Black Magic: Driving Ronnie Peterson's brilliant Lotus 72 F1 car

After a childhood spent pushing the Corgi model along the carpets of Great Britain, Paul Fearnley finally gets his sticky mitts on a real Lotus 72. Worth the wait? You bet!

Ronnie Peterson Lotus 72 Formula 1 car

That shape! That colour scheme! Speak to people in the sreet and a lot will think that JPS are still involved in F1 - it's that evocative

Photography by Charlie Magee

There are numerous cars greater than the sum of all their parts. There are few, though, infinitely greater. And this is one of them.

From its Unipart-sourced pressure cap to the tinsnips-and-blob weld guard at the base of the gear lever, from a bracket-upon-bracket layout borne of six seasons of no-peace-for-the-wicked competition, to the cockpit’s hardware store of nuts, bolts and screws (crossheads, flatheads, Allens, press studs), Lotus 72 beggars belief. It’s not the precision tool you might have anticipated.

Side view of Lotus 72 Formula 1 car on track

Just about the most famous profile in Formula 1 history – didn’t cars look great on those fat rear tyres

Photography by Charlie Magee

Yet 20 grand prix wins, two drivers’ and three constructors’ titles (one shared with the preceding 49), spread over five seasons, tell no lie: 72 was the car of the early 1970s, perhaps of the entire decade. So good, it was the Lotus that Colin Chapman couldn’t hang. Fecund as ever, he was straight onto the next big thing, but the four-wheel-drive 56B turbine, the two-pedal 76 and the all-ways-adjustable 77 were inadequate by comparison. Only when Lotus came up with the ‘wing car’ 78 was the hipster, wedgy racer of Rindt, Fittipaldi and Peterson truly eclipsed.

Ah, Ronnie. Woodcote. In a 72. At the 1973 British GP. Surely the most-quoted car/driver/comer combo. I was at Copse that day. Close, but no cigar. But I am about to make up for my unthinking parents’ geographical blunder (and to think it was supposed to be a birthday present!), for I’m about to drive the very car `SuperSwede’ whanged through the pre-chicane Woodcote, held on opposite lock until just before the spectator bridge, fired innumerable imaginations with, stoked even more memories.

From the archive

Chassis 72/6. Built for 1971. Once of Gold Leaf, once of Reine Wisell; now of John Player Special, of ‘Mad Ronald’. Peterson had begun his first season with Lotus, 1973, in the brand-new chassis 8, retiring it when fourth in Argentina, setting pole but stopping early in Brazil, finishing way down in South Africa after fixing a throttle link. He drove 8 at the International Trophy, too, finishing second to Stewart — having been beaten to pole by team-mate (no Woodcote mug then!) Emerson Fittipaldi. In Spain, Ronnie and 8 were on pole by a towering seven-tenths and led for 56 laps — until the gearbox broke. In Belgium, they were on pole, only to fade and then crash.

In between times, Ronnie had driven 6 at the Race of Champions in March, setting joint fastest lap and leading — until the transmission let go. Car and driver were reunited in Monaco in June, sat on the front row there and led for six laps — until the fuel pressure faltered and five places were lost before the subsidiary electric pump kicked in. Third was the eventual result that day.

And so to Sweden. Featureless Anderstorp was unlovely, but the crowd loved their homecoming hero. But then everyone loved Ronnie. He and 6 pipped François Cevert’s Tyrrell 006 to pole, and led for 79 laps. Trouble was, the race was 80 laps. A deflating left-rear meant he was powerless to stop the McLaren M23 of Denny Hulme slicing by right at the death.

Lotus 72 Formula 1 car static shot on track

Choose black and gold for your F1 colour scheme today and your image advisors would explain how it wouldn’t work on TV

Photography by Charlie Magee

So the switch to 6 was no instant panacea, and Peterson’s obvious talent had still to be rubber-stamped by a GP victory. At the halfway point of that season, after seven rounds of 15, he had a mere 10 points to his name; Fittipaldi had 41, two more than Stewart The reigning world champion, the youngest ever, was still very much number one at Lotus. But Ronnie had that blinding speed, that annoying habit of slapping on his team-mate’s settings and going that bit quicker. He was on the cusp of something.

As am I — if I can keep my foot steady on the throttle. The nerves are there, it’s true. As is that road-car quirk of absent-mindedly blipping the throttle. A cold DFV has to be caught and held — at about 4000rpm, apparently. The throttle is heavy, though, my brain is as cold as the motor, and two or three times I let the revs drop. Stall. Bump. And away.

