LOTUS 72 the most successful GP car ever?

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The Lotus 72 served for six years in the top flight, winning 20 Grands Prix and three constructors’ titles for the team. Alan Henry remembers a truly remarkable F1 car

On 19 April, 1970, a pair of Lotus 72s made their F1 debuts in the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. Striking and purposeful in the distinctive red, white and gold livery of Gold Leaf Team Lotus, and distinguished by their sleek chisel noses and hip-mounted water radiators, they were driven by Jochen Rindt and John Miles.

On 5th October, 1975, Ronnie Peterson and Brian Henton finished fifth and 12th respectively in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen on the 72’s last competition outing. These straightforward facts surely endorse this remarkable car’s claim to be the most enduring F1 car of all time, for although one must acknowledge that Maserati’s wonderful 250F raced across the seven years of the 2.5-litre F1 from 1954 to 1960, for the last three seasons of its life it was competing in the hands of privateers.

By contrast, the 72 was Lotus’s front-line F1 challenger in its first race and its last. That said, it was not meant to serve that long. It started out with Rindt regarding it as a death trap an unfortunately propitious judgement, as things turned out developed into the most formidable machine of its generation and then suffered a gradual decline into a depressing old age.

Lotus boss Colin Chapman originally laid plans for the 72 after the 1969 Lotus 63 had been sadly numbered among that season’s failed crop of 4wd F1 challengers. The classic Lotus 49 had been doing yeoman service since its debut at Zandvoort in mid-1967, but now Chapman took another giant step forward.

Developed in conjunction with Firestone, the Lotus 72 was designed to have low unsprung weight and pitch-free ride characteristics which would allow it to get the best out of the softest rubber compound available. To ensure optimum performance as its fuel load was consumed, Chapman and chief designer Maurice Phillippe used torsion bar rising rate suspension. The wedge profile guaranteed aerodynamic efficiency and cool air channelled from the sidemounted radiators prevented the drivers’ feet from becoming roasted.

The 72 initially suffered problems with its inboard front brakes. Practising at Jarama, Rindt suffered a failure which left braking on only three wheels, pitching him into an abrupt spin. He walked back to tell Chapman he wasn’t, “ever going to get into that bloody car again”.

Rob Walker later recalled asking Graham Hill what would happen now? Hill, an experienced Lotus campaigner, then driving Walker’s private Lotus 49C, said: “Colin will put his arm round Rindt’s shoulder, lead him away for a friendly chat and Jochen will get back into the car.” And that was precisely what happened.

Rindt reverted to the Lotus 49C and scored a stupendous last-corner win at Monaco. He used the old car again at Spa before a reworked 72 broke cover at Zandvoort. A suspension re-design had, in Rindt’s view, given the car a “better feel” its antisquat characteristics had been reduced and he trampled the opposition underfoot to score his second win of the season. Sadly, that same race was scarred by the death of Piers Courage when he crashed Frank Williams’ De Tomaso. Photographs of the winner’s rostrum show Rindt in deep depression, scarcely acknowledging victory, for he and his wife Nina were close friends of Piers and Sally Courage.

Many regarded this tragedy as the beginning of the end of Rindt’s enthusiasm for F1. At Clermont Ferrand for the 1970 French GP, Rindt was still regarding the 72 with a justifiable degree of paranoia. Chapman fumed to MOTOR SPORT’s Denis Jenkinson: “What am I going to do with this bloke? He has lightning reflexes, is bloody quick, but keeps telling me how to design my cars.”

Jackie Stewart was possibly Rindt’s closest friend in the sport. “Colin’s approach was a little too slapdash for me, and that’s why I never drove for him,” he admitted. “By the time of his death I think Jochen was certainly talking in terms of retirement. He told me, ‘I can’t get on with this car it’s going to break’. But he just had to drive it because it was so fast.”

Herbie Blash, Rindt’s mechanic and now racing manager for Yamaha’s F1 programme, also recalls that Jochen was increasingly preoccupied over Chapman’s obsession with saving weight and bulk at any cost. Rindt even wrote to Chapman telling him he was concerned about the fragility of his cars, echoing a similar correspondence with Innes Ireland less than 10 years before.

