Watson McLaren MP4 Ford Silverstone 1981

John Watson wins the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone…a confluence of events lead to the first carbon-composite chassis Grand Prix car, the McLaren MP4 Ford…

Ron Dennis commenced his Grand Prix career at 18 as a mechanic with Cooper…he was immediately recognised as a man with talent, star driver Jochen Rindt taking him from Cooper to Brabham in 1968. When Jochen decamped to Lotus at the end of the year Ron remained and was Chief Mechanic for Jack in his final year, 1970, Brabham a competitive race winner in the BT33 that season.

Brabham and Dennis 1970

Brabham Racing Organisation council of war around the BT33 in 1970, Jack and Ron Dennis to the fore.(unattributed)

Dennis and Neil Trundle formed ‘Rondel Racing’ to run customer Brabham F2 cars in 1971, Ron Tauranac cutting a deal which provided for payment of the teams BT36’s at the end of the season, after they had been sold. Projects 3 and 4 were also racing teams running customer cars in F3 and F2 throughout the 1970’s, including drivers sponsored by Marlboro, one of his customers in 1980 was Marlboro sponsored Andrea de Cesaris, for whom they ran a March BMW.

Over at McLaren things were not going so well, they won world titles with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt in 1974 and 1976 with the long-lived M23 but had achieved minimal success with their M26 and even less with the cars which followed.

Colin Chapman made life complex for all other designers circa 1978 with his ground-effect concepts and his Lotus 78/79 race-winners. In those days understanding aerodynamic concepts and successfully applying them was part science and part ‘black-art’ and experience, McLaren were not alone in struggling…

The team had been sponsored by Marlboro since 1974. By 1979, John Hogan, the enthusiast and executive responsible for the sponsorship program was getting decidedly ‘toey’ at the lack of success despite McLarens’ generous budget.

Watson, Zandvoort 1979

John Watson leads teammate Patrick Tambay, Dutch GP , Zandvoort 1979. The Mclaren M29 Ford ‘ looked the goods’ but was far from the best Lotus 79 ‘copy’ that year. The Williams FW07 was, albeit the Ferrari 312T4 won the title in Scheckters’ hands. (unattributed)

Dennis’ own programs had been successful commercially, he had built all but one of the M1 ‘Procars’ for BMW in a very short period, he was keen to take the next step to F1 and fulfil a dream which commenced with his Motul F1 car in 1973, a project sold to others and raced as the Token in 1974 when the fuel crisis hit and Motul withdrew their sponsorship.

Dennis asked Patrick Head, Frank Williams design partner in Williams Grand Prix Engineering, for suggestions of a potential designer for his proposed car and F1 program. Head suggested John Barnard whom he had met at Lola and had most recently designed the ground-effect 1980 Indy 500 winning Chaparral 2K Cosworth DFX for Jim Hall.

Chaparrall 2K

‘Lone Star JR’ Johnny Rutherford during his victorious run during the 1980 Indy 500. The ever innovative Jim Hall/ Chaparral team built John Barnards’ ground effect design. 2K had teething problems in ’79 but came good in 1980, by ’81 the bigger teams jumped onto the ground effect bandwagon and the little team was over-run. Beautiful looking car, the looks did not deceive. Rutherford also won the USAC Championship that year, winning at Ontario and Indianapolis. (unattributed)

When Dennis met Barnard he was staggered to learn that Barnard wanted to build the first carbon-fibre F1 car.

At the time the biggest F1 design challenge was to build an aluminium monocoque chassis, which was light but also torsionally stiff enough to withstand the considerable forces generated by the new generation of ground effect cars. Ground effect tunnels were all important to the success of these cars but as the tunnels grew wider, the chassis became narrower and sufficient torsional rigidity, using the aluminium alloy construction material and techniques of the day, was a big challenge.

Barnard saw a chassis of carbon-composite as the solution.

It was a big risk for Dennis as it hadn’t been done before, carbon was being used for wing-endplates and the like but not a chassis…and their were many including Colin Chapman, himself building a car, the twin-chassis Lotus 88 partially of carbon-composite but not wholly of the material as he was convinced that it would not be strong enough in a major accident.