So what is it that the 72 has got?

Masses of competitiveness, clearly — GP wins in 1970 and ’72-74 — but even more charisma. Yes, that’s it. Something you can’t quite put your finger on, but which is there nevertheless. Its former asset is beyond my capabilities; the latter, however, suffuses my soul.

On one of Rockingham’s infield layouts (a sort of re-enactment of Ontario’s 1971 Questor GP, minus the banking), only second and third gears are required, and it’s a struggle to keep below the engine temperature redline of 85 deg C. Perhaps the airflow into those ground-breaking side rads is not all that Chapman and designer Maurice Phillippe would have wished for. This overheating means the runs are short but sweet — very sweet — which is fine by me as it allows for downtime to soak up the occasion. They going to have to crane me out of this cockpit; not because it’s a tight fit — it’s more comfortable than is probably good for me — but because I’m in love, basically. Mesmerised.

Lotus 72 Formula 1 car rear

Car now sits on Avons. Silver item jutting from underneath is a torsion bar. Wing had to be moved forward in 1973

Photography by Charlie Magee

The steering wheel has been replaced, but that is definitely the hammered-out blister where Ronnie must occasionally have rapped his knuckles on downchanges. And this is the button he pressed to override the rev-limiter. And look how that gashly cut piece of perspex, once the smashing ‘orangy’ bit, has faded to a watery yellow…

From the archive

Sorry, must try to be more objective.

Ahead, mounted on, and formed to the same shape as, the front roll-hoop is a black crackle-finish dash full of (centrally) Smiths rev counter and (one each side) two small under-over dials — very MG Midget, bar the 11,000rpm limit. Two ignition toggle switches lie to the right, and these are flicked downward in preparation for an external battery to bring the DFV to life.

This is a ‘mild’ unit, 470bhp as opposed to the ‘wild’ 520bhp, but still the vibration is numbing, especially in the seat-of-the-pants area. As the revs — and concentration levels — rise, this phenomenon becomes less noticeable. When I (finally) climb out of the car, however, l am not just buzzing mentally. A GP in the DFV era lasted well beyond its two-hour track maximum. And Ronnie wasn’t supposed to be fit. Keeping a 72 fully loaded for 70 or 80 laps would be no breeze, let me tell you.

True, the aces of the day didn’t suffer the pounding, feel-every-pebble ride of today’s grand prix `go-karts’. The 72, with torsion bars (back in F1 vogue) front and rear, and rising-rate suspension, is very supple. Even I can feel it moving around underneath, squirrelling through an enjoyable third-gear right-left-right-over-crest, nose rising under acceleration; no doubt it would have dived under heavier braking, too. Little wonder that talents like Ronnie — and Emerson, to be fair — were able to wring the 72’s neck, wring out every last drop.

They literally bent it to meet their will, its DFV which, as already explained, runs hotter than most, expanding under the strain, the top two (of just four) mounting brackets designed to move with it.

The brakes use good old Dunlop DS11 pads and give much more feel than do modem carbon-metallics — for wary novice in irreplaceable F1 icon, at least — and the clutch, heavy at rest, fine on the move, is liquid smooth. The gearbox, in contrast, is notchy, but reassuringly so, ratios slotting in neatly with a clonk. When you time things right, that is. Not being right up on the cam — a limit of 9000rpm, please — and not being positive enough on occasion, sees some changes cause an unsettling hop down the road, which leads to a switch to double-declutching in place of a hurried blip.

Ronnie Peterson name on side of Lotus 72 Formula 1 car

‘SuperSwede’ ended 1973 as the fastest man in Formula 1. Title favourite in ’74, his new Lotus was not up to the task

Photography by Charlie Magee

Otherwise, this famous car is extremely user-friendly: it pulls from 4000 (comes in strongly at 8k); it irons out what few bumps there are; it has more traction than I have ‘balls’; it keeps my kidneys cosy warm. But that doesn’t stop it from being bloody dangerous.

Flimsy, springs to mind. As does skimpy. When photographer Magee tank-tapes a camera and tripod to the nose, we ‘joke’ that he has just stiffened up the monocoque. A monocoque that stops where your calves lie, your feet and ankles jutting into a tray-like extension demanded by the keynote, but intrusive, inboard front discs.

