The McLaren MP4/1 – originally dubbed the ‘MP4’ – represented a major step forward in F1 car design.
The car, which first raced in 1981, pioneered the use of carbon fibre for chassis construction.
Unusually, this was a development that did as much to advance safety in Formula 1 as it did performance.
But when the car was introduced there was scepticism from rival designers over whether it would work, and claims it would prove unsafe, disintegrating into carbon dust on impact.
Fresh start for McLaren
The MP4 marked a new start for McLaren. The team had slumped in form in the years following James Hunt’s drivers championship victory in 1976.
Ron Dennis’s Project 4 company was merged with the team. Marking the break with the past, a new naming system was introduced: MP4, for McLaren Project 4.
Dennis brought designer John Barnard over from America to develop the car. Barnard’s IndyCar contacts led him to a Utah-based company called Hercules who had experience with carbon fibre and were willing to co-operate on the research project.
Carbon fibre had been used in F1 cars previously, starting with the Hill GH1, raced by Graham Hill in 1975, which used it for rear wing supports.
But McLaren were the first team to build an entire chassis with it, using techniques which have been the industry standard for three decades.
Layers of carbon fibre are piled on top of each other, formed around a mould and bound together using resin. This is heated in a large oven, called an autoclave, until it hardens, and the mould is removed leaving the chassis.
Before carbon fibre, teams built their cars using flat sheets of aluminium honeycomb. Carbon fibre offered the advantages of being lighter yet stiffer at the same time.
The original version of the MP4 proved far stiffer than it needed to be, so a new chassis was built using fewer of the carbon fibre plies. The result was a chassis which was on par with its rivals for weight, but more than twice as stiff.
Watson’s crash test
It wasn’t ready to race until the Argentinian Grand Prix, originally scheduled as the fourth race of 1981. Even then there was only one example ready: John Watson got the new car and Andrea de Cesaris had to make do with the old M29F for three races.
The team made rapid progress with the car and found it especially quick on fast circuits. Watson scored a hat-trick of podiums in the middle of the season, culminating in victory on home ground at Silverstone.
De Cesaris was developing a reputation for being crash-prone and did much to prove the car’s integrity. But it was Watson who silenced the doubters over the MP4’s capacity to withstand a crash.
On lap 20 at Monaco he spun the car in the Lesmo corners and hit the barrier hard. The impact tore the engine and gearbox off the car – but the monocoque remained intact.
Video of Watson’s accident was soon being used to tout the benefits of carbon fibre in fields far beyond motor racing.
McLaren’s rivals follow suit
The original MP4 – later referred to as the MP4/1 – was succeeded by B, C, D and E-derivatives. Together they won six races over the following two years. The final version marked a switch from Cosworth V8 power to a Porsche-developed TAG 1.5-litre turbo engine.
For subsequent cars, the carbon fibre was laid within the mould, rather than outside it (a ‘female mould’ rather than a ‘male mould’), giving a smoother surface on the outside of the car.
The following year McLaren dominated the world championship with the MP4/2 with the formidable driver line-up of Niki Lauda, tempted back from retirement in 1982, and Alain Prost, who had returned to the team.
Only now were McLaren’s rivals following their lead: Ferrari with the 126C4 in 1984, Williams a year later with the FW10.
By the second half of the 1980s, the entire field was racing carbon fibre chassis.
McLaren MP4/1 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed
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