Composite Force - 1981 McLaren MP4/1 Ford

McLaren Racing Limited was founded in 1963 by New-Zealander Bruce McLaren. Already a very competitive driver and 3-time Grand Prix winner, the hard charging Kiwi was also amazingly skilled in the field of engineering. His experiences both on and off the track lead him to believe he could build way better cars than the customer Coopers he was racing at that point. Bruce then expanded his business to include the manufacturing of Can Am sportscars, and built his first Formula 1 chassis in 1966. 

Business went well for McLaren. Driving alongside countryman Denny Hulme, he and his sportscars utterly dominated the Can Am series starting in 1967. Their choke hold on the competition was so fierce and relentless the American press referred to the series as "The Bruce and Denny Show".  On the other side of the Atlantic the Formula 1 effort made a major breakthrough with McLaren winning the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix in the M7A. All signs pointed to a bright future for McLaren and his company, until a gruesome accident at Goodwood ended his life in 1970. He had been testing his latest Can Am creation, the M8D, when the rear bodywork detached as McLaren was traveling at high speed. The loss of downforce sent the car into a violent spin. Hopelessly out of control, the car slammed into a concrete bunker which was used as a flag station. Bruce McLaren passed away at the young age of 32. 

The successful business he had founded outlived him, and kept winning races in Formula 1. Under the direction of co-founder Teddy Mayer (USA), the team surged to success, securing two driver's titles (1974, Emerson Fittipaldi / 1976, James Hunt) and one Constructor's title (1974). By 1980 however, McLaren was lagging behind. The ground-effect revolution started by Lotus in 1977 and the advent of turbocharging engineered by Renault had upset the status quo in a massive way. McLaren struggled to get to grips with the innovative concepts, and their competitiveness waned. The former world champions went three full seasons without a single win.

Fed up with the lack of results, main sponsor Philip Morris Tobacco instigated a coup. The vast corporation felt a change of leadership was needed, and forced Teddy Mayer into negotiations with a Formula 2 constructor named Project 4, which also received sponsorship from the tobacco giant. Project 4 was lead by a 32-year old mastermind called Ron Dennis (GB), an experienced figure in the world of Formula 1. Dennis had worked for 3-time World Champion Jack Brabham and had tried to start his own team, but was forced to down into F2 due to the 1973 energy crisis. 

Sir Jack Brabham (center) and Ron Dennis (right), Nürburgring 1969.

Sir Jack Brabham (center) and Ron Dennis (right), Nürburgring 1969.

Complying with the wishes of their single biggest investor, McLaren and Project 4 merged in 1980, with Ron Dennis appointed team manager. Dennis brought with him luminary designer John Barnard (GB), who had experienced an epiphany some time before the merger. 

Project 4 had been preparing BMW M1  Procars as a side project, when Barnard took notice of the unusual carbon fiber composite rear wing on the cars. He immediately spotted the potential of the exotic material, and planned to build a Formula 1 chassis out of it. His only problem was money, Project 4 simply didn't have the funds for such an ambitious project. The merger with McLaren was therefore a godsend. Through the partnership Barnard and Dennis now had access to almost unlimited funds and manpower, which enabled them to start work on Barnard's groundbreaking brain child. 

The ingenious machine Barnard came up with was completely unremarkable to the outside viewer. It was still powered by a naturally aspirated 3.0L Ford-Cosworth DFY V8, a development of the ubiquitous DFV. This meant it wasn't especially powerful, with just 490 horsepower on tap. The power was handled by an equally conventional Hewland FG400 5-speed manual gearbox. Furthermore, no obvious aerodynamic improvements were visible. 

But the car had one simple key advantage: the carbon fiber chassis made it incredibly stiff and strong, whilst also being very light. The added stiffness helped the car withstand the higher g-forces associated with ground effect aerodynamics, and improved handling. The lower weight on the other hand improved everything. A lighter car accelerated faster, braked later, used less fuel and was easier on the brakes and tires. In a world where every gram counted, Barnard trusted in these principles to give the 585 kg (1290 lbs) car an edge over the more powerful turbo cars, like the heavy 540 horsepower Ferrari 126CK (619 kg / 1365).

The finished car was named MP4, an amalgamation of Marlboro (Philip Morris' main brand) and Project 4. The designation marked the first in a long line of grand prix racers. With the space age car finished, McLaren still needed some top talent to blast it along the world's circuits.

McLaren had already done one half of the job, as the talented John Watson (GB) had been with them since 1979. Watson was to be their lead driver, but they still needed a second. The team's search lead them to the promising 21-year old Italian Andrea de Cesaris, who had debuted the year before with the ailing Alfa Romeo team (also sponsored by Philip Morris Tobacco). 

Andrea de Cesaris, 1981 Italian Grand Prix.

Andrea de Cesaris, 1981 Italian Grand Prix.

The team made do with the two year old M29 design for the first two Grands Prix of the 1981 season, as the 1980 M30 proved to be a disaster. At the third round of the season at Buenos Aires, Argentina, John Watson finally received the very first MP4. The new car showed promise when Watson put it in 11th on the grid, 6 places further forward than he had been able to with the M30 the year before. Sadly he had to retire after 36 laps with a broken transmission. Andrea de Cesaris in the older car finished 11th, 2 laps down on Nelson Piquet's Brabham.

