until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula E

Inside a record-breaking McLaren debut (and was it good?)

by Sam Smith
6 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Taylor Barnard had no time to feel nervous, apprehensive or agitated. In a few flashing seconds he was in the car and making an unexpected Formula E debut.  

The NEOM McLaren team had prepped for the worst-case scenario before arriving in Monaco - with Barnard having done pretty much the same simulator prep as Sam Bird and Jake Hughes.

Yet, the drama of what transpired on an otherwise sleepy Saturday morning proved to be the ultimate test of both Barnard and McLaren.

This is the diary of a Monaco sink-or-swim scenario for a 19-year-old who one moment thought he’d be watching the Monaco E-Prix and then within 45 minutes was actually entering its white heat. 

Saturday 27th April


The chain reaction begins

Sam Bird's gearing up for a fast lap in his McLaren as he goes through the crucial preparation phase for building towards 350kW qualifying sim runs in practice.

Entering Saint Devote, Bird locks his fronts and misses the turning into the corner. It looks just like one of the hundreds of trips down the escape road moments seen at that precise place on the Monaco circuit.

But as he decelerates and appears to be choosing to either spin the car around or start a three-point turn to re-join he snags the outer wall, just as it changes from grey Techpro to a belt-contained tyre wall.

The impact, likely no more than 30mph, spins his steering wheel around and smashes his hand into the side of the survival cell. Initially, full of adrenalin and frustration at the incident, Bird doesn’t feel much pain. Seconds later though as he exits his car he feels it, and - having damaged the same hand at London ExCeL in July 2022 - he probably knows that an unwanted flashback might be coming.

The reason for the incident was not entirely clear but team principal Ian James told The Race that there seemed “nothing untoward with the car as far as we can see", adding: "Whether it was just the cold tyres that caught him out or what have you, that wasn’t the focus of understanding what was going on.

“The main focus was just getting him the attention that he needed. We’re confident that the car was fine and the team did a phenomenal job of getting the car ready for FP2.”


Don’t panic when it's manic!

After observing his car being low-loaded back to the pit, Bird sees McLaren’s own doctor James Pozzi and then the FIA medical delegate Bruno Franceschini.

He’s advised to get to the local Princess Grace Hospital in Monaco for a scan. At this stage it started to get very real for Barnard. 

“When Sam came to me and said, ‘I think I broke my hand’, Taylor's had this kind of shocked expression and it was like ‘oh s***, this is happening now’,” McLaren team manager Gary Paffett told The Race.

“The quick turnaround from him, realising that he might be driving the car to actually being in the car in probably 45 minutes, was incredible.” 

There was literally no time to think about the situation the 19-year-old was now in. Paffett and the team went into a specific fight mode. The first stop was the stewards to get the driver change approved, then there was making sure he had the correct kit, which also had to be checked over. All the while the team are repairing the shunted car.

As Barnard then manoeuvred himself into it ahead of the second free practice session “the car was still being bolted back together when he was in it”, according to Paffett.

“The environment was manic."

Barnard settled in well, staying in his comfort zone during free practice two, making no mistakes and bringing the car back in one piece. It was exactly what he was told to do and he’d started to get more confident with each corner.

Even if he was slowest overall in 22nd, he managed 16 laps of prep.

Qualifying Baptism Ticked Off

There were zero expectations for Barnard starting anywhere higher than the back of the grid at Monaco.

He had 50% less running already after missing the first practice session so he entered the fray in the 12-minute qualifying session well on the back foot.

He did a solid job on his runs but was understandably driving with caution, posting the 11th-fastest time of the 11 drivers in his group, 1.7s off the ultimate pace and 0.7 away from next-best Dan Ticktum. 

“Qualifying, by his own admission, was a baptism of fire,” team principal Ian James told The Race.

“But actually, once he got settled into a rhythm he was good."

Paffett was convinced that Barnard could have qualified higher with some FP1 running, saying: "He would not have been last in qualifying. I reckon he would have beaten a couple of them."

Welcome to the Madhouse!

In the race, Barnard made a decent start and overtook Nico Mueller’s Abt Cupra on the first lap before establishing a rhythm and a conservative approach to get into the race. Soon the wings and other sundry bodywork started to fly, and according to Paffett, this was when Barnard realised that “everyone out there is a maniac”.

But he didn’t get embroiled and established his own race and by mid-distance was up to 17th, mainly via attrition, but running close to a recovering Sebastien Buemi who got delayed at the Sergio Sette Camara-triggered hairpin shunt.

“We just tried to tell him ‘don't take yourself out of your comfort zone’ because that's when things go wrong," added Paffett. "Just build up to it, make sure you're comfortable and just do what you can do.”

Barnard’s confidence came on leaps and bounds and even included an audacious move around the outside of Buemi at the hairpin. That, combined with excellent energy management and cool radio comms, was hugely impressive.

“After the race, oddly enough, he was obviously pleased but also slightly disappointed,” said Paffett.

“He wasn't aggressive enough, which is a great sign actually. That will come, now he knows how mad it can be out there.”

Sunday Evening
The Satisfaction

In the post-race media pen, The Race spoke to Barnard, who was calm and collected but still radiated a clear buzz about finishing the race with no damage and in a very creditable 14th position. 

Several drivers, including Antonio Felix da Costa and Oliver Rowland, made a point of finding him and giving him genuine plaudits and a shake of the hand. That kind of reaction from champions and E-Prix winners is to be cherished and remembered.

In the context of how Taylor Barnard came to be on a Formula E grid at Monaco, this was an eye-catching performance and one that was noticed by many, most notably by his own team.

“We noticed his mental capacity in the car is impressive at Misano [rookie test] and also here in Monaco,” said Paffett. 

“Not one time when he came on the radio did he sound stressed. He sounds calm over the radio all the time, so I think he's got a very good future ahead of him.”

That future will likely entail Berlin next month as Bird recovers from his injury.

“Going forward, I think it's safe to say that we're now preparing for the fact that we're in all likelihood going to have to use Taylor in Berlin as well,” said James.

“But I don't think we could be in better hands in that respect.

“We're already focused on making sure that Taylor has got the support that he requires in order to unlock the potential that he has in that car.  

“We're excited to see what he can achieve.”

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