The Indycar that launched designer John Barnard onto F1 greatness

Surprisingly, it’s not a Formula 1 championship winning car that John Barnard is most proud of designing. Instead, it’s an American pursuit that took on the Indy 500

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John Barnard remains etched in motor-racing folklore as the man who designed legendary race-winning Formula 1 cars. He pioneered the use of a carbon-fibre monocoque, semi-automatic gearbox and the ‘coke bottle’ shape of the engine cover that all teams continue to use today.

It’s little wonder that he was courted by McLaren and that Ferrari moved its design centre to the UK in order to secure Barnard’s services. But rather than an Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna-era race winner, the creation he remains most proud of came before his time in F1: the Chaparral 2K Cosworth IndyCar.

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The Penzoil-branded 2K was the brainchild that emerged from Chaparral part-owner and American racer Jim Hall’s decision to appoint Barnard to add some technical flair. Hall was immersing himself back into motor sport, having briefly walked away when the 2J was banned during the 1970 Can-Am season on the grounds that it would destroy the series by dominating – ironic, given the later Porsche 917/30’s utter supremacy of the series.

A prominent name in American sportscar racing, Hall returned as a team owner four years later and tasted success in the ’78 Indy 500 with Al Unser. The following year, Hall called upon the genius of Barnard, whose designs at Lola had already contributed to the success of Chaparral Racing.

Barnard’s latest design would incorporate a conventional bonded and riveted aluminium monocoque chassis, full-length sidepods lined by moveable skirts, and a narrow engine and gearbox that allowed ground effect to tunnel all the way to the congruously mounted rear wing. The Chaparral 2K was born.

‘For me, the 2K was the best car I ever did because it was entirely designed by me,’ Barnard says. ‘I started with an entirely blank piece of paper, and it was one of those things where you design it and everything went together with no remake.

‘Chaparral wasn’t coming up with that stuff; it came out the back door of GM [General Motors]. Time-wise it was quite tight. I think it took about five months altogether. It looked right, it was right.

‘There was me and my assistant Dave Pollard. He was a fantastic pen-and-ink drawer who drew bodywork sections for me, which we got photographically blown up to full size and given to specialised moulding, and we just made the car from that.’

The manufacturing process was not without sacrifice for British designer Barnard during a particularly hectic time in his own personal life. He was continually hopping between Britain and the United States to get two cars ready for the 1980 season.

‘My first child was on the way. We’d just been living in California; I came back early to start the project, my wife sold our house and came back a bit later, then on May 17, 1979, my first daughter was born.

‘I wasn’t there because 7:00am in the morning I had to get in my car and go down to Kent, who were casting bell-housings for me, pick that up and then fly back to America to get the second car ready.’

The car produced 700bhp with the help of a single turbocharger combined with a Cosworth-built 2.65-litre V8, and it became an instant hit.

Third place for Al Unser in its maiden qualifying session came without the technical input of an absent Barnard by the team’s side to refine an optimum set-up. Johnny Rutherford claimed both the overall Drivers’ Championship and the prestigious Indy 500 double in the venomous 2K a year later in ’80.

‘I used a basic gearbox and modified it, but it never saw a windtunnel,’ adds Barnard. ‘It was me thinking what was right and that is where the enjoyment comes from, because it’s you and me saying that it seems to be right. The first day it ran, I wasn’t there for the first weekend of qualifying. But if I had, then it would have been on pole because I’d have made one or two spring changes – nothing was changed at all.

‘Out of the blocks that’s how it ran and qualified third, but then when the flag dropped, Unser just disappeared. Unfortunately we had a gearbox issue caused by the wrong oil pump in the Weisman ’box. It didn’t supply enough oil to pass it through the cooler, and overheated basically. That’s the way it was then; you didn’t have the money and the time to test stuff that far enough ahead.’

It’s believed that three Chaparral 2Ks were built, two of which have survived. One is still owned by Hall, while the second is on permanent display at the Indy Hall of Fame. The third is presumed to have been destroyed by Rutherford in a sizeable shunt at Phoenix in 1980.

‘That was my big start, and it made Ron Dennis and it made lots of people look. I’m not very much about blowing my own trumpet and I’m not a networker, which sounds a bit superficial. I felt like I had to do it all.’

Pictures courtesy of Motorsport Images

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