How to be an ace engineer: F2 and damper specialist Gavin Bickerton-Jones
Numerous Formula 1 racers, a future Indianapolis 500 winner and sportscar aces have passed through the care of Gavin Bickerton-Jones, an engineer who learned the ropes while racing himself on tiny budgets in the 1980s. He reflects on his remarkable career that includes co-founding his own GP2 team after title-winning exploits in Formula 3000, and passes on advice for aspiring engineers
Years of preparing his own karts and single-seater cars gave Gavin Bickerton-Jones plenty of the core skills needed to make a career from motorsport. But never one to rest on his laurels, Norfolk-based Bickerton-Jones developed a specialism in dampers that has made him one of the most in-demand engineers in junior single-seater racing.
A title-winning race engineer in Formula 3000, one of the founding partners of GP2 championship-winning squad iSport International and latterly a Le Mans class-winner, Bickerton-Jones has come a long way since the days he spent scraping together second-hand tyres for his equally second-hand Class B Reynard in the 1987 British Formula 3 championship.
“I certainly wasn’t the next Ayrton Senna, but I think I was a decent, average jobbing driver,” he reckons.
His father Bill Jones had raced in the 1950s before running the Shardlow Motor Racing Formula 2 team for drivers including Chris Meek. His friends included BRM team manager Tim Parnell, the young Jones’ godfather. “I was always around racing cars,” he says. But when he began karting at 14, Bickerton-Jones had to do all of the preparation himself and so “learned a lot of hard lessons the hard way”.
But despite not having much by way of budget – “we never had any money other than the money just to get to the races” – he wasn’t deterred from making the step up to cars. Bickerton-Jones bought “an old Van Diemen – even at the time it was five years old – a Formula Ford 2000 that had been in a shunt” with a bent chassis. He straightened it out and with the help of a friend took it racing in the regional Donington championship. He went on to win the 1986 title aboard a 1984 Reynard.
“Again, we had to learn everything ourselves on that, changing the gear ratios and you really learn by burning, doing it like that,” he says.
A move into the secondary Class B division of British F3 followed for 1987 with a second-hand Reynard. But running the car “hand-to-mouth” in only a handful of races, where “just to get on the grid was a result”, it wasn’t long before the realisation dawned that “I’d been kidding myself, you just can’t expect to do really well on nothing”.
Pictured here at Donington aboard his FF200 SF84 Reynard, Bickerton-Jones pursued a driving career before giving up the unequal struggle
Photo by: Bill Jones
“I only ever had two brand-new sets of new tyres in my whole racing career,” Bickerton-Jones jokes. “Guido Basile always had new tyres so I used to go and look at all his leftover tyres and buy the best ones off him!”
Recognising that making a living as a driver would be a struggle, he took up a job with Dennis Rushen’s Norfolk-based Concept 3 F3 squad as a mechanic with Canadian Daniel Campeau.
“I ended up staying around Norfolk and I still live here now after all these years!” Bickerton-Jones says. “It was a good place to be from a job point of view. There was a real good little industry, all different formulas, different teams and everything around at that time.”
He followed the team into Opel Lotus before switching to David Sears Motorsport, winning the 1992 British Formula Vauxhall Lotus title with Piers Hunnisett. It was then that Bickerton-Jones began his first dabbles in formal race engineering – despite having no qualifications in the field.
"There’d be people going around with these ‘magic’ dampers saying ‘you’ve got to run these’, but I wanted to quantify what makes one damper better than another for a car, rather than just hearsay in the paddock" Gavin Bickerton-Jones
“I was always interested, because I had driven and done things on my own car, on how to make things better or try to improve things,” he says. “I did an Open University course which was very helpful on the basics of engineering and the maths involved, and just consumed loads of books on the subject because I was massively into it. I built my own kart chassis and things like that to progress myself.”
