The start was inauspicious, the end undistinguished. But on its good days, there wasn’t a car on the planet that could keep up with those from Team Lotus. Mark Hughes remembers our greatest grand prix marque
Grand Prix racing was a changing world by 1958. And after the opening race of that season, in Argentina, it would never be the same again, for a tiny rear-engined Cooper conquered the established might of the Ferrari and Maserati factories. This Cooper represented a watershed in all sorts of ways, technical and ideological. But the very next race, in Monte Carlo, introduced a marque born to take the baton from Cooper and become a force in Formula One that was to command a reverence challenged only by Ferrari. It was a marque of seemingly limitless ambition, of breathtaking audacity, startling originality, peerless style and overwhelming success: Team Lotus.
The spindly form of the two Lotus 12s that lined up in 13th and 15th on the Monaco grid that day did little to suggest any of this. Drivers Cliff Allison and Graham Hill were a clear five seconds slower than Tony Brooks’ pole-sitting Vanwall. The fastest of the Coopers – that of Jack Brabham – was up on the front row with the Vanwall and Jean Behra’s BRM.
In fact, that front row gave a strong clue to the potential of the new marque. It was Lotus’s maverick boss, Colin Chapman, who had transformed both the Vanwall and BRM from standard British underachievers to front-row machines, thanks to his brilliantly creative mind and an aeronautically inspired scientific approach. The Cooper benefitted from neither of these but had something that counted for even more: its engine was in the right place. “The one thing Chapman never wanted to be accused of,” laughs John Cooper, “was copying ‘bloody Coopers’? Consequently the Lotuses were front-engined. It was only a matter of time before Chapman’s approach was united with Cooper’s layout to change the face of Grand Prix racing for all time.
In contrast to Chapman’s obsessively minimalist creations, a Cooper was a tough tractor of a race car. Chapman held them in disdain: “Although he loved John Cooper as an individual,” recalls former Lotus employee and subsequent Lotus author, Robin Read, “they hadn’t a clue about designing racing cars, according to him.”
Yet it was a Cooper that went on to win that race at Monaco, Allison’s Lotus that finished 6th, and last, some 13 laps behind the winner. “It wasn’t a bad car,” recalls Allison today, “quite nice to drive actually. At Monaco it was losing water and overheating and I had to push it over the line because it stopped dead at the hairpin.” Hill retired the sister car.
Though Allison then took a creditable fourth place at the Belgian Grand Prix, he didn’t stay around beyond the end of that season: “A lot of the cars he built then were very fragile. I went to Ferrari because figured it was only a matter of time before something vital fell off…”
Indeed the 12 and subsequent ‘mini Vanwall’ 16 did suffer a horrific record of failures during the ’58 and ’59 seasons. That Chapman still managed to make them lighter than the Coopers despite the encumbrance of a propshaft probably goes some way to explaining that. Such failures did not come as a much of a surprise to former Lotus engineering director and subsequent cofounder of Cosworth, Mike Costin: “Colin was a great conceptual engineer,” he explains, “but would often allow himself the luxury of illogicality. Sometimes he would guess what he thought would happen and sometimes that guess just wasn’t good at all.”
But perhaps the most notorious Lotus failure of the time was caused not by a design fault, but by a machining one. It came in the first of the mid -engined Lotuses, the 18. At Spa in 1960, it put Stirling Moss in hospital with two broken legs after a wheel hub sheared at high speed, this after Mike Taylor sustained a broken neck when the steering on his 18 failed.
Yet it was the same car which brought Lotus its first Grands Prix victories. Two races before Spa, Moss had taken his Rob Walker-entered 18 to victory at Monaco: “I was looking at the car before the start,” he remembers, “and I thought I could see a crack in the chassis. I called Alf (the legendary Alf Francis, then Walker’s mechanic) over and he said ‘my God, you’re right’. So he welded it up there on the startline, pouring water over the tanks as he worked.” Although Moss led Bruce McLaren’s Cooper past the flag by over a minute, the engine mounts were broken, the engine held in place by its water hose…
Chapman would probably have argued tenaciously that this was the ideal way to win. His long-time right-hand man Peter Wan comments: “He used to build cars so they needed a complete rebuild after every race, but that was precisely the idea. He’d say they only need to do 250 miles so if they break down after 260 then we’re doing it about right. Of course what happened was they very often they broke at about 240…”
When the recovered Moss won the 1960 American Grand Prix on his birthday he was presented with a cake featuring a miniature Lotus 18 on the top. “I said I’d like to make the first cut,” remembers Moss, “so I cut a wheel off and said ‘this is for Colin’. He didn’t think it was funny at all.”
