John Barnard changed the face of Grand Prix racing with his revolutionary use of carbonfibre, but his time at McLaren wasn’t all plain sailing… Words James Page. Photography James Page/LAT.
“YOU HAD TO DESIGN DIFFERENTLY WITH IT – YOU HAD TO LEARN”
COMPOSITE PIONEER McLaren’s carbon crafter, Tom Barnard
Modern Formula One is a high-tech business, with aerospace levels of engineering and premises that more closely resemble laboratories than workshops. And if there’s one man who helped to set that standard, it’s John Barnard, whose uncompromising quest for perfection made him one of the most successful designers of all time. He pioneered the carbonfibre monocoque and the semi-automatic gearbox, and ploughed considerable time and energy into developing wind-tunnel set-ups that gave results which were as accurate and relevant for racing cars as they were for aircraft.
Barnard worked for Lola, Vel’s Parnelli Jones and Benetton, had two stints with Ferrari, established his own design company and introduced ground-effect technology to Indycar racing courtesy of the Chaparral 2K. But it’s what he did immediately after the last of those for which he’s best remembered. Chaparral boss Jim Hall had been rather too keen to take credit for the 2K, which Barnard designed in the front room of his childhood home in Wembley, so the two men parted company. Patrick Head of Williams then made the introduction that led to one of Grand Prix racing’s most formidable partnerships.
“Patrick phonedmeup,” recalls Barnard, “and said, ‘There’s this guy Ron Dennis who’s running a team and he wants someone to do a Formula Two car.’ I said, ‘I don’t really want to do a Formula Two car. I want to get into Formula One.’ The next thing I know, Ron’s on the phone: ‘No, I want to do a Formula One car. Come and see the place.’
“I went down to Woking and met Ron, had a look around Project Four and we did a deal. That’s when I started the carbon chassis.” The ground-effect technology of the time demanded a narrow monocoque. Metal tubs built in such a way tended not to be stiff enough, and if they were stiff enough they were too heavy. What Barnard needed was a structure that was both stiff and light, which led him to carbonfibre.
The material had been around Grand Prix racing for a few years, but no one had harnessed its potential on the scale that he intended: “Some people were using it to stiffen rear-wing endplates and things like that, in some cases wrongly, and they snapped. [Brabham’s] Gordon Murray had done one or two panels – he’d substituted some aluminium flat panels for carbon ones, still glued and riveted in the same way.”
Designing a carbon monocoque presented a range of problems, one of which was how to create mounting points for major components without compromising the main structure. The answer came when Barnard went on a tour of BAe’s facility at Weybridge: “They were doing RB211 engine cowlings, which was a big but fairly simple shape with a honeycomb-core sandwich construction. They were making inserts – it was one bloke in this portioned-off area and he’d got a pillar drill and some really basic bits of gear. The trick was that they made stock blocks – plies of carbon cured to give you a thick block. You then cut a piece out so, where you were going to fix things in your honeycomb sandwich, you could fit your stock block, which would get bonded in when you cured everything. Then you could drill your stock block and put in a hard-point fixing. It bonded well to the honeycomb, it bonded well to the other carbon, its coefficient of expansion was correct and so on.
‘Fears that carbon would disintegrate were laid to rest when Watson had an enormous shunt and simply stepped out of the wreck’
“I came away thinking, ‘This is possible. I can see a way forward.’ Then I met Arthur Webb, who’d been involved in composites for a long time. We got chatting and he gave input on how you could use it. You had to design differently with it. You couldn’t just design bits as you would for a fabricated monocoque. You had to learn.”
The use of composite construction – skins of carbon on either side of a central aluminium honeycomb – was Barnard’s real breakthrough, but he still needed to find someone with the expertise to actually build his revolutionary design: “Once I’d got some drawings done, Ron and I went around the companies in the UK that had been doing carbon composites. The bottom line was that they said, ‘That’s way too complicated – forget it. You’re running before you can walk.’ Then I got chatting to Steve [Nichols].
He mentioned that he’d worked at Hercules and they had an R&D centre. We got on a plane to Salt Lake City with a third-scale wind-tunnel model and got a totally different reaction: ‘That sounds interesting, we’d like to have a go.’” Not long afterwards, American engineer Nichols moved to the UK to join Barnard in a team that was no longer just Project Four – John Hogan from Marlboro had instigated a merger with the ailing McLaren outfit: “Hogan said to McLaren, ‘Look, you’re going to have to do something. We’re not going to keep putting money in if you don’t turn things around.’ Ron was desperate to get in – the money that he’d pulled in to do the monocoque was almost running out. If Marlboro hadn’t stitched the two teams together, I doubt it would have been made into a Formula One car.”
Barnard and Dennis were made shareholders in the new company, and Barnard’s carbonfibre Grand Prix car would make its debut in 1981 as the McLaren MP4: “My aim was to improve the torsional rigidity over a normal aluminium monocoque, but also reduce the weight a bit.
