Special Report: British Grand Prix: The Future of Formula One Racing in the Making

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John Watson of McLaren, winner of the British Grand Prix in 1981, drove across the finish line in the first Formula One car made of carbon fiber.

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Peter Kemp/Associated Press

In terms of track action, the British Grand Prix of 1981 offered nothing exceptional. Only eight of the 24 cars that started the race managed to finish it. The winner, John Watson of the McLaren team, had started in fifth position, dropped back, and then managed to climb up the order largely thanks to the breakdowns of other cars or errors of other drivers.

But it was nonetheless a historic race, and one that would have huge consequences for the series in the future.

First, the McLaren that Watson drove to victory was the first Formula One car made of carbon fiber. Within months, the other teams would follow suit, dropping the old materials that had been used for the chassis and body — steel, aluminum and tubing — for carbon fiber, or carbon composite.

The woven, baked composite material, also common in the aviation industry, is still used today not only in Formula One, but in many other…

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