Today, we assume that modern supercars have a carbon fiber monocoque chassis. It is an ideal choice for its ability to combine a great lightness with a rigidity without equal. Without going any further, the monocoque of a car like the McLaren P1 weighs less than 100 kilograms. Since the 90s its use has been democratized in the segment, and already begins to be seen in more “mundane” cars like the BMW 7 Series or the Alfa Romeo 4C. Maybe you did not know is that on your screens you have the grandfather of all of them. He is 35 years old.
Aerospace technology for circuits
“At the beginning of the 80s, only a few companies in the aerospace sector began to play with carbon fiber.”
It was the year 1979. John Barnard had been working in the United States in the Indy Car Series, creating aerodynamic bodies with ground effect. He went back to his native England and went to talk to his boss, one Ron Dennis, who worked for a company called McLaren. This team had planned to surprise the world with a new car in the 1981 season. John Barnard, through several acquaintances, was then interested in the new composite materials that the aerospace industry was beginning to use at the time.
Specifically, carbon fiber. As hard as steel, and much lighter than aluminum. Thanks to its great strength, a sturdy, smaller chassis could be built – practically in any way possible – leaving more room for aerodynamic design. When he told British Aerospace of his desire to use his autoclaves to build a monocoque carbon fiber chassis for a Formula 1, they looked at him weirdly. Nobody had ever made a similar assignment, and the company considered it too risky.
“The first tests of the monocoque revealed a rigidity 2.5 times higher than a comparable aluminum chassis.”
It was in Salt Lake City – in Utah, United States – where through a professional contact; he contacted a company called Hercules Aerospace. This company had been working for the United States Army for years, and specialized in the manufacture of high-power engines for military weapons: they manufactured missile propellers capable of destroying entire countries. His research and development department had been experimenting with carbon fiber for years.
When Barnard told them his idea, such was his enthusiasm that two days later the Briton was flying to Utah with several plans and a 1: 3 scale model of the new MP4 / 1, billed at the warehouse. Soon after, a large package arrived at Working: the first monocoque chassis of the McLaren MP4 / 1, built entirely of carbon fiber. The first tests revealed rigidity 2.5 times higher than a comparable aluminum frame, with identical weight. These figures that amazed Ron Dennis himself and the entire McLaren team.
With a thickness suitable for the monocoque, the result was a Formula 1 30% lighter than the McLaren F30 and equipped with an even more rigid chassis.
The accident at 250 km / h that convinced the skeptics
There were still skeptics. Many did not believe in carbon fiber, which they saw as a technology that was too new. In fact, they thought that the car would disintegrate in a cloud of dust before the first accident and that it would be nothing competitive in the race. The victory of the MP4 / 1 in the Great Prize of England in Silver stone silenced the critics who doubted the performance of the single-seater. But many still doubted the safety of the car in the event of an accident. An accident at 250 km / h put the final point to the discussion.