Revolutionary Technology in Formula One: Composite Materials

Since the first development of racing cars, engineers have sought out ways of making them quicker. Physics dictates that one of the most crucial elements in an automobile design which is to be quick in all areas of racing is to reduce the mass of the car as much as possible. Steel bodies were therefore superceded by aluminium alloys, which left the cars with less momentum. The monocoque chassis, previously discussed in Revolutionary Technology in Formula One: The Monocoque Chassis, further decreased mass, leaving cars in the order of 450 kilograms, minus fuel and driver. By 1966, though, with the return of the 3-litre formula and the corresponding increase in mass, the developments in conventional aluminium construction had reached a plateau. One team, new to the sport, would take the lead in introducing a method of construction which would develop into a fundamental part of all Formula One cars in the future.

Bruce McLaren had already impressed people in the sport with several podiums and a few wins in the mid-engined Cooper cars which dominated the 1959 and 1960 seasons and had proved reasonably successful throughout the early 1960s. When John Cooper tried to insist that 1.5-litre Formula One engines should be run in McLaren’s attempts at running in the Australasian Tasman Series instead of the 2.5-litre engines permitted, McLaren set up his own racing team, competing with custom-built Cooper cars. With a championship win in the series, McLaren set his sights on Formula One, judging the Cooper team to be slipping down the ranks from their once-dominant position.

Bruce McLaren contracted Robin Herd, a former engineer on the Concorde project to design a car. Herd produced the M2B, a car designed with the use of a material named Mallite. Mallite was composed of a sheet of balsa wood covered on both sides with aluminum alloy, making the material stiffer than the conventional duralumin alloy used in other cars of the time. Another composite material, fibreglass, was used for some of the ancillary parts of the bodywork, such as the nose and engine cover.

All of these materials made for a light, yet stiff chassis which may have had some success if it weren’t for the unreliable engines that the McLaren team used in a season which emphasised reliability. However, Mallite, being an inherently inflexible material, was difficult to use in car designs in which curves and aerodynamic shapes were important. The cars of the 1970 season and for several seasons beyond would therefore remain relatively conventional, with the exception of the titanium-incorporating Eagle Mk1 and the disastrous magnesium-skinned design of the Honda RA302. However, composites would not remain a niche material in Formula One forever, and McLaren would once again be the team to bring the new developments to the table. Unfortunately, Bruce McLaren’s death in 1970 would guarantee that he would not see the success that his team would attain.

By 1981, McLaren had won two World Drivers’ Championships and one World Constructors’ Championship with their long-lasting M23 design, and had been competitive throughout most of the 1970s. In the midst of a downturn for the team, McLaren merged with a Formula Two team called Project Four, owned by Ron Dennis. The merger gave engineer John Barnard the resources to put his revolutionary new MP4/1 design to the race track. The MP4/1, for Marlboro Project Four/1, was entirely composed of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, a light, stiff composite material then used primarily in the field of aerospace design, and the MP4/1 was the first demonstration of a monocoque automotive chassis designed from the material.

The decision to use carbon-fibre would prove to be a fortuitous one. Not only would the MP4/1 bring McLaren their first victory since 1977, but it would arguably contribute to the relative lack of injury suffered by John Watson after a horrifying crash at the Lesmo curves at the Italian Grand Prix. The material had truly experienced a trial by fire, and despite its expense, it was demonstrably useful for the field of motor racing.

The 1982 season was, by most accounts, a disastrous one and definitely one of the annī horribilis of the sport. Two drivers died, several escaped life-threatening injury and the eventual winner of the championship managed the feat by sheer consistency and reliability rather than the blazing speed of his car. For McLaren, however, the year wasn’t all bad. The return of Niki Lauda to the cockpit after a sabbatical lent some additional experience and a still-competitive driver to the McLaren team.

The Ferrari team, whose 126 C car proved the best of the field in 1982, also incorporated carbon fibre into their car design, although not to the extent of the McLaren team. Unfortunately, they suffered an early tragedy in the death of Gilles Villeneuve after a dispute with his teammate, Didier Pironi, over the results of the farcical San Marino Grand Prix. Didier Pironi’s success later in the season led to it looking like he would take the championship when he suffered a career-ending crash in qualifying for the German Grand Prix. This left the championship open for several competitors, including Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg and John Watson. Watson came close to winning the championship, but was held back by Rosberg’s superior consistency even in an inferior car without the turbocharged engines of the front-runners. As this would prove to be the last championship for a naturally-aspirated car until the turbocharged engines were banned in 1989, the predicted form of the year was further shaken up.

The 1983 season would not prove as successful for the McLaren team, and by then, many of their competitors had caught up with McLaren in the incorporation of carbon-fibre monocoques. Lotus, Alfa Romeo, Renault and Brabham had all taken cues from McLaren, and Brabham’s innovative, arrow-shaped BT52 model was the best suited to take advantage of the banning of ground effect from the rules in response to the tragedies of 1982. McLaren suffered a series of retirements which put them well outside of competition for the Drivers’ or Constructors’ Championships, while their competitors were taking advantage of a technology introduced by McLaren.

However, the 1984 season would allow McLaren to reap the rewards of their development with the new McLaren MP4/2. The mixture of a refined chassis with a powerful, yet reliable and fuel-efficient TAG-Porsche engine allowed McLaren to dominate the season, with a straight-up competition between Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, the latter having moved to McLaren after having missed out on the Drivers’ Championship by only two points. In the end, Lauda won his third World Championship by half-a-point over Prost, while McLaren easily won the Constructors’ Championship, just rewards for their efforts. Carbon fibre was in the sport to stay, and while some less well-funded teams still incorporated the older aluminium alloy design features into their cars for a few years afterwards, they would eventually have to follow the suit of their competitors as the power outputs produced by the turbocharged engines demonstrated that the old aluminium monocoques were no longer stiff enough for the job.

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