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F1 History 13

Chapman’s final years

Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman died 31 years ago this week.

He was 54.

history  Chapmans final years
Peter Warr and Colin Chapman, 1982

He looked older. The toll exacted by a hectic life of all-nighters and no tea breaks insidiously ran deeper than his receding line of ghostly hair and sadly he suffered a fatal heart attack in the early hours of December 16, 1982.

It was fitting that his beloved Team Lotus – the jewel in the crown – that same day rolled out its Next Big Thing: a Formula 1 Type 92-Cosworth equipped with active suspension, to be driven by rising Formula 3 star Dave Scott.

It was entirely apt, too, that the control of this car’s suspension by computer was a Plan B. Solving problems was what made Chapman tick; the wins, money and fame that he enjoyed were by-products.

Plan A, however, had tested his resolve and love for the sport to breaking point.

Twin-chassis innovation

The twin-chassis Type 88 of 1981 was a mechanical means of isolating the driver from the physical pounding meted out by suspensions stiffened beyond all ken to cope with unenvisioned forces generated by shaped underbodies. Ingenious, if a little chunky by Chapman’s usual standards – and, yes, I am familiar with the gargantuan Type 64 Indycar – it was constructed in great secrecy: separate groups working on they knew not what until chassis were united.

history  Chapmans final years
De Angelis in the 88 at Jacarepaguá, 1981

Rarely has a car received such a hostile reception. Its rivals, fearing another costly spell of technical catch-up, protested en masse. And won. Chapman’s hopes were in March tossed metaphorically into Long Beach harbour.

Though he was still fighting this long lost cause in November, the stark truth was that he had been outflanked. By Bernie Ecclestone. Not only was the latter busy winning the FISA-FOCA peace versus Jean-Marie Balestre, but also his Brabham designer Gordon Murray – Chapman’s spiritual successor – was simultaneously concocting a simpler, cheaper way of skirting the banning of sliding skirts.

Only the year before, Chapman had been in cahoots with Balestre, plotting a coup d’état against Ecclestone and a rapprochement with Enzo Ferrari. Upon his return from this potentially seismic meeting, however, he changed his mind. He no longer had the stomach for politics.

Chapman’s last F1 cars
80: Three starts, one third place
81: 38 starts, one second, one third
87: 21 starts, no podiums
88: Banned
91: 27 starts, one win, one third

With Team Lotus no longer winning with facility, Chapman’s F1 influence was beginning to wane on and off the track.

Away from F1, the running of a large-scale company for the benefit of its shareholders was also beginning to pall. Hard-wired as a blue-sky thinker, Chapman had little time for red tape or golden handshakes and rushed into unwise business decisions – the Stock Market float of 1968, for instance – and associations; according to a High Court judge, Chapman would have regretted at Her Majesty’s pleasure his dealings with John Zachary DeLorean.

Chapman, meanwhile, closeted himself in Ketteringham Hall, the mansion, bought in 1970, that provided likeminded colleagues and, from 1977, Team Lotus with a redoubt against external pressures: a think tank with Gothic trimmings.

history  Chapmans final years
Andretti in the failed 80, Jarama, 1979

All went swimmingly with the Type 78 ‘wing car’ and 79 ground-effect ‘Black Beauty’ – before almost sinking without trace with the ‘porpoising’ wing-less 80.

Active suspension

A Cranfield professor suggested active suspension as a means of damping these violent pitch changes. Put on hold during the twin-chassis saga, Chapman gave it the green light in 1982. Influential engineer/aerodynamicist Peter Wright, Technical Manager at Team Lotus at the time, had just 12 months to prepare it for the rigours of F1. Quick decisions usually paid dividends in this theatre.

After six months of endeavour, Wright felt sufficiently confident to place his boss at the wheel of an Esprit road car so equipped; able to override its dynamics from the passenger seat, mischievously he caused Chapman to spin. And grin. F1 active had just gone live.

history  Chapmans final years
Chapman celebrates his last win, Austria, 1982

There had been a feeling within the team that boats and planes were sidetracking a Chapman disaffected by the interminable shenanigans of F1. In April 1981, he released the following press statement:

“I shall seriously reconsider… whether Grand Prix racing is still what it purports to be: the pinnacle of sport and technological achievement. Unfortunately, this appears to be no longer the case and, if one does not clean it up, Formula 1 shall end up in a quagmire of plagiarism, chicanery and petty rule interpretation forced by lobbies manipulated by people for whom the sport has no meaning.”

