In this new video from McLaren, famed Formula 1 designer John Barnard describes the creation of the 1981 McLaren MP4/1, the first carbon-fiber race car. The materials revolution in the auto industry continues, but it was born here. Watch.
In 1980, designer John Barnard returned to England and to McLaren, having completed his work on Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2K, the revolutionary ground-effects Indy car. With more than a year to prepare for the 1981 Formula 1 season, Barnard and McLaren team owner Ron Dennis decided to throw all in on a new and unproven method of automotive chassis construction known as carbon fiber composite (CFC). Though untested in racing, the new material promised to be both lighter and stiffer, an unbeatable combination. Lending its expertise in carbon construction, Hercules Incorporated, an American company based in Salt Lake City, built the chassis tub to Barnard’s specifications.
The material more than proved itself, winning the 1981 British Grand Prix in July with driver John Watson. Then in September, the new car won the hearts and minds of the Formula 1 community when John Watson survived a harrowing high-speed crash at the Italian Grand Prix. The car was torn in half, but Watson casually stepped out of the remains and walked away. The superior strength and safety of carbon fiber was demonstrated beyond any real doubt, and the rest of the F1 constructors embraced the technology in a matter of months.
As the people at McLaren Automotive like to say, they haven’t built an automobile any other way since—race car or road car. Meanwhile, composite materials and their countless offshoots find more applications every day in the production cars we drive. In this beautifully produced video, the engaging Barnard recalls the cautious but confident steps that created the first carbon-fiber cars. We know you’ll enjoy it.