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How to be an ace engineer: Engine designer John Judd

From working on the Repco engines that powered Brabham’s 1960s Formula 1 heyday to taking on grand prix racing’s big beasts as an independent manufacturer, John Judd’s motorsport achievements are lengthier than most. Here he reflects on his glittering career and shares his tips for aspiring engineers

John Judd

John Judd

Motorsport Images

Engineering

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To most people, the scenario facing John Judd in 1988 would be a fitting dictionary definition of stress.

For its entry into Formula 1 as an engine manufacturer, the Engine Developments company he’d co-founded with Jack Brabham had undertaken to supply three teams, including Williams following its split with Honda. Its high-profile alliance with the reigning world champion outfit meant Engine Developments would be under an intense spotlight, but it would have to juggle the demands of Leyton House and Ligier too.

Judd also had Formula 3000 and IndyCar on his overflowing plate, but the engineer counters that conventional logic when Autosport asks if he’s ever known a more fraught time.

“I wouldn’t say it was stressful, it was okay,” he replies. “I don’t find engineering generally that stressful. It’s the business bit and people that give you stress!”

Raised in 1950s Coventry when “everybody worked in the motor or aircraft industry”, Judd’s father David worked in a machine shop and passed on his passion for engineering. “When I was a kid, he restored an old Lea-Francis, rebuilt it as a family car,” Judd recalls. “The engine was in the kitchen for a while!”

The young Judd “was very keen on aircraft and aged 11 had a model with a diesel engine that fired his passion for engineering. But plans to become an aeronautical engineer changed after his first visit to an F1 race at Silverstone, witnessing a BRM 1-2-3 led by Jean Behra in the 1957 International Trophy, which “got me a bit keen on racing”.

The 1957 International Trophy in which Behra led a BRM podium sweep captured the interest of the young Judd and set him on a path to a career in motorsport

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The 1957 International Trophy in which Behra led a BRM podium sweep captured the interest of the young Judd and set him on a path to a career in motorsport

Judd applied for apprenticeships at Jaguar and Coventry Climax, but was turned down by the former “because the school told them I was a bit of a naughty boy, which I was”. But after his father, who worked for the brother of Coventry Climax boss Leonard Pelham Lee, “pulled strings with his boss” Judd was taken on as an apprentice design draughtsman in 1958 and spent the next five years learning the trade. This included six months in the petrol engine development department which dealt with racing engines, so Judd was “working in some capacity or other on Jack Brabham’s 2.5-litre F1 engine in 1959”.

“I was very thankful that Jaguar wouldn’t take me, it was an absolute stroke of luck,” he says.

Judd’s first post-apprenticeship job was heading up Coventry Climax’s fire pump engine development department. He “never went to any [F1] events in an official capacity, only as a self-funded spectator”, a fact that was unlikely to change as Lee decided to withdraw from F1 before selling to Jaguar. It wasn’t long before Judd was “looking around for jobs all over the place”, and a life-changing opportunity landed in his lap.

"I’d say that ’66, 67 was probably the best time really, being around people like Jack and Ron. It was a privilege to work with them and see all the practical stuff they did. I was happier in my work than anybody has the right to be!" John Judd

Judd was friendly with Coventry Climax race engine rebuild shop manager Harry Spears, who knew Jack Brabham well and had been offered a job at Brabham Racing Organisation which ran Brabham’s motor racing operations – distinct from the MRD company Brabham co-owned with Ron Tauranac, which built his eponymous F1 cars. But when Spears was unable to convince his wife to relocate from Coventry to Surrey, he recommended Judd in his place.

In March 1966 Judd was due to start his new job but Brabham was away in Australia contesting the Tasman Series when he arrived for his first day at BRO and “nobody knew a damn thing about me”. Judd chuckles at the memory: “To keep me doing something, I ended up working on Formula 3 new car builds at MRD until Jack came back, so it was a good start to a new career!”

Judd spent much of the next few years alternating between the UK and Melbourne assisting Repco Brabham Engines. He stresses that he “had very little influence” on the 1966 Repco 620 three-litre V8 that propelled Brabham to becoming the only man ever to win the world title in his own car, as he didn’t attend a race that year until July’s British Grand Prix. “I wouldn’t deserve any credit for that,” he says.