(The guy was ahead of his time.)

However, his deal with Renault to run its V6 turbo – an act that would sever the magical link with Cosworth – and the concurrent active-suspension programme had apparently rekindled his vital spark.

Plus a recent medical exam for the renewal of his pilot’s licence had seen him passed A-OK to fly.

history  Chapmans final years
Mansell tries out active suspension at Long Beach, 1983

An actively suspended Type 92 contested the first two GPs of 1983 – at Rio and Long Beach – and finished 12th on both occasions: a remarkable achievement in the circumstances.

But given those same circumstances, it was unsurprising when active was again put on hold while Team Lotus acclimatised to the grunt of forced induction.

Would Chapman have made the same decision? Possibly not.

Could he have persuaded a doubtful Nigel Mansell to focus on active rather than cast an envious racer’s eye at the turbo of team leader Elio de Angelis? Probably yes.

Would he have left a technological lead, his sporting lifeblood, lie fallow for four seasons? Undoubtedly not.

Life without Chapman

By the time of its 1987 return, at the request of designer Gérard Ducarouge, pragmatic Williams was developing a simpler version; it was rad Type 80 versus evo FW07 all over again. Better described as reactive rather than active, the Williams drivers’ bruises were soothed by victory alone. Although Ayrton Senna’s Type 99T won on the bumpy mean streets of Monaco and Detroit, FW11 was undoubtedly the better all-round package, in either its active or passive form.

history  Chapmans final years

Things could have been different in 1988. Although Lotus lost Senna to McLaren, Williams lost Honda, which arguably was the greater hit to absorb. Had Lotus, still with Honda turbo power thanks to its employment of Satoru Nakajima, persisted with active, it might have, in the hands of Nelson Piquet, taken the fight to the beautiful, superbly packaged and relatively simple McLaren MP4/4: concept by Murray.

Instead, any chance was squandered. System developers Lotus Engineering, content that its baby was no longer teething, now wanted paying for its services. Team Lotus waved it – and its future – away. There would be no wins in 1988.

And it’s still waiting. (With apologies to all at Witney. Excellent though you are, you are a Team Lotus not the.)

Chapman would have been aghast at two arms of a supposedly common body exhibiting internecine sabre-rattling and small-minded attitudes. Without him, however, a fracturing was inevitable.

The death of its founder was sudden and unexpected; Team Lotus’s demise was drawn out but ultimately unstoppable. Although active made yet another return, in 1992 and ’93 – by which time Wright was again in charge and Williams still held an advantage – the whole kit, bang and caboodle sagged, knackered, onto its bump stops at the end of 1994. Full stop.

history  Chapmans final years
Zanardi at Adelaide, 1994; the last GP for the original Lotus

The harsh reality is, however, that despite Wright and team manager Peter Warr, Senna, ‘Duca’ and Renault’s Bernard Dudot et al, to all intents and purposes Team Lotus died 31 years ago this week.

It was founded in 1954.

More from Paul Fearnley
Bruce McLaren’s first win at Sebring
F1′s number conundrum
Mark Webber’s road to Formula 1
Carlos Pace, São Paulo’s hero

history  Chapmans final years

Add your comments

13 comments on Chapman’s final years

  1. Terry Jacob, 19 December 2013 10:46

    Chapman’s final years are always irredeemably tainted by his relationship with John DeLorean .

  2. Pat O'Brien, 19 December 2013 12:52

    I always hear the reference to DeLorean but I have never heard any details. What actually happened? Is it known or did their dealings simply fail the smell test?

