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35 YEARS AGO McLAREN BUILT THE MP4/1, THE WORLD’S FIRST CARBON FIBRE FORMULA 1 CAR

McLaren Dubai News.

35 years ago McLaren built the MP4/1, the world’s first carbon fibre Formula 1™ car. It revolutionised the sport, and since then McLaren has not built a racing car or road car without a carbon chassis. We meet the designer of the MP4/1, John Barnard.

In 1981 McLaren revolutionised Formula 1™ racing with the MP4/1, the world’s first carbon fibre racing car.

With a carbon composite monocoque at its core, the MP4/1 was lighter, stiffer and stronger than race cars which used conventional steel and aluminium chassis – but it wasn’t a straightforward solution. Born out of a singular vision and designer John Barnard’s drive and imagination, the use of carbon fibre was an unconventional choice that critics thought would never work.

‘I’m a great believer that if you want to lead you have to be the first one to do something,’ explains John. ‘At the time we had “ground effect” working on the cars, and in order to optimise that you needed as wide and as clean an underbody as you get. That meant making the monocoques – which at the time were mostly made from sheet aluminium with steel reinforcements – smaller, but I was going to lose torsional stiffness. So I thought how do I get the torsional stiffness, but still be able to make the monocoque narrow? That’s when carbon really came to the fore. It has properties you can’t beat – weight, strength and stiffness are just superior to aluminium and steel.’

Aerospace experts thought it was impossible, but with the backing of McLaren Chairman Ron Dennis, John found a development partner in the United States to create his first carbon composite monocoque. Assembled at McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, England, the resulting chassis was so stiff that John realised he could reduce the weight still further, all while creating a monocoque that remained superior in stiffness to that of a conventional aluminium or steel construction. 

The McLaren MP4/1 was the world’s first carbon fibre Formula 1™ car, its light, stiff and strong composite monocoque revolutionising the sport.

 The revolutionary MP4/1 wasn’t ready for the start of the 1981 season, but it was worth the wait. Mechanical problems hampered its first few races that season, but then lead driver John Watson finished third at the Spanish Grand Prix, second at the French Grand Prix, and at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, took the chequered flag. It was McLaren’s first Grand Prix victory since Fuji, four years earlier, and the first for a carbon fibre composite car.

Yet the carbon fibre monocoque was perhaps even more significant to Formula 1™ for a reason other than its torsional stiffness and corresponding low weight…

Critics of the technology warned that during a high-speed crash, the carbon fibre composite monocoque would literally disintegrate into a cloud of black dust. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth: during practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, John Watson crashed at nearly 150mph, yet while the engine and gearbox were torn from the MP4/1 during the impact, the monocoque structure remained intact. John Watson walked away.

That accident set the tone for the carbon composite monocoque from there on after,’ says John Barnard. ‘It then became not a question mark of what would happen in an accident, it became the beginning of the safety cell. It was really a huge moment in the life of the carbon composite monocoque.’

The MP4/1’s monocoque was built from just five major components; John Watson’s victory at the British Grand Prix in 1981 was the first for a carbon fibre composite car.

 Cars built with a carbon fibre monocoque are not just lighter and faster, but safer too, thanks to a stiffness-to-weight ratio that is much higher than conventional steel and aluminium.

It’s the reason why, since the introduction of the MP4/1 in 1981, McLaren has not built a car without a carbon fibre chassis. Every racing car since has featured a carbon chassis at its core, and it has been the same with each McLaren road car, starting with the iconic F1 in 1993, and continuing today with the Sports Series, Super Series and Ultimate Series.

The McLaren 12C, the first Super Series model launched in 2011, featured a new generation of McLaren carbon fibre chassis, with its MonoCell weighing just 75kg. Compared to rivals that used conventional steel or aluminium chassis, the 12C’s MonoCell was 25 percent stiffer than an equivalent all-metal structure, and 25 percent lighter than a comparable aluminium chassis.

Today all McLaren Super Series models feature the class-leading MonoCell, while the new Sports Series uses the latest MonoCell II, and the MonoCage forms the core of the Ultimate Series.

John Barnard always believed the carbon fibre technology would makes its way from race cars to road cars, because it brings with it advantages you can’t get any other way – weight, strength and safety. We united him with the latest McLaren 650S Spider so he could experience how the cutting-edge technology he pioneered 35 years ago is still revolutionary today.

‘I look back and think, actually, it was my idea,’ says John with a smile. ‘And here we are now. I’ve just driven one of the latest McLaren road cars with a carbon fibre monocoque, and it’s amazing. It feels incredibly solid – you go over some bumpy roads and there’s no shake, no rattles, no nothing. That first carbon fibre Formula 1™ car set the pattern for McLaren; McLaren from that day on never made a car that wasn’t carbon fibre chassis’d, and that’s how I think of McLaren. It is the carbon composite car company.