Carbon fibre tries to reinvent the wheel
IF THERE ever was someone whose name less suited their invention, it’s Roger Bacon. Born in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, the man named after cured pork also invented the wondrous structural material that’s among the lightest and strongest ever invented by man.
And like other great scientific advances in the 20th century, his discovery in 1958 was a surprise. While trying to find graphite’s triple-point – when its liquid, solid, and gas states reach temperatures where conduction stops – something unexpected happened.
Carbon vapour would not first transform into liquid, but into small, inch-long fibres – ones that were 10 times stronger than steel and almost four times stiffer. The genesis then, for carbon fibre.
But one which, at the time, Bacon estimated would cost US$22 million per kilogram to make.
With such high investment required, first applications either had wings or were rocket propelled. But around the early 1980s, manufacturing processes started to make leaps forward.
McLaren would be the first to build its Formula One racers around it. Since then, racecars have been consumed by the material, while boutique brands like Pagani and Koenigsegg have made it their car’s USPs. However, despite big gains in safety and efficiency up for grabs, its uptake in the mass market has been much slower.
Why carbon fibre might struggle to gain traction at the boardroom level is the fact it’s an expensive
structural component. Use it purposefully in small amounts, like suspension arms where it’s not visible, and the marketing department can’t sell it very easily. Nor would an average driver feel it. Use it for the body or chassis, where it’s both seen and felt, and costs quickly start to climb.
However, it’s starting to get a roll on with wheels. As the bigger-isbetter trend gains pace, makers are being forced to use it to unlock new performance gains.
Carbon-fibre wheels mean suspension bushes, dampers, and springs have less deflected weight to fight. It also lightens the ballast on each steering rod, reducing steering effort. Meanwhile, rotational inertia improves, too. Imagine each rim as a flywheel. When lighter, less energy is needed for them to spin up or slow down.
That’s handling, ride, braking, acceleration, and weight improved with one modification. The unique look is also a marketing dream, too.
As bigger-is-better gains pace, carbonfibre wheels unlock new performance gains
For Porsche engineers, who work on the largest wheels and tyres in the biz, it must be a godsend. And while Koenigsegg and Ford both offered OE carbon wheels before Porsche, Stuttgart differentiates itself with its manufacturing method. Which, for the 911 Turbo Exclusive Series, and as you can see, is pretty space-age.