Knowing Colin Chapman: 15 wild months at 'madhouse' Lotus


Six decades on from Lotus's first F1 world championship, designer Tony Southgate recalls a frenetic 15 months working there in the eye of the storm that was Colin Chapman: the brilliant founder with a surreal management style

Colin Chapman Lotus 1973

Chapman: genius designer and idiosyncratic leader

Grand Prix Photo

Lotus won its very first F1 title 60 years ago today at Monza when a victory for Jim Clark clinched both the drivers’ crown and the constructors’ award.

As Clark took a victory lap, wearing his laurel wreath in the cockpit, a jubilant Colin Chapman perched on the bodywork of his Lotus 25, the first true single-monocoque car, conceived by his design genius.

That flair would go on to create the evergreen 72 and ground-effect 79, cementing Chapman as one of F1’s greatest-ever innovator, and Lotus as one of its most successful constructors.

The mercurial team founder led a design process that was as unconventional as his ideas. For Tony Southgate — the only designer in history to have penned cars that won the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours — 15 whirlwind months at Lotus were more than enough, working alongside a man who “always seemed on the edge of genius and madness”.

Colin Chapman sits on the Lotus 25 as Jim Clark drives away after winnng 1963 Italian Grand Prix

Monza ’63: Chapman and Clark celebrate the title-clinching win

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Southgate idolised Chapman but was turned down as an apprentice by Lotus in the early ’60s. Following his Monaco and Brickyard triumphs though, and with Lotus ailing at the start of ’76, it was Chapman who turned to Southgate for help with righting the ship.

“I was always fascinated with going to work at Lotus for him, because in my book he was top of the pile,” Southgate tells Motor Sport. “There was no opposition in the design world for originality – he hated anything that wasn’t original, and loved anything that was different.

“He approached me when I was at Shadow, who as usual were fighting for money, fiddling around and not getting too far – and caught me at just the right time.”

With several other brilliant engineering minds at Lotus such as Martin Ogilvie, Peter Wright, Ralph Bellamy and Tony Rudd, Southgate was utilised on engineering one of the race cars – “not really my scene” – but it was an opportunity he couldn’t resist.

Tony Southgate Arrows 1979

Southgate, seen here with Jochen Mass in 1979, was hired by Chapman to help turn Lotus’ fortunes around three years earlier

Bernard Cahier/Getty Image

As soon as Southgate arrived at Ketteringham, he realised this wasn’t exactly a normal engineering gig.

“I’d been there two weeks and Chapman came in one morning holding Autosport shouting, ‘Look at this, look at this!'” he says.

“I had to sack eight people – I hadn’t even spoken to half of them yet!”

“‘It has Ken Tyrrell here, who says when he won the world championship, he had 37 people. How many have we got?'”

“I replied: ‘Err, about…45 or 46′” – ‘What, we’ve got nine more people than Ken Tyrrell?!’ – ‘Yeah’. He then just turned to me and said ‘Sack ’em!'”

“And I had to do it – I hadn’t even spoken to half of them yet!”

A team which had won world titles just a few years earlier was now attempting to pull itself back up the grid after a disastrous start to 1976, and though Chapman was contributing to the overarching concepts such as the 78 and 79 ground-effect efforts, he still had a tendency to throw a spanner – or several – in the works.

HoF Colin Chapman

Chapman’s continued brilliance was at odds with unusual moments in the team factory

“Chapman was a great one for whizzing in, whizzing round the factory and whizzing out again,” says Southgate. “I used to call him ‘The White Tornado’ on account of his hair, it was exactly like a TV advert for bleach at the time.

“He’d appear in the morning, bugger up the drawing office, saying ‘Don’t do this, do that’ contradicting what he’d said the day before.

“Or worse still, [design engineer] Martin Ogilvie – who was a bloody good drawer – would create these beautiful engineering drawings, and it would take quite a lot of time to do all these different layouts and sections.

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“Chapman would just walk in and draw all over it!

“He’d sort of look at you, grin and laugh – because he was always laughing – and then just disappear out the door! Everyone would just look at each other and go ‘Oh, f***!’”

