The car that changed Formula One forever

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This is the most famous of all Lotus 49’s. Shaun Campbell goes to Hethel to reunite John Miles with the car that took Hill’s fifth Monaco win

John Miles beckons me over with a crook of a gloved index finger. He points to a smear of blue paint on the inside of the monocoque. “See that? This was the car I was to drive at Monaco in 1970. I didn’t qualify it was my first time there and we lent the car to Rob Walker’s team for Graham Hill to drive. So they painted it blue overnight and he ran it the next day.”

It’s a day full of moments like that, a day not so much for memories as vivid flashbacks of sights and sounds, men and machines that you thought were forever in the past. It’s a blustery, misty morning at a rough old airground in Norfolk, a far cry from a sunny afternoon in Monte Carlo, but it’s no less image-invoking for that. For this is Hethel, home of Lotus, and there’s a Lotus 49 to be shaken down in preparation for the new season, under the critical eye of engineers who have been up most of the night making everything ready. It must have been very like this 30 years ago…

The Lotus 49’s place in motor racing history cannot be judged by results alone, impressive though they were. Twelve Grand Prix wins between 1967 and 1970, the Drivers’ World championship for Graham Hill in 1968 and the Constructors’ title for Lotus in the same year stake its claim as an outstandingly successful Formula One car. But it was also a pioneer, at the forefront of the revolution that swept through Grand Prix racing in the late 1960s.

The Lotus 49 was the car that introduced the Ford Cosworth DFV to Formula One, that was at the cutting edge of those first stumbling experiments with aerodynamic technology, and that blazed the trail for commercial sponsorship. It left Grand Prix motor racing a very different sport from the one it had entered.

The curious thing was that it was never intended to be a revolutionary car. The brief that Lotus founder Colin Chapman laid down for his chief designer, Maurice Phillippe, was to produce something relatively straightforward, a car simple enough to allow the team to concentrate on sorting out the inevitable teething problems associated with a brand new power plant.

But the simplicity of the original 49 was sublime. Even its most notable feature the engine being used as an integral part of the car, bolted on to the rear of the monocoque with the rear suspension subframe mounted on to the block and cylinder heads was something Lotus had tried with its 1966 challenger, the BRM H16 engined 43. On the 49 this feature was emphasised by the lack of body covering for the engine, giving the car a distinctly naked look from the rear of the cockpit.

However, where the engine, transmission and rear suspension alone of the Lotus-BRM 43 exceeded the minimum formula weight of 500kg, the light and compact Keith Duckworth designed ‘Double Four Valve’ engine allowed the 49 to tip the scales almost bang on the weight limit. In fact, the complete car was scarcely bigger than the old 1.5-litre type 25/33, a point clearly demonstrated when the bodywork of a 33 was used on a 49 chassis that had been hastily repaired after a huge practice shunt for the 1967 British GP.

The 49 wasn’t just small and light, though: it was also powerful. Cosworth reckoned the original DFV to be good for 400bhp at 9000rpm, which put it right on the level of the heavier Ferrari and Eagle-Weslake V12 units and well ahead of Cooper’s venerable Maserati V12 and Brabham’s homely Repco V8.

The mere sight of this elegant new design, when the first two examples were rolled off the Team Lotus transporter in the Zandvoort paddock on 2 June 1967, was enough to have the rival teams worried. When it took to the track, they must have despaired. Graham Hill put it on pole position with a time that was six seconds under the lap record. Jim Clark, whose self-imposed tax exile had precluded him from any testing, had problems in practice, and qualified only eighth. In the race Hill led for 11 laps until the DFV’s camshaft broke, whereupon Clark swiftly moved through the field, passed Brabham to take the lead on the 16th lap, and drove to an apparently effortless victory. It was a debut to be ranked alongside Mercedes-Benz’s victory with the W196 and Fangio at Reims in 1954, a crushing display by a new car that had in one fell swoop rendered all other challengers obsolete.

The superiority of the Lotus 49 during that first season is hard to reconcile in the more modem world of Grand Prix racing when advances are reckoned in tenths, if not hundredths, of seconds. At Spa-Francoirchamps, the old 8.76-mile Spa, Clark qualified on pole with a lap that was 7.5 seconds under the unofficial record, set by Phil Hill in the mighty 7.0-litre bewinged Chaparral 2F during practice for the Spa 1000km sportscar race the month before. Clark’s average speed for that lap was 151.56mph, on a circuit which he frankly admitted gave him the willies. Eddie Dennis, the man largely responsible for restoring the car photographed on these pages and a mechanic for the team that season, remembers Clark coming through at the end of the first lap of the race so far ahead that those in the pits were convinced that the rest of the field must have been wiped out in an accident.

