The man who gives Dragon its fire

From engineering Jean Alesi at Tyrrell to being technical boss of US racing giant Penske, Dragon Formula E technical director Nigel Beresford has done it all in motor racing. Sam Smith profiles the veteran engineer.

Nigel with his charge Jerome d'Ambrosio at Marrakesh in November 2016
Nigel with his charge Jerome d’Ambrosio at Marrakesh in November 2016

For all of Formula E’s dynamic focus on a youthful outlook in image and content, there is a solid seam of personalities who are as influential as they are experienced in the all-electric formula.

Jean-Paul Driot at Renault e.dams and his former trusty F3000 and sportscar organisational lieutenant Rob Arnott, who is now at the Andretti team, are two prime examples of proficient banks of knowledge that lead teams forward.

But there is one man who trumps all when it comes to racing wisdom and how to prepare for just about every situation that presents itself at high levels of international motorsport.

These skills are especially prescient when it comes to the tight time-frames and pressured decisions that have to be made on a concertinaed Formula E timetable.

This man is Nigel Beresford, one of a few trusted confidantes of racing’s acknowledged Captain – Roger Penske.

After years working for Ralt Cars and Tyrrell, Beresford built up a multi-faceted role at Penske Cars with whom he worked, first as a race engineer and then technical director, for 15 years.

It was a relationship every bit as dyed-in-the-wool as Pat Symonds at Enstone or Jo Ramirez at McLaren. Bonds as close as this are rare in racing today, motorsport is now reasonably transient, yet Beresford’s relationship with the Penske family is still bonded by trust and mutual respect.

“Nigel is part of the DNA of our organisation, simple as that,” says Jay Penske, son of Roger and now Beresford’s direct boss at Faraday Future Dragon Racing in Formula E.

“The partnership goes way back with our family of course. He was with my father’s Indy car operation for many years and then worked with me over there before coming back to the UK. When he did, he was the only guy we contacted because we knew his dedication and leadership would get everything together.

“No job is too big or too small for him. This team would be half the team without him. He’s smart, has integrity and is a man of great ethics. You can’t ask for someone better as a team manager and as a technical lead.”

Penske’s words are no PR hokum; they are said genuinely and with reverence. Ask any other member of the Faraday Future Dragon Racing team about Beresford, and the answer is consistent.

What they really like about him is that he engenders a shared trust and doesn’t hide or twist information. This is reflected in the continuity of the engineers and mechanics at the team over the last three years. Emotional investment in racing is alive and well at the team and for that Beresford takes pride in running.

It was these very qualities that began the chain of events which saw him follow his father Don’s footsteps in to racing some 40 years ago.

It is often said that formative years in any career are the most telling. For Beresford, imbued in racing passion and mystique from hanging around the old McLaren workshops with factory manager Don, he chose an alternative path to making his own way in the industry.

“As well as Dad, I also got advice from Gordon Coppuck throughout my school days on what I could do next to get in to racing full-time,” says Beresford. “Other kids would go and work in the supermarket or down the butchers on a Saturday and I’d go and work at McLaren. I was 13 or 14 years old.

“I then made a complete hash of my A-Levels and I didn’t get the grades I needed to get to university. After doing some jobs at McLarens, driving vans that kind of thing, I turned up at the gatehouse of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington in 1978 and said: ‘Hi I’m Nigel, and I really want to do engineering. You got any jobs?’

“To my astonishment the guy at the gatehouse didn’t say ‘bugger off’, and instead he phoned someone in the Metrology department who showed me around.

“This guy then told me about the National Maritime Institute in Feltham, which was owned by the NPL. So I went up there and introduced myself to another gatekeeper! Within a few minutes I was up before the managing director and I somehow talked myself in to some work experience!”

It was here, in Feltham, working as a scientific officer on industrial aerodynamics, that Beresford first met a group of fellow engineers who would, like him, go on to become significant players in 1980s and 1990s F1 engineering and design.

Working in one of the NPL twin-tunnels on the McLaren MP4/1 design at the behest of new McLaren custodian Ron Dennis and genius in residence John Barnard, were Geoff Willis (future Williams and Mercedes), Jeremy Bliss (future Lotus), Chris Saunders (future Williams and McLaren), Rob Cooke (future Brabham), Alan Stovold and Laurie Cole (future McLaren) and also a very young Spanish student by the name of Joan Villadelprat (future Ferrari and Benetton).

Nigel giving advice to Jean Alesi in 1990
Nigel giving advice to Jean Alesi in 1990

It was a pioneering yet rarified time in motorsport research and development, and it was attracting some visionary presences.

Beresford was almost pre-ordained to have a career in racing and attended late 1970s windtunnel tests with his father helping out with tooling-block models at MIRA and the Isle of Wight facility owned by the British Hovercraft Corporation!

“It was here on the Isle of Wight in 1975 they hung a McLaren M23 car upside down in the tunnel!” recalls Bereford.

“I was on a pre-programmed path anyway as far as working in motorsport was concerned. The purpose of going to the NPL was to get experience and understanding of tunnels and then I went to the National Maritime Institute to get some composites experience, doing things like composite/plastic cylinder block projects.”

Once he had built up his CV, young Nigel could then go to a racing outfit, walk in the door and take an opportunity with some confidence.

“I was on industrial placement during my sandwich course at this time and when they moved from the twin-tunnel to the bigger facility at Teddington I went off to university, but I used to hang around and chat to the guys there. It was funny because Dad also did some work on the MP4/1 programme and I helped out too but only pretty menial stuff.

“What this early experience did, was give me a good understanding of how to conduct a proper scientific test,” says Beresford. “Track time is so limited and so expensive now, and especially in something like Formula E, where in-season testing is outlawed to a major extent, the integrity of experimentation has always been pretty poor I feel. So I learnt from an early age that doing a proper R&D study and statistical analysis is vital to arrive at correct conclusions.”

From these beginnings, through determination to forge his own way in motorsport, Beresford soon went on to design F3 and F3000 components for Ralt, before beginning the first of two spells at Tyrrell – where he engineered the likes of Jonathan Palmer, Jean Alesi and Stefano Modena at the track.

Away from it, he was part of a rich axis of brainpower that came up with the remarkable Tyrrell 019 with which Alesi performed miracles on the Grand Prix racing scene in 1990.

Along with Harvey Poselthwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot, Beresford takes credit in this memorable design as it was he who provided the drawings for the aero surfaces under Migeot’s visionary direction.

This in turn led to his own epoch at Penske where engineering the likes of Paul Tracy, Rick Mears, Will Power and at his famous one-off Indycar test Ayrton Senna.

This is merely a sliver of his roles and responsibilities at Penske during his three phases with one of America’s most extraordinary family businesses.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate along the way,” Beresford says modestly. “Lots has changed in racing over the years I’ve known it, but lots has also stayed the same too.

“You work hard, you think as a team and you go racing because you love it. You have to keep things as simple as you can in many respects, and that is what I try to impart with what we are doing today.”

Photos with thanks to Nigel Beresford and Faraday Future Dragon Racing

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