The new 1.5-litre formula of 1961 brought two more victories for the Walker 18, the product of pure Moss virtuosity in a season dominated by Ferrari. “I didn’t think I stood a chance at Monaco,” he remembers, “and even quite a long way into the race I still thought the Ferraris were just playing with me.” In his inspired efforts to pass and pull clear of Richie Ginther’s Ferrari he lapped almost 3secs faster than his pole position time. Aided by some soft compound green spot Dunlops he was similarly stunning when winning at the Nürburgring.
In the final race of that year, in the absence of the Ferraris, Innes Ireland gave the works team its first victory and his one and only championship Grand Prix win. It was achieved in the 21, a more aerodynamic development of the 18 with a canted engine and inboard suspension. It was just reward after four years of toil by the Lotus mechanics, as former spanner chief Jim Endruweit recalls: “It wasn’t a terribly happy outfit in the early days. We reckoned we put in more hours than any other team. The norm was to work all through the night before going to a meeting, drive the truck across there, go straight into practice and if you were lucky, get to bed as early as 2am. When nothing good comes out of it you get despondent. But when you start winning, it’s ‘wow’, a total transformation.”
Warr recalls: ‘The whole Lotus philosophy, and it ran throughout the team, was that nothing was too difficult to achieve. If you worked in close proximity to Chapman you could not fail to get caught up in that.”
Despite his win, Chapman sacked Ireland weeks later, before the 1962 season kicked off, leaving the young Jim Clark as team leader. Clark had made his F1 debut in 1960, just six months after first stepping into his first single-seater. By ’61 he was making Moss nervous and had formed a symbiotic working relationship with Chapman. With what the boss had stuffed up his sleeve for 1962, motor racing’s most celebrated partnership to date was about to enter its golden era.
The beautiful, epoch-making Lotus 25 stands as one of the greatest designs of all time, bringing monocoque construction to Formula One. The construction’s torsional stiffness allowed its suspension to work better than that of its rivals; it offered the driver far greater accident protection than the spaceframe bra torsional stiffness three times greater than that of the 21 and a chassis that was half the weight Costin remembers: “We used to go to Waltham Cross for lunch and he outlined it to us there on a napkin.” Read recalls that Chapman’s original motivation came from his frantic search for a way of lowering the frontal area by doing away with the space-consuming tubes and “getting rid of the awful tanking arrangements of a spaceframe chassis which were not only extremely complicated but also prone to leaks.”
For the perfectionist Chapman all that remained was to tailor the car as tightly as possible to Clark’s compact dimensions, and recline him to 35 degrees to lower further the frontal area. He boasted that even the brake lines passed through a channel in the floor which ran “between Jimmy’s cheeks”. In cross section the frontal area was 0.37 square metres compared to 0.54 for the ’62 Ferrari or 0.45 for the BRM.
Although the monocoque idea wasn’t new it was common in aircraft construction Chapman utilised it perfectly. “I don’t think he ever invented anything,” says French journalist and ardent Lotus fan Jabby Crombac. “He would take something which had been invented long before its time and, when the technology allowed it, make it work.”
Though Clark took pole for six of 1962’s nine championship races, and won more often than any other, he lost the crown through the failure of a minor component in the final race. All was put to rights the following year when he won seven of the 10 rounds and Lotus’ first World Championship. Clark and Lotus were the dominant partnership throughout the remainder of the 15-litre formula. In 1965 they won every race they finished, missing a race to pop over the pond and take a win in the Indy 500…
Perhaps their closest rival in terms of speed was Brabham’s Dan Gurney, who also drove alongside Clark in Lotus’s Indycar campaign. He remembers: “It was a very special relationship, each realised the other was the best. With Chapman everyone around him felt they were part of something that was going to whip the world. He had this aura that you could just feel the good stuff was coming off and Jimmy was just a giant of a driver. It was frustrating to compete against in F1, but a very special feeling when you were inside it.”
