direction of Indy car design.

John's Formula 1 cars, Mclarens, Ferraris and Benettons, will not be remembered for their revolution, but rather for the integration of their design and the fine detail of their components and systems. And yet John has introduced the two most significant and lasting innovations of the last 15 years(surviving countless Technical Regulation changes), namely the carbon fibre monocoque and the semi-automatic gear-change. However it is the little things that provide the real source of personal satisfaction. Take the torsion bar springs on the 1989 Ferrari 640, for instance.

"For later cars you pull these things out of the drawer, look at them and say: "Right, we will now make it smaller, neater and lighter". Then you find you can't see how to greatly improve it. That torsion bar arrangement is a package that is very hard to beat."

Or the flexure-pivot wishbones on the 1994 car.

"Nice design problem - you must do your sums right on buckling - and an elegant solution. The flexure-pivots were also a classic example of Ferrari politics. In 1994 we struggled to make the cars go well enough, and Alesi stirred up a lot of trouble over them because no one else had them on their cars, so we must be wrong. He worked the Maranello political system until we built ball-jointed versions and tested back-to-back at Ricard - no difference, of course. So we ended up with Alesi's car on ball-joints, and Berger's on flexures.

"For 1995 I went ball-jointed for an easy life, but will go back to flexure-pivots for 1996. They are simpler, neater, lighter.

"The real satisfaction comes from new solutions to old problems. I don't get as much kick out of the current design process, with lots of people and sophisticated design and analysis tools. I do try and keep a team of people around me who know how I like to do things, which is essential to keeping track of what has become a large and complex operation.

"I always like doing something new, but I like the fact that one can now prove the concept is correct by lots of calculations. I am not in the position that Colin Chapman used to be, where he could take an absolute flier, and I never have been. I always have a fall-back or fix in my back pocket in case something new doesn't work.

"Take the semi-automatic gearbox for example. I had nurtured the idea for some time and Ferrari had the kind of facilities and people to take the idea and turn it in to a gearbox. They had people who had been doing gearboxes for 15-20 years. But it all became a major political issue. I had a real head-to-head with Gidella - one of the top FIAT executives - who reckoned he was to be the saviour of Ferrari following Enzo's death.

"After a few up and down runs and a few laps of Fiorano, Gidella became petrified of putting it on the car. In the end I said: "Look, if it doesn't work you can always do a mechanical version, and I'll leave". It was one of those make or break situations."

I have always been somewhat amazed that a professional organisation can pay good money to employ the very best and most expert in a particular field, and then decide that they actually know more about it than the expert.

Bringing up the subject of the Technical Regulations elicited an unexpected reaction. John feels that although the regulations define the "box" pretty tightly, there is still scope for imaginative thinking, and that there is "something out there". He would like more freedom in chassis design and feels that engine technology should be regulated to the same level as the chassis. The cars are fairly similar in performance today, with engines and drivers being the principal differentiators. Restrictions on engine technology, and particularly RPM, would bring down costs and bring the racing closer together. What would Enzo have said, I wonder?

While John has worked for Ferrari it has always been from a high-tech. base in England. I wondered whether this was his preferred modus operandi, in general or whether it only applied to working for Ferrari.

"There are advantages in being stood back from day-to-day racing. The idea is that this (Ferrari Design and Development Ltd., in Godalming) is a design and build unit for the next step. It is a good idea and could well be applied to the big UK teams. The drawback is that we are a bit detached from track feedback - you have to be right there to get it first hand, free of various interpretations. For that reason I or Mike Coughlan, my right hand man, go to all the tests and races at the start of the season to get the direct feedback on a new car.

"I also try and instil my design philosophy in the key development engineers at Ferrari, like Georgio Ascanelli, with whom I have worked in the past at Benetton and Ferrari. I get lots of feedback from him on the practical aspects of operating the cars at the track and on set-up issues.

"It is easy for the old aircraft industry problem to emerge. The Drawing Office used to chuck the drawings over the wall to Production, who chucked them back when something didn't fit. When the completed aircraft arrived at the Test Centre, in the next county, the Flight Test engineers usually said: " Well, I wouldn't have done it this way", and started changing everything they disagreed with.

"The cars are now built almost entirely at Maranello, though we build components that are radically new or use a new process, here, and then send someone, who is familiar with the techniques, to follow through with production in Italy.

"I can maintain my group together in England, and that is very important for efficiency and accuracy. In Ferrari you are dealing with a different animal. You have political elements and strange regimes and structures within the company, which cause problems other teams don't experience. I can come back here and get out of that rat race, and free myself up to think."

With possibly the nicest handling 1995 F1 car, New V-10 engine, Schumacher, and sufficient budget, is there anything from an engineering facilities viewpoint, that is lacking?

"We now have a 50% wind tunnel facility up and running at British Aerospace, Filton. It is a big, fast tunnel and we have installed a moving ground plane. That is another reason for being based in the UK. People don't realise that you cannot do these things overnight. You can tell them till you are blue in the face, but it doesn't sink in. It takes three years to become effective, and we are just there now. It is working well and correlating with the track, and we are starting to get the benefits.

"We only rent periods in the tunnel and so are at a slight disadvantage compared to Williams (when they are not moving their 50% tunnel to a new site) who can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in a crunch situation.

"The biggest problem now is to find the staff, at workshop level, that you can find in England. There is a large and varied industry in England, growing the right people, while in Italy there is effectively just Ferrari, so they all have the Ferrari approach. I am lucky to have Nigel Stepney over there, but all the mechanics have come up through Ferrari.

"They have a massive new, purpose built, composites facility at Maranello. It looks impressive, but it is doing all the road car work as well. Ideal from an accountants point of view, but it isn't dedicated, and it is away from the F1 factory.

