The future is carbon fibre


WHEN BELFAST boy John Watson crossed the line to win the 1981 British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, he kicked off a revolution in the way cars would be made. Watson’s McLaren MP4-1 was the first all-carbon-fibre racing car.

Carbon fibre had been in use since the 1960s, primarily in aircraft and rocketry applications, but it was McLaren, then newly taken over by Ron Dennis, and Dennis’s chief designer, John Barnard, who brought it fully into Formula 1. The MP4-1’s exceptional strength was proven when Watson had a huge shunt at the Italian Grand Prix. His car spun into the barriers at high speed, with enough force to rip the engine and gearbox clean off. In an old-style aluminium car, he would probably have been badly hurt at least. In the carbon MP4-1, he walked away without a scratch.

It didn’t take long for McLaren’s rivals to catch on, and before long all F1 cars were being made mostly of carbon fibre, to the point where, today, practically every component, from the suspension arms to the wings to the steering wheel, are made of this ultralight, ultrastrong material.

That particular mix of qualities – strong and light – should make carbon fibre a perfect material from which to make road cars. After all, if you can take 100kg off the weight of a family car, you can cut huge chunks from its emissions and fuel consumption. The problem is that carbon fibre is ludicrously expensive, so there’s no chance of seeing it on an ordinary hatchback, other than as a thin film of stick-on decoration. Or so I thought until I spoke to Anthony Sheriff, the MD of McLaren Automotive, the road-car-making arm of the same F1 team that Watson drove for, and maker of the renowned all-carbon 1993 McLaren F1 supercar and the achingly desirable current MP4-12C. According to Sheriff, we’re on the verge of a carbon revolution that will reach all the way down to the cheapest corners of the car market.

“Carbon fibre as a material is exceptionally strong for its weight or, alternatively, exceptionally light for its strength. We try to use it in both ways, using a carbon-fibre monocoque, or a monocell, which provides an extraordinarily safe cocoon for the driver and gives much better crash safety. It gives much more rigidity to the car, so that the car is more stiff torsionally and the suspension is better located, so that you get better handling. It’s also lighter, which makes the car more fuel efficient and makes it go quicker.

“So, basically, everything that’s important to the driving experience – strength for crash safety, weight for speed and efficiency, rigidity for handling – is improved significantly with carbon fibre. That’s the case whether you’re talking about a mid-engined 200mph sports car or a city car.”

And city cars is where we will probably see carbon fibre’s first migration outside of the realm of blue-chip, superexpensive hypercars. Specifically, BMW’s upcoming i3 city car, with its mix of pure electric and electric range-extender drivetrains, all designed around a carbon-fibre cell that sticks to the established plot of being lighter, stronger and generally better but that BMW claims to have discovered a way to build without breaking the bank. It’s called the LifeDrive structure, and it will form the basis of both the i3 and the striking i8 hybrid supercar.

Electric cars and hybrids stand to benefit the most from affordable carbon structures. The weight of the batteries and motors can be dealt with, and the lighter the car is overall, the farther it will go on a single charge.

And this weight saving isn’t just for cars with batteries; it can create a virtuous circle in more conventional cars too. Cut the weight of the structure, the chassis, and you can have a smaller engine, because you’ll need less power to push it along. Less power means you also have less need for hefty cooling systems and brakes, so both radiators and discs can be made smaller and lighter. All of that makes for a more efficient car, so your fuel consumption will fall, which means your fuel tank can be smaller, saving yet more weight and space. Save all that weight and the kinetic energy of any potential crash impact is vastly reduced, so the physical structure of the car can be made smaller and lighter again and the cycle starts over.

How long before your average family hatchback makes significant use of carbon fibre? Don’t hold your breath, but, equally, it might be worth starting a savings account now.

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