Chapman’s partnership with Clark was special in a poignant way too, according to Costin: “I think Jimmy was the only real friend Colin had. Everybody else was a business associate.”
The dawn of the 3-litre formula in 1966 left Lotus temporarily without a suitable powerplant but in ’67 came the Cosworth DFV. It was masterminded by Keith Duckworth, a former employee of Chapman’s who founded Cosworth Engineering with Mike Costin. “When Keith was at Lotus they didn’t get on together at all,” recalls Costin. “Later when Keith was successful Cohn was wary of him because he didn’t want to upset him.” Using the engine as a stressed member Duckworth’s stipulation, according to Costin Chapman penned the otherwise simple but elegant 49 model. Instantly the class of the field, Clark won on its first outing, the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix. He would win another four Grands Prix in it before his death in an F2 race in April ’68.
“That devastated the old man,” remembers Endruweit. “He came within an ace of quitting. The race after that was the Spanish Grand Prix. Chapman didn’t come and sent out Graham Hill and two cars. The spare car was brand new and we were under strict instructions not to use it. It was Graham who jollied us, bullied us and pulled us all back together. Then he won the race which put a bit of spirit back into the lads.”
Later in the year the 49 began to appear with aerofoils on the nose and a wedge-shaped engine cover, covering technical ground pioneered by the May brothers in the ’50s and by Chapparal in the USA. Chapman had headed F1 down its next road of technical development: downforce. Although briefly leapfrogged by Ferrari and McLaren, who introduced proper wings at Spa, the 49s soon sported full-height suspension-mounted wings on giant stalks. Their failure in the ’69 Spanish Grand Prix gave both Hill and Jochen Rindt major accidents and prompted a regulation change. “That was typical Colin,” says Crombac. “He went too far. He always wanted more.” It was that same trait in his business dealings would later terribly wound Lotus.
The advent of downforce made Chapman seek out a single answer to the conflicting demands of aerodynamic grip and low drag. The resulting wedge-shaped 72 was given its debut at Spain in 1970 by John Miles. “It was horrifically under-developed at that stage,” he recalls now. “The anti-squat and antidive in the suspension made it very difficult to drive and we also had big problems in that race with the composite spacers which melted and all the tensions in the bolts between the brake, the spacer and the driveshaft slackened.”
Although it was soon sufficiently resolved for Rindt to win four successive Grands Prix, the 72 remained a frail car. “At Zandvoort, Jochen spun in practice,” says Miles, “and it bent the monocoque.
Thing is, he didn’t hit anything.” A broken brakeshaft combined with Rindt’s refusal to wear crotch straps caused his fatal accident at Monza.
Emerson Fittipaldi helped secure Rindt’s posthumous title by winning in just his fifth Grand Prix appearance, at Watkins Glen. Two years later, still in the 72, he was crowned the sport’s youngest ever world champion at 25. “Chapman was very impressed by his maturity,” remembers Crombac. “Even when he first appeared at that very young age, he looked and acted like a 35 year old man and he was also very intelligent.”
Both Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson would score many more wins with the long-running 72, the last coming at Monza in 74. But though it had taken rivals many years to catch up, they were about to leave Lotus behind.
“If Colin had a failing it was that he was always looking for the next thing no-one else had, rather than developing what he had,” asserts Warr. It took three years and the help of aerodynamicist Peter Wright to find it was the Lotus 78, featuring inverted wing profiles inside its wide side pods, which made its debut at the 1977 Argentine Grand Prix. It was the beginning of ground effect.
“The work really started when I was at BRM in the late ’60s with Tony Rudd,” recalls Wright. “We’d started to build a wing car there but it didn’t have skirts and probably wouldn’t have worked very well. With the 78, Chapman asked Tony Rudd to go right back to fundamentals.”
