MURRAY, Utah -- Grand Prix racing teams quickly seize upon any advantage that can mean the difference between winning a Formula One title and also-ran status, and McLaren International is no exception.
Team McLaren fell on hard times after dominating Grand Prix racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s and following Emerson Fittipaldi's Formula One driving title in 1974.
But the British team wasn't about to give up and went looking for new materials to regain the winning edge. Ron Dennis. McLaren's managing director, claims it found 'just what we wanted' when they joined with Hercules Aerospace Division in development of a new graphite racing chassis.
Hercules engineers used aerospace technology to help McLaren build its MP-4 race car, one of the most successful racers on the 1982 Grand Prix circuit.
Now Hercules and McLaren have signed a joint working agreement for the next two seasons. They will build a second-generation graphite composite chassis that will house a Porsche turbo-charged engine.
Dennis calls the graphite chassis 'the strongest, lightest and safest racing body on any track.' Strong words for a non-racer, but McLaren drivers John Watson and Niki Lauda agree.
Lauda, the Grand Prix champion for Ferrari in 1975 and again in 1977, retired after a near-fatal accident four years ago. But he says McLaren 'lured' him out of retirement last year 'because of the safety of this new car.'
'It's stiffer than any car I've driven,' Lauda says. 'It doesn't have the flex of other Grand Prix cars and it has no safety disadvantages, which is what we need. At the speeds we're driving today, we need more and more protection.'
'Let's face it, we're not kids anymore,' Watson said. 'When I race, I don't want to be afraid of getting into a car. But there are cars on the circuit today that I wouldn't even sit in.'
Watson claims he gave the MP-4 a 'trial by fire' in 1981 when he crashed during a Grand Prix race at Imola, Italy.
'I rear-ended into the wall at Imola in what I consider one of the worst crashes of the season. It was one of the best practical tests of the car, not by choice, but I was able to walk away. The impact tore the engine and transmission right out of the car, but I was unhurt.'
Watson won at Belgium and Detroit during the 1982 season, finishing in a tie for second with injured Didier Pironi of France in the drivers' standings and leading McLaren to a No. 2 finish behind Ferrari in the team standings. Lauda also had two victories -- the Long Beach and British Grand Prix races -- and tied for fifth.
The overlapping layers of graphite, sandwiched over an aluminum honeycomb, give the chassis its lightness and strength, according to Dennis.
But the chassis isn't the only use of graphite in the McLaren cars. The front wings, rear stabilizer, underskin, side panels and other parts are also made of graphite.
'In fact, if you exclude the engine and drive train, about 80 per cent of the newer cars will be graphite,' says Dennis.
Hercules' Aerospace Division, headquartered in Murray, has been developing graphite composites for more than a decade. But the first uses, because of high costs, were in high-performance jet fighters and space vehicles.
The division began expanding into sporting goods -- such as golf club shafts, tennis rackets, fishing poles and ski gear -- in the 1970s. But it was unable to break into the automotive industry until the 1981 McLaren deal.
'We're now working with Ford to provide graphite drive shafts for their vans and light trucks,' says division president E.A. Mettenet. 'And, because of the properties of the graphite, we're not only finding a weight savings but less wear in the transmissions and rear ends from the composite drive shafts.'
He says Ford is expected to order about 10,000 Hercules drive shafts made of graphite later this year.
McLaren design engineer John Barnard says another gasoline crisis will prompt all major automakers to switch to graphite components for their cars.
'With the weight savings, all the bigger cars could expect mileage in the 50-mile-per-gallon range,' Barnard says.
'It's the automotive material of the future. We went to it because of safety and weight considerations, and now three other Grand Prix teams are following us. The next users will be the car makers. I'm just surprised they haven't yet.'
Mettenet says Hercules and McLaren engineers are now 'investigating additional graphite components to further reduce weight and improve performance' of the Grand Prix cars.
'These may include the steering column, suspension components and brakes,' Mettenet adds. 'And all of these components could be used in passenger cars.'
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