The Material Advantage

This is the McLaren MP4 – the first Grand Prix car to be constructed entirely from Carbon Fibre. Adam Cooper reports on how it transformed F1 forever.

Over the years McLaren has produced some super successful cars. The remarkable M23 was in action from 1973 to ’78, won two Championships, and formed the basis of a very successful Indycar. The Honda-powered machines of 1988-91 won four straight titles, and in the first of those seasons the MP4/4 won 15 of the 16 races it started.

However, the most significant car in the team’s history didn’t actually earn a title, or even win many races. But the original MP4 of 1981 not only laid the foundations for the team’s success in subsequent years, it also sparked a fundamental change in the way F1 cars were built, and in so doing helped the sport to become massively safer.

John Barnard was the man who was responsible for this landmark car. A controversial figure at times, he remains one of racing’s most intriguing characters. After McLaren he went on to spells at Benetton, Ferrari (twice) and Arrows. This season he joins up with Prost. But he’ll always be best known as the man who came up with the carbon-fibre chassis.

After learning his trade at Lola, John worked briefly at McLaren in the seventies, before heading Stateside to Parnelli and then Chaparral. His 2K design proved remarkably successful, setting new standards which other Indycar marques had to follow. Team boss Jim Hall received most of the public credit for John’s work, and somewhat disillusioned, Barnard headed back to Europe in the autumn of 1979.

“The first thing I did was get together with Hector Rebaque, but that project literally stopped overnight,” he recalls. “Then Patrick Head told me that this guy Ron Dennis was looking to get an F2 car designed. I wasn’t really interested, but Ron phoned me up, and asked me to come and have a talk.”

Dennis was running March chassis in F3 and F2 under the Project 4 banner. Whether Ron upgraded his plans or hadn’t told Head the full story is open to debate, but by the time he met Barnard, the talk was only of building an F1 car.

“He had this idea of doing F1 as the next step,” says John. “I was very nervous about the whole thing. I had a look at his setup, which wasn’t very big, and I thought it was a bit iffy. In typical Ron fashion he said, ‘Alright, I’ll do a deal with you. Come and work for me, and if it folds or whatever, I’ll pay you another year’s salary.’ I thought I could handle that. In those days we didn’t talk about contracts – that was the deal, done.

“The first thing was to find a drawing office, so in an upstairs corner of his place we built this thing we called the rabbit hutch. Later at the Christmas party they gave me a great big stuffed rabbit, which my kids thought was great.

“Anyway, I had a drawing board and started thinking about an F1 car. It was a time when ground effects was really on the move, so the objective was to optimise it. That meant using the biggest underwing I could get, which entailed a very small section chassis.

I wanted to get the bottom of my chassis down to not much bigger than the driver’s bum. I explained to Ron what I wanted to do, and the facts were quite simple. If you wanted to make a chassis of smaller section, and retain the stiffness, you had to change the material. I thought about a building a monocoque from thin-gauge sheet steel, but when you looked at the properties of carbon, that had to be the answer. It had everything; light weight, it was stiff, and it was strong…”

It might seem very logical now, but at the time the decision represented a bold piece of lateral thinking. It’s remarkable that a person with only limited experience in F1 was cocky enough to take such a gamble, especially when employed by a fledgling team whose budget was far from secure.

“I think you only do things like that when you’re young. The first thing is have the idea, second thing is, design it, the third thing is get it made. I just knew I could do it. Ron was very gung-ho.

“It was a very simple deal between us. He said ‘you tell me what you want to do technically, and I’ll get the money’. That’s how it went, and it bloody worked too!”

There was still a long way to go. Barnard knew very little about carbon-fibre – not many people did – and before he committed to the idea, he did some research.

“Carbon-fibre was around; it was known. The first instance in racing was on Graham Hill’s car in 1975, when they ran a few strips in the wing endplates. I’d heard about the stuff, and wanted to find out more about it. I had a contact at British Aerospace at Weybridge, and I looked at what they were doing; things like engine cowls for the Rolls-Royce RB211 engine.

“I went away to think about how to do it. I had to think of a way of making a composite chassis using the machining capability and technology that I knew I could find, mounting things on it in ways that I’d been used to doing before.

“I needed an assistant. I’d met Alan Jenkins at Rebaque he was helping out and wanted to get into racing so he came and worked in the rabbit hutch with me. I gave him old drawings from the Chaparral and so on, and said, ‘Here you are, draw the pedals up like that.’

