How Frank Dernie pioneered computer design in F1

Speaking to AutoClassics at Race Retro, the inventor of active suspension discusses how he engineered a sea change in the approach to Formula 1 car design

To be told, 'It'll never work' and then going on to prove critics wrong and achieving countless success borders on the cliche. But that's what loomed ahead for Formula 1 engineer Frank Dernie as his then boss Sir Patrick Head dismissed the notion that CAD (computer-aided design) could be used to design a competitive grand prix car.

But Dernie persisted with the rudimentary levels of software to head-up a sea change in race car design. From there he pioneered success at Hesketh and Williams with ground-breaking engineering, but his path into F1 required the support of several well-known faces from motorsport during his early studies.

Dernie’s career made a defining switch from being behind the wheel to taking a fascination in the technical side of racing, starting with an early desire to learn how to get the very best out of a race car.

He figured this curiosity could be channelled into something greater during his final year of study at the Imperial College London University, which would soon etch the pathway to his future in F1.

‘I was always interested in racing, but I knew I wasn’t very quick as a driver’, says Dernie. ‘I was interested in the fact that, if you look at history, most times the champion is in the best car and that goes back to 1950.

‘I was interested in why one car was better than another. From there I managed to convince the university in my third year project to design and build myself a "problems car".'

The project required support to take off, which came not just from the university but eventually from a key source at Dernie’s future employers, Hesketh, and more specifically, Harvey Postlethwaite.

‘There was a lecturer there that did tune big American V8s for Can-Am and he was using the university dyno and what have you. He agreed to be my supervisor and then got sacked. It turned out he’d been pocketing the cash and using all the facilities!

‘I was part way into the project and my tutor went if, "If you can find somebody who is traditionally qualified and in the motor racing business to tick off your work, I’ll be your supervisor and I’ll give you the marks". I found Harvey Postlethwaite who’s got a PhD, is a development engineer at March and had seen the software.a

‘I wrote a computer programme to optimise suspension geometry as I saw it, and the other thing that helped was Keith Duckworth – he came and did a talk at the Imperial College Motor Club – and I’d used the appendix out of Costin and Phipps and found an error out of it. Keith said he was very interested and I should have a beer afterwards with him. I was still having five-hour phone conversations with Keith up to when he died, but he was very supportive and that’s how I got my foot in the door.’

The findings soon became etched into engineering folklore as Dernie’s suspension geometry software found him his route into F1 with the Hesketh 308E in 1976, soon taken on by Frank Williams to develop software aids for the team.

Dernie would also go on to unearth further discoveries with the creation of active suspension when at Williams, but his passion for software made him a pioneer in his industry of expertise at a time when it was anything but cheap to pursue.

‘I was dead lucky as well that I’d done my apprenticeship at a small family business because when I went back, they were perfectly happy for me to stick my computer programme on the back of the weekend’s run which was very generous of them as it was very expensive back then. I did that, loads of calculations for March and then for Hesketh and looked at a lot of the aero data. That’s what got me in really and then I went to work for Hesketh.

‘I was a computer pioneer in that respect at the time because I was quite into computers when there was only about 3000 of them. Each one would have filled the space we’re sitting in. The first computer I built for myself when I had enough money cost about £7500 which in 1986 was an awful lot of money, for the price I bought it that has got only 250Mb worth of memory in it. Isn’t that astonishing?’

Images courtesy of LAT

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