Lotus 72

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Formula One’s leading designer for the past 10 years is a man you associate with cool, rational thinking. His choice of favourite racing car, however, is an affair of the heart.

For me it’s the Lotus 72 – an emotional choice as much as a design one. It came out in 1970 when I was 11 and getting interested in motorsport, starting to appreciate the designs. I began to build Tamiya kits. These were very accurate, very good for teaching you the names of the components and how they fitted together. They helped me appreciate the design much more than from just spectating.

The 72 was a pretty big lateral departure from its competitors; the cars at that time were still very much the classic 1960s cigar shape but with wings bolted on as an afterthought Chapman decided to go the wedge-shaped route, which was relatively novel, designing the car around the aerodynamics rather than vice versa. There was no airflow management underneath the 72 it was a first step but it was saying, ‘Let’s think about the aerodynamics from the root of the design.’

It was one of the first to have its radiators ahead of the rear wheels; that follows on from the wedge shape, which dictates very little space in the nose. I imagine that was partly for penetration, letting the front wings work as well as possible, and partly because it’s a good packaging solution, with short pipe runs and keeping the weight of the radiators central, reducing the polar moment. An elegant solution, mechanically and aerodynamically.

It had torsion-bar suspension not the first car to use it in F1, but it reintroduced the concept presumably for reduced weight and better packaging than a coil spring.

But you’re creating an extra problem because you can’t buy ready-made torsion bars like you can springs it’s a question of how you push design against production. Modern F1 cars, without exception, have torsion-bar front suspension, and most have it at the rear too, so it’s a trend that has been followed several years later, though not necessarily for the same reasons.

Lotus did a neat job of installing inboard front brakes while ‘tweeting the wedge shape, with those little conning towers to extract the air. Today, carbon discs and light calipers form a relatively small percentage of the unsprung weight, but they were using iron discs and heavy calipers, so, especially with the small front wheels of the time, the brakes were a big fraction of the unsprung weight, hence moving them inboard.

I’d not seen a Lotus 72 since I was a teenager, and when I saw one a couple of years ago I was surprised at how big it was. I had the impression at the time that it was rather small, but now the monocoque seems broad. Cars have got much slimmer now a reflection of progress, not a criticism of the 72.

In the early years Chapman was very much the designer and engineer, but Maurice Phillippe was heavily involved from the Lotus 49 onwards, so it’s less clear who was responsible for what It’s probably true that, latterly, Chapman was getting more credit than he was due, when it was people working for him who were coming up with the ideas. But nevertheless there’s no doubt he was a highly talented and ingenious designer.

The 72 prompted people to think about how to integrate the aerodynamics into the design, with broader wings a better overall package. Whether they copied it, or it simply triggered fresh ideas, it pushed current thinking into new areas. In my own case, when we introduced the March 881, the Leyton House car, it was smaller than anything else. It was running at the end of the turbo era, which had produced engines of enormous horsepower and, with that, rather big, clumsy-looking cars. The smaller 881 integrated the aerodynamics in a different way, and while there were a few direct copies the following year, it forced people to re-evaluate their thinking. That was a rewarding achievement for me, even if the car didn’t win a race.

One of the things which has changed, and it’s a double-edged sword, is that, in the days of the 72, the level of design was, dare I say it, relatively low, simply because there were fewer research resources available. So they weren’t able to quantify whether the wedge shape was the way to go, or whether the extra complication of inboard discs was justified, because they never tried it with outboard brakes.

Now we have the budget and tools which allow us to quantify those. I enjoy that, because it means that any decision you make is less black art and more based on science. Before you even manufacture something, you know which direction to follow. I think it was quite common in those days for people to produce a new car which wasn’t as good as they’d hoped, and not to understand why. You might take two steps forwards and one back and still be pleased with yourself because you had made some progress. In a way it would be exciting because you would have to use your intuition, yet if you’d made a mistake and couldn’t understand why, it must have been be very frustrating.

I try to be inventive in my designs, but the more restrictive the regs become, the more difficult it is to pursue new avenues. I’d much prefer more open regulations. There’s more technical freedom in designing a road car than designing an Fl car, which is an anomaly the rule-makers might consider.

Whether it’s to the detriment of the sport depends how you weigh competition against the design element; if you feel it should be a battle between drivers, not of technology, then regs which produce similar cars are the way to go. Personally I think the sport should be a blend of technology and driver skill; it’s one of the things that makes it fascinating.

Adrian Newry was talking to Gordon Cruickshank

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