He hadn’t even done proper manufacturing drawings before, but he was dead keen, we got on alright, so away we went. In the meantime Ron was trying to get the money. That was getting harder and harder, although he didn’t let on at the time.”

In fact Dennis was gambling on persuading Marlboro to join him in the graduation from F2, but since the tobacco giant backed McLaren and Alfa-Romeo, this was by no means a straightforward process. “On one day a young marketing guy came from Marlboro. I gave him this piece of unidirectional composite; in one direction it was totally weak, and in the other it was very strong. He bent it the wrong way and it snapped in an instant! It was like ‘you’re going to make an F1 car out of this?”

The biggest headache John faced was finding a facility in Britain capable of doing the composite work; nobody was interested. Then a friend from the Indy days, shock absorber engineer Steve Nichols, recommended an American company.

“Over here they either said it was too much for them, or that we were, in fact, mad.

“What we were planning was way above what people were trying to do in commercial aircraft, so there’s no way we could do it ourselves. Steve was calling me, trying to get into racing in England, and he knew someone at a company called Hercules in Utah. They had an R&D section set up simply to do crazy things, one-offs and odd jobs.

“By this time we’d got a one-third size wind tunnel model built, and we’d it painted in Marlboro colours for a presentation. The next day we were on the plane with our model in the overhead rack. I’d got a load of drawings, and they said ‘We’ll have a go.’ So we sent the tooling over there.”

Meanwhile Dennis was hard at work behind the scenes. In September 1980 it was revealed that Marlboro had engineered a merger between the new Project 4 outfit and the struggling McLaren team, which had failed comprehensively to come to terms with the ground-effect era.

The stakes were raised considerably; if Barnard’s car didn’t work, Dennis was going to be in big trouble.

The MP4 chassis was formed from five major components, and consisted entirely of flat panels, since the technology to make curved pieces was still a few years away. The prototype had an aluminium front bulkhead, but otherwise was entirely made from the new material.

“The first chassis was a little bit wrinkly on the outside; with that thickness of lay-up it was very difficult to avoid wrinkles, so it didn’t look the cleanest, nicest thing we’d ever seen. But it was extremely strong. We’d built a rig at Project 4 to torsion test it, and it was more than I needed.

For the second one we pulled some plies out of the skins and knocked the weight down. It was a bit less stiff, but it was lighter.”

The novel chassis design was public knowledge almost a year before the actual car was launched on March 5, 1981. just two days later Colin Chapman stole some of McLaren’s thunder when he announced the twin-chassis Lotus 88; he cheekily claimed that the MP4 was already “a little bit out of date.” But while Lotus had gone some way down the composite route, with a Kevlar mix, Bamard’s commitment was much greater. Like many of John’s rivals, Chapman suggested that pure carbon-fibre was not safe.

“The Lotus was interesting, but a different concept. They had gone for a flat panel of carbon/honeycomb, folding it around machined aluminium bulkheads, and glueing over the inner split. Technically it was a much lower level to go in at. But Chapman was my design hero. I remember sometime in ’81 he came up to me at an airport and said, ‘That’s a really nice chassis you’ve done. Congratulations!’ That wasn’t bad, coming from him…”

De Cesaris and John Watson had to use the antique M29 at the season’s start, but once the MP4 arrived it improved rapidly. In consecutive races Wattle finished third in Spain, second in France and won in Britain. Meanwhile de Cesaris proved the resilience of the tub with an impromptu crash testing programme.

But his mate made the biggest impact, in every sense.

“Watson had that big one at Monza which ripped the engine off the back. It looked bad, but he walked away. That was the turning point. Not only did people start to think ‘hang on, it didn’t all fall apart in a black cloud of dust,’ we also had the Civil Aviation Authority contact us. They were grappling with how to certify composites in aircraft, and were interested in that shunt.”

Gradually everyone else followed suit. Since then drivers have stepped unhurt from accidents which would been fatal in the past. The carbon tub has made a greater contribution to safety than any other single innovation.

“It’s something I’m very conscious of,” says John. “I’d like to keep a clean safety record; for me the worst one was Berger’s in ’89 at Imola. That shook me. I’d made up my mind that if he was gone, I was out of the business. Then Bernie came to the paddock and said he was alright. That was as close as I want to get.”