The first one turned out to be almost the same weight as the aluminium version, but it was about two and a half times stiffer, so on the second we reduced the skin plies and took some material out of various places. It ended up being about twice as stiff as aluminium but some 25% lighter. That was the balance I was looking for.” There were many in the paddock who feared that carbon would shatter or disintegrate in a heavy impact, fears that were laid to rest at the 1981 Italian Grand Prix, when John Watson had an enormous accident but simply stepped out of the wreckage. Barnard calls the moment: “The rubber stamp for carbon monocoques.”
Behind the scenes, however, there was much to be done. Barnard’s period at McLaren in the early 1970s had left an impression, but not necessarily in a positive way: “It seemed to me that the drawing office would produce the basics, but lots of the bits and pieces might get done down in the workshop. You had a couple of mechanics working on each car. One would build a bracket for an oil cooler, then the other guy would build something slightly different.
And they just put them in their toolboxes. “I worked in that system during my first stint at McLaren, but there were times when I drew stuff and was told it was no good, it wouldn’t work and so on. That caused a few head-to-heads! It was the germ of me thinking, ‘This is wrong, this is not the way to do it.’”
When Barnard returned as McLaren’s technical director, he therefore insisted that everything had to come out of the drawing office, that everything had to be drawn: “And if there was a problem, it had to go back to the drawing office to be fixed properly. That was one of the big fights that I had with people in the workshop. I wasn’t going to stand for anyone outside the drawing office doing something that was, in effect, undocumented. That upset a lot of people. It was difficult to instil that approach.”
Instil it he did, though, and in 1984 it all came together when Barnard’s MP4/2 was mated to a new, TAG-funded Porsche turbo engine. He’d pushed the German company hard during the development phase: “I sat down with them and discussed the package. I knew what I wanted because we were still building ground-effect cars. I wanted an engine that would match the chassis, that was slim at the bottom. I gave them all these requirements – I wanted the pumps and everything at the front, not down the sides like the Cosworth. I followed the whole process, going over to Weissach. They’d have a little boss with a bolt sticking out and I’d say, ‘You’ve got to move that – we can’t have it like that.’
“Towards the end of 1982, politics intervened and the ground-effect cars got chucked out. Ron came back from a meeting and said, ‘They’ve changed the rules – it’s got to be a flat bottom.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s 50% of the advantage of this engine out the window.’ Fortunately it was a good unit, and still allowed more packaging room than the Renault, the BMW and the rest of them. It worked, but as a ground-effects package it would have been much, much better.”
‘It worked’ is an understatement: the MP4/2 won 12 of the 16 races in 1984, Lauda pipped Prost to the title, and McLaren dominated the Constructors’ Championship. It claimed the double again in 1985, but although Barnard and Dennis were enjoying great success together, their relationship was never the smoothest. The design office was directly below that of Dennis, and Nichols has said that you could gauge the severity of their arguments by whether or not you could make out the exact words they were shouting at each other. One such occasion was in 1986, when Barnard informed Dennis that he was leaving: “Around the end of 1984, I decided that I wanted to sell my shares. At that time, I was on an equal shareholding with Ron, and Creighton Brown had the remainder. As a partner, you have the same powers, in effect. Ron said, ‘Leave it to me – let me do a deal for you.’ He did a deal with Mansour [Ojjeh] to buy me out. I think Mansour bought out Creighton as well, so Mansour ended up with 60% of McLaren and Ron had 40%.
“I carried on the same job in the same position – nothing else had changed. The problem is, there is a change. It’s an imperceptible balance of power that you can’t put into words. It’s just different – he now has 40%, I don’t have any.”
Despite the shift in their relationship, Barnard wasn’t necessarily keen to leave: “I was ready to sit with Ron and speak about a different aspect of my deal, which never happened. It should have, but then Ferrari stepped in. Let’s face it – anyone in F1 has to work for Ferrari at some point.”
Barnard therefore left for Italy. Or rather, he didn’t. He was adamant that he wasn’t going to uproot his family so, in an astonishing concession that shows how much the Scuderia coveted his talent, it offered him the chance to set up his own UK base from which to work. It became the aptly named GTO – Guildford Technical Office – and so began a new phase of his career.
Barnard had a reputation as not being the easiest person to work with, but he has mellowed over the years and a dry sense of humour often surfaces. He delights in telling the story of the Aston DB2/4 his father bought him for £480. The original ‘six’ threw a rod, so Barnard put in a Chevy V8: “It was a real E-type basher!”
He also looks back with fondness at his time at Eric Broadley’s Lola, and in California with Parnelli Jones, who once took him for a 130mph test across the desert in a Baja racer. His career was as varied as it was successful, yet one thing remained constant: “I just enjoyed the challenge of finding a new way; a new answer.”
The Perfect Car, Nick Skeens’ biography of John Barnard, is published by Evro and priced at £40; ISBN 978 1 910505 27 4 (evropublishing.com)