McLaren MP4/1: Carbon fibre revolutionary

Goodwood Festival of Speed

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Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4/1, Goodwood, 2011

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

McLaren MP4/1, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

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

McLaren MP4/1, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

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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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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20 comments on “McLaren MP4/1: Carbon fibre revolutionary”

  1. Necver mind the car, I forgot how many teams Andrea de Cesaris drove for! 10! Alfa Romeo, McLaren, Ligier, Minardi, Brabham, Rial, Scuderia Italia, Jordan, Tyrrell, Sauber!

    1. yes,and andrea was the reason no italians at mclaren ever since. Dennis promised himself not to hire them again.
      He crashed 19 times out of 17 races or something like that. But he had very big marlboro conections, and finished the season.
      Without the carbon fiber chassis, who knows if he would be alive today. Spending his days surfing in hawai. What a hard live the italian had so far.

  2. DeadManWoking
    3rd July 2011, 15:03

    While the MP4 was the first F1 car to race with a carbon fiber chassis, Colin Chapman’s Lotus 88

    had both of it’s chassis constructed of carbon fiber. It was used in practice at both the Long Beach and Brazilian GPs but was not allowed to race. By the time the MP4 was introduced at Argentina, the 88 had been banned.

  3. Spotted a typo:

    On lap 20 at Monaco he spun the car is in the Lesmo corners and hit the barrier hard.

    Great article, always wondered what the “MP4” meant :)

    1. DeadManWoking
      3rd July 2011, 15:15

      It originally stood for Marlboro Project 4 as they were instrumental in bringing Ron Dennis and McLaren together.

    2. Yeah, I was gonna say, they must have had some different corners in Monaco back in the day ;)

  4. i think u mean Monza and not Monaco. jus watched that crash….. dont see that nowadays!!!!

  5. Another very expensive but invaluable technology bought into the sport by a team looking for an advantage.

    1. Good thing the FIA had not yet gotten to writing as strict rules at the time, eh.

      If someone would bring something completely new now, it would be banned both for cost and safety concerns, I guess.

      1. It was called FISA before. Mr. Max Mosley became a president and started to reorganize it into FIA as we know it today…

        1. Regarding MP4/1: McLaren pioneered the technology of carbon fiber but German ATS used it to the full potential as it is used today.
          McLaren’s engineers, John Barnard to be specific, used carbon chassis which was covered with bodywork. ATS built the monocoque solely out of carbon fibre completely shaping the monocoque with it.
          However MP4/4 was built in old fashion and successful approach notwithstanding – Gordon Murray was to blame ;-)

  6. On lap 20 at Monaco he spun the car is in the Lesmo corners – ERM?

  7. I got a nice shot of the MP4/1 with the nosecone removed, so you can see the CF tub:

    1. You’re welcome to use that in the article if you want by the way Keith, no copyright on it ;)

  8. Great article, great reading.

  9. I was lucky enough to be on one of the McLaren factory tours in May when the heritage engineers were getting it ready for Goodwood. When we were talking to them the car had not long been fired up and the exhaust pipes were still mildly warm to touch.

    Shame I couldn’t get to Goodwood – would have loved to see Lewis in it.

  10. “Watson scored a hat-trick of wins in the middle of the season, culminating in victory on home ground at Silverstone.”

    I think you mean hat trick of podiums.

  11. Nice bit of history on carbon fibre there, thanks.

  12. On Lap 20 at Monaco at the Lesmo… there’s something wrong with that phrase Keith, don’t you mean Monza?

  13. “De Cesaris was developing a reputation for being crash-prone” HAHAHAHAHA

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