Chapman’s triple jump

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There are three reasons why the Lotus 49 made everything else obsolete overnight – and the DFV is only one of them. Works driver Jackie Oliver, who helped develop it, talks about its early incarnations

Perhaps the first image I remember of Jackie Oliver showed him standing next to the twisted carcass of his recently destroyed Lotus 49B at Rouen. The photograph was taken in 1968, and the only thing more remarkable than the fact a human being survived such a wreck is the undemonstrative posture of the young racer as he stands next to his shattered car. Both his hands sit casually in the pockets of his race suit and he peers in the opposite direction to the deceased Lotus, as if patiently anticipating the arrival of a late bus.

What is it about F1 drivers that makes them appear as scale models of normal human beings? Fast forward 40 years to Donington and the same survivor cuts the same diminutive shape over a car of identical proportions. David McLaughlin’s Lotus 49 is the only functioning example with the original green and yellow colour scheme: by the time Oliver had shunted at Rouen Chapman had broadened the sport’s appeal to cigarette manufacturers, and a battered Gold Leaf logo is just about visible amid the wreckage. But as with all drivers reunited with former mounts, the connection is immediately homogenous. Of the people present, it is abundantly clear that Jackie Oliver is the only man built to drive this car.

For me, today is a time to glean invaluable knowledge. If we chart the progression of single-seat racing cars through history, any car that first used its engine as a fully stressed chassis member might feel entitled to consider itself a milestone along the route, as might another that helped pioneer the use of wings in grand prix racing. And what about a third that was built to showcase what would become the most important and successful F1 engine of all time? In fact, the Lotus 49 is all three cars in one.

So to have Jackie Oliver available – the test jockey charged with developing the machine and the man who made his grand prix debut under unimaginably difficult circumstances at the wheel of one – is too good an opportunity to miss. We head straight for the Donington diner; Jackie buys tea and muffins, I prime the tape recorder.

The Double Four Valve’s emergence is well documented from an engineering perspective, but like all inspired solutions, the simple brilliance of Keith Duckworth’s thinking still makes us smile. Oliver is no different: “Colin knew the importance of chassis rigidity and the engine was a real problem because it got in the way of stiffness. I remember going to see him in the mid-60s and he had the front of a chassis bolted to the floor and a big bloody scaffold pole on the back testing the twist forces. The DFV was the perfect solution for him.  The engine was designed not to flex and it was bolted onto the back of the monocoque. Just four bolts hold the thing together.” 

This meant no heavy subframe was required to carry the engine as it was, in effect, simply a continuation of the chassis with the gearbox and rear suspension hung off the back. While others stuck to long 12-cylinder motors or tinkered with heavy and complex 16s, the short, stiff Cosworth V8 was not simply a fine engine, it was an excellent chassis member, too.

So much we already know, but what fascinates me is the change this completed monocoque brought in race car dynamics. The Lotus 49 is feted as the car which first housed the engine that would go on to power more F1 cars than any other in history, and its credentials as an affordable powerplant are rightly considered a key factor in the sport’s survival and success. But perhaps the most interesting fact about this revolutionary motor was that it had a greater effect on vehicle dynamics – on the way a racing car handled – than it did on simple straight-line performance. Allow Jackie to elaborate:

“Suddenly, with the 49, you found that small adjustments such as camber and toe-in – things like that – had an effect on the performance of the car when previously they didn’t. So as soon as you had a rigid base to work from you could be more precise, and get the performance you wanted, which was great because those early cars didn’t have the horsepower people now assume they did. The first car to run at Zandvoort in ’67 really wasn’t that powerful: it wasn’t until the end of the following year that they had it up around 400bhp.

“Anyhow, before the DFV arrived running toe-in at the back axle was never a factor, but now it had a dramatic effect, so as you started to understand these new phenomena you could begin to change the attitude of the car as it approached the corner. Whereas before there was just no point: why bother because the bloody thing was like a banana anyway?  And that’s what really changed the dynamics of mechanical grip. It was the birth of a new science.”