However, the following year’s 740 unit that powered Denny Hulme to his sole world title “had various bits and pieces that I drew or engineered”. “I could see my part in the ’67 engine,” he reflects.

Judd had an input into the Repco engine that powered Denny Hulme's Brabham to the world title in 1967

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Judd had an input into the Repco engine that powered Denny Hulme's Brabham to the world title in 1967

To Judd, “getting in small planes with Jack and going off to races” stands among the most cherished memories of his career.

“I’d say that ’66, 67 was probably the best time really,” he remembers, “being around people like Jack and Ron. It was a privilege to work with them and see all the practical stuff they did. I was happier in my work than anybody has the right to be!”

For Judd, it was quickly apparent “how special Jack was, in particular” as he “understood very well what made cars work”. More than a talented driver and entrepreneur, Judd remembers the Australian as “a brilliant, intuitive engineer”.

“[Brabham] could look at anything and see how it worked, what was likely to be the weak and the good points,” he says. “Everybody thought Ferrari was going to dominate [in 1966] and nobody saw Jack sneaking in with this Repco thing. Obviously, Jack was very canny. He did work that one out by himself, to his great credit.”

Following the team’s switch from Repco to Cosworth’s DFV, Judd remained a BRO employee. But in 1971, following his retirement from driving and sale of interests in MRD and BRO, Brabham and Judd became business partners in Engine Developments together with John’s father David, who looked after the machine shop side. The treble world champion took a 51% shareholding while David Judd held 25% and John the remaining 24%.

Judd clarifies that Engine Developments, based from the start at Rugby in Warwickshire, “is actually a change of name from Jack Brabham Conversions”, which had ceased to be an active company. “We just changed the name,” he explains.

In its early days, Judd recalls, Engine Developments “were struggling badly and having a job to stay in business”. Machining sub-contracted bits and pieces was necessary, he adds, “to keep us going”. These uncertain times meant he “certainly learned to look after the money”, but a contract from Ford Australia secured by Brabham “stopped the bank from trying to put us out of business” before another pivotal turning point came in the form of a visit from a chap named Terry Moss. He used Judd’s Heenan and Froude dyno to test DFVs he’d rebuilt for John Surtees’ team and soon this arrangement snowballed.

Ron Tauranac and Jack Brabham were highly influential, with Judd praising the latter's engineering capabilities

Photo by: David Phipps

Ron Tauranac and Jack Brabham were highly influential, with Judd praising the latter's engineering capabilities

“I knew John Surtees anyway,” Judd remembers. “Eventually he sent an engine to rebuild, and we got ourselves quite well [established] in the DFV engine rebuilding business.”

Before long Engine Developments had contracts with several leading F1 teams and prepared the DFVs that Williams used to claim the world title in 1982. It also became a leading supplier of Super Vee engines – “you could buy an engine kit for the Golf engine from VW” – and later came to dominate in F3, winning three consecutive British titles between 1984 and 1986 “until Johnny Herbert came along with a Speiss engine” for Eddie Jordan Racing.

“You’ve got to have the same engine as the driver that’s winning the races, that’s how it all works,” Judd shrugs. “It works for you sometimes and it works against you.”

When Honda's board aborted plans to enter IndyCar with a Ralt-penned chassis and engines designed at Rugby, Engine Developments was allowed to press on and make the 2.65-litre V8 AV engine

By this time, Judd had begun to realise his dream of becoming an engine manufacturer thanks to a burgeoning relationship with Honda. In contrast to its total domination of Formula 2 in 1966 with the Tauranac-penned Brabham BT18, a project Judd had “no involvement at all with”, the Japanese company’s return with Tauranac’s new Ralt company in 1980 had not lived up to expectations. And while 1981 had been an improvement, its RA260E V6 still had scope for improvement.

This explains why Tauranac one day paid a visit to Rugby with Honda’s R&D head Nobuhiko Kawamoto. When the engine went onto the dyno, Judd made the “quite lucky” discovery that the fuel mixture was running too lean as a result of the in-car airflow over the trumpets and simply advancing the ignition could yield gains of 20bhp. Kawamoto was receptive to further modifications, which Judd says included “bodged-up” cylinder heads that “gained 30 horsepower lower in the range” and contributed to a far superior power curve to the original.

