Carbon fibre

The benefits of the strong, lightweight material are well understood now but that was not always the case

For many, the influence of Formula One on passenger vehicles is minimal.  The costs involved in racing are too vast and the performance criteria too different for F1 technologies to be applicable to the mainstream industry, or so the argument goes. 

In some cases, however, all that is required is a little patience. Take carbon fibre, for instance. 

It is unheard of for a modern F1 racing car chassis to be built using anything other than the lightweight material – and it has been that way for the past three decades – but even today the technology has really only reached the luxury end of the production vehicle market.

BMW is increasingly making use of the material in its line-up but it was the McLaren F1 (pictured above) that was the first road vehicle to have a complete carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) monocoque chassis structure, in 1992. McLaren had already been the forerunner in using the technology in F1 over a decade previously when the racing team competed with the MP4/1 (right) in the 1981 season.

At that time, the weight saving benefits of the composite material were widely accepted but there were serious misgivings regarding its robustness and durability, with fears it would not be able to protect the driver sufficiently.  

Crash fall-out

While carbon fibre had been applied in an aerospace context for a number of years, its use in the automotive industry had been limited to rear wing supports. The belief that it could snap easily or even disintegrate in a collision meant that it was not considered a suitable chassis material.

But when the McLaren racing driver John Watson crashed spectacularly at the Italian Grand Prix during the 1981 season, the doubters were silenced.

Despite the engine and gearbox being torn off in the high-speed and explosive accident, the carbon-fibre monocoque structure remained intact and Watson was able to walk away relatively unscathed.

tags: May 2016 BMW McLaren Chassis
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