30 years of carbon fiber innovation as McLaren unites John Watson with the MP4-12C

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Photography by: McLaren Automotive
John Watson and the MP4/1
John Watson and the MP4/1 Source McLaren Automotive
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McLaren MP4-12C and  John Watson John Watson and the MP4/1 McLaren XP5 Front McLaren XP5 Side View McLaren F1 GTR Front McLaren F1 GTR Rear
McLaren XP5 Interior McLaren MP4-12C Rolling Chassis McLaren MP4-12C MonoCell and MP4/1 McLaren MP4/1 Carbon Monocoque McLaren MP4/1 Carbon Monocoque / MP4-12C MonoCell McLaren MP4/1 Carbon Monocoque

·         Watson pilots McLaren MP4-12C at Silverstone 30 years after presenting the world’s first carbon composite monocoque at the Northamptonshire circuit

·         12C introduces world’s first one-piece molded carbon fiber chassis, three decades after carbon-based McLaren MP4/1 won British Grand Prix

·         First carbon chassis in sub-£200,000 road car segment delivered through innovation in design and industrialized manufacturing processes

Carbon pioneers

McLaren is a carbon pioneer. On March 5, 1981 McLaren Racing introduced the carbon monocoque to Formula 1 in the McLaren MP4/1: it offered an unbeatable combination of strength and lightness. It had an immediate dynamic impact, with John Watson winning the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It also proved an effective safety cell, with Watson walking away from a dramatic high-speed crash at Monza later that season. Within a few years, every other Formula 1 team on the grid had followed suit, and McLaren’s place as carbon innovators was sealed.

On March 4, 2011, John Watson will be re-united with the MP4/1 at Silverstone as he gets the opportunity to drive the McLaren MP4-12C, the latest carbon-based road car from McLaren and the first to feature an innovative, one-piece molded carbon chassis structure: the MonoCell.

McLaren has consistently innovated in the field of composites technology. Launching the 12C high-performance sports car in 2011 heralds not only the first sub-£200,000 road car based on carbon, but also, through industrialization of the production processes, potentially kick-starts the era of one-piece molded carbon chassis in more ‘everyday’ cars.

Antony Sheriff, Managing Director at McLaren Automotive, said: “McLaren is a company driven by a passion to innovate.

“That passion manifests itself in advances in uses of materials and technologies in order to win motor races and produce ground-breaking cars. But only now, almost 30 years to the day when we introduced the first carbon chassis, are we seeing that technology begin to transfer to more mainstream production.

“McLaren Automotive is leading the way, planning to produce up to 5,000 carbon-based cars per year as a range of exclusive and premium sports cars. But I am convinced our ability to move carbon chassis manufacture from hand-built, immensely time-consuming processes, to production-line systems will be a step-change in the industry.

“Quality, dimensional accuracy and repair ability are ensured, whilst costs are lowered. Since 1981, when John tested the MP4/1’s carbon safety cell, the modern McLaren has never built a car without a carbon chassis. This legacy gives the 12C huge advantages over our rivals: it is the foundation of our company and the key to our cars’ performance and style.”


John Watson said: “The MP4/1’s safety cell almost certainly saved my life. But I am convinced it also contributed to McLaren getting back to winning ways after a very lean spell. It was hugely exciting to be part of what felt like a revolution and amazing really to think that not only did all racing teams follow McLaren’s lead, but that McLaren has stuck to carbon so religiously in everything it has done.

“I will be reunited with ‘my’ racing car and get to drive the 12C at Silverstone almost 30 years to the day since driving the MP4/1 out of the pit lane there, and it will be both a proud and an emotional moment for me,” Watson said.

The 12C: based on the McLaren MonoCell

Weighing just 75kgs (165lbs), the 12C’s carbon chassis, or MonoCell, was designed and developed by the McLaren Automotive Body Structures team at the company’s headquarters in Woking, UK.

The MonoCell’s composition and construction process were defined over a three year period as the first, and vital, step in McLaren Automotive’s launch as a fully-fledged sports car company.

Claudio Santoni, Function Group Manager for Body Structures at McLaren Automotive, said: “Inadvertently, John Watson proved the safety benefits of carbon at Monza in ’81, but the 12C’s carbon chassis offers owners more than just exceptional occupant safety.

“It is light, which helps reduce the 12C’s CO2 emissions to unprecedented levels for high-performance sports cars.  It is also incredibly strong and predictable in form and behavior, providing a great foundation to world-beating performance; acceleration, braking, changes of direction and vehicle stability are all significantly better than on any car with aluminum chassis that I have ever known. This is because, using a carbon composite means we can manufacture the MonoCell with aerospace industry levels of precision, which is fundamental to accurate dynamic suspension geometry control,” Santoni concluded.