Dennis and Barnard pitched the MP4 ‘Marlboro Project 4’ design to Hogan, initially on the basis that Marlboro dump McLaren and provide the funds to them to build the MP4. Hogan, impressed, to his credit chose not to ‘shoot McLaren’ in whom they had much invested, but with little to lose, engineered a ‘shot gun wedding’ of Dennis/Barnard with McLaren in September 1980.

Teddy Mayers shareholding in McLaren was watered down to 50/50 with he and Dennis appointed Joint Managing Directors. Barnard received some of the equity from Dennis who didn’t have the cash to pay him….Within a year Dennis took control of the team when Mayer said ‘this isn’t working’, Ron paid him out with an advance on his fees from Marlboro.

But that was all in the future, they needed to build the car, and the carbon-composite capability did not exist in the UK.

McLaren International launch

Marlboro PR shot at the launch of ‘McLaren International’, Barnard, Mayer and Dennis pose with the scale model of the ‘Marlboro Project 4’…they may be ‘McLaren Project 4’ now but thats not the way it started! (unattributed)

Hercules Aerospace, Utah…

MP4 chassis nude

Mclaren MP4 Ford…Hercules chassis in all its naked glory…its 1981 and not so different from what we see now, all current GP tubs were born here…with apologies to the Lotus 25. (unattributed)

Whilst carbon-composites were in use in the aero industry in the UK, their was no company with the capability to build a car. A contact of Barnards’ from his Indycar days pointed him in the direction of the Hercules Corporation in Utah. The company had an R&D facility, Barnard jumped on a plane with the quarter scale model of MP4 shown above, and together they worked out how to build it.

Hercules were contracted to design and build the cars chassis with input from Barnard.

They lacked the technology to create curved pieces so the first monocoque was formed with five major components, each with flat surfaces. The internal front suspension bulkhead was aluminium but otherwise the chassis was carbon-composite, McLaren themselves describe it as a bit ‘rough and wrinkled’, but by any standards it was a stunning bit of kit.

The rest of the car was the ‘ground-effect’ Cosworth paradigm of the day; Ford Cosworth 3 litre DFV V8 engine, Hewland FGA five-speed gearbox and inboard suspension front and rear to maximise the flow of air into and out of the cars GE tunnels.

MP4 monocoque launch

Its all about the chassis…MP4 Ford laid bare for the media. The flat surfaces referred to in the text clear. Front suspension comprised wide based lower wishbone and top rocker actuating coil spring/ damper units inside the carbon tub. (unattributed)

Racing the McLaren MP4…

In the last race of 1980, the US GP, McLarens star recruit, 1980 F1 ‘newbee’ Alain Prost had a massive accident blaming it on suspension failure, Mayer cited driver error and Alain left for Renault…he would be back mind you, but for the moment an important element of Dennis’ immediate plans had been lost by Mayers’ inept management. The error didn’t help Teddys’ failing stocks with Marlboro either.

McLaren signed Andrea de Cesaris, whom Ron had run in F2 the year before, and who had the support of Marlboro Italy, and John Watson entering his fourth season with the team and in need of a win, he had been pretty much ‘blown off’ by Prost in 1980.

Dennis, Barnard and Watson

Dennis, John Barnard and John Watson wrestling with a knotty problem by the look . Watsons faith in Dennis and Barnard not to be understated, it was a brave new world, had MP4 not withstood the impact of Watties’ Monza 1981 shunt the outcome may have been different…as it was he proved the ‘shuntability’ of the material by having one big prang bigger than de Cesaris’ many smaller ones that season. (unattributed)

The team started the season with the M29, now in C spec, but no quicker than the year before…

In the first two races, the sole MP4 was raced by Watson qualifying 11th and 7th and finishing 10th in the San Marino GP.

At Zolder he qualified 5th and ran 4th until gearbox  dramas dropped him back to 7th. He qualifed 10th at Monaco and was up to 4th when the DFV went ‘bang’.

