First Light – The story behind the McLaren MP4/1

YouTube Description: 35 years ago McLaren built 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.

1981 Formula 1 McLaren MP4/1

The MP4/1 brought a change to McLaren’s established nomenclature, standing for McLaren Project Four, and bore the distinction of being the first carbon composite Formula 1 design. The material had been used for small components since Graham Hill’s eponymous Embassy-backed Cars had used it for their rear wing supports in 1975, but not until the MP4/1 made its bow on March 5th 1981 had it been used for the entire chassis.

Together with Lotus chief Colin Chapman whose controversial Lotus 88 would also use the material, Barnard had come to appreciate not just the lightness of carbon fibre but also its tremendous strength, and his new car would set a trend every bit as influential as Chapman’s introduction of the monocoque chassis two decades earlier. It laid the groundwork for material innovation that has become such a hallmark of the McLaren Group’s activities with cars such as the three-seater F1, the world’s first fully composite road car, and the later Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren as the world’s first series production carbon composite car.

Born out of a singular vision, the MP4/1 remains as much as anything a testament to Barnard’s character, drive and imagination. He had cut his teeth with Lola, and then McLaren in the early 1970s, before moving to Parnelli and Chaparral in the United States, yet it was his relative inexperience in F1 that paradoxically freed him to think outside the box. The focus in F1 at that time, he said, was very much on ground effects. “The objective was to optimise it, and that meant using the biggest underwing l could get which entailed a very small section chassis. I wanted to get my chassis down to not to much bigger than the driver’s bum.” To Barnard, the only way to reduce the chassis section while retaining the necessary torsional stiffness was to use an entirely new material rather than just a different gauge of aluminium.

Sometimes controversial but never anything less than a highly gifted and always adventurous designer, he had been thinking about this particular problem long before the merger between Marlboro Mclaren and Project Four Racing. He had also been hearing good things about carbon fibre composites: given the correct application it was clearly light, stiff, and extremely strong — perfect, in theory, for Formula 1.

Very few people knew much about it, however. A contact at British Aerospace provided some clues at a time when the material was being used for engine cowls for the Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan engine. At the same time, however, its mysterious properties were called into question, Barnard remembers, when someone easily snapped a piece of it in half (actually, a unidirectional piece which he bent the wrong way). Perhaps it was not, after all, the ideal material with which to build an entire Formula 1 car.

Others too, Barnard confirmed years later, “thought we were mad,” and even the man he describes as his design hero, Colin Chapman who was busy working on his technically brilliant but ultimately doomed Type 88 with its complex composite—mix ‘twin chassis’, went on record to say that a pure-carbon car of the sort McLaren was planning simply would not be safe enough.

Typically Ron Dennis showed a far more positive approach, or as Barnard characterised it, “He 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 worked, too!”

Around this time a contact from Barnard’s Indycar days with Parnelli and Chaparral pointed him towards the Utah-based Hercules Corporation which had ‘Skunk-Works’ research and development section and finally he was in business. Expressly conceived to think the unthinkable and play around with crazy ideas and odd one-offs, Hercules was the obvious place to start building his dream.

Barnard jumped on a flight to Salt Lake City with a quarter scale model of his proposed design in the cabin alongside him and soon after the staff at Hercules set to work the MP4/1 began to take shape. As they lacked the technology and know-how to create curved pieces, the first monocoque was assembled using five major components, each one with flat faces.

It had only a single major aluminium component, the internal front suspension bulkhead, compared to a conventional F1 car of the time which boasted around 50. Perhaps it looked a little rough and wrinkled in places, but it turned out even stronger than Barnard felt necessary, so for the next chassis plies were pulled out of the skin to make it lighter still

Unfortunately the new car wasn’t ready for the start of the 1981 season, so John Watson and his new team-mate Andrea de Cesaris found themselves campaigning the outdated M29C But it was well worth the wait.

In its first two races the sole MP4/1 qualified 11th and seventh, making it to the line for its first race finish in San Marino in 10th. Watson qualified the MP4/1 a promising fifth on its debut at Zolder in the Belgian GP and ran a comfortable fourth until the late stages when gearbox problems dropped him back to seventh by the flag. He qualified 10th at Monaco and was heading for fourth place when the engine broke.

Then came the start of what Wattie would later refer to as his ‘Ted Rogers’ sweep, referring to the comedian’s popular Three Two One game show. From fourth on the grid he finished third in Spain; in France a front-row starting position translated into a superb race drive and second place just over two seconds behind first-time winner Alain Prost. Suddenly, McLaren was back. And then came the 1981 Marlboro British Grand Prix at Silvestone.

Alain Prost led initially for Renault, with team-mate Rene Arnoux riding shotgun. Watson was seventh at the end of the first lap, then was delayed further as he dropped to 10th by the fourth avoiding an accident in the Woodcote chicane at the end of lap three involving de Cesaris, Alan Jones and Gilles Villeneuve. But then he got his head down and charged. Nelson Piquet crashed his Brabham heavily; then Prost’s car burned a valve. Suddenly, the McLaren was up to second place, albeit 25s adrift of Arnoux.

And there it stayed for 30 laps. But on lap 50 the Renault’s engine note changed; as Arnoux slowed, Watson went quicker and quicker and began scything down the gap, cheered on by an expectant crowd of his fellow countrymen. On lap 61 he swooped into the lead, and seven laps later was flagged off the winner of the British GP. It was McLaren’s first Grand Prix victory since Fuji, four years earlier. And the first for a carbon fibre composite car.

Later, came the big shunt at Monza where Watson’s Mp4/1 was cut in half after he went off the road in the two fast Lesmo corners. But even as the engine and gearbox were torn off, the monocoque structure remained intact. Wattie had walked away from a 140mph crash, and while the car did not look very pretty afterwards it had not, as so many sceptics had expected, exploded into a cloud of black dust.”

It was a win-win situation. The McLaren MP4/1 not only radically improved McLaren’s chances but genuinely reinvigorated the sport as well. No less significantly, as rival teams looked at ways of building carbon composite cars of their own, the construction methods introduced by Barnard’s

MP4/1 made possibly the largest single contribution to driver safety of any innovation in the sport’s history. By feeding loads along the axis of the strands in the material, carbon composite cars were able to boast a much higher stiffness-to-weight ratio, making them not just lighter and faster but safer too.

For all its success, the MP4/1 was not the finished article, and with its tendency to porpoise there was certainly room for further aerodynamic development. Nor was it ever a particularly easy car to drive. The nickname earned by de Cesaris – ‘de Crasheris’ – gives some indication as to how well his season went, and also explains in part why after finishing with only a single point he was replaced by Niki Lauda for 1982.

It changed many perceptions, inside and outside the sport. The McLaren MP4/1 had always been interesting because it had become a winner, but now the true advantages of its ground-breaking technology had been demonstrated worldwide. Potential applications for the new material were being identified almost weekly, and videos of Watson’s crash were soon being used in the US to convince the military of the material’s value as cladding for attack helicopters in need of underbody protection against fire from below, For this, and for the major leap forward that F1 safety took, the remarkable McLaren MP4/1 deserves all the credit it can get.