This only deepened upon moving to Martin Donnelly Racing for 1994. The former Lotus Formula 1 driver (“I raced against Martin in Formula Ford 2000, he was a lot better than me”) could see his potential – the Ulsterman once told Autosport that Bickerton-Jones has “got a brain on him like a computer” – and paired him with up-and-comer Jamie Davies. Together, they clicked and the West Countryman finished second on his way to winning the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award.
“For all my career, he has been one of the best engineers that I’ve worked with,” remembers the 2004 Le Mans Series champion. “The attention-to-detail when you’re on the one-make formula particularly, he was absolutely brilliant. It was on-point to where it needed to be. If I said that something needed to change, the right decisions were made and the car would react and I would go quicker.”
The following year, Bickerton-Jones combined duties as team manager and engineer across five cars in Formula Vauxhall.
Bickerton-Jones began to dabble in engineering when he joined Super Nova in Formula Vauxhall - Hunnisett (77) claimed the 1992 title
Photo by: Sutton Images
“It gave you a good insight on what was important and what wasn’t,” he says of a period that he describes with some understatement as “busy”. “When you’re dealing with that many drivers and different cars, you’ve got to be organised. Especially when you’re team manager as well, there’s lots of boring jobs that need to be done that are the building blocks of what makes a good team.
“It’s about time management really, making sure you get all that subsidiary work done so that you can spend a day getting the cars in the right place in the workshop so that when you arrive at the next circuit everything is ready to go and you’ve got a plan.”
Bickerton-Jones also threw himself into understanding the “clunky” data systems, then in their early days, when he says “was really what elevated me from where I was and set me on the path really”.
“A lot of people at that time were a bit frightened of computers or didn’t know how to use them,” he says. “Suddenly you find that you’re the point man then for going through the data with the drivers and things like that.”
He continued with Donnelly’s team as it stepped into British Formula 3 for 1997, which was capped by Mario Haberfeld winning the blue ribband F1 support race at Silverstone. But when MDR “sort of fizzled out a bit and went back to Formula Ford” Bickerton-Jones sought out pastures new at Sears’ second Formula 3000 squad – which was in the process of being renamed from Den Bla Avis to Petrobras for 1999.
He ran Bruno Junqueira to victory at Hockenheim that year, and after the Brazilian came close to a Williams F1 seat they were reunited for 2000 as Junqueira beat fellow Sears driver Nicolas Minassian’s Super Nova team to the title. Bickerton-Jones also ran Antonio Pizzonia and Nicolas Kiesa to victories before the DBA team shut down in 2003.
Bickerton-Jones had built a damper dynamometer while at the team after being inspired by a trip to use Williams’ seven-post rig, and also wrote the software to run it, having made this ‘black art’ an area of focus back in his Vauxhall Lotus days.
“That was one area I was always fascinated with,” he says. “There’d be people going around with these ‘magic’ dampers saying ‘you’ve got to run these’, but I wanted to quantify what makes one damper better than another for a car, rather than just hearsay in the paddock. You want a solid engineering reason for it.”
Bickerton-Jones ran Bruno Junqueira to the 2000 F3000 title, winning at Monaco ahead of another of his former drivers Jamie Davies
Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images
His damper rig, which he later took along to iSport, would also allow the operator to run simulations using on-track data. Bickerton-Jones credits the device with allowing Scott Speed to set the fastest time in GP2 pre-season testing at Paul Ricard in 2005, which meant the Formula Renault graduate carried the number one into the championship’s inaugural season.
“By putting all the info of the car into the software, the springs, what weight, corner weights, motion ratios, all that sort of stuff, it would work out the perfect damping for that car,” he says. “Then you can tune the damper to it to get right in the zone.
“It’s a big thing to know that you’ve got the damping somewhere in the window while you mess about with all the other things, the rollbars and springs and stuff.”
That deep specialism – Bickerton-Jones still rebuilds dampers now, running his own ShockBox company which counts the Hitech Formula 2 team among his clients – combined with his first-hand experience as a driver, are two areas of strength that he has lent on throughout his career.
