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Replacing the innovative and iconic Lotus 72 was never going to be easy — even though it was in its fifth season. Andrew Frankel drives the car that tried

Bad Formula One cars are like bad Formula One drivers: they may be uncompetitive in their rarefied environment but by other terms of reference — any will do — they soon seem miraculously good. I was reminded of this last month as I watched Tom Kristensen, a man whose F1 career amounted to precisely one season as a test driver, taking his sixth win at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

And exactly the same thought had flashed through my head as I set off around the Hethel test track in the first of just two Lotus 76s made, Superswede Ronnie Peterson’s personal transport for at least some of the 1974 grand prix season. Famous only for its twin rear wing, electric clutch and breaking down a lot, it’s long since been discarded by posterity to the bin marked ‘F1 Failures’.

It’s a harsh distillation of a lot of hard work and sweat, but if all you do is look at the 76— or John Player Special Mk1 to give it its marketing name — in bald terms, it does not appear an unfair judgement. The facts are it started just eight races and finished one before being dropped for good. It never lifted either Peterson or team-mate Jacky Ickx onto a podium.

Then again, this was a slicks-and-wings Lotus grand prix car, one born between the eras of the 72 and 79, the most beautiful F1 cars of the period and two of the most dominant. Though the design work was Ralph Bellamy’s, the brief was handed down by Colin Chapman. When I was asked to drive it I wouldn’t have cared more if it had won every race and married Farrah Fawcett — the sense of occasion, of rare privilege, was almost palpable.

First the thinking behind the car needs to be understood, though. “What you need to remember,” says Bellamy from his native Australia, “is that it was never meant to be quicker than the 72. It was a tidy-up job, intended to be lighter, simpler and easier to work on.” Chris Dinnage concurs; he joined Team Lotus in 1981 and works for Chapman’s son Clive, across the road at Classic Team Lotus where this 76 was restored. “You can see that it’s an evolution of the 72 with the inboard brakes and torsion-bar suspension.”

Even so, an F1 Lotus from that era wouldn’t have been an F1 Lotus without a few radical departures. A small button on top of the gearlever and a V-shaped brake pedal are the first. “That was the bloody electric clutch,” says Bellamy. “Colin had a thing about it, and when Colin wanted something to happen it tended to happen. In theory, it worked and allowed the drivers to left-foot brake as they pressed the button to change gear. In practice, the hydraulics put a load of weight into the car and no-one considered the fact that F1 cars are forever being pulled to pieces; every time this happened, the system would fill with air. It took hours to get the air out, hours which we could have spent testing.” It didn’t take long to realise the clutch was never going to work but, says Bellamy, the car was already being considered by some at Lotus as a waste of time.

The distinctive bi-plane rear wing was also a mistake, a fact Bellamy is happy to acknowledge: “It happened because I’d developed the 72 by pushing the rear wing further and further back to get more downforce and then winding on a commensurate amount of wing at the front to balance it. Then a rearward limit came in so we did the twin wing to try to maximise downforce within the new limits. It didn’t work.”

The 76’s debut came at Kyalami, three rounds into the 1974 season, and it was inauspicious. Both cars qualified mid-grid and they took each other out at the first comer. But in Spain, with a conventional rear wing, Ronnie was fastest on Friday, pipped to pole by Niki Lauda’s Ferrari and led in the wet for the first 20 laps before retiring with an overheating engine. “That’s where the car got its reputation for being inadequately cooled,” says Bellamy. “In fact, the engines were running too cool as the oil radiators were being sprayed with water, so Colin had ’em taped up. Then it stopped raining, a dry line appeared and the car overheated. Left alone, there was nothing wrong with the cooling.”

But already it was a marked car. At Nivelles in Belgium, both retired: Icicx with spongy brakes, Peterson due to a fuel leak. Nor was its cause helped by the 72s being wheeled out for Monaco, which Peterson promptly won.

After that race Chapman handwrote a side of foolscap titled Retire T76 For Major Sortout. The action list required a redesign to drop the operating water temperature by 10deg C and a new fuel collection system to ensure the car would be free of fuel starvation, even with one litre in the tank. It went on to itemise requirements of a new brake system to give a softer pedal, the elimination of vaporisation in the rear brake lines and new disc mountings. Finally, new front bodywork and wings were required to reduce lift.