If Spa demonstrated that the Lotus 49, especially in Clark’s hands, was in a class of its own in terms of raw speed, it also revealed that it was far from reliable. Hill’s car was retired after just three laps with no clutch; Clark had to stop twice to replace disintegrating spark plugs and finally took sixth place. But a pattern had been set that would last right through until the fourth round of the World Championship the year after. From Zandvoort in 1967 to Monaco in 1968 12 Grands Prix the Lotus 49 would start from pole position, lead the race and, unless mechanical problems intervened, it would win. It actually won seven of those first 12 starts, including two one-two finishes. Although it would continue to win races after that it would never again enjoy quite the same superiority, largely a result of the Cosworth DFV engine being made available to other teams, notably Ken Tyrrell’s Matra driven by Jackie Stewart, and the fact that Clark was no longer there to drive it…

Throughout 1968 the car steadily evolved. The most dramatic difference was first seen during the pre-season Tasman series, when the green and yellow official Team Lotus colours gave way to the garish red, gold and white of the John Player brand of Gold Leaf cigarettes. Then came the 49B, unveiled for the Monaco GP, with modest fins on the nose and a wedge-shaped tail to provide downforce at the rear.

How effective these primitive aerodynamic add-ons at a slow-speed circuit such as Monaco were is a moot point, but within a few weeks the wedge tail had been replaced by an enormous rear aerofoil mounted on struts over the rear and controllable from the cockpit to provide maximum downforce through corners and ‘feathered’ for minimum drag on the straights. Wheels and tyres grew wider, the original five-speed ZF gearbox gave way to a Hewland unit and the oil cooler was moved to the rear. Later in the season McLaren-type ‘nostrils’ were added to the top of the nose to channel away the air from the front radiator. A chassis was sold to Rob Walker’s team for Jo Siffert to drive and became the last customer car to win a Grand Prix when the Swiss driver staved off Chris Amon’s Ferrari 312 by a handful of seconds to win at Brands Hatch, after the works cars of Graham and Jack Oliver both retired when leading.

In Mexico, the last round of the 1968 series, Graham Hill notched up his third win of the season to clinch his second world drivers’ title. It gave Lotus something to celebrate after a year clouded by Clark’s death in an F2 race at Hockenheim and Mike Spence’s fatal crash when testing the gas turbine-powered Lotus 56 at Indianapolis.

For 1969 the plan was to replace the 49 with the four-wheel drive Lotus 63, but the new car proved neither particularly competitive nor reliable and the 49 remained in service throughout the year. It had to be hastily modified after both the works cars of Hill and new recruit Jochen Rindt crashed heavily at Montjuich Park for the Spanish GP when their rear wings collapsed. The inherent dangers of the immense downforce created by these rather flimsy structures prompted an untypically firm move by the governing body, who banned the use of high wings during practice for the Monaco GP two weeks later. Which didn’t prevent Hill from notching up his fifth win at Monte Carlo.

The concentration of effort on the 4wd 63 meant that the 49 lacked development during 1969, but it was still a car to be reckoned with, especially when Rindt was on song. His long wheel-to-wheel battle with Stewart’s Matra MS80 during the British GP at Silverstone was one of the highlights of the season, and he won his first Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in the 49 later in the year.

The story of the Lotus 49 should, by rights, have finished there but it was still needed for the 1970 season, when the new 72 proved in need of substantial reworking. The 49’s swan song came at Monaco, where Rindt drove a spectacular race snatching victory at the last corner ofthe last lap when Jack Brabham, his mirrors full of red, gold and white, was pressurised into a mistake at the Gasworks hairpin. If the race was lost by Brabham rather than won by Rindt, it’s worth remembering that the Austrian completed his last lap 2.7sec quicker than his qualifying time and 0.8sec beneath Stewart’s pole-winning mark. That win was a tribute not only to Rindt’s brilliance, but also to his confidence in the car.

ForJohn Miles, who failed to qualify that day, the 49 represented an island of calm in a turbulent sea. Throughout 1969 he had struggled with the 63 and for most of 1970 he wrestled with the 72. He raced a 49 only once, at South Africa in 1970, where he scored his only Grand Prix point-scoring finish with fifth place.

Now, 27 years later, he wriggles back into the car again and the memories come flooding back. This is the car he drove at Kyalami, and which also marked the 49’s final appearance for the works team at Austria in 1970 in the hands of Emerson Fittipaldi. His task today is to give the lovingly refurbished and refettled car its first shakedown run, in preparation for a fuller test at Snetterton, after which it is destined for the Pre-’68 GP Historique at Monaco, driven by Joaquin Folch. Pre-68′ is perhaps pushing the dating of this car a little far. According to the Lotus records it started life as chassis R2, the car Clark drove to its maiden victory at Zandvoort in 1967. It was rebuilt to 49B spec in 1968, then renumbered as R10, providing the mount with which Hill won at Monaco in 1969, and then rebuilt again after Hill crashed it heavily at Watkins Glen in 1969. How much of R2 remains within it is uncertain, but the essential integrity of the car should not be doubted. If it’s not the Lotus 49, it’s certainly a Lotus 49, rebuilt to go racing, not win authenticity awards.

