Why you need to read John Barnard’s biography

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Why you need to read John Barnard’s biography
David Malsher
By: David Malsher
Aug 30, 2018, 10:04 PM

No, Motorsport.com is not about to head down the avenue of constant product reviews but, John Barnard’s biography is an instant classic, and a must-read for anyone with a passion for open-wheel racing. David Malsher explains why.


Most racing titles I choose to read are from years ago, sometimes decades ago, and I often prefer to cleanse the brain cells by reading about anything other than racing. It seems important to, now and again, step outside the bubble of wondering why Matheus Leist or whomever lost time to his teammate on the sixth corner of the seventh lap in the second free practice session of the last IndyCar event.

 

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But recently I was only too pleased to make an exception for a book published this past June – The Perfect Car: The biography of John Barnard, motorsport’s most creative designer. As I ordered my copy (free, I must confess), I knew that even were it to prove a dirge, its subject matter was one of the most significant racecar designers of all time, and from an era when designers devised the whole car rather more than they do now. Therefore, providing it was accurate, the book was worth having if only as a reference work.

Still, on learning that the author, Nick Skeens, writes for the UK’s Design Council “with publications on subjects ranging from design education to creative thinking,” I was wary. Did he know enough about racing? Would this be a dry volume, overburdened with technical explanations? Would it contain pretentious descriptions of subjective matters such as artistry? Within just a few pages, my fears were allayed. It’s a well-written and well-researched book. A thick glossary ensures that basic racing/engineering terms don’t tie down the narrative and, to my relief, the several concepts that do need explanation within the main body of text are handled succinctly, and covered off in two or three paragraphs. Then we’re bowling along again on our journey with a man who, although now in his early 70s, seems to have retained detailed recollections of almost all that he has done.

McLaren chief designer John Barnard stands by a McLaren MP4/1B Ford

McLaren chief designer John Barnard stands by a McLaren MP4/1B Ford

Photo by: LAT Images

There could be one very obvious explanation for this memory retention. It seems Barnard has a similar mind to that of fictional hero detective Sherlock Holmes, able to fully exploit his brain’s capacity by wisely scraping off the trivia attached to any given situation, be it personal- or design-related, and memorize only the salient points.

There the similarity ends. Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (through the medium of the detective’s assistant, Dr. Watson) frequently makes reference to the almost machine-like methodology of the great sleuth. Barnard, on the other hand, is emphatically not just a clear-thinking and fully rational automaton. This is a man whose passion for design and intractable ‘My way or the wrong way’ philosophy led him into conflict with several significant people in motorsport, and Skeens hasn’t flinched from capturing this. Naturally, as this is his book, Barnard has the opportunity to have the last word, but the author has clearly made efforts to present the other side’s opinion of several torrid clashes – and presumably Barnard signed off on that. Admirable.

But then JB is someone who deserves immense amounts of respect. I was much too young to appreciate the implications of his first major milestone in F1 – the first all-carbonfiber racecar, 1981’s McLaren MP4/1. I just remember as a kid ‘liking the look of’ his two previous Indy cars – the pretty and distinctive Vel’s Parnelli Jones VPJ-6C and the outstandingly gorgeous and cool Chaparral 2K. In fact, even if they hadn’t been successful, I’d still love ’em.

Alain Prost, McLaren MP4/2B

Alain Prost, McLaren MP4/2B

Photo by: Sutton Images

However, I resented Barnard re-crossing the Atlantic and creating the (to my then-youthful mind) ugly McLaren MP4/2 which kept beating my favorite cars – the ruggedly handsome Williams and oh-so-pretty Lotus. How was it that this square-nosed hunch-backed device, through only updates, was so damn good that it managed to carry its drivers to three straight World Championships? My pre-teen brain just wouldn’t accept this!

Then, of course, Barnard left for Ferrari, came up with the exquisite 639/640/641 family of cars, complete with semi-automatic gearbox (another ‘first’) and all was forgiven… By then, too, I had read enough interviews with Barnard, or even just quotes in race reports and analyses, to add affection to admiration. The man possessed a cringe- or giggle-inducing bluntness, apparently always willing to state the harshest of realities or opinions without a trace of embarrassment.

Gerhard Berger, Ferrari

Gerhard Berger, Ferrari

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

And what a relief it is to read from Skeens’ work that this naturally prickly nature has changed not one iota. Or rather, if JB has indeed mellowed, it would take someone who worked with him ‘back in the day’ to notice the change. Neither Barnard (nor the author) waver when dealing with contentious issues such as… Barnard’s contempt for those at Cosworth who questioned his turbocharging their Indy car engine; his fury at not receiving due credit (at the time) for the Chaparral 2K; the ferocious arguments and residual bitterness to this day between himself and legendary McLaren CEO Ron Dennis; JB’s determination to withstand crucifixion by the Italian sports media because he’d dared to design his Ferraris from a UK base; his disgust at being undermined by a knot of Ferrari old-guard personnel who monopolized Ferrari windtunnel time with an alternative F1 design (yeah, seriously!); his mistrust of Luciano Benetton and Flavio Briatore; his irritation at Jean Todt for bringing Gustav Brunner back to Ferrari after Barnard had been re-hired by the Scuderia; his distaste for Michael Schumacher immediately being granted so much influence at Maranello; his impatience with Tom Walkinshaw at Arrows; and the decline in his relationship with the man who was once his star driver, Alain Prost.