  3. Archie Cheunda, 19 December 2013 13:04

    Paul’s superb article should be read with a) Gordon Kirby’s recent equally fine piece on how CART ruled out Dan Gurney’s ingenuity in 1981 whilst F1 was doing so to Chapman and b) Adrian Newey’s remarks on constrictive tech regs yesterday. So many current concerns – team budgets; the desperate reliance upon gimmicks on and off- track; the use of tyres as the main performance variable; long-term dominance by the same team – are relevant to the mindset that has increasingly rejected technical innovation since 1981.
    For 4 years, Caterham (another team which briefly called itself Lotus) has poured away millions just to avoid F1’s wooden spoon. In a shorter span in a freer age Frank Williams went from privateer operating out of ex-carpet warehouse to world champion. If it had been in F1 in ’81 Caterham would have been amongst those teams fearing “costly technical catch-up” and I guess it welcomes a cost cap now, but even cost-capped F1 implies massive expense and I wonder why such teams think it’s worthwhile to spend a fortune just to stand still at the bottom of the F1 pond, when the chance to innovate might cost more in the short term but offer hope of a lucrative leap to the top in the longer.
    I wonder too why the FIA sees a problem with a 9-race winning streak but thinks the way to combat it is to hope another team can make up for 2 races in one last go, instead of letting that team innovate so as better to compete over the preceding 8 races.
    There’s a book to be written here: “From Double Chassis To Double Points: How F1 Lost The Plot”.

  4. R.E.B, 19 December 2013 15:09

    “a quagmire of plagiarism, chicanery and petty rule interpretation forced by lobbies manipulated by people for whom the sport has no meaning.” Doesn’t that just sum it up?
    I think if ACBC were in this era he would be innovating in another arena.

  5. The Original Ray T, 19 December 2013 20:30

    The Italian magazine, “Autosprint” published a series of articles insisting that Chapman’s death was faked, because his untimely death was right about when he was likely to be charged over the Delorean motors scam and a missing £10 million (back when £10 million was a lot of money). I think the stress of the situation led to his heart failure.

    He was a real innovator, he drove driver’s crazy with cars that frequently fell apart, or won. He had serious issues with drug abuse, poor health and stealing ideas from others or taking credit for ideas from his employees. He was incredibly prolific and a clear engineering genius.

  6. Ivan Carlos Ruchesi, 20 December 2013 10:26

    The David Thieme affair of 1980 also affected Chapman seriously because that was the team primary money source. I think the demise of Lotus really started with it.

  7. Paul Fearnley, 20 December 2013 14:32

    D Thieme and DeLorean – he couldn’t half pick ‘em.

    The bit I left out of that long quote – courtesy of Jabby Crombac’s excellent biog – read:

    … with my good friend and sponsor David Thieme of Essex Motorsport…

    Thieme was neither a friend nor a sponsor for much longer.

  8. R.E.B, 20 December 2013 17:48

    Chapmans early business life is similar to Bernie Ecclestones, selling cars in post WW2 Warren street and the rather sharp ethics seem to have the same air about them. I believe myself that ACBCs early passing was simply the result of not sleeping for the best part of 30 years and using pills to stay awake. The body can only take so much. Nevertheless, I find Chapman the most fascinating individual in motor racing, and that is saying something in a sport that has attracted some pretty outlandish people over the decades.

  9. Nick H, 20 December 2013 19:32

    A controversial figure he may have been a times, but even now, the words ‘Formula One’ make me think of a Chapman era Lotus, and I wish I’d been around to witness Team Lotus in it’s heyday. My passion for the sport (as it still then was) was really ignited by watching the 1982 Austrian GP on TV, and that near photo finish between Elio and Keke – the last win for one of ‘Chunky’s’ cars.

    I dread to think what ACBC would make of the current ‘F1 Lite’…


  10. Steven Roy, 20 December 2013 22:45

    It has always amazed me how much Chapman aged between his first championsip with Clark in 1963 and his final one with Andretti 15 years later.

    I was surprised to see Dave Scott mentioned in this article. I have no memory of him driving F1 cars. He was a driver I always rated in F3 but he never had the financial backing his talent deserved.

  11. Terry Jacob, 21 December 2013 08:39

    While acknowledging Chapman’s genius we should also remember his willingness to ignore engineering safety margins killed or maimed several drivers . Jim Clark , Jochen Rindt , and Mike Spence head the list of victims of Chapman’s blindspot .

  12. Chris Hall, 22 December 2013 00:02

    Jim Clark – Tyre depressurisation and Mike Spence – Driver error. Not sure how Colin Chapman could be blamed for either of those. As far as I’m aware the only time a court was involved which squarely laid the blame on Lotus for a car breakage was as a result of Mike Taylor’s accident at Spa in 1960.

  13. Errol Kaufman, 27 December 2013 22:31

    Please remember the contributions of Steve Nichols and his gang on the MP-4.

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