“He’d go off to the car factory and see if he could get them out of the mire – because they always seemed to be in it – then he’d come back to us at 5pm and do it all over again. He was a very impressive bloke – but infuriating. You always had to be on your guard, it was a total madhouse.”

Things began to pick up with a podium for Gunnar Nilsson at Jarama, but Southgate says Chapman enjoyed making things interesting at the track as well.

“Chapman would insist he wasn’t a gambler, but he was always betting. he engineered Mario Andretti‘s car and I engineered Gunnar’s. He would always bet me his race car would have less fuel in it than mine – at every bloody race.

“I’d calculate a safe amount of fuel, but Chapman would also always put in the minimum. The boys started adding a ‘mechanic’s gallon’ to his to make sure it didn’t go dry, but then he found out and just started factoring that into his calculations!

Gunnar Nilsson Lotus 1977 Belgian GP

Southgate – standing in centre with brown jacket – over Gunnar Nilsson’s car at Zolder in 1977

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“The idea of my car running out was pretty grim, but he was the boss so could do what he liked. The lads said he did run out once…”

So competitive was Chapman, he even found himself rooting against his own team: “We beat him on pitstops once, and he came up to me saying ‘I don’t know how you did it, but I’ll accept the result,'” laughs Southgate.

Once the team made it back to base, the capers didn’t stop there.

“We’d already have a handwritten work list by the time we got back from the race,” Southgate remembers. “Chapman would fling things at you and I’d actually do the majority of it.

“You haven’t painted my wing?! I don’t want that scruffy wing on my car!'”

“Typically there’d be 80 items, and to give you an example one of these items would be ‘new front geometry’ Ha! Not little things.

“After one particular race, he’d written ‘Paint the rear wing’. We were really pushed for doing all the jobs in the turnaround before the next race, and we didn’t do it.

“He came rushing in when we were still putting the cars back together and I admitted the wing hadn’t been repainted. ‘What d’you mean it hasn’t been painted?! You haven’t painted my wing?! I don’t want that scruffy wing on my car!’

“So he picked it up off the floor, and threw it across the workshop. It bounced on the floor and slid till it smashed into the wall, and he stormed off.

“We just picked it up laughing, now with even more scratches and dents on it, and put it back on the car. That was a typical kind of incident which would happen all the time.”

From the archive

Southgate says interactions with Chapman always had a slightly surreal yet farcical air to them.

“There was always some sort of drama, always chasing women, always eating or not eating. We called him ‘Chunky’ because he’d put on weight, then you wouldn’t see him again for two weeks again and he’d be thin!

“He was a vain man – when he got angry he would start stamping on the ground. Once at a race he got really angry and started jumping up down on his hat, but then noticed journalists and photographers were watching him, so put it on again!”

Despite the extreme idiosyncrasies, performances would pick up steadily throughout the season, and before it was out would come one of Mario Andretti’s greatest victories at Fuji.

That ’76 Japanese GP will always be remembered for James Hunt‘s famous title victory over Niki Lauda but the race would come to be a highly significant one for Lotus – a true springboard to GP wins with the Lotus 78 and championship domination with the 79.

“It was a great race – and Mario never changed his tyres, they were down to the canvas” says Southgate. “It was an incredible turnaround [from the start of the season].”

Mario Andretti, Tony Southgate, Lotus-Ford 77, Grand Prix of Japan, Fuji Speedway, 24 October 1976. Mario Andretti celebrating victory with Lotus engineer Tony Southgate who co-designed the Lotus 77 and Lotus 78 with Peter Wright. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Andretti celebrates with designer Tony Southgate after that momentous Fuji win

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

“It’s amazing what a win like that does for momentum in the team,” Andretti told Matthew Franey in 1999. “It was the start of something special; over the next couple of years there were many times that we had something to celebrate on Sunday evening.”

However Southgate wouldn’t even make it to the end of that triumphant ’77 season, saying he’d more than had his fill once his 15-month contract was up.

“It was an amazing set-up – you could draw something, they’d make it at Hethel overnight, and whichever bits you wanted would be there the next day – it was 24/7.

“But we lived on site at about 100 yards from Ketteringham Hall [where the design office was based] – it was too much.

“When the contract came to an end there was no question of me staying longer.

“It was very interesting period – but I wouldn’t want to do it again!”