Matra MS80

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It was the car that, along with Cosworth power and Jackie Stewart, led Matra to glory before its F1 dream turned sour by Keith Howard

Colin Chapman’s privileged access to the Ford-Cosworth DFV ended at the close of the Formula 1 race season in 1967. What followed we now regard as the DFV era, but ironically one of the early adopters of Keith Duckworth’s engine for 1968, and the first to beat Lotus to the championship with it in ’69, had no intention of using it for any longer than necessary.

Matra’s entry into motor racing was conceived as a means of restoring French pride within the highest echelons of the sport, and that couldn’t be fully realised with an Anglo-Saxon powerplant. But in 1968 and ’69, while its own V12 was in development, Matra deigned to use the Cosworth V8, and thereby became one of F1’s occasional shooting stars – appearing from nowhere, burning bright, but fizzling out just as quickly.

No sooner had it won both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 1969 than its decline began. For the 1970 season Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell switched allegiance to another newcomer, March; the V12 arrived but under-performed, and Matra divided its forces by setting its sights on Le Mans as well, which it duly won in 1972, ’73 and ’74. By that time the F1 operation, having gone backwards since 1969, had ceased to exist.

The designer of the victorious MS80 was Bernard Boyer. He’d begun by racing motorcycles, then cars, and was a French junior champion in 1961. But seeing faster drivers around him he switched, without any formal engineering training, first to building and later designing racing cars. In 1963 he joined Alpine, where he participated in both the Formula 3 (“we copied the design from Brabham”) and Le Mans projects. He joined Matra in 1966 when a friend told him that the company – which had only run its first F3 car in ’65 – intended competing in F1 from ’67, which it did, fitfully, with the MS7 F2 car. This paved the way for the promising MS10 of the 1968 season, from which Boyer developed the all-conquering MS80 for ’69.

Through an interpreter, I spoke to him about the genesis of the MS80, its key features – and what went wrong at Matra as soon as it had tasted F1 success.

Fixing the MS10

“The main problem with the MS10 was with the spherical bearings in the suspension. Their lubrication was not consistent throughout the race. Their friction would increase, affecting the car’s handling. So we equipped the MS80 with self-lubricating spherical bearings. That was the most important change we made.

“Understeer was also a problem with the MS10. We corrected that by altering the weight distribution to make the front of the car lighter. We moved the oil tank back to between the driver and the engine, and to keep the MS80’s increased fuel load back we widened the side tanks to create the car’s coke bottle shape. We reduced unsprung mass by replacing the 15-inch wheels with 13-inch rims at the front, and by fitting inboard rear brakes. Changes to the suspension geometry to improve camber change at the front and toe-in at the rear made the car more stable and better to drive, but didn’t gain us much in lap times.

“The key to the MS80’s success was that it was a good all-round performer, without necessarily being the best in any particular area, and that’s what you need to win races. To win you need everything to be right: a good chassis, good engine, good tyres, good driver and good organisation. In 1969 we had all that, whereas Lotus was still recovering from the death of Jim Clark.

“One of Stewart’s qualities was that he gave good feedback to the engineers. It’s often overlooked how vital this is, not only to adapt the car to each circuit but to guide the engineering team in future development. That was one of our strengths in ’69: the MS80 was the MS10 corrected, and we’d had the right information about everything that needed fixing.”

The aerospace factor

“Matra’s aerospace experience contributed in various ways. We used aviation techniques to build the car’s body, particularly in the structural fuel tanks which included several partitions that a bag tank would have precluded. These increased the body’s torsional stiffness. Matra aerospace subcontractors, who were used to precision construction using light metals, built the car. They could make components to high levels of accuracy, which was particularly important with the fuel tanks to prevent leakage from the glued and riveted joints. Before wings were banned, the aerospace division also advised us on the best aerofoil profiles to use.”

Decline and fall

“Stewart switched to March in 1970 because he wouldn’t race our car with a Matra engine. At that stage in its development the V12 was a weak point, but we never thought to return to the Cosworth: once we began to use the V12 there was no going back. Matra boss Jean-Luc Lagardère was determined that we should use it, and the French government had loaned Matra money to develop it. In fact we went downhill slightly in each of the five key areas I’ve described. A major problem with the chassis was that the rules changed so we couldn’t use the structural fuel tanks. We had to use bag tanks, and that affected the chassis’ torsional stiffness.

“From 1970 the Le Mans programme became more important, and Matra didn’t have the finances to put a full effort into F1 as well. We were disappointed to quit F1 after ’71. To us it was a failure. But 1969 was the best year of my career: my memories of it are exceptional.”

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