Back in the day, no one was ahead of Colin Chapman on the F1 design curve. Beginning in 1960 with the Lotus 18, Chapman led the way and everyone followed.
Until 1969. That was the year Matra-Sport--a French car constructor--introduced the Matra MS80, the first F1 chassis in a decade to step ahead of Lotus technologically. Stewart easily won the 1969 world championship driving the Matra MS80. “The best race car I ever drove,” Stewart said later, after he retired at the end of 1973.
What made the MS80 so good? An incredibly stiff monocoque chassis with centralized weight distribution that resulted in outstanding handling and road-holding. Matra’s F1 reign was brief, however, brought about by French pride and a change of ownership.
Here’s the story. In 1963, a Parisian industrialist named Marcel Chassagny decided to get into the race car business. He was president of Engins Matra, a manufacturer of supersonic aircraft, self-guided missiles, satellite components, automation systems, fiberglass boats, and household appliances. Chassagny formed a subsidiary company called Matra-Sport and appointed an aggressive young executive named Jean-Luc Lagardiere to head it up. Largardiere started with sports cars then escalated to Formula Three and Two cars. He approached Ken Tyrrell in 1965 and asked him to let Stewart, then his Formula Two driver, try the Matra F2. Tyrrell wasn’t interested at first, but finally agreed and Largardiere flew a car to England and trucked it down to Goodwood. After a few laps, Stewart stopped to say that he had never driven a more impressive machine. After that, Tyrrell campaigned Matras exclusively.
In 1968, Tyrrell negotiated a deal with Matra, Ford, and Stewart and moved up to F1. The Matra MS10 was well-engineered but was very much a Lotus clone. Stewart managed three wins in 1968 while Lotus won five races and the world championship.
The next generation Matra, the MS80, was a decided step forward. Bernard Boyer, who joined Matra in 1966, was the designer. Boyer made two significant changes: (1) he reduced unsprung weight by replacing the 15-inch wheels with 13-inch rims in front, and by fitting inboard brakes in the rear, and (2) he massed the fuel load at the center by widening the side tanks to create the car’s coke bottle shape. To further increase centralized weight he moved the oil tank from the front back to between the driver and the engine, and moved the oil radiator, battery, and fuel pump there as well. With the Matra MS80, the words, “low polar moment of inertia” entered the racing vocabulary, which is a fancy term for centralized weight distribution.
“We used aviation techniques to build the chassis,” says Boyer, “particularly in the structural fuel tanks, which included several partitions that a bag tank would have precluded. These increased the chassis’s torsional stiffness. Matra aerospace subcontractors, who were experienced with precision construction of light metals, built the chassis. They could make components to high levels of accuracy, which was particularly important with the fuel tanks to prevent leakage from the glued-and-riveted joints.
In the Matra MS80, Stewart had the most advanced car in F1. He dominated the 1969 season, winning six of eleven races to win his first of three world championships, and for Matra, as fate would have it, it’s only constructor’s championship.
Matra wanted to continued supplying a chassis to Stewart in 1970, provided Stewart switched from the Ford DFV to Matra’s new V12. By now Stewart was making personal appearances for Ford all over the world and being paid too much money to simply walk away in order to continue with the French car maker. And Matra-Sport could no longer supply a chassis to Stewart because it had invested heavily in the V12, thanks to funding from the French government which wanted an all-French car to win the championship. To further complicate the issue, Simca had purchased Matra-Sport, and Simca was owned by Chrysler, and Chrysler was not about to help Stewart win another title if Ford was powering their car.
Without Stewart, Matra never won another Grand Prix race let alone a second world championship. Eventually, Matra pulled out of F1, concentrated on Le Mans, and won the race three years running, 1972-3-4. It would be another decade before a French car won another Grand Prix and another 35 years before a French car won another constructor’s championship.