The car originally appeared with brushes rather than skirts. “We were a bit nervous about what we’d be allowed to run,” says Wright. “They didn’t really work… We had a Renault 4 van and we hung stuff on the back of that and ran it round Hethel. The real breakthrough came when we put ceramic tips on the skirts, making them suck clown instead of up by sealing all the time.” Thus equipped, the ground-effect 78 was the fastest car of the season, only engine unreliability keeping Mario Andretti from snatching the title away from Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2.
With further refinement, the seminal 79 was created and this time Andretti waltzed to Lotus’ sixth drivers’ and seventh constructors’ world titles. The car left rivals reeling. Gordon Murray, then working for Brabham recalls: “No-one knew exactly what they’d harnessed. We were all still trying to understand it. Chapman was my only hero. Just looking at the cars, I loved the way the guy’s mind worked.”
But it was Murray, together with Williams’ Patrick Head, who utilised the Lotus principle fully and followed it to its ultimate conclusion. Taking the view that more is better, Lotus attempted, unsuccessfully, to make the whole length of the subsequent 80 generate ground effect. “Williams and Brabham did what we should have done which was build a version of the 79 with a decent structure. Our cars had all the torsional stiffness of a wet lettuce,” says Wright.
He was not to know it but, after the glorious 78 championship year, Chapman would witness just one more Lotus race win before his sudden death in December ’82 from a heart attack.
With no Chapman at the helm, pragmatism was needed. Wan; who took over the running of the team, recalls: “In the last years of his life Chapman had become distracted, partly by all the DeLorean business and partly by the wealth, riches and lifestyle of David Thieme from his sponsor, Essex. Whereas once he would be in the garage until 10 at night, in the end he’d turn up ten minutes before practice and leave 15 minutes afterwards, with some sycophant to drive him to the helicopter. Before he died he was designing the ill-fated 93 and was more concerned that it should have large, sharp-edged panels on which to cram as much sponsorship as possible than any aerodynamic concerns. Of course he never actually saw the disaster of that car.”
Warr brought in former Matra and Ligier designer Gerard Ducarouge to create an all new car half-way through the 1983 season. The 94T was created in just six weeks. “Few, if any, other teams could have achieved that,” says Warr, “which shows that the Lotus spirit was still alive and well after the death of Chapman.”
It was a competitive machine and a later development of it gave Ayrton Senna his first Grand Prix win one sodden day in Portugal in 1985. Senna was sublime, finishing over a minute ahead of the rest of the field, giving Lotus the first of its post-Chapman victories.
There were to be only five more, the last of them at Detroit 1987 where Senna once more took the active-ride 98T-Honda to a comfortable win. “We were delighted of course,” recalls Crombac, “but if you’d said this would be Team Lotus’ last win we would have laughed.”
Senna certainly sensed the way the wind was blowing and joined McLaren. “People would be amazed if they knew how little we were operating on by then,” recalls Warr. But at the end of 1989, “we had the draft of a $46million five-year deal with CocaCola and a pretty damn good deal with BP. Then both their MDs rang up and said ‘what’s this about your chairman being arrested?’ and that was that.” The DeLorean business, and Colin Chapman’s penchant for always wanting more, had come back to haunt the team with Fred Bushell’s detention.
Warr left the team, and with ever-dwindling resources, Wright and former team manager Peter Collins took charge. “We had no drivers, no engines and no cars,” recalls Wright, “other than that we were in good shape.” Derek Warwick, Martin Donnelly, Johnny Herbert, Mika Häkkinen and Alex Zanardi all struggled manfully over the next five years but, in the end, accumulating debts finished the team off. Ironically, it was Cosworth which was one of the major creditors.
In Team Lotus’ final Grand Prix, Adelaide 1994, with the administrators looking on, Zanardi and Mika Salo qualified 14th and 22nd, each retiring early. “It was sad,” comments Wright. “Right to the end the Lotus spirit was still there; it was the backs to the Wall stuff” After four decades of nothing being too difficult to achieve, Team Lotus was finally forced to accept otherwise.