 But what was it like to drive?

“It was difficult at the ’Ring, because the power curve wasn’t sympathetic – it was a bit of a handful and I put it in the hedge in practice down the Foxhole. But the car wasn’t physically hard to drive as there was no downforce and the grip level was low. You didn’t even need to be especially fit because back then the cars were easier to drive.

“People still say the drivers were better in those days, but that’s bollocks: cars are much more difficult to drive now, the braking distances are the blink of an eye, you tip the car in at full pelt and then the breakaway point is invisible. The Lotus 49 on those tyres is just one big flowing motion: get it a bit wrong under braking and you simply apply a bit of opposite lock and then maybe trim it with a bit of power. Try that with modern cars and you’d be off.

“No, the problem wasn’t the design itself, it was how little testing was carried out. Chapman was at full stretch and there were no spares and no spare car; they just couldn’t keep up with development. They’d design a fantastic new rear suspension component – and build two of them. If one got bent you had to put the old one back on. It was very frustrating.”

The next step was an aerofoil. Sitting opposite the man whose 1968 contract stipulated time developing the first wing to sit above the rear wheels of an F1 race car is disarming. This is partly sheer significance: you know he is one of the progenitors of what has become the dominant science in the sport. But also there’s a sense of wonder that he’s here at all, knowing what we do now about the haphazard and frequently lethal manner in which the science developed beyond 1968.

“I tested the first wing on a race car, in 1968 at the French GP at Rouen. I remember the conversations in the office earlier in the year: someone had told Colin that if you flowed air over an aerodynamic section the air travelled further over the top than underneath, and this created lift. Turn it upside down and you have downforce. But the brilliance was in Colin’s interpretation of this new knowledge. He looked at the wing and said ‘fantastic, but don’t put it on the chassis because it will just push the springs down. Put it directly on the uprights’.

“So I turn up at Rouen for the first test and there’s Colin holding a round tube he’s flattened in a press. He’d had the lads weld a couple of bits of tube either end of this aerodynamic section, got some bushes which were Austin suspension mounts, stuck them on and constructed the uprights so they’d take the extra load. There were no endplates because at the time no one knew about slip-off from the side of the aerofoil.

“The thing wobbled about all over the place, and I’d had a few issues with Colin over components breaking in the past, so I mentioned that it didn’t look too strong. ‘Lad, when you take off in a 707 the wings go up and down: they need to be flexible or they break.’ That’s what he said. Three laps later I had the biggest bleedin’ accident you’d ever seen.

“To be honest I don’t know quite what happened, so you can draw your own conclusions from this. I was going around Dickie [Attwood] so he could give me a run at the first corner past the pits and as I changed direction behind him I lost control of the car. That’s all I know for a fact. What I surmise from it is this: turbulent air or the change of direction caused the wing to fold down like Jochen Rindt’s accident at Barcelona the following year. Instead of hitting the wrought–iron gates, which would not have been good, the car went back across the road, hit the parapet and tore the gearbox off.

“Colin came running over with a mechanic once the dust had settled, asking what had happened, and specifically what had I hit. Of course, being a young driver, I immediately thought he was blaming me, so I told him I’d hit nothing. He then ran back to the pits assuming the wing had pulled the gearbox off the engine, told Bruce McLaren the problem and said the wings were too dangerous to run. Which of course was complete nonsense, and he gave me a right bollocking afterwards.”

But if Jackie’s inextricable relationship with the 49 is founded in the DFV, its appearance as an integral stressed member of a racing car’s structure and the foundation of downforce, it was cemented through the loss of Jim Clark.

It is hard to image the circumstances under which Jackie assumed his first works drive just seven weeks after Clark’s death in a Lotus 48 at Hockenheim, but the candour with which he explains being dealt racing’s ultimate hospital pass makes you wonder how he continued his career afterwards.