Yet Rindt would win in France, at Brands Hatch and Hockenheim. He retired from the inaugural Austrian GP at the Osterrreichring, yet went to Monza for the Italian GP seemingly poised to clinch the championship.

Rindt’s alarming prophesy for the Lotus 72 became self-fulfilling. On Saturday, 5 September, 1970, he drove out for practice. At Chapman’s insistence, he was running the car without nose wings or aerofoils in an attempt to match the straight-line speed of the powerful Ferrari 312B1 flat-12s. John Miles was told to do the same, but reported to Chapman that the car felt “horrifyingly unstable” in this configuration. Braking hard, Rindt had just overtaken Denny Hulmewhen his car began weaving under braking and speared left into the inadequately secured guard rail. Rindt suffered neck injuries when he `submarined’ into the cockpit. It would take another seven years of investigations before it was decided that a front brake-shaft failure had caused his loss of control, although the unsecured barrier was cited as the cause of his death.

Rindt’s championship points lead was by this stage almost unassailable. Ferrari team leader Jacky Icicx would have to win all three of the remaining races to take the title. He managed to win two, but when Emerson Fittipaldi took the Lotus 72 to victory at Watkins Glen only his fourth Grand Prix outing Jochen became the sport’s only posthumous title holder. In 1971, Team Lotus marked time. Fittipaldi was obviously a man of the future, but the after-effects of a midseason road accident left him below par for much of the season. Not until 1972, when the 72 first wore the steely black and gold John Player Special livery, was the Brazilian able to exploit the 72’s terrific potential. Emerson stormed to victory in the Spanish, Belgian, British, Austrian and Italian GPs to become the sport’s youngest ever World Champion, aged only 25.

In 1973, Chapman created a ‘superteam’ by signing up the dynamic Ronnie Peterson as Fittipaldi’s partner. The team switched from Firestone to Goodyear tyres, but the 72s were still the class of the field in the opening races of the year.

Chapman now briefed his designer Ralph Bellamy to start work on a replacement chassis, the Lotus 76, which the chief decreed should be a Lotus 72, “but 100 pounds lighter”.

At the start of the ’73 season, DSJ speculated as to what might happen when Peterson got his hands on a Lotus 72. Perhaps, he mused, he might learn to drive smoothly and tidily, a lesson the car had, in the last few months of his life, taught Rindt. Those who watched Ronnie grappling with an intermittently sticking throttle yowling through Woodcote on his way to second place in the ’73 British GP at Silverstone might have thought otherwise. But Ronnie won four Grands Prix that season in brilliantly disciplined fashion. With Emerson bagging three, it was good enough to retain the Constructors’ title for Lotus, but dividing the wins helped Stewart to the drivers’ crown.

Fittipaldi, piqued that his position at Lotus had been undermined by Peterson’s arrival, switched to McLaren in 1974 where he duly won his second drivers’ title. Meanwhile, Chapman’s lads had a dreadful time with the new 76 which incorporated provision for left-foot braking, an accessory which neither Ronnie nor new team-mate Jacky Ickx could make much sense of.

The new car also rather defeated the point by winding up heavier than the 72, breaking with a alarming frequency and eating its tyres. Small wonder that Peterson suggested rolling out the old 72 which he used to win the Monaco, French and Italian GPs, although by the end of the year the cars were suffering from near-terminal understeer on the latest generation of Goodyear rubber.

Ferrari, Brabham and McLaren took the lion’s share of Goodyear’s development effort in 1975, leaving the Lotus 72s struggling to keep pace. Experiments with wheelbase and suspension configurations reflected a team in disarray, but good old Ronnie barnstormed his way through from 14th to run as high as fourth in the closing stages of the car’s final race at Watkins Glen.

Only when the Swede locked up a brake two laps from home did James Hunt’s Hesketh 308C nip ahead of the gallant old Lotus which, fighting a desperate rearguard action to the very end, at least drove into the history books with all its guns blazing, thanks to Peterson’s irrepressible genius behind the wheel.

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