National Motorsport Academy

Motorsport Engineering Hall of Fame: Harvey Postlethwaite

Harvey ‘Doc’ Postlethwaite was one of Formula 1’s top motorsport engineers for nearly 3 decades. He first made his name working with Hesketh, designing the car which led to James Hunt’s first F1 victory, then moving on to Wolf, Ferrari, Tyrell and finally ending his career at HONDA. Read on to discover Harvey’s career highlights, including the revolutionary nosecone designed which changed the shape of F1 cars forever.

The Makings of a Motorsport Engineering Genius

Image: - The March 731, 1973

Postlethwaite originally joined ICI as a research scientist following his BSc and then PhD in mechanical engineering, but the lure of motorsport was too strong for him to resist. In 1970 he joined March Engineering, a custom race car manufacturer founded by Max Mosely, driver Alan Rees, Graham Coaker and former McLaren and Cosworth engineer Robin Herd.

Image: - L-R: Lord Hesketh, James Hunt, Anthony Horsely, 'Doc' Postlethwaite

“They got me drunk”

Whilst working with March, Postlethwaite’s baby, the March 731, caught the eye of Lord Hesketh. This changed the fortunes of the Hesketh team in F1 and turned Postlethwaite into an engineer to watch. In James Hunt’s biography, there’s a quote – “The Doc’s explanation of his move to Hesketh was that ‘they got me drunk’.” Already known for his eccentricity, Postlethwaite fitted into the bizarre world of the Hesketh Formula One Team quite well.

Given free reign, in 1974 he designed the Hesketh 308. The car raised eyebrows the following year in the F1 paddock with its rubber suspension, inspired by damping for buildings at risk from earthquakes. From its debut appearance, the 308 was a contender. At the time, James Hunt was already known for his off-track antics and ability to crash at will. The success of the 308 culminated in the Dutch Grand Prix win with Hunt, the season before the infamous 1976 races chronicled in the Hollywood movie Rush. But who’s to say that with a more dedicated and disciplined driver, Postlethwaite’s 308 wouldn’t have achieved more.

The Wolf & the Stallion

In 1976, Lord Hesketh, owner of Hesketh Racing had finally decided that F1 wasn’t the best place to risk all the family heirlooms and pulled the team out of the running. This left Postlethwaite with a race winning package but no team. As luck would have it, Walter Wolf and Frank Williams had just formed their own team – Wolf-Williams Racing. Although this was a short-lived venture, Postlethwaite remained at Wolf Racing long enough to see his car win 3 more F1 races with Jody Sheckter behind the wheel. This would be the last time a new team would see victory in F1 until the Brawn GP team in 2009.

In 1981, he went to Ferrari who had seen a slip in performance. Postlethwaite’s 126C2 and 126C2B designs helped win the following two season’s constructors titles in 1982 and 1983, stealing Cosworth’s thunder. At this stage, Cosworth supplied the majority of engines in the series. But Postlethwaite’s approach was different to most other F1 engineers. He didn’t simply throw money at the situation in search of a solution. He looked at other industries and different materials for inspiration. He was known for getting maximum performance out of designs which people thought were hopeless. That said, he fell out of favour with Enzo Ferrari who, despite having hired him personally, decided to replace him with another F1 engineering legend – John Barnard.

The Epiphany

As Barnard was developing the first semi-automatic gearbox over at Ferrari, Postlethwaite set his sights on creating a championship winning car with a new approach to aerodynamics. Having joined Tyrrell in 1988, the Tyrrell 018 failed to live up to Postlethwaite’s expectations. Despite it being believed that the 018 was the fastest car in the paddock in a straight line, the fuel pump was its downfall. Enter the 019. The 019 marked a significant turning point in F1 aerodynamics. When challenging their own design methodology of the 018, Postlethwaite and Tyrrell Chief Designer Jean Claude-Migeot noticed a flaw in their thinking. The underbody airflow was being significantly compromised by the low nosecone. Air was being moved sideways and upwards at the front of the car, rather than being allowed to pass underneath. By raising the nosecone, the Tyrrell team increased their downforce and this epiphany shaped the future of F1 car design. Despite the 019 never winning a race the design was commonplace in almost every F1 garage by 1996.

By the early 1990s, Tyrrell didn’t really have enough money to run with the big boys and despite Postlethwaite’s innovations the team fizzled out, leaving Harvey Postlethwaite to ponder his future.

Jos Verstappen testing the HONDA RA099 in 1999

The Impossible Dream

Harvey Postlethwaite was an innovator. His work in R&D was well known throughout the motorsport industry. This tends to attract people with deep pockets but with that comes a different way of thinking. Postlethwaite was approached by HONDA to take on the role of Technical Director, heading up a new project.  Until this point, HONDA had toyed with the idea of entering a Formula 1 team for years but had seen so many other big name works teams crash and burn. Motorsport is after all one of the fastest ways to lose money. How much of this was ego and how much was economics remains unknown. Harvey was responsible for the brainwave to enter HONDA into Formula 1 as a private team, supplying engines to a team of another name. Something which has served HONDA well over the years since. If things worked out well with the RA099, an official HONDA works team could be formed.

During 1999, and with the absolute belief that they had built a race winning car, Harvey and the HONDA team flew to testing in Barcelona. This is where tragedy struck, and F1 lost one of its greatest and most respected motorsport engineers. Harvey Postlethwaite suffered a fatal heart attack and died, aged only 55.

Harvey Postlethwaite’s legacy lives on Formula 1 car design to this day and many in the industry will still tell anecdotes of one of the most respected F1 engineers of all time.

HONDA never did mount an assault on the F1 crown and remained happy behind the engine until pulling out of F1 on a high in 2021, having supplied Red Bull with their championship winning engine. Then it all changed again.

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