Since that final outing it’s lain under wraps in the workshop. It hasn’t turned a wheel since 1978; when it was wheeled out to commemorate Mario Andretti’s world tide in a parade through Norwich and then it had to be towed. Since then it’s been restored by two former Team Lotus stalwarts, Chris Dinnage and Eddie Dennis, to run under the Classic Team Lotus banner managed by Colin Chapman’s son, Clive.

It looks fabulous, though so much smaller, lower and slimmer than contemporary F1 cars as to make it seem fragile and somehow insubstantial. That impression is exploded when the DFV is sparked into life and the Hethel test track reverberates once more to the familiar fierce crackle of the Cosworth V8. And after a couple of cautious, exploratory laps Miles returns with something approaching a grin.

“It feels very much as I remember it,” he says. “It has that same kind of debugged feel. When I first drove the 49 it had the benefit of three years of development and it gave you the impression that it would never let you down. The whole team knew the car inside out and it was very well sorted and organised.”

If the 49’s good points come quickly back to mind, so do some of its trickier qualities. Miles remembers how he had to reverse his hand for the fourth to fifth gear change, and the narrowness of the footwell. “Because I was tall, I found it difficult at times. Colin had very small feet size six and a half and size nine was the absolute maximum if you wanted to drive a Lotus.”

I discover precisely what he means when I try out the cockpit for size myself Even at 5 ft 7in, a little over 10 stone and with size eight feet, the 49 still seems a pretty tight fit. “You’re about the right size,” says Miles, “but you have to remember that this is generous compared to today’s cars. I don’t know how Mika Hakkinen ever managed to drive the Lotus 102. He had his knees right up on the dashhoop, to the extent that he even managed to knock off the steering wheel a couple of times. The gearlever was right back under your arm because the cockpit was so short. Frankly, I thought it was an environmental disaster. Really inhibiting.”

The 1967 vintage DFV had a reputation for being somewhat on the peaky side, but by 1970 the power curve had widened considerably and Miles remembers it with affection. “The engines I drove were incredibly docile nice spread of torque and the throttle control was really good. There was nothing vicious about it at all. Coming back to it now it seems incredibly slow, compared to the modern F1 cars I’ve driven. There’s time to rest between gearchanges whereas now you’re just up and down through the box so fast. That’s the difference between having 450bhp and 700bhp, I suppose. It does make a hell of a difference.

“The other thing you’re aware of is how soft it feels, how much more it rolls. Today, it feels only one step up from a road car, really very comfortable. The only thing I can compare it with was the Lotus 107 with active suspension. That was like a road car too, in the sense that it gave you a comfortable ride. I remember that even when we were having a lot of problems with the active car, Johnny Herbert didn’t want to go back to the passive suspension because he knew he was going to get beaten up again.”

Miles has his nostalgia on a drip feed. The delay between opening the throttle and the rev counter registering the movement leaves him laughing at the primitiveness of it all. At the moment he’s more concerned with trying to generate enough heat in the tyres to prevent terminal understeer. Understeer is not a word that springs to mind when you think of Clark, Hill, Rindt and Siffert driving the Lotus 49. “I think that was just the way people like Rindt and Siffert preferred to drive,” he says. “They liked to fling it around. It was quite a physical car to drive.” And then, with a self-deprecating smile: “I was always looking to expend the minimum amount of energy. But this has a lot to do with how much confidence you have and, politically, how you have to play the race. If you’re a newcomer to the team, as I was, there’s obviously no point in throwing the car off the road. I never got results from trying to drive harder. I usually got results by making the car good. For me that was the interesting bit; developing the car so that the race was won before you even turned up for the meeting. My objective was to go faster, I found all that wheel-to-wheel racing a bit of a pain to be honest.”

It’s easy, rather too easy, to get romantic and misty-eyed about the sight of a Gold Leaf Lotus 49 being driven around Hethel and at not inconsiderable speeds, too by a man who raced it in its heyday. But there’s another side that hits home harder when talking to Miles, or Eddie Dennis, who was both Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson’s mechanic, or Chris Dinnage who performed the same job for Ayrton Senna. The memories flood back and some of them are painful. “I first drove round here in 1967,” says Miles hesitantly, questioningly. “Now I’m back, still going round all these years later in the same car. The difference is that then everyone was still alive.”

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