The worst car I ever drove - Unnatural gas

In 1971, Emerson Fittipaldi was a young, enthusiastic driver. But that did not stop the tubrine-powered Lotus 56B scaring him half to death every time he drove it. He explains why to Adam Cooper.

When a driver has raced at the highest level for more than a quarter of a century, choosing his least favourite car is not easy. But Emerson Fittipaldi ponders our question for just seconds, before a smile spreads across his face. “I think it was the turbine.”

Colin Chapman’s Lotus 56B was one of the most extraordinary racing cars ever seen. It was a unique technical achievement destined to become a mere footnote in history. Perhaps the only F1 car to be derived from an Indy 500 contender, rather than the other way round, it contested just three Championship races – with a different driver aboard each time. The car was inspired by larger-than-life Indy 500 entrant and STP boss Andy Granatelli. He wasn’t the first man to fit a gas turbine engine in a racing car (in 1967 Parnelli Jones led the 500 until his 4WD STP Paxton Turbocar expired in the closing laps), but he was the first to do it successfully.

Granatelli also backed Lotus at Indy, and persuaded Chapman to pursue the turbine route for 1968. Maurice Philippe’s stunning wedge-shaped design, the Lotus 56, was like nothing seen before but it was ill-starred from the off. Jim Clark tested the prototype in March, shortly before his death at Hockenheim. Mike Spence was drafted into the Indy squad, setting impressive times, but tragedy struck again when he crashed a 56 and succumbed to his injuries.

A few days later Joe Leonard and Graham Hill qualified first and second in the sister cars. Graham crashed in the race when the suspension failed, but Leonard was leading when a fuel pump shaft failed with ten laps to go.

Two weeks after Indy, Hill was entered a USAC event at Mosport Park, but failed to make the start after crashing in practice. Although underwhelmed by the car’s throttle lag around the road course, Hill relished the 4WD handling. Chapman took note.

Meanwhile, USAC decided to run the turbines out of Indy. Impossibly severe restrictions were announced for ’69, along with a ban in 1970. Reluctantly, Granatelli agreed to drop his pet project. Mosport inspired talk of a Lotus turbine running in F1, possibly as an STP Oil Treatment Special. Work actually started, but plans were soon shelved.

During 1969 Chapman pursued the 4wd theme in Europe with the unloved DFV-engined 63. The following year he unveiled the 72, which echoed the 56’s dramatic wedge shape.

But the turbine idea didn’t go away, and late in 1970, Chapman finally had his F1 spec car ready to run. Fitted with large front and rear wings, it was dubbed the 56B. The car was based on an Indy chassis; some reports say it was actually built from the remains of 56/2, the car Spence crashed.

Young and eager, Fittipaldi was delighted to be asked to handle the new machine. Men he drove it…

“My first reaction was to be very excited,” he recalls. “The first time I tried it was at the proving ground at Hethel. John Miles was testing the car, and it was freezing. It was the first time I saw the car as an F1 package. When the car went by it was amazing to hear the tyres more than the engine.

“At the end of the runway there was a hairpin, and John lost the brakes. He went straight over the fence into the fields. When I saw that, my leg started shaking because I was next in the car. He was about half a mile away from the track, and was extremely lucky. John came back completely white, he said, ‘Emerson, your turn now. Good luck.’ They repaired it, and I drove it carefully, taking care of the brakes.”

Miles and Fittipaldi discovered what Hill had found out two years earlier; to keep the thing going you had to stay on the throttle.

“There was this delay. You had to keep turbine speed up, and to do that you had to use the power against the brakes, just to keep the turbine going. That’s what happened to John – the brakes overheated.

“When you got the car ready to run, and it was just idling, the engine was going at 90mph if you didn’t hold it on the brakes! It was scary. The exhaust pipe was maybe 10ins behind your head, and sometimes it was blowing big flames.”

The 56B was tested through the winter of 70-71. Suddenly finding the team had just one serviceable DFV to hand, Chapman made a last-minute decision to enter the turbine in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Emmo struggled, eventually retiring with suspension failure.

“It was the most dangerous car. We always had problems with brakes, and Lockheed made incredible calipers and pads. It was a bad car for mechanical failures, so every time I went out I thought something might break, and that could be the end of Emerson! I was always scared in that car.

“But the handling was actually very good, because of the four-wheel drive. You could drive on-line, off-line, on the grass and still keep the power on.”

There were further non-championship outings for Reine Wisell at Oulton Park, then Emmo again at Silverstone. F3 star Dave Walker was drafted in for the Jochen Rindt Trophy race at Hockenheim, but failed to start after an engine fire.

By then the car had been fitted with side tanks, necessary to tackle a GP distance. Walker gave the car its Championship debut at Zandvoort; in the wet he charged from 22nd to 10th, lapping faster than the leaders, before overcooking the brakes at Tarzan.

The car emerged again for Fittipaldi at the Italian GP. Fearing legal fallout after Rindt’s accident the previous year, Lotus appeared as Worldwide Racing.

Surprisingly off the pace, Emmo made it to the flag in eighth. On the way home from Monza the team stopped off at the Hockenheim F5000 event.

“Colin put the maximum boost and maximum fuel injection. I had flames two or three metres blowing beside my head. If they didn’t have chicanes we would have taken off and landed in Sao Paulo!

“But it was a good race. Two or three times in the stadium I got four wheels on the grass, and was able to control the car and get back on the track.”

He set fastest lap and finished second. But that was it for the turbine. Aware the car was likely to be banned, Chapman abandoned the project and concentrated on refining the Lotus 72.

“In October, when `Seppi’ died in the BRM at Brands Hatch, that was the first time the 72 was very competitive,” recalls Emerson, “and it carried on at the top for the next three years. The turbine was the worst car I ever drove… but the 72 was the best.”