Carbon Fiber and Motorsport: a 40 years-long romance

Imagine being thrown back in time at the end of the ‘70s. Well, in the Formula One circus you would have seen the fall and the rebirth of one of the longest-running teams in F1 history, McLaren. In fact, from 1977 to 1980, the British team went through a very tough time after winning the ’74 and ’76 World Championships. Back then, McLaren was guided by the Team Manager Teddy Mayer and the designer Gordon Coppuck.

From 1977 to 1980, Williams and Lotus were unbeatable thanks to the so-called wing cars that, thanks to the Venturi effect together with aerodynamics appendixes, had a lot of downforce and, subsequently, were a lot faster, especially in the corners.

At this point, in 1981, it was clear for everyone that the “Mayer era” was coming to an end, and in fact Ron Dennis took his place, thanks to a previous business relationship he had with Marlboro (McLaren Title Sponsor). However, not only this top-level change contributed to the team’s turnabout, because Coppuck left too, after having been replaced by John Barnard. Barnard already contributed to McLaren’s successes overseas with the M16, winning at Indianapolis in 1974, and it was right thanks to his American background, that he understood that Carbon Fiber could have been the secret weapon for McLaren to rise again and compete on equal terms with F1 top teams such as Williams and Lotus. Barnard himself contacted a company based in Utah named Hercules, with a huge expertise in Composite Materials, asking for five Carbon Fiber components that would have lately been assembled into the first F1 Composites monocoque ever.

But why are we talking about America? Because European F1 suppliers still were “deaf” when it came to the use of Composite Materials in Motorsport. In fact, aluminum and steel were still widely used, although they couldn’t offer the same performances as Carbon Fiber. For instance, aluminum was too much stiff, while steel would have added too many weight to the detriment of pure performances. The natural answer was Carbon Fiber and McLaren realized this before anyone else.

At the 1981 Argentina Grand Prix, the McLaren MP4/1 arrived with the indestructible Ford Cosworth V8 engine and John Watson, the top driver, conquered the eleventh place during the qualify, that he transformed into a fifth place during the race, until a gearbox failure. Another retirement in the Belgium GP and then the turning point: fourth in Monaco, third in Jarama, second in France and Canada, until the victory at their home track, Silverstone. This first victory represented the beginning of a new successful era for the British team, but also an epoch-making change for Formula One single-seaters constructive techniques. The Carbon Fiber era had just begun.

Barnard’s intuition was even more fortunate since, taking a leap of time to the present day, Carbon has proved crucial in protecting the driver multiple times after accidents that could have been fatal only a few years earlier.

Montréal 2007, Robert Kubica is the protagonist of a frightening accident and, albeit for a thousandth of a second, undergoes a deceleration of 75G. But the monocoque of his BMW remains intact.

Melbourne 2016, during the race, the collision between Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez leads the Spaniard first to take off, then crawl on the track protections and finally overturn, interrupting his race against the barriers. The analysis of the accident reported a frightening deceleration, equal to 46G. Even in this case, however, no serious consequences.

Imola 2021, during an overtaking attempt, Valtteri Bottas and George Russel collide and the single-seaters end their race against the Tamburello protections. The chassis of the Finn’s Mercedes is semi-destroyed, but the driver comes out on his legs.

So much has been done, and there is still a lot to do. But in the meantime, chapeau.

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