Introduced for the 1981 Spa F2 round, the bodged heads were used to great effect by Geoff Lees, who Autosport’s paddock spies suggested had a race chassis “fitted with a one-off revised Honda V6 which was giving up to 30bhp more at the bottom end of the power band”. The Briton romped to victory despite losing his clutch and, to Judd’s amazement, “all our mods were incorporated into the new cylinder head castings by the next race a few weeks later”. The engine went on to win three F2 titles.

Judd found this meant Engine Developments was “looked upon quite favourably by Honda” and, when its board aborted plans to enter IndyCar with a Ralt-penned chassis and engines designed at Rugby, Engine Developments was allowed to press on and make the 2.65-litre V8 AV engine “into which we incorporated many things we’d learned from rebuilding [Cosworth] DFXs”. Initially known as a Brabham-Honda, the AV made its debut in 1986 with Galles Racing’s Geoff Brabham and took second places at Pocono and Road America the following year. By 1988, they were simply known as Judds and at Pocono’s 500-miler in 1988 the AV celebrated its first win with Bobby Rahal.

Working on the Honda engines used by Ralt driver Geoff Lees to win the Formula 2 round at Spa in 1981 was a notable breakthrough for Engine Developments on its path to becoming a manufacturer

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Working on the Honda engines used by Ralt driver Geoff Lees to win the Formula 2 round at Spa in 1981 was a notable breakthrough for Engine Developments on its path to becoming a manufacturer

“It was a great opportunity staring me in the face, I was going to grab it wasn’t I?” says Judd of the move to become a manufacturer. “We were doing DFX rebuilds for a number of people in the States and it was an obvious opportunity to expand the business and do what we really wanted to do, which was make our own engines.

“It was pretty good of Honda to give us a project and let us keep it, they did support us technically for some time. There was a lot of input from Honda in the engine configuration and we only started making our own cylinder blocks for the AV around the beginning of ‘88.”

But, of course, Engine Developments had plenty of other activities in its plate by this stage. With some understatement, Judd notes: “We were pretty busy, it was just expansion, expansion, expansion!”

Honda had commissioned a fleet of 12 3.0-litre F3000 engines, the BV supplied exclusively to Ralt for 1986 and 1987, and there was the small matter of F1 moving back towards normally aspirated engines with increasingly tight restrictions placed on the those persisting with turbos for their final year of eligibility in 1988. As Judd’s F3 client base dwindled, opportunity beckoned at motorsport’s top table.

Williams had been ditched by Honda for McLaren, and in Engine Developments found a familiar partner willing to make the next step with the 3.5-litre CV V8 engine. Judd took it all in his stride, and believes securing Williams helped convince Leyton House and Ligier to follow suit.

“You just evolve,” says Judd. “We obviously had some very good people and so we expanded on that as necessary and bought some more machines and it obviously helped that we could see the F1 opportunity coming up.

“Clearly Honda facilitated the deal between Williams and ourselves. We knew Williams very well already from DFV days and I’m sure Honda gave them good reasons to use our engines. People didn’t want Cosworth’s then current offering of the DFR, simply a DFV stretched out to 3.5-litres. At that point the Cosworth offering was not seen as very attractive.”

Judd gave himself a lot of work when he agreed to take on Williams, Leyton House and Ligier as customers for his entry to F1 in 1988

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Judd gave himself a lot of work when he agreed to take on Williams, Leyton House and Ligier as customers for his entry to F1 in 1988

Judd doesn’t believe it was always planned that Williams would be a one-year deal before it linked up with Renault for 1989, but concedes “it was obviously the right thing for them to do”. That Williams won nine of 16 races in 1987 and none in 1988 is inarguable, but there were several reasons for that – chief among them the vast superiority of the final bespoke turbo of its era from Honda that powered the sumptuous McLaren MP4/4 to wins in all but one grand prix, when Ayrton Senna clashed with Williams stand-in Jean-Louis Schlesser’s FW12 at Monza.

