How I nearly made the most important barn find in motorsports history

Most Formula One cars end up on display or in the private collections of the über wealthy. A car like the McLaren MP4/6 Ayrton Senna drove to the F1 World Championship in 1991 should be in a museum. That's why I thought it was so strange when I thought we found it collecting dust in the space above the shipping-and-receiving office of an aerospace company in Salt Lake City, Utah.

When I received these low-res photos of the car from a reader, I just couldn't believe it. A real F1 car hidden somewhere in America. Something potentially worth millions of dollars just sitting there. Even more unbelievable, the car was carrying a small Brazilian flag and letters spelling out "S-E-N-N-A." Oh my god, I thought, could this actually be one of the great Ayrton Senna's F1 cars?

If it was, then it would be one of the most important finds in the history of motorsports.

The only clues were a chassis tag and two low quality photos passed around in an email. On that tag it mentioned the monocoque for the vehicle was suppled by "Hercules Incorporated."

How I nearly made the most important barn find in motorsports history

A little scavenging through historical photos reveals the car was designed by Neil Oatley under the supervision of a man named Steve Nichols.

If you didn't know, a little Google searching will tell you that Nichols is the American engineer who designed the MP4/4. He's from Salt Lake City, Utah.

According to a biography of Nichols he worked as a development engineer for Hercules Aerospace until switching to motorsports design full-time.

How I nearly made the most important barn find in motorsports history

Hercules Aerospace, it turns out, is a company that's not only responsible for creating the composite materials used in a variety of different aircraft and aerospace applications, but also for the McLaren F1 cars.

At this point I realize that there's at least the possibility of a connection.

The next step? Finding out if this is one of Senna's real F1 cars. Excitedly, I began to lay out the clues:

  • The vehicle looks exactly like the original MP4/6 chassis down to the smallest details discernible based on the lower quality images we've seen.
  • This appears to be a full chassis setup including the A-arms and pushrod suspension. The vehicle is sitting up on this suspension as if some of the drivetrain is still assembled. It's conspicuously clean but definitely whole.
  • The vehicle has a chassis tag, which is something typically reserved for actual vehicles and test cars.
  • Not all of the vehicles are accounted for. Chassis #8 is in the private McLaren collection in Donnington. The Championship-winning car is now a sculpture. Another car was used for the original V12-testing but, as I didn't believe this had an engine, there was no way for me to tell.
  • How I nearly made the most important barn find in motorsports history

    Thinking it might be a real car I started going through history and determined there was a higher probability that it's from earlier in the season, possibly the car Senna drove to victory in the 1991 U.S. Grand Prix in Phoenix, Arizona. Sponsorships change during the season and from race-to-race and the Courtaulds logo on the car (seen here in Belgium) wasn't there during the U.S. Grand Prix and isn't visible on this car either.

    How I nearly made the most important barn find in motorsports historyPhotos from the Getty Images archive appear to show the logo was added after the Grand Prix of San Marino, which was the third race of the year. This meant the car, if real, was from one of those two races. Given proximity the guess is this was either a car raced in the U.S. Grand Prix or a car from that period.

    This leads to how the vehicle came to sit above the shipping and receiving office of a warehouse. As far as I could tell, these photos were taken in Hexcel's Salt Lake City plant, which makes carbon fiber and hot melt prepregs. Hexcel purchased the plant and the entire composites devision from Hercules in 1996

    How I nearly made the most important barn find in motorsports historyThe vehicle, whatever it was, was put aside over time and forgotten about when Hexcel took over.

    Shaking with excitement I reached out to Hexcel and let them in on my little find. My first conversations revealed that executives at the company weren't aware of what they were sitting on. Here's the first confirmation from Hexcel Communications Manager Rachel Owen, a Brit who was well aware of who Senna was.

    "I have good news. The F1 car is still at our Salt Lake City facility – and rather than gathering dust in an unloved state it's going to form the centerpiece of a display in our new prepreg building to be opened next year."

    Awesome. The car was rescued. But what was it?

    A little more investigation work was done and the former president of the Hercules Composites Products Division was able to confirm part of the car was real, though not the whole thing.

    Hercules did use authentic McLaren Formula One cars for display originally (early 80's until late 80's) These cars were "on loan" to Hercules and were McLaren property.

    However, the expense of shipping the cars back and forth between England and the U.S., became prohibitive. Hercules offered to purchase an (obsolete) car from McLaren, but McLaren wanted too much money. As a result, Hercules and McLaren agreed to make a "mock-up / copy" of a car, which is the one that was displayed at SAMPE in the early 90's - and that we still have in Salt Lake.

    The only "authentic" thing about the car that Hexcel currently has, is the Hercules driver's composite cockpit and the McLaren F1 fiberglass shell / cover / and graphics.

    Underneath the shell is a plywood component holding the car together.

    At least the company is committed to preserving it.

    "We do still have a very valuable reminder of a landmark in our history, supplying carbon fiber for the very first F1 carbon fiber composite monocoque that introduced new levels of performance, rigidity and driver-protection to the sport," said Owen.

    Alas, my once-in-a-lifetime barn find wasn't completely real. It was a swing for the fences and I ended up with, at best, a ground rule double.