I wish I'd designed... Lotus 49

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Put off Formula One for years by the death of Jim Clark, it was the technical aspects, not human ones, which renewed his interest. However, there is one car which combines both

Although not much of a historian, I’m inclined to choose a car from the period which really got me excited about Formula One and drove me to get involved. The Lotus 49 is significant for me because it was the last F1 car to be driven by Jim Clark.

My interest started when my father took me to the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1960. Stirling Moss won in a Lotus 18, but I also recall seeing Jim Clark in a Formula Junior and my interest in Formula One grew as his career progressed. I followed his every race — to me there was no one else even close. People say they can remember exactly what they were doing when President Kennedy was killed; for me it was Jim Clark. I can remember my sister leaning out of the bedroom window to tell me the news, having just heard it on the radio. When he died, so, for a long while, did my interest in F1.

It didn’t resurface until I began helping some local friends who ran McLarens in the Aurora series, then progressed to GPs with Lotus 78s and 79s for Hector Rebaque. Through this, I met John Barnard and, toward the end of 1979, started working full-time with him for Ron Dennis at Project 4. The car we were working on eventually became the McLaren MP4/1 and, as they say, the rest is history. Since then I have worked with Onyx, Footwork, Stewart and Prost.

The 49 is interesting not just technically but also because it had a long and successful racing life which spanned a period of significant change in Formula One. From a simple, sleek design, it later acquired a variety of aerodynamic appendages which (in some eyes) spoiled the effect. The ‘tea tray’ rear spoiler used to win at Monaco 1968 soon gave way to huge, Chaparral-style, suspension-mounted rear wings including foot-operated feathering controls. Additional high wings attached to the front uprights were fitted the following year just before, rather belatedly, all the high wings were banned after a series of spectacular accidents.

Although the 49 was quite simple, and a logical progression from its predecessors, I remember the appearance of the cars at the 1967 Dutch GP causing quite a stir. The main technical talking point, using the engine as a stressed member, seemed to create as much impression as the monocoque Lotus 25 had done five years earlier. Yes, this had been tried before, including on the Lotus 43 with its BRM H16 engine, but the difference was this time it was done right. The engine was designed for the car and the credit for that — and to a large extent, the 49’s initial success — must go to Cosworth.

That season was only a few years into the era of so-called ‘kit cars’. Yet the 49 clearly had the minimum of compromises which could be attributed to working around an existing engine package. The DFV’s shape went a long way to determining the 49 chassis’ cross-section, with two bolts at the bottom, a flexible plate for the upper engine mounts, and a flat front to suit the monocoque chassis. Rear suspension was attached to the cam covers and crankcase — pretty normal now, but it wasn’t 24 years ago.

With half the bhp of current F1 engines, the fuel consumption was less in a similar ratio. However, they had to carry fuel for a 200-mile race with no stops, so having a short engine and keeping the fuel near the CoG was very important. Added to that, the cars had to be on the weight limit which, when the engine was conceived, was as low as 500kg. When I saw a Lotus 49 again at a recent Goodwood Revival meeting, the first surprise was how small it seemed. The whole car looked spindly, particularly the roll-hoop, but the aluminum monocoque chassis must have been strong judging by the accidents people survived.

In addition to its simple design, the car was the last F1 Lotus to carry a relatively simple colour scheme, incorporating their version of the national colour green with a central yellow strip. This was later replaced by more garish colours and sponsors’ logos. Even though by today’s standards these cars were unbelievably cheap to build, it was evidence of the fact that F1 was costing more and more.

Despite winning world championships in 1968, and contributing in 1970, the Lotus 49 was a lot more dominant in terms of speed than the results suggest. It was a clearly superior package, but a lot of races were lost through unreliability; Lotus pushed forward so fast, often with great concepts, but were perhaps not so good at the detail.

As I know all too well, this is an easy situation for a race-car designer to get into. Often the innovation is not the problem, but the effort required to achieve it diverts resources from everyday matters which previously had not been a problem. On many occasions it is the mid-level teams who are tempted to take a chance on innovation to leapfrog them to the front, and it is the top teams who have learned to temper the natural desire to do something new. The temptation is always there to push just one step too far; however, the top teams have become extremely good at maintaining continuity in finance, management and design direction as well as focusing on where real performance comes from. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was quite normal for teams to follow good years with bad, something which did not change until the sequence of consecutive McLaren titles which started in 1984.

To be fast in Formula One, I personally believe you need aerodynamics and engine in that order. To win, you need lots more, and need to be pretty good at all of it. In addition, there is more than one way to get to the same level. The closeness of McLaren and Ferrari in 2000 is evidence of that.

In the current era, development dominates and innovation is a dangerous word. However, to dream for a while, it could also be said that a big step forward will only be possible with the level of integration shown on the 49, whereby a complete package is designed from scratch with chassis, engine and transmission totally integrated in a new way. Teams with strong relationships with their engine partners will be best placed to do this, and those with integrated aero/chassis/engine facilities even more so. Ferrari already have this and, just maybe, Cosworth can look forward to the new Jaguar Racing facility offering the same potential.