The 76 did race again, at the Nürburgring in August, but only after Peterson crashed his 72 in practice. In fact, it should have been called a Lotus 74 as it raced using the rear end of the bent 72. This hybrid was quick enough to finish fourth, a fraction of a second ahead of Ickx’s 72 but only after Jacky had slowed on the last lap past the scene of Mike Hailwood’s dreadful accident, allowing the Swede to tow past him on the straight. It was the one and only race a 76 would finish. Peterson would never race it again and Ickx retired in both Austria and Italy.

“It’s a sad story,” says Bellamy ruefully. But none of this, he adds, touches on the real reason why the 76 failed. “It was the tyres,” he says emphatically. “Back then Goodyear would develop its tyres with the fastest teams and everyone else took what resulted. When we ran the 72 in 1973 we were consistently fastest so they went with us. But then Emerson Fittipaldi went to McLaren and we missed the early-season testing during 1974 because we were trying to sort that clutch, so Goodyear developed tyres with a much stiffer construction to suit the McLarens. This crucified the 76 because it had inboard front brakes and a strong rearward weight bias so it could never get the heat needed to make these new tyres work — it just understeered like a bastard.”

If these problems still exist, they were at least in hiding in the blistering heat that sat like a blanket over Hethel the day I drove the 76. The fat Avons were warm from sitting in the sun. This was the car that led at Jararna. Its chassis plate says JPS/9, leading on from Lotus’ last 72, 72/8. It was restored to running order by Clive Chapman’s team a couple of years ago and is now owned and raced occasionally by Jim Bennett.

The seat was removed to accommodate my outsize frame but getting comfortable was accomplished with ease. The button is still atop the gear lever but is no more than decorative these days. Dinnage plugs in a battery. He tells me to flick on the ignition and fuel, then thumb the starter. Bang. I’ve been listening to Cosworth’s DFVs all my life yet they retain their capacity to surprise me with the sheer, glorious ugliness of their note.

Needles flick into life, showing oil and fuel pressure, oil and water temperature all to be where they should. “I don’t want to see more than 10,000,” shouts Chris above the din. This 76 is fitted with a ‘warmish’ DFV producing 470bhp at about 10,500rpm, enough to guarantee your undivided attention but some way short of the 530bhp at 11,200 offered by a short-stroke DFV with titanium internals and an open cheque book. I’ve experienced one such motor and it was a brute, unco-operative below 8500, savage above it. This DFV promised to be tractable from 6000 and on song by 7500.

All such cars require acclimatisation, as even this 30-year-old racer has a power-to-weight ratio not far off double that of the McLaren F1, the fastest road car ever made. Off the line Kristensen’s Le Mans-winning Audi would not see which way it went. However, once your body has become used to the unusual forces it’s being subjected to and your mind has logged the ferocity of the brakes, immediacy of the steering and the ludicrous levels of available grip, it’s not a difficult car to drive. It hops around until the tyres and shockers are up to temperature after a couple of laps. Reassured by a DFV as flexible as promised and the sweetest Hewland ‘box I’ve tried, I felt as comfortable and relaxed as you reasonably can on board someone else’s F1 car.

There was a little understeer but frankly no more than I’d expect of such a car on a tight, twisting circuit, and traction was such that the back end stayed resolutely in place unless you were deliberately gauche with the throttle. Bellamy was interested to know if I’d used the full circuit, as he felt sure I’d feel the downforce limitations of the twin wings, but we were restricted to one end of the track and only half the straight

Every few laps I’d report back to Dinnage. For the last session, he leaned off the mixture. At last I reached that point where each movement of hand or foot, at first so awkward and deliberate, became almost automatic, freeing up gigabytes of brain space to concentrate on handling the car and savouring the experience. For those few minutes I felt I could at least and at last drive this car without insulting it. Compared to the five other ’70s Fl cars I’ve driven, it felt just fine — fast, fluid and friendly. And, despite the searing heat and stop-start nature of the day, not once did it even look like overheating.

“There was nothing wrong with that car,” maintains Bellamy. “It could have been as successful as the 72. It had a reputation for being heavier but I can remember when Nigel Bennett weighed it without all the electric clutch hydraulics. He came over and said, ‘This car’s lighter than the 72’. I said, ‘Yup’.”

Of course there are those who’ll say this is Bellamy defending his design: the truth is no-one knows how the story would have turned out had the tyre issue been resolved. But it’s interesting to note that its successor, the 77, was even less competitive at the start of 1976 yet was on the podium for four of the final six races, winning the last from pole position. What made the difference? It would seem that moving the brakes outboard had not a little to do with it. The last fragment of evidence belongs to Jim Bennett, who has discovered that his car led 41 per cent of the laps it completed. Does that sound to you like an uncompetitive car that didn’t deserve to race?