"Where Williams have scored is that they spent many years, while they were effectively on the touchlines, building up a team of people from outside racing, especially in the electronics and systems areas, training them and giving them experience. Now they are getting the payback.

"Even the engine is not really what I wanted. Originally I fought for a V-8. We had this ex-Cosworth designer, Stuart Groves, to do one, but in the end the V-12 guys won out. The V-10 was a compromise. I can influence the packaging of the engine to suit the car, but so can most chassis designers, so it is not such a big advantage to have the engine built in house. The engine that convinced me how important it is for the chassis designer to dictate the engine layout was the TAG-Turbo. We, McLaren, were the customers and Porsche had to design it to suit my requirements.

"No - engine people and chassis people are different. But the V-10 for this year is getting closer to what I want."

With everything just about as in place as it is ever likely to be, the world is going to be watching Ferrari very closely and expects to see a clear progression develop that must culminate in a World Championship within two years. The pressure is evident, but winning can mean different things to different people.

"It's important to keep it all going. Winning takes some of the pressure off. Unfortunately we have a situation, because it's Ferrari, because it's Italian, where there doesn't seem to be the understanding that people are trying their best and if we are not getting there, there must be some reason for it. We have to keep on improving, but turning the screws to apply as much pressure as people can stand is counter-productive. A win every now and again takes a little bit of pressure off and you can go away and think calmly about the job.

Sitting with John in his spacious glass office, it is evident that he has experienced the pressure for some time now, and yet he is surprisingly relaxed and completely clear in his own mind where he is going. The design centre in England, staffed with people he has picked, trained and trusts, enables him to separate out the Italian side of Ferrari from the job he has been commissioned to carry out.

Italy invented the Patron-Master-Pupil system during the Renaissance, and applied it so successfully with the great Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The Masters were the brilliant artists, architects and designers; their Pupils the craftsmen who prepared their canvases, mixed pigments and touched in the background figures. The Patrons, such as the Medici, commissioned the great works, providing resources and facilities, dealing with the practical issues and generally keeping the world off the backs of the Masters so that they could get on and be creative, untroubled by worries.

Ferrari needs a Master of the calibre of Barnard. His cars are finely designed, usually fast and of the 1995 cars, by far the most beautiful. They have not provided a Patron to shield him from the politics and to fight his corner for him. They are also apparently not providing the type of Pupil that is needed in a Formula1 team today.

Like Patrick Head, John sees his role in the future as more stood back from things, giving the rudder occasional touches, rather than steering the craft all the time. The new generation of designers, the Gary Andersons and Adrian Neweys, will take over the helms. He is concerned that there is no real system in motor racing, no suitable Formula, to generate designers who have the broad racing experience that his generation were able to gain in the late 60's and 70's. Apart from the big Formula 1 teams and maybe the Indy car constructors, there is little opportunity elsewhere.

John is in a position to observe many students who pass through Ferrari Design. Among them are those few who have the right "take-on-anything" attitude, those who use their brains to work out the correct logical steps to solving a problem. These are the ones who must be schooled through the whole racing experience, from design to track.

"Too many just accept what the computer spits out, without checking to see if it makes sense - if it feels right. I still reject computer generated answers if they just don't feel right to me."

"It's been a wonderful career for me. I started off being interested in cars and racing - great, now I'm in it. The first thing that happened was that I no longer had a hobby, but that's OK as I don't have the time for one. Then I realised that it's all a bit of a luxury thing and all a bit silly - how long is it going to last? I distinctly remember, in the mid 70's, in the Fuel Crisis, thinking that that was it, and we would soon all be out looking for something else to do. But amazingly it has just gone on and on, and kept getting bigger.

"But I still keep thinking I haven't achieved what I want to achieve. There's something I haven't got right yet. I want to do another Championship car of course, and I still want to do a car that, immediately it's finished, I don't think: "I should really have done that differently. I would like to change this and this."

"I'm a bit of a perfectionist to the point where I'm a pain in the arse. Early on in my career I really wouldn't compromise at all. I would stand up there, head-to head with anybody, for any length of time, to make sure it was done the way I wanted it. I think I have de-tuned it a bit. I have had to, as Formula 1 has got bigger and I have had to work slightly more at arms length. Otherwise you can't operate, looking after all the details."

John grew up in racing with Patrick Head and would like to be thought of by him as a serious competitor. But, almost inevitably, it is a compliment from Colin Chapman that stands out in his memory.

"Colin came up to me in some airport, somewhere, as we waited for a plane to somewhere else. It was way back when we first introduced the carbon fibre monocoque. He said "I think your carbon chassis is great - well done." I thought: "Bloody hell! That's not bad coming from him." I remember it distinctly to this day,"

What of the future?

"I don't want to do a road car. It's probably too late to get involved in something completely different - too much of a learning curve. Racing gives you a return - good or bad - tomorrow. I would like to do something that gives a return in 10 years time. I could get very interested in landscape gardening." Capability Barnard perhaps?

"I did nearly chuck it in once. In fact if you work for Ferrari, you tend to think about it quite often! Seriously, in 1991 I left Benetton, after a bit of a falling out, and I didn't have anything to do for about six months. I felt I didn't want to go back to all that hassle and pressure. Maybe stay in racing, but at a lower level. I looked at something with TOMS, but it was a totally over-ambitious project. Then it slowly dawned on me that being in Formula 1, with all it's downside, was a drug and I couldn't give it up. I had to get back in at high level.

"Then Ferrari phoned. I had sworn "Never Ferrari again. Never Italians." Yet wherever you go in the world and show someone a Ferrari badge, they will know what it is. It's irresistible. Oh well......"