The 12C’s MonoCell concept required it to provide the perfect combination of occupant space, structural integrity, light weight, and relatively low construction costs in a manufacturing process that required proven production-line replication:

·         the ‘perfect’ occupant space as regards driver positioning and safety

·         the structural integrity and dimensional accuracy to form the bedrock to segment-beating performance

·         light weight to contribute to great handling, and step-change CO2 and fuel consumption figures

·         a new construction process that supported all of the performance targets, improved quality, yet made a dramatic impact on the investment costs of producing carbon chassis

Component and construction-design the key to carbon innovation

McLaren Automotive contracted composite experts, CarboTech, to refine the production process, and bring to market McLaren’s ambitions. Presented with a working concept based on 50 McLaren-made MonoCells, the Austrian company was challenged to help revolutionize carbon chassis manufacturing.

This has been McLaren’s working principle with all of its key technology suppliers: McLaren vision and design experience matched to the suppliers’ specialist expertise in manufacturing leading-edge components. The result is a lightweight, hollow, yet very strong and predictable structure.

The MonoCell is produced in one piece through the Resin Transfer Moulding (RTM) process that, for the first time, uses robots and production lines: manufacturing systems common-place in most car factories.

The production process begins by loading dry carbon fiber into a complex 35-ton steel tool before it is pressed together, heated and then injected with epoxy resin. Using a steel tool is new to the manufacturing process: historically, carbon chassis’ have been formed in ‘soft’ tooling of composite materials, which adds production costs and time. The subsequent post-curing process hardens the resin, and the MonoCell then enters a booth where key surfaces are machined with great precision in preparation for vehicle assembly.  The process between forming and curing produces the MonoCell as a hollow structure, and is the key to the chassis’ combination of strength and light weight.

Once complete, the MonoCell is placed into a unique McLaren-designed test rig and subjected to high stresses, in order to prove that each part is capable of meeting exacting performance standards.

Santoni: “I see no reason why the benefits of carbon should not cascade into more and more automotive product lines. But it will take a little while. McLaren took three years to develop the MonoCell and its production process. We also had the benefit of no industrial legacy such as investment in aluminum plants or tooling.

Nor do we have existing cars and aftersales processes based on aluminum structures and repair constraints.  This gives us a competitive advantage that we will, of course, maintain as we launch our range of sports cars. But I hope that we have proven the benefits of carbon and that inspires both our competition and the car industry as a whole,” Santoni concluded.

McLaren’s carbon heritage

March 5, 1981: McLaren MP4/1, the first Ron Dennis-era Formula 1 car, and the first Formula 1 car with a carbon fiber monocoque, is rolled-out at Silverstone.

1993: The legendary McLaren F1 sports car becomes the first road car to feature a carbon chassis. It sets the production car speed record in March 1998 at 240.1mph.

1995: A McLaren F1 enters the Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race and wins on its debut: the last road-based racing car to win at Le Mans.

2009: The last of over 2,000 carbon-based Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren supercars is produced at the McLaren Technology Centre. It becomes the best-selling car in the£300,000+ price-point and the most successful of any car built on a carbon chassis.

2010: The MP4-12C, McLaren Automotive’s first ‘pure’ McLaren high-performance sports car, is revealed, featuring a new one-piece, moulded and hollow carbon composite chassis. At £168,500 it almost halves the entry price point for carbon-based road cars.

2011: January sees the first 12C production car enter the MTC production line as volume production of carbon chassis’ begins at CarboTech, McLaren Automotive’s chassis technology partner. March will see the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 team compete with McLaren Racing’s 200th carbon fiber chassis on the MP4/26.

2012: McLaren Automotive plans to launch the second in its new range of carbon-based high-performance sports cars

Mark Vinnels, Program Director at McLaren Automotive, said: “With 30 years experience in carbon technology, the physical benefits of carbon are well known at McLaren. With the 12C and future models, we are now making serious in-roads into economies of scale and industrialization whilst improving quality.”

The carbon chassis of the McLaren F1 was produced manually and took up to 3,000 hours to complete each unit. The bonded carbon chassis of the SLR reduced that manufacturing time ten-fold. The new carbon manufacturing process developed for the 12C will mean the MonoCell can be produced in a four hour cycle. Investing in this process means McLaren Automotive is making carbon a reality to sports car enthusiasts seeking the ultimate in lightweight and safe chassis construction, at a price point more affordable to a wider market.



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