Another factor was the Oxford team’s overreach in attempting to compensate for not having a works engine deal. In Maurice Hamilton’s 2009 book, Williams, Patrick Head calls the FW12 an “ogre” and concedes that its active ride “really wasn’t well enough developed in both its software, its control but also in its hydraulic system”.

“I have to be fair to John Judd that his engine really wasn’t bad,” Head added. “Had we done a better job of the car, we could have had a much better season. We had all sorts of problems with the active-ride system. We didn’t cool the oil very well and that caused the engine to have problems. We finished second at Jerez, second at Silverstone, but we really could have won races with the Judd engine.”

"It was only a matter of time before all the independents got squeezed out as the car manufacturers acquired their own capability, but it was good while it lasted. We did a lot of engines, got paid for what we did, and we enjoyed it" John Judd

Add in two podiums from the fast-improving March, with Ivan Capelli second at Estoril and challenging Alain Prost for the lead at Suzuka when he knocked the ignition switch and retired from a race Adrian Newey believes Capelli could have won, and Judd’s tally of four podiums in year one was entirely respectable. Asked if McLaren’s domination masked the job his small company had done, Judd is pragmatic.

“C'est la vie, it’s just how things are,” he muses. “Sure McLaren-Honda and Ayrton completely dominated, I had no complaints about that, I give them all credit. But obviously the FIA allowed the turbo teams too much that year!”

Engine Developments remained in F1 for 10 years, taking eight podiums with Judd-badged engines. Brabham (Monaco 1989) and Scuderia Italia (Imola 1991) also collected silverware as Judd customers, while a further two came with Yamaha-badged V10s used by Tyrrell (Barcelona 1994) and Arrows (Hungary 1997).

Damon Hill’s near miss for Arrows at the Hungaroring and Capelli’s runner-up finish with Leyton House at Paul Ricard in 1990 (after fuel pressure problems allowed Prost’s Ferrari through) would be the closest Judd came to winning in F1 with an engine of his own design. But he maintains that “it’s not a big cause of regret”.

Judd involved his time supplying Formula 1 teams, though maintains he doesn't have any regrets at not winning a race

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Judd involved his time supplying Formula 1 teams, though maintains he doesn't have any regrets at not winning a race

“Ultimately we had 10 seasons in F1,” Judd says. “Okay, five of those were with Yamaha, but it wasn’t bad for a place like us to do that. It was only a matter of time before all the independents got squeezed out as the car manufacturers acquired their own capability, but it was good while it lasted. We did a lot of engines, got paid for what we did, and we enjoyed it. It’s just how it is, no good complaining!”

Judd had bought out his father’s shares upon his retirement, then became the sole owner of Engine Developments after it bowed out of F1 at the end of 1997. Brabham remained a supporter as “a personal family friend, a good partner, a good bloke” until his death in 2014, as Judd moved into non-F1 projects.

Engine Developments supplied KV kits for Zytek to build and maintain for the one-make era of F3000 that began in 1996 – limited to 450bhp in period but now available in 520bhp trim for hillclimbing – worked with Nissan on its successful British Touring Car Championship programme with the Primera and was prolific in sportscars too. Modified versions of the GV V10 platform first used by Scuderia Italia in 1991 won four titles in the FIA SportsCar Championship/Le Mans Endurance Series with Dome and Pescarolo between 2002 and 2006.

“We still produce that platform and we’re still making new engines now,” says Judd. “It’s been a fantastic thing for us, the best thing we ever did in terms of engineering was the GV V10.”

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Judd regards its outright victory in the 2002 Daytona 24 Hours with the Doran Lista Racing Dallara as “one of the most satisfying things that we’ve done with our engines” but laments that “we were bloody unlucky not to win Le Mans once or twice”, with Pescarolo coming close in 2005 as gearbox issues proved costly.

Even as his responsibilities grew, Judd “always supervised the design” of the engines that came out of Rugby and still enjoys the ins-and-outs of engineering design. For many years his chief designer was ex-BRM man Neil Walker, with the job now held by David Salisbury.

“Originally, I used to sit there with the drawing board and the pencil doing it myself,” he says. “I gradually stopped doing drawings but I’ve always supervised the design, I still do that. I’m just a design guy, that’s what I do.