“If you get an opportunity at that age the world is just a blur. I didn’t have the maturity – few did though Emerson was certainly one – and I couldn’t slow the picture down. All you’re concerned about is getting in the car, getting the contract, keeping the contract. And going fast. The trouble with that approach is that it isn’t enough. My first GP was Monaco after Jimmy’s death. Can you think of a worse place to make your debut? I’d never been there before. It was a baptism of fire.

“These days you’ve got 30 or 40 people around you to help. Lewis Hamilton is a good example: he couldn’t have achieved what he has in those first four races without those years of training. His talent has been channelled correctly. The only advice I had at Monte Carlo that weekend was when I was sitting on the grid, and Colin stuck his head into the cockpit. ‘Lad, in the whole history of this race no more than six cars have finished, so just keep going round and you’ll get your first championship point. There you go.’

“That’s the sort of advice you got. A few minutes before the start. It was the wrong thing to say and the wrong time to say it. No effing use whatsoever. So what happens next? I follow everyone into the tunnel, which at the time had about one light bulb, and came out into bright sunlight. Bruce McLaren and Scarfiotti had tangled on the exit: it was either the harbour which I didn’t fancy because I can’t swim, or the rock face. I chose the rock face, took all the wheels off, went back to the pits, and got fired. Honestly. I walked in, Colin was there poring over his lap chart. He just looked down at it and said ‘You’re fired’. It was only because of Jim Endruweit that I was in the car at the next race. Should I have been paying more attention? Yes. Could I have avoided it? Yes, but it happened.”

Don’t confuse this with the retrospective moans of a man who felt hard done by. Jackie is very sanguine about his Lotus career: “Jimmy was Colin’s best mate and his best driver and I was a very poor substitute. Not only was he in a state of bereavement, but he’d lost his best driver and instead had this young Essex lad who didn’t know which way was up replacing him. Did he think he was going to win the world championship with me? No. Did he worry that he wouldn’t win every round with Graham? Yes. On reflection I can see that. Anyhow, he did win the championship with Graham, which is credit to Graham’s dogged determination to get the job done.” 

Oliver soldiered on for the rest of the season driving the substantially revised 49B and the record shows that it let him down more than vice-versa. And at least he ended his relationship with Chapman, Lotus and the 49 on a high note, rising from 14th on the grid to third at the finish at the season’s finale in Mexico, beaten only by his then double world champion team-mate and McLaren.

“Not knowing is a big woolly coat; if you’re not aware that you’re not highly regarded and unwanted then that information just doesn’t matter. I was an arrogant Essex lad and I was bullet-proof; nothing got through to me.”

Our time is nearly up but there is one last thing I need the record set straight about, something sparked by that photograph of him and the wrecked 49B at Rouen. For there is a tale I have long assumed is apocryphal about how the young Oliver came to after the smash in front of some large, imposing gates and thought he’d gone upstairs. Yet Jackie confirms its basis in fact.

“It’s true. I was thrown out of the car, back in and when it all stopped all I could see was this winding path and these cows grazing either side. And I thought ‘Hello, I’ve arrived, this is rather nice’.”

Such were the tribulations of developing the incredible Lotus 49 on the hoof. In one short season, Chapman, his engineers and his drivers discovered practices that would revolutionise the sport. As you stand and look at the car today – so well proportioned, so naked from the beginning of the crankcase to the rear wishbones – you do wonder what other tangents the sport might have taken had those discoveries not been made. However, that process was fraught with danger and risk, and I put it to Jackie that he must now look back and wonder whether he actually was involved in something quite insane.

“Look, I was driving everything: Cortinas, Europas, F3, F2, the turbine car and then finally the F1 car. I was in my early twenties and driving was everything I loved. Did I have enough talent to be a world champion? No. Did I get the best opportunity to become one? Yes. Because I was one of the few people driving racing cars five days a week. I was a 21-year-old in the ’60s driving all those cars in the university of motorsport which was called Lotus, and it culminated in the 49. It was an amazing time.”