At San Marino the Watson qualified an impressive 7th, and brought the car home in 10th. Once again he had been beaten by De Cesaris in the M29 though, who came up from 14th to finish 6th, scoring a World Championship point. The Belgian Grand Prix showed Watson was growing more and more confident with the car. He qualified 5th and finished just out of the points in 7th. De Cesaris was out on lap 11 with another gearbox failure.

John Watson testing an experimental raised front wing, Monaco 1981.

John Watson testing an experimental raised front wing, Monaco 1981.

At the Monaco Grand Prix the odds were in McLaren's favor. Their lighter cars with responsive naturally aspirated engines had an edge on the cumbersome, laggy turbo cars. The theoretical superiority didn't translate to a good grid position though, as Watson was stuck in 10th in front of De Cesaris, who had by now also taken delivery of the new car. The race brought worse luck still as both cars failed to finish. Andrea de Cesaris was out first after a clumsy start crash with Mario Andretti (USA). John Watson followed with an engine failure on lap 52. 

The Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama saw much more positive results. Watson was 4th on the grid, De Cesaris 14th. In a five way battle for the lead, Watson faced off against Carlos Reutemann (ARG), Elio de Angelis (ITA), Jacques Laffite (FRA) and Gilles Villeneuve (CAN). Five drivers with five different nationalities in five different cars put on a hell of a show. In the end Villeneuve profited from the turbo power of the Ferrari, but the cars still finished in train-like fashion with just 1.24 seconds covering all five. Watson took the MP4's first podium with 3rd, while Andrea De Cesaris dropped out after an accident on lap 9.

Villeneuve leading Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and De Angelis, Jarama 1981.

Villeneuve leading Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and De Angelis, Jarama 1981.

The French Grand Prix at Dijon saw John Watson improve even further, with 2nd behind Renault's Alain Prost. De Cesaris finished in a low 11th, two laps down on his teammate. At Silverstone, both cars qualified well in 5th and 6th, with Watson leading once more. Andrea de Cesaris got ahead of Watson at the start, but caught out by the wild stylings of Gilles Villeneuve. The Canadian went off and bounced back onto the track, taking out Alan Jones (AUS) and forcing De Cesaris to take evasive action into the barriers.

John Watson saw the mayhem unfold in front of him but managed to avoid any damage. After a tire blowout and heavy crash for Nelson Piquet and engine failures for Didier Pironi (FRA), René Arnoux (FRA) and Alain Prost, Watson found himself in the lead. After Andretti and Riccardo Patrese (ITA) also suffered technical misery, the McLaren driver founds himself with a 40 second cushion over Reutemann. Watson kept his cool and piloted the MP4 to the very first victory for an all carbon fiber Formula 1 car.

John Watson chasing down René Arnoux, Silverstone 1981.

John Watson chasing down René Arnoux, Silverstone 1981.

The fantastic win at the British Grand Prix marked a high point for McLaren, finally putting an end to their seemingly endless lack of victories. The coup engineered by Philip Morris Tobacco appeared to have worked. The success returned thanks to John Barnard's ingenuity, Ron Dennis' management skills and a healthy dose of luck. The rest of the season did not go totally according to plan however, as the team failed to take another win. John Watson scored just 8 more points in the remaining 6 rounds of the 1981 championship. A pair of 6th places in Germany and Austria, followed by another impressive 2nd at the Canadian Grand Prix. 

 

Watson also had the unfortunate pleasure of demonstrating another revolutionary feature of the MP4 at the Italian Grand Prix. On lap 19 Watson ran wide at Lesmo 2 and spun into the barriers tail-first. The engine was ripped from the chassis with a burst of flame and catapulted across the track, punting Michele Alboreto's Tyrrell off with it. Despite the severity of the crash, Watson was otherwise unhurt. In the process he had unwillingly demonstrated the improved safety inherent in the stiffer carbon fiber monocoque chassis.    

Andrea de Cesaris' massive shunt at Zandvoort, 1981.

Andrea de Cesaris' massive shunt at Zandvoort, 1981.

Andrea de Cesaris was meanwhile still busy earning his mocking nickname (De Crasharis). He managed to get involved in three more incidents in Germany, The Netherlands and Canada. For the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort the Italian didn't even get a chance to start, as he plowed his MP4 head first into the armco at Tarzan corner during qualifying. De Cesaris was unharmed, another testament of the safety of the MP4. After a turbulent season and just one scored point, he was dropped by McLaren in favor of double World Champion Niki Lauda.

The McLaren MP4/1 was a real trailblazer. Under fresh leadership from Ron Dennis, and with the brilliant mind of John Barnard, the magnificent machine revived a comatose McLaren. Barnard's bright idea not only got the team a long awaited win, but it also set the standards for all Formula 1 cars of the future. With  even increasing speeds and aerodynamic loads, the carbon fiber chassis was the only way to go. The safety improvements that happened to come with it ensured the viability of an ever faster F1.