In its one make era from 1996 to 2004, Formula 3000 cars used engines prepared by Zytek but using Judd kit

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In its one make era from 1996 to 2004, Formula 3000 cars used engines prepared by Zytek but using Judd kit

“I had to learn to do business also – the business side makes you money and you do need to make money. But when you sign up Williams or do a contract with Honda or something, it’s actually pretty satisfying, so I don’t mind that side.”

Engine Developments’ most recent programme in contemporary single-seaters was a forgettable episode that Judd acknowledges “did our reputation no good at all” and had a knock-on effect on its sportscar racing programme. A late deal to partner up with Lotus for the onset of IndyCar’s new 2.2-litre turbo era in 2012 was beset by problems, with a corporate takeover at the Norfolk marque’s parent company Proton and the acrimonious departure of Lotus CEO Danny Bahar the backdrop to a lack of finance that thwarted any hopes of success.

Judd maintains that the platform “was well capable of being developed to be successful” but concedes that he was “over optimistic” in trying to persevere against the much better prepared efforts from Honda Performance Development and Ilmor (Chevrolet), not least because Engine Developments “didn’t have enough resource or people to effectively operate the Indy and sportscar projects”. When Lotus aborted its five-year commitment at the end of 2012, it came as a surprise to nobody.

"When I was a boy, I used to make model planes in the bedroom and my career is just an extension of that, doing stuff that I do for a hobby anyway" John Judd

“We were just drip-fed money on a race-to-race basis to prepare engines for the next race,” Judd says of the Lotus operation. “We did our best to develop and improve the engine in that context, but there just wasn’t the funding for it. I do wish now, looking back, that when they repudiated the contract we’d just pulled the plug as well and refused to continue and so let them have their legal problems.

“I had some kind of hope that we could put on a good show here and there, but it didn’t work out. We started off having five teams and lost four of them very quickly. It was only the [HVM Racing] works team left which was an original part of the deal.”

Judd engines continued to power LMP2 cars at Le Mans until 2016, the last year before the class went to a single engine supplier. Engine Developments lodged a tender, but the successful applicant was its former F3000 partner Zytek, now called Gibson Technology. Judd however feels “our heart is not really in [one-make racing], it’s not what I want to do anyway” and derives greater pleasure from seeing the continued use of his engines in historic competition, as well as from component design, development work and reverse engineering.

Now 81, day-to-day running of the company is handled by his son John W. Judd and general manager Stan Hall. But Judd still enjoys going to work “because I’d sooner come here than go to the golf course with all the other old farts!”

Lotus's IndyCar programme was underbaked due to a lack of funds that left Judd's hands tied

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Lotus's IndyCar programme was underbaked due to a lack of funds that left Judd's hands tied

He sums up: “When I was a boy, I used to make model planes in the bedroom and my career is just an extension of that, doing stuff that I do for a hobby anyway.

“There’s a lot going on in an engine, electrics, fuel, combustion, thermodynamics, inertia forces, lubrication, they’re pretty complicated and very nuanced when it comes to the way one thing affects another and at the high-performance end it’s always pretty challenging and satisfying when you solve problems.

“We did a lot of engineering, some good, some bad, but it was mostly satisfying in the end. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve had a very enjoyable and professionally satisfying life.”

Advice for engineers from John Judd

  • I’d advise any aspiring engineer to take a job they’re going to enjoy and don’t just go for the money. If you do something you enjoy, you’ll probably end up doing better in the long term than if you just chase the money or the glitz, short-term.
  • In terms of engineers, we’d try and find people who worked on their own cars. If your hobby is golf and you just come to work and do engineering, well you may not be for us. But if you’re building yourself a car in your garage or restoring something or modifying your own car, that’s the sort of thing we’re looking for; for people who are enjoying engineering rather than somebody who has just picked it as a career as somebody might pick accountancy, with all due respect to accountants of course!
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. For those lucky enough to be clever, it isn’t necessary. If you’re not, then you’ll look an even bigger fool.
Capelli came close to scoring a victory for Judd in F1 at Paul Ricard in 1990

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Capelli came close to scoring a victory for Judd in F1 at Paul Ricard in 1990

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