The Ferrari F138 and Luna Rossa AC72 catamaran share more than good looks and Italian style. One magic ingredient, carbon fibre, has become the essential material for victories both on land and on sea
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The history of composite materials began very early… this may sound silly, but one of the first examples of the combination of a fibre with a matrix or resin was found in primitive mud and straw huts. The fibre is the part with the best mechanical characteristics, while the matrix holds the structure together. Today, we use composite materials extensively even if the term tends to refer to the higherquality, more expensive part of this construction technique. Fibreglass is the best known type and the one most commonly used in various forms. With carbon fibres and epoxy resins, you can build with the best mechanical characteristics, whether with a single “skin” and a number of layers, or by using the “sandwich” technique, placing a neutral layer (a light material to create a thickness) between two surface skins. Carbon fibre is used to build aeroplanes, cars and boats.
It is interesting to note that, in the early 1980s, the composite technique was more widespread in boats than in cars and contributed to the progress of performance in the two sectors more than in others. At Ferrari, the level of sophistication in the use of fibre is evident in the new LaFerrari, where fibre is used that has different characteristics depending on the type of stress to which the part is subjected (just as happens for the unitised body of the F1 car). Roberto Biscontini, a naval architect on the Luna Rossa design team, takes us back in time: ‘I find it fascinating to highlight how, even with incredible technical evolution, we keep borrowing structures from nature. After all, the philosophy of a piece of carbon laminate is not very different from a piece of wood: there are fibres that are unidirectional and hollow, with the advantage that carbon fibre can take on any shape we wish to give it. ‘This return to shapes developed in nature is not haphazard; the evolution of so many millennia has a significance. Even in our calculation procedures, in order to save time, we use what is called the Genetic Algorithm, because it simulates the decision-making mechanisms of the process of evolution with a comparison of elements that I would define as similar to the law of nature, where what works is always conserved. With the current power of calculation in just a few days we can simulate processes that took millennia.’ The differences between cars and boats are fewer you might think, even though cars move on asphalt, where the reactions are known, and the sea is less predictable and creates extraordinary events that can quickly become dangerous. Byrne adds: ‘It is interesting to note that, though moving in a different system, with us on land and boats on water, we need fluid dynamic systems that resemble each other; by using wings in cars we seek the ground effect to cling to the road, whereas in boats it is the lifting effect that is needed. It is a matter of looking for compromises with speed.’ Special boats have been chosen for the next America’s Cup; catamarans of around 22 metres that have the capacity to rise above the water, “flying” like hydroplanes.
Matteo Plazzi, Thomas Gaveriaux and Will Brooks are the heads of construction for Luna Rossa. They stayed in Auckland for the launch and the first trials of Luna Rossa, which was completed, assembled and launched in New Zealand. Plazzi, who as navigator of Oracle BMW is one of five Italians who have won the America’s Cup, explains: ‘I see a major difference between the two worlds in the dimensions of the structure and in the timescales devoted to research, development and construction; all this obviously affects the strategic decisions. In an America’s Cup cycle we build one or at most two boats, with a construction time of at least 20 weeks; we cannot devote huge resources to the small pieces and we focus on the fundamental structures. In F1 much more time is devoted to research and more accurate tools can be employed to make pieces in the autoclave. Thus the engineering time devoted to the details becomes an important variable.’ Gavireaux adds some more detail about the material: ‘There are two elements where carbonfibre is used best for its characteristics; they are the structure of the foil, which is a truly impressive piece, and the daggerboards, which take all the strain when the boat takes off [foiling], with around seven-and-a-half tons of vertical load and three and a half lateral; the internal loads of the structure reach over 300 tonnes.’ The daggerboard is actually no more than a metre wide, and minor variations in its incidence on the water are decisive. The foil is 38 metres high and weighs 1325 kilograms; inside there is a complex structure that “twists” it to change its profile. Brooks adds: ‘I think that, more than in carbon fibres, the future development of our technologies lies in the resins and manufacturing process and that there is scope to use nanotubes.’ We are entering the territory of nanotechnologies, a way of giving a direction to the structure and the fibre, as always saving weight. As Ferrari and Luna Rossa show, carbon fibre remains a common denominator for high technology objects, and its methods of use reveal a grammar underlying a common language, built in the name of performance. And now, with the new LaFerrari, it leaves the track and regatta courses and encounters an elite public that can savour the symbolic and concrete meanings of this magical fibre. The Reds win… with black.
Da issue n° 21 May 2013