Johnny Rutherford with Barnard's first masterpiece, the Chaparral 2K, with which he won the 1980 Indy 500 and Indy car series title.

Johnny Rutherford with Barnard's first masterpiece, the Chaparral 2K, with which he won the 1980 Indy 500 and Indy car series title.

Photo by: Ron McQueeney

If you, like I, have long followed Barnard’s career with interest, you’ll be aware of his character and his inability to bite his tongue and swallow his pride if he felt wronged. But The Perfect Car… confirms that while his rages were spectacular, they were by no means frequent, and certainly he wasn’t constantly seething or on the verge of apoplexy. Many of his employees and colleagues have been interviewed for this book, and while they conveyed a sense of intimidation due not only to his reputation as a designer but as a hard taskmaster who couldn’t hide irritations, it’s also clear he inspired loyalty. Maybe it’s because JB also proved himself to be a willing guide, who gave respect where due, and who would also admit when one of the staff came up with an alternative design on a part that might prove to be a little better than his original notion. Indeed, there also seems to be one curious twist in Barnard’s nature that meant if something major went wrong with a design, he would show remarkable patience; it was when finer, more easily corrected details went awry that he’d get annoyed, intolerant of what he regarded as careless or slovenly preparation.

The anecdotes that Skeens has accumulated from Barnard’s staff and colleagues, as well as JB’s affection for Eric Broadley of Lola, who gave him his first big break, his near hero-worship of Colin Chapman of Lotus, and his respect for and friendship with Patrick Head – despite him being an arch-rival for many years at Williams – all help provide evidence that JB was someone the reader could warm to. That evidence becomes yet more compelling when we discover just how devoted a family man Barnard was and remains. Even when he had to work long hours, he would break them up and go home for lunch and dinner in order to spend as much time as possible with his wife Rosie and their kids. Therefore, one can’t help but sympathize when Barnard is left floored by the deaths of his parents who’d first nurtured and encouraged his keenness for design and engineering, while the description of the home robbery that scared and temporarily scarred the family in 1994 is genuinely upsetting.

Barnard, John Watson and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis.

Barnard, John Watson and McLaren team boss Ron Dennis.

Photo by: LAT Images

A wave of melancholy swept over this reader in the closing chapters. Yes, of course part of that is nostalgia for bygone eras of open-wheel racing that is inevitably triggered by reading of scenes from the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, but there’s something more, too. By the late ’90s, it seems Barnard was regularly dealing with sentiments similar to that of Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon movies – “I’m too old for this shit” – when dealing with the ailing, flailing and soon-to-be failing Arrows and Prost teams. Considering he’d worked for McLaren and Ferrari and been given a reasonable amount of autonomy – granted in the case of the former, fought for in the latter – it must have been mentally draining and maddening to suddenly find that well into his 50s he was bound by unspecified budgetary constraints while also correcting the mistakes of others, fighting internal political battles and/or being misled by the misguided.

In retirement, thankfully, it seems Barnard has found some inner peace, although one can imagine that recounting some of these tales left him riled once more! One thought that struck me some time after finishing The Perfect Car… was that although JB gained immense satisfaction, validation and (eventually) wealth from his Formula 1 glories, I get the distinct impression that his truly happiest days on the job were when working at the Vel’s Parnelli Jones race shop in California. Barnard speaks warmly of team co-owners Vel Miletich and the great Parnelli, along with Al Unser, who he’d rejoin at Chaparral, and that ’75-’78 period was also the point in his career when he was first truly recognized as a great budding talent. At last there was no interference from above, no one to second guess him: he was simply trusted to do his job and do it well. He was busy working his brain and his design pencil hard, but the job was also fun.

Given the immense satisfaction derived from reading this book, it would be churlish to highlight the mere three factual errors I spotted in almost 600 pages of text, especially since only one of these was pertinent to the story. My two other points of mild criticism would be that the print is small and the image selection would have benefited from more of Barnard’s line drawings and/or a few cutaway illustrations.

Overall, however, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of open-wheel racing. When I spied the title’s appendage – Motorsport’s most creative designer – I wondered if superfans of Chapman, Gordon Murray, Adrian Newey or Smokey Yunick might take issue. But pages 560-561 of the book contain a very interesting list of technical milestones in racing for which Barnard was wholly responsible or in which he played an intrinsic part, and it is quite astonishing.

As mentioned earlier, even had this book been less than entertaining, it was going to be cherished, given Barnard’s immense significance in the history of our favorite sport. But Skeens is to be commended for a truly thorough effort to be as sharp as his subject matter. He has successfully portrayed a great man’s greatness in an utterly absorbing manner.

Click here to order – US $60.00, CDN $75.00, UK £40.00

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

 

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