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Carbon-fibre for all

2010-05-14 07:18

Lance Branquinho

The car which started it all – McLaren’s incomparable F1, complete with carbon-fibre chassis.

When I was young the idea of a carbon-fibre embellished car was firmly embedded in the realm of science fiction.

Back in the 1980s the only chance you had of driving a carbon-fibre car was on a Sunday – and then only if your last name was Prost, Mansell or Senna.

After McLaren’s embarrassing dominance of the 1988 F1 season, the company’s designers (obviously bored with winning) optioned for a new challenge. This set in motion an engineering project which ultimately germinated into the greatest performance road car the world has ever seen – the McLaren F1.

Beyond an engine bay lined with gold and the ingenious central-driving position, the F1 was very light considering the level of performance (and refinement) it boasted. The secret was of course motor racing’s favourite fetish martial – carbon-fibre.

McLaren laboriously constructed the F1’s chassis from composites and the benefits were clear for everyone to see – reduced weight with increased strength.

Using carbon-fibre composites as the material of choice for most automotive components (especially the chassis and surfacing) would appear to be a no-brainer. There’s always been one problem though – it’s a hideously expensive material with low supply diversity and capacity. Well, at least it used to be…

The Koenigsegg CCXR Edition - lots of carbon-fibre and subsequently a list price close R30m. In future you could buy a carbon-fibre hatchback for a lot less...

The race is on

During the last month the probability of you driving a carbon-fibre entry level car within the next decade and a half has increased dramatically, thanks to two rather unspectacular corporate announcements.

Mercedes-Benz and BMW have now entered into a race to secure their own carbon-fibre supply lines - and the issue at hand is not to supply composite roofs for M3s or woven trim inserts for AMG Black Series centre consoles.

Unpack the details and it’s quite simple. BMW will drop $100m (initially) in a joint venture with German composites giant SGL in the guise of a high-tech composites fabricating facility in Washington state. Located on the shores of Moses Lake, construction is set to begin in June, with plant staff hiring to begin in the fourth quarter this year.

BMW’s initial goal is rather simple - it requires light weight composite body panels for its forthcoming Megacity electric vehicle, due in 2013.

As Ian Robertson, former BMW South Africa boss and now head of global sales, explains. "By using carbon fibre, which is a little more expensive but 30 percent lighter, you don't need as many batteries for the same range. There's a trade-off that actually works."

The more comprehensive issue, in the fullness of time, is the application of BMW’s Moses Lake plant output to the company’s entire product portfolio. "We will be the first manufacturer to take carbon fibre to effectively high volume. We are developing a lot of volume technology here," says Robertson.

Essentially, in future, there will be a lot more carbon-fibre on an entry level 116i than a current 135i with all manner of Sportkit options has.

BMW's carbon-blueprint

BMW knows carbon-fibre is notoriously difficult and costly to work with. The idea of developing a materials technology division to deal with the issue in-house simply was not viable, therefore the SGL tie-up was inevitable.

It’s about time manufacturers did something to reduce mass too, as the increasing obesity of modern vehicles have reached the efficiency (and dynamic?) tipping point.

Take BMW’s signature performance car, the M3, as an example. The weight discrepancy between the original E30 model and a new E92 M3 is nearly half a ton...

Not to be outdone by BMW, Mercedes-Benz has announced its composites partner for the future too. With the Munich manufacturer having already signed with the premium German carbon-fibre supplier, Mercedes was forced to explore offshore for a partner and found Japanese textiles giant Toray quite receptive to a deal.

Toray’s announced it’s already working on a carbon-fibre body for the next generation SL, due in 2013.

Think a carbon splitter, wing and roof are pretty trick on this M3 GTS? A decade hence this could be considered slightly underwhelming.

A carbon problem?

Not all manufacturers are enamoured with the idea of rampant composite construction though. Revered Italian supercar manufacturer Ferrari is a notable exception.

Despite the brand’s experience in composites with its F1 team and various high-performance road cars, Ferrari’s boss Amedeo Felisa has his doubts about the miracle material’s durability.

"The fact is that nobody today has a real understanding of what happens if you damage a carbon fibre structure," says Felisa. "After 20 or 30 years of use, who knows what state a carbon fibre structure will be in? Only the airplane industry has a long-term understanding of using carbon fibre, and there the usage is very different."

Felisa’s not far off the point. Carbon-fibre is light and if the correct fibre straightening is employed, immensely strong – as proven by the disdain F1 pilots walk away from the most harrowing of crashes with.

It’s expensive though, and if you have an accident – even a minor one – your future 1 Series of C-Class carbon-fibre model’s repair bill could be quite severe…

Despite Ferrari’s misgivings about the lifecycle of carbon-fibre cars the BMW/SGL and Mercedes-Benz/Toray partnership are much like the Russian and America roles in the space race. This time much lighter cars are at stake - not a moon landing.

So, in 15 years time you could take the family to a motor museum where the kids will find it rather amusing that the supercars of yore had a carbon-fibre splitter and transmission gate only. Especially when the family hatchback you drove them there in is two-thirds carbon-fibre surfacing…


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