From the archive

Ahead of the axle line, which your toes break on full throttle (so I didn’t) lies… not very much. The fire extinguisher used to be here, which meant it was the first thing to break off in an impact Handy. The high cockpit conning tower engenders a feeling of security. But this is misplaced. The reality is that it keeps the draught out and no more, and that the light-alloy bathtub monocoque it is mounted upon rises barely above your waist. In its E specification, the 72 complied with the new side-impact regulations of 1973. Its flanks bulged ever so slightly, and the rads were now swaged into the bodywork, but the bottom line is a thin layer of foam. Say it loud: don’t crash!

What 72 did have in its favour was a nimbleness matched only by Derek Gardner’s stocky Tyrrells, and a high-speed balance equalled only by Gordon Coppuck’s solid-citizen M23. It was very fast in a straight line, too, and it was only when Gordon Murray rocked up at Brabham that it came under threat in the lightness stakes.

Its steering — approximately a turn from lock to lock — is pin sharp, loading and unloading progressively as input is dialled in, allowing you to place (even me) to within an inch (or so), and demanding that you steer in and out of a comer. A sudden change of direction takes a bit of muscle, but it’s not excessive.

Designed specifically to make use of soft Firestones, 72 did exactly that in 1972, Fittipaldi winning five GPs (and three nonchampionship F1 races) to take the title. Matters, though, were complicated in 1973 by a switch to Goodyear. As the Akron company increased its grip on F1, and Firestones were only to be found on lesser cars, so the tyre war slackened and compounds became increasingly harder. Which meant 72, bereft of the tyre-warming heat generated by outboard front brakes, became increasingly understeery. Which is where Ronnie’s right foot and balance came in.

Lotus 72 Formula 1 car cockpit

Large oil pressure warning light and rev-counter dominate plain and simple dash – no £50k steering wheel here

Photography by Charlie Magee

After his Swedish disappointment, he finally won, in France (one of his more subdued performances, actually), finished second in Britain despite a sticky throttle, led for 63 laps in Holland — until the gearbox began to play up — retired on the first lap at Nürburgring with a faulty distnibutor, and then won in Austria, Italy and America. This was a burst of form that included five more poles, took him to third in the championship, just three points behind Fittipaldi, and secured the constructors’ title for Lotus. But it also seriously dented his teammate’s title bid, persuading him that his future lay elsewhere.

From the archive

Fittipaldi would win his second title the following year at super-organised McLaren. In truth, he was well out of Lotus, who were in disarray with the disappointing 76. After just three races in it, and even though he had qualified second at Jarama, Ronnie persuaded the team to revert to the 72. And he promptly won with it, in Monaco, in chassis 8(6 had been sold to Team Gunston in South Africa). This was a mighty drive: the only DFV runner to take it to the Ferraris, recovering from an early spin at Rascasse in the process. He produced another tour de force to win at Dijon, and made sure he was in the right place at the right time to benefit from two Ferrari engine failures at Monza. Genius stuff.

But even he couldn’t keep 72 competitive in 1975. He finished fourth in Monaco, but ended the season with just six points, two of which came, fittingly, in 72’s final outing, at Watkins Glen.

I wonder if, when he climbed out for that last time, Ronnie took a long lingering look at that dragster shape: huge rears, small fronts, thin nose, exposed engine, strong rearward weight bias. As downforce increased, wheelbases grew, weight shifted forward, suspensions were stiffened, platforms made more stable. Gone for ever was this beautiful shape. Gone forever was the flex and twist that Peterson used to craft his beautiful shapes.

Actually, Ronnie probably never gave it a second look. Sick of the sight of it, I bet. Most racing drivers are unsentimental — until they retire, at least — and anyway, there is nothing quite so useless as last year’s racing car. Unless it’s still winning, of course. Which, I guess, makes 72 the most useful F1 car ever.

Technical specification


Type and construction: Ford-Cosworth DFV. Capacity: 2993cc. Carburation: Lucas fuel injection. Power: 475bhp. Transmission: Hewland FG, 5-speed


Type: aluminium monocoque, 20swg inner, 18swg outer; Front suspension double wishbones with link system to compound torsion bar and damper. Rear suspension double wishbones, reversed at top with radius arm, link to torsion bar and damper. Brakes (f/r) inboard discs, 11in wheels (f/r) 13 x 10 / 15 x 15in


Firestone, then Goodyear; Length 165in; Width 74in; Height 46in (35in before airbox); Wheelbase 100 (105in on 72F); Track (f/r) 60/64in; Weight 1170lb