"No matter if it’s Ayrton Senna or someone just starting out, they’re still a human being and you need to have them on side. Having driven myself, you know the anxieties you’re feeling as soon as you put the helmet on when you’re sat on the grid" Gavin Bickerton-Jones
“Almost irrespective of what sort of results you’ve had as a driver, you’ve been there, you’ve sat there,” he says. “I think some younger engineers that are very well-educated almost forget there’s a human being sat in the car. No matter if it’s Ayrton Senna or someone just starting out, they’re still a human being and you need to have them on side. Having driven myself, you know the anxieties you’re feeling as soon as you put the helmet on when you’re sat on the grid.”
Speed’s results with the brand-new iSport team Bickerton-Jones co-founded with former Petrobras colleagues Paul Jackson and Richard Selwin were deeply impressive in 2005 given it had been “put together on a wing and a prayer”.
“None of us had any money to put in it, we took a massive chance,” he says.
Its place on the grid was only secured when a former business associate and friend of the trio agreed to pay the €500,000 entry fee, returning which became the team’s first priority over its first three years.
“And we did it with interest,” says Bickerton-Jones. “That meant we managed to then start it on our own, we didn’t need anyone else.”
Bickerton-Jones credits his damper dyno with Speed getting fastest lap in 2005 GP2 pre-season testing, earning him #1 for the inaugural season
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Getting a vote of confidence from Helmut Marko to run Red Bull protégé Speed was also an important step: “We stood in that freezing cold workshop on Christmas Eve in 2004 and we all watched the signed contract come through – on a good old fax machine then – from Red Bull for Scott Speed and that’s when we knew we were in!”
Speed showed the team’s testing form was no fluke by scoring a podium in the team’s first race at Imola, surpassing expectations for the entire year immediately. He didn’t win a race, but pipped Alexandre Premat (ART) to third by half a point.
“We instantly achieved what we set out to, so you just keep setting your targets higher,” says Bickerton-Jones.
While he engineered Venezuelan Ernesto Viso – who amazingly escaped unscathed from a terrifying crash at Magny-Cours – iSport’s best results in 2006 came from mid-season arrival Timo Glock. Replacing Tristan Gommendy after the Frenchman’s sponsorship dried up, former Jordan F1 driver Glock proved a real force by surging up to fourth in the standings.
“The first time he got in the car at Silverstone [in 2006], he came in with a smile on his face and said, ‘I can win in this car’,” Bickerton-Jones recalls.
Staying on for 2007, Glock beat ART driver Lucas di Grassi despite an infamous startline clash with team-mate Andreas Zuber. Bickerton-Jones regards it as a career-high.
“When you’ve had a stake in something like that and all the little things we went through to get there, it was a big moment in all of our lives really,” he says. “It was all our own work. Everything we did, it was our own money, we had to plan what was spent on what. It was very nice to beat the establishment, so to speak, and stay at or around the top for the next few years.”
There followed success with Bruno Senna, runner-up to Giorgio Pantano in 2008, and he ran future Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson for two seasons before the team ceased operations at the end of 2012. Bickerton-Jones has focused on contract work ever since and says he doesn’t miss the stresses involved with running a team.
Future Indy 500 winner Ericsson was among the drivers who passed through Bickerton-Jones' care at iSport
Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images
“Like staff issues and making sure people are paid and insurance for the building, all the stupid things that go with running any business really,” he says. “That’s the things you don’t miss about having your own team!”
He worked for the Russian Time outfit that took over iSport’s GP2 entry, and for the Virtuosi team headed up by former Super Nova engineer Andy Roche, but his exploits haven’t been solely limited to single-seaters.
“It’s about pushing yourself out of the comfort zone all of the time I think,” Bickerton-Jones says, which perhaps explains why he accepted an invitation from Selwin to join Porsche Supercup outfit Project 1’s first foray into the World Endurance Championship in GTE Am as a strategy engineer.
“I’d never worked on anything with roofs and doors before and I’d never had a look at endurance racing, it wasn’t really on my radar,” he explains. “I was always sprint racing, every tenth of a second counts sort of thing. But I thought ‘again, that’s interesting, a new team’ – again we had that ‘us against them’ philosophy.