Then things started to improve. 4th on the Spanish grid and a 3rd place finish. From the front row in France he finished a strong second behind Prosts’ Renault, his first GP win, and then Wattie won the British GP …

British GP Arnoux and Watson 1981

Arnoux lead Watson for 30 laps, and the Regies’ engine lost its edge…letting John thru for the first carbon-composite chassis victory, Silverstone 1981 (unattributed)

The Renaults’ of Prost and Arnoux lead, Wattie held up by a prang involving de Cesaris, Jones and Villeneuve. Then Watson ‘tigered’, Prost dropped out with a burnt valve, Watson was second to Arnoux, things stayed that way for 30 laps, Arnoux’ engine note changed, the car slowed and Watson took the lead on lap 61 and the win.

The first for carbon-fibre and McLarens first since Fuji in 1977.

The competitiveness of the car was now not in doubt but there were still concerns about the materials abilty to absorb major impacts, although de Cesaris was doing his best to dispel these.

The car had a tendency to ‘porpoise’, as airflow through the GE tunnels ‘stalled’, the aero far from resolved and whilst quick, MP4 was a reasonably unforgiving chassis, which was ok for a relative veteran such as Watson but much more of a challenge for Andrea, who proceeded to have a lot of accidents.

‘de Crasheris’ a nickname which stuck. In 1981 he had 5 accidents in races, 2 spins into retirement and in Holland the team withdrew his entry from the race after an almighty prang in practice.

Having said that, the ‘big one of the year’ was Watsons Italian GP shunt at Monza when he went off at high speed in the Lesmos’ corners, running wide on a kerb at the corners exit at over 140mph, backing the car into the armco and carving it in half, the engine, ‘box and rear suspension, torn from the car but leaving the tub itself intact, with John in it.

Much to Murray and James delight he jumped out unharmed…Barnards’ faith in the material, and his engineering of it was vindiacted, the doubters were silenced as they realised a new paradigm was upon them.

Nelson Piquet won the World Championship for Brabham in his BT49 Cosworth from the Williams duo of Carlos Reutemann and Alan Jones, scrapping with each other and denying them both, and the team the titles which were theirs to take with more aggressive team management.

‘Wattie’ finished sixth in the MP4s’ debut year, the cars success forcing all to build their own cars of the new material.

MP4 was, in the modern idiom, a ‘game changer’.

Into 1982 Niki Lauda, bored with retirement and needing money,  joined the team, replacing de Cesaris and bringing his strong testing abilities to extract the best from the chassis, but that is another story…

Watson Monza 1981

Watsons MP4 Monza 1981…destroyed in a big accident the following day…the chassis forward finished beside the armco where Watson jumped out of it, the engine, box and rear suspension being partially collected by Alboretos’ Tyrrell on circuit…(John Shingleton)

McLaren MP4/1 Ford Legacy…

When you look back on it, the idea of the ‘carbon car’ was audacious, Dennis had not run an F1 Team before nor had Barnard designed a GP car. But they had nothing to lose, nor did Marlboro who needed wins quickly.

Whilst the plan was audacious the execution of it was outstanding in a way the GP world was to come to expect from Ron Dennis.

From a drivers safety perspective the development of carbon-composites as THE chassis material for all but the junior classes means fewer lives have been lost than in any previous era, since 1981.

The advent of the modern aluminium monocoque in 1962 by Lotus, the mandated use of safety belts, on-board extinguishers and ‘bag’ fuel tanks were all postive safety steps but surely no single change in any era of motor racing has made as big a safety impact as Barnards’ pioneering use of the material in MP4?

For that we should all be thankful.

McLaren MP4 cutaway

Cutaway drawing of McLaren MP4/1B, the 1982 car driven by Watson/Lauda. Essential elements the same as MP4/1 as the first car was called retrospectively. Carbon fibre honeycomb chassis, Ford Cosworth 3 litre DFV V8, circa 490bhp@10750rpm in 1981. Hewland FGA400 gearbox. Front suspension inboard, top rocker actuating coil spring damper units and wide based lower wishbone. Rear wishbones actuating inboard mounted coil spring/damper units. Steel discs (they experimented with carbon in 1982), rack and pinion steering, circa 585kg in weight. (Bruno Baratto)

McLaren MP4 Ford profile

Credits…

McLaren International, John Shingleton, Bruno Baratto

Finito…

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