15 minutes of fame
Lotus 73: Monaco F3 – May 13, 1972
A black-and-gold Lotus smoked its Formula One rivals in 1972, but its Formula Three counterpart coughed and spluttered its way to an early demise. By Paul Fearnley
A new era dawned in 1972: Formula One got its youngest world champion, and gained a commercial face that would change it forever. Lotus had ushered in sponsorship as we know it with Gold Leaf in 1968, but Chapman's team had now 'sold its soul': Emerson Fittipaldi won the title in a John Player Special, not a Lotus 72.
At the end of 1971, Lotus had re-signed with Player's for three more years. As the technology and cost of F1 spiralled, the team saw that financial security was vital. It was beginning to realise, too, that it would do better to focus completely on F1. Player's, though, was yet to be convinced of this: more races equalled more exposure it was as simple as that
"There was a branding complication," explains Peter Warr; Lotus' team manager. "Player's only sold the JPS brand in the UK; elsewhere it was sold under licence by British American Tobacco. Player's was worried that it wouldn't receive enough UK exposure via F1 alone. So we had to do Formula Three."
All the right pieces appeared to be in position for this programme: Lotus had built the most advanced F3 car to date, the 73, and signed Tony Trimmer, the 1970 British F3 champion, to drive it. Neither party, however, really wanted to be involved.
Lotus had signalled its desire to streamline by closing Lotus Racing in 1971. This subsidiary had looked after its privateer customers, and run the 'works' 69 which Dave Walker used to dominate F3 that year. By Warr's own admission, Walker's performance in the British GP support race had convinced Player's to stay with Lotus despite its poor F1 showing. There was, though, less and less room for sentiment in motorsport as Trimmer had discovered also.
He had secured his F3 title in a self-run Brabharn, and impressed the F1 crowd by winning at Monaco. He joined Lotus for an end-of-season F3 series in Brazil confident that a handful of F2 drives were on the table for '71. But by the time he returned, the scene had changed dramatically: the market was flooded with 'pay drivers'. "I've never been good at selling myself," admits Trimmer, "and suddenly teams wanted £50,000 plus." He was left on the shelf.
Adamant that something would turn up, all year long Trimmer spurned Lotus' advances to return to F3; he felt he could only lose out with such a move. This thought was still nagging away when he did eventually sign, for 1972, but it was Hobson's Choice – nothing else had turned up.
'They had kept upping the offer. I was excited by talk of the new car. There was a good budget. And there was a promise of three Formula One drives."
Trimmer never got a sniff of those F1 drives; undoubtedly, some of the F3 budget was siphoned into the F1 programme; and the 73 was a handful.
"From the driver's shoulders forward, the car was a Formula Two project designed by Maurice Philippe and shelved after Jim Clark's death. This bit was a monocoque fitted with inboard front brakes and rising-rate suspension. To it was stitched a reworked Lotus 59/69 rear, which was not rising-rate..."
Trimmer quickly realised, too, that there was a major communication and leadership problem. Warr was flat out on F1 and the bulk of Lotus Racing had followed its disaffected boss, Mike Warner, to help him set up the instantly successful GRD concern. The fledgling JPS F3 team, under the auspices of Lotus young-buck designers Martin Wade and Dave Baldwin, was left in the main to its own devices.
Trimmer: "The car was different at every race. That front suspension was impossible to work out. I became desperate and started throwing weird settings at it. I was messing about with the ride height at Mallory Park running very high at the front, low at the rear. It looked ridiculous, but it worked. I went even more radical and put a load of negative camber on it. Now I was able to use the brakes properly for the first time and they were fabulous."
Trimmer won the Shell round at Mallory Park in early April with this set-up. It was a brilliant drive for which he received no points and no prize money. Because of its Texaco links, the team was refusing to affix Shell stickers to the car. Another "bone of contention" between team and number one driver.
In the chill draught of this relationship, minding his own business, waiting for his promised turn as number one, was 22-year-old Bernard Vermilio. The winner of the 1971 BOC Formula Ford series reckoned he'd "cracked it" when he signed for Lotus.
"I thought the car had a lot of potential," says Vermilio, "but it didn't seem to suit Tony's style; I think he preferred an understeerer. All he kept saying was that it wasn't as good as his old Brabham, and I don't think he was pushy enough to get what he wanted. From my point of view, the only time the car felt right was after Dave Walker had done some testing in it at Anderstorp, midseason."
Trimmer arrived at Monaco, one month after his Mallory success, with a car "fitted with a horrible biscuit-tin nose" and no more results to speak of. His expectations were low.
"The car was awful in qualifying. There were a few minutes left I still hadn't qualified when the oil pressure light came on. I pitted and shouted for oil. Peter Warr said that they hadn't brought any from the paddock, so I dashed over to another team, borrowed some, and was about to pour it in when Peter explained we couldn't use it because it wasn't our sponsor's product. I'm a calm guy, normally..." Trimmer qualified on adrenaline alone that day!
"It was wet for the race, and that's what saved us. Colin Chapman mentioned that Firestone had provided a new front wet for the F1 car, and he asked if we'd like to try it, front and back. Once again the car looked ridiculous, but once again it worked."
Trimmer knew that he had an outside chance of salvaging something from the year.
"I was charging through the field, up to about sixth place or so, when I collided with an Alpine at Mirabeau. We weren't damaged, but we were facing each other, our wheels interlocked. I was about to climb out when I heard a swishing noise. I knew exactly what it was: a car all locked-up."
Trimmer braced himself for a big impact, but it never came. Instead he got a shove that propelled him down the hill. As quick as you like, he bump-started the 73 and, although he'd lost more ground than he'd made up, he still finished second, less than 2sec behind the Alpine of Patrick Depailler.
Sadly, the team was unable to consolidate upon this result, and it was shut before the year was out. "The guys made a tremendous effort and built a tidy car," concludes Warr. "But the programme suffered from a lack of financial emphasis, technical development and personal management
"It would be harsh to call it an embarrassment, but it's certainly true that we couldn't wait for the programme to end." So not everything black-and-gold glisters.