"Nothing that they had from F3 and all the other things they do transferred over from F2, so we had to set everything up in six weeks. It was an incredible period" Gavin Bickerton-Jones
“Initially, we had three experienced drivers in the car and they were questioning us because of our lack of sportscar experience but gradually we got them on-side.”
When the Riley Ford GT was excluded, Project1 drivers Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Lindsay and Edigio Perfetti were promoted to first in the blue ribband Le Mans 24 Hours, and the trio also scooped the WEC class title at the end of the 2018-19 ‘Superseason’ with Bickerton-Jones calling the races over the radio.
“Having never thought about Le Mans or anything or six-hour or an eight-hour race or anything, I really got into how you run the weekends totally different than a sprint-based single-seater championship,” he says. “We learned a lot and when you’re at Le Mans you realise... having spent years of being the sort of bastard brother of F1 in the paddock, suddenly you’re the main event and you look out of the garage at Le Mans and there’s 300,000 people milling about and you think ‘bloody hell, this is a big deal.’”
Bergmeister, Lindsey and Perfetti scored GTE Am victory at Le Mans in 2019 after the Riley Ford was disqualified
Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images
Bickerton-Jones then returned to F2 when he helped set up Hitech’s new squad for the 2020 season in double quick time, and remains involved with the team in GB3.
“Nothing that they had from F3 and all the other things they do transferred over from F2, so we had to set everything up in six weeks,” he remembers of a season he ran Nikita Mazepin to fifth in the standings. “When you’ve got nothing from every nut and bolt upwards… It was an incredible period.”
Also a keen wildlife photographer – “even a camera has a set-up!” he says – Bickerton-Jones hasn’t ruled out doing more sportscar racing in future. He's assisting Project1 with its move into the DTM running a pair of BMW M4 GT3s by building simulation models and prepping dampers, while also providing engineering support to its ongoing WEC assault. He still enjoys his occasional karting exploits too, however none can match a memory from the winter of 2004-05 when iSport was in its first days.
“I had a winter championship club race coming up at Beccles in Suffolk,” he remembers. “We’d just got the first iSport stickers done, so we put one on the front of the kart. And I was the first person to win a race with an iSport sticker!”
Bickerton-Jones greets Mitch Evans after a GP2 victory for the Russian Time squad that bought iSport's entry
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
Advice aspiring engineers from Gavin Bickerton-Jones
• Anyone thinking about engineering has generally done one of the motorsport engineering courses so they’ve got a very good technical background, but it’s good to get into engineering in racing at a lower level where you have to do more jobs in a team. It makes you a lot better, more rounded person and engineer to start in Formula 4, GB3 or something like that. They still need fuel putting in and tyre pressures doing, making sure the wheels are pointing straight. And you’re dealing with the ballast sat behind the steering wheel, the driver, that’s got a million different problems. Learning at that level how to deal with a driver and how to get their confidence is important.
• I’ve noticed in the last few years with some of the youngsters that come into these various teams, they’re very good technically, but they won’t go out and chat to the mechanics while they’re setting the car up. So you try and get them to learn what happens on the car. Even if you’re never going to change a spring or anything, just learn how long it takes to do so, when you’ve got your workflow over a weekend you know what jobs to tell the mechanic first and just get the mechanics on side.
• If you’re having a run of success in whatever you’re doing, don’t rest on your laurels. Always be aware that there’s a sod around the corner that’s trying to beat you! Take the time to look at why you had that win. Were you lucky, did you do everything right? We all do that after a bad weekend, but I think it’s important after a good weekend as well to learn why it was good.
• If you think you’ve got some great software you’re coming up with, or brilliant spreadsheets or whatever, always question yourself a bit first. Always look for the problems in any new thing you’re trying to implement and if it really isn’t working, be big enough to stop it and go down another route.
Bickerton-Jones believes a bit of healthy scepticism is always important to prevent engineers from heading down the wrong path
Photo by: Sutton Images
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