Robin Herd, best known as co-founder and designer at March, has died at the age of 80 after a long illness.
Although his physics studies at Oxford initially led him into aerospace — he was part of the team that worked on what eventually became Concorde — an offer from Bruce McLaren to join the fledgling McLaren Racing in 1965 proved tempting enough for him to drop planes in favor of race cars.
His background was apparent in his (and McLaren’s) first F1 car, the M2B, which eschewed aluminum in favor of the far stiffer Mallite; a material used in aeronautical construction. Over the next three years, Herd produced another three McLaren F1 cars — the M4B, the M5A and the M7 (which claimed McLaren’s first F1 win) — as well as the dominant Can-Am machines that helped cement the team’s place on the map. Herd’s McLaren designs incorporated several features that would later become commonplace: the M8 Can-Am car leaned heavily on ground effect years before the technology could be applied in F1, and the M2A ran experimental rear wings three years before F1 began harnessing downforce in earnest.
A move to Cosworth in 1968 resulted in the troublesome four-wheel-drive F1 car, but by that point Max Mosley was already sounding Herd out to join him in building March from the ground up. Herd accepted the offer to become a co-founder in 1969, and just six-months later the first March F1 car was on the grid.
“Money was incredibly short,” he later told Motor Sport magazine. “We agreed that each of the four partners should put in £2500 to get us going. I didn’t have £2500, so I borrowed £1000 from my mother and got her to put a bet on Jackie Stewart to win the 1969 World Championship at 2.5 to 1.
Over the next two decades, March contested more than 200 grands prix, claiming three wins and four pole positions, and also became a first-call supplier of customer cars in Formula 2 and also in the U.S., where March Indy cars won five consecutive Indianapolis 500s between 1983 and 1987. It was during March’s Indy car phase that Herd brought in a young aerodynamicist named Adrian Newey.
“There wasn’t much understanding of ground-effects then, so we started [at Indy] with an advantage,” he told Motor Sport. “For an engineer, a thinker, Indianapolis is great. People say you just turn left all the time, but it’s not like that. All four corners are different, the wind direction has a big effect, and you’ve got to get the balance absolutely right, with just the tiniest bit of oversteer so you scrub off the minimum amount of speed. The track varies with temperature and how long since it rained. You can listen to a car going through a corner, hear the engine note ease from, say, G sharp to E, and you can reckon how much speed is coming off. One of the best drivers I ever worked with on ovals was Rick Mears. He never came to terms with road circuits, but on ovals he was sensational.”
Herd sold his by-now majority shareholding in March in 1989, and initially threw his energy into how own design office before quitting racing altogether in the mid-1990s and developing an ecologically-friendly waste and energy disposal process that was widely licensed, and also enjoying a spell as owner and chairman of the Oxford Football Club.