The Perfect Car: John Barnard biography

“The Perfect Car”: John Barnard biography reviewed

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“How to Build a Car” was the title of Adrian Newey’s 2017 autobiography. Perhaps not wanting to be outdone, another of the great Formula 1 car designers is the subject of a new, authorised biography titled “The Perfect Car”.

John Barnard was responsible for the highly successful and influential McLaren designs of the eighties. they began with the pioneering all-carbon-fibre MP4 (later known as the MP4/1).

Ferrari’s swoop for Barnard in 1986 rocked the paddock in much the same way Newey’s later moves to McLaren and Red Bull did. But unlike Newey, Barnard’s later designs for this likes of Ferrari and Benetton were not title-winners. Why was this, and does Barnard deserve to be ranked along with widely recognised F1 design aces like Newey and Colin Chapman?

Nick Skeens, in his first book on the subject of motor racing, tackles this in a comprehensively researched volume covering over 650 pages. It draws on a wealth of new interviews including with Barnard himself plus many of his colleagues and family.

Skeens does superb justice to the story, delving deep into Barnard’s background. Through the detail of his technological leaps forward – from semi-automatic gearboxes to seemingly minor suspension tweaks – we gain new insight into Barnard the perfectionist.

His sometimes difficult relationship with engine designers, particularly in his post-McLaren career, is a point Skeens returns to. Given that, I would have appreciated a deeper examination of Barnard’s repeated preference for a V12 engine format, at a time when Renault and Honda were winning championships with V10s.

The book goes well beyond Barnard’s design board. The political implications of his moves are among its most fascinating passages, including his divorce from Ferrari which was relatively swiftly followed by his return.

Here the author’s sympathies clearly lie very closely with its subject’s, and at times it lapses into simplistic and even slightly chauvinistic commentary on the different attitudes of British and Italian teams. One digression onto the handling of the Ayrton Senna trial really doesn’t belong.

However Skeens doesn’t ignore Barnard’s reluctance to make concessions to his employers. Not least the compromises he forced upon himself by refusing to relocate out of Godalming.

This led to the remarkable and unprecedented situation where Ferrari operated a design office in Britain in order to have access to Barnard’s talents. It’s hard to think of a stronger endorsement of his importance than that.

Top F1 designers are among the few figures in the sport who regularly get quality books written about them. The Barnard biography certainly deserves a place on your shelf alongside Newey’s. “The Perfect Car” is not quite the perfect biography, but it is an authoritative study of a fascinating figure which any F1 fan will enjoy.

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F1 Fanatic rating

Rating five out of five

The Perfect Car: The story of John Barnard, Formula 1’s most creative designer

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The Perfect Car: The biography of John Barnard, motorsport’s most creative designer

Author: Nick Skeens
Publisher: Evro
Published: 2018
Pages: 652
Price: £40.00
ISBN: 9781910505274


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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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4 comments on ““The Perfect Car”: John Barnard biography reviewed”

  1. I was truly disappointed when reading Newey’s book came to an end, I would have happily kept reading if it was 1500 pages long

    1. @greg-c Seconded. It was a great read!

    2. Having read this I must say the author is probably still trying to bleach the brown off of his nose. The level of puff and bum licking gumpf makes for a gushing read. The facts are in there somewhere and when you find them, they’re fascinating.

      I do believe that the Newey book is better structured and that it helps bridge the gap for Joe public with some helpful illustrations and annotations.

      Wait to buy the Barnard book when it appears in The Works.

  2. The only thing that has stopped me buying this book to date is the £40 price tag, Barnard is a fascinating character and a true legend of the sport so I have been really keen to get my hands on this.

    A quick look on Amazon reveals that the book is available for a smidge over £23, so hopefully it’ll be on my bookshelf sooner rather than later.

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