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Motor racing: Former McLaren designer sees a lack of leadership

LONDON (Reuters) - John Barnard, the renowned ex-Formula One designer whose cars won titles for McLaren in the 1980s, does not hold back when considering the once-dominant but now-struggling team’s current predicament.

Looking in from outside, having left F1 in 2001, the 72-year-old Briton offers a blunt assessment as the sport’s all-time second most successful team prepare for a home British Grand Prix.

“I think it’s a fundamental problem of technical leadership, because I don’t think there is any there,” the Briton, whose biography ‘The Perfect Car’ was published in June, told Reuters from his home in Switzerland.

“Somebody needs to be sitting on top of that technical pyramid pulling it together, keeping everybody going in the same direction.

“And I don’t see that happening.”

A pioneer credited with introducing the sport’s first carbon-fibre composite chassis and first semi-automatic gearbox, Barnard likened McLaren to a slow-turning oil tanker and suggested they should wield the axe.

“If you’ve got people on board who are fundamentally saying that’s a load of rubbish, we’re going in the wrong way, this is no good’ then you’ve got two choices,” he said.

“If your technical boss is no good, then he should be moved out. Or the people that are saying it down the ranks should be moved out. It’s a tough old game. It’s not a pleasant game. You’ve got to be a bit nasty.”

McLaren have not won a race since 2012 and are struggling with aerodynamic problems that they say cannot be fixed in the wind tunnel.

Sixth in the championship, and in danger of slipping to seventh, they had hoped for so much more after ending a frustrating partnership with Honda and switching to Renault engines.

Technical head Tim Goss, one of three top engineers at the team along with aerodynamics head Peter Prodromou and chief engineering officer Matt Morris, was moved aside in April and has yet to be replaced.

“I think it needs somebody to set the direction and somebody to make sure that everybody is going in that direction and wants to go in that direction,” said Barnard.


McLaren, who say they have a smaller headcount than Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, spent much of last year blaming Honda for the car’s lack of performance and talking up the chassis side.

Red Bull have won three races with the same Renault engine already this season but McLaren have not finished higher than fifth.

“They’ve had three years of...well, frankly we don’t know how good or bad an engine,” said Barnard. “But they’ve all been saying ‘we’ve got the best chassis on the grid, it’s all the engine’.

“I mean, come on guys. If somebody doesn’t stamp on that and say ‘we may be wrong’ then this is where you are going to end up. At the bottom of the pile. And that’s the way they’re going,” he added.

McLaren declined to comment.

In his time, Barnard won titles with Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, Austrian Niki Lauda and Frenchman Alain Prost before moving to Ferrari -- or rather, having Ferrari moved to him.

Barnard famously insisted on worked from his office in southern England rather than move to Maranello. After a stint at Benetton in 1990, he then returned to Ferrari in 1992 for four more years.

Most recently, he has turned his hand to furniture design.

He said he wanted the book to be a biography, rather than autobiography, because it would allow a range of people who knew him and had worked with him to have their say.

“They’re not all going to say nice things,” he added.

“And they don’t.”

Editing by Greg Stutchbury