Lotus 49: Driving Motor Sport’s Race Car of the Century


In this month's magazine, Karun Chandhok takes the Lotus 49 to the Hethel test track to find out why it's the Race Car of the Century


Chandhok gets to experience grand prix perfection in this month's magazine

Jayson Fong

The sensation of speed behind the wheel can be felt in a variety of ways. Some race cars give drivers a harrowing experience, ready to throw them into the scenery at the slightest wrong move. There’s others that are docile, barely flinching whatever the steering or throttle input.

Then there’s those that are near perfection, a balance between brutality and finesse that gives pure driver satisfaction.

The Lotus 49, voted for by Motor Sport readers as the Race Car of the Century, is one such car.

In this month’s magazine, former F1 driver and Sky broadcaster Karun Chandhok puts the 49 through its paces at the Lotus test track at Hethel, shedding a light on how Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt took race wins and titles in a car that was the class of the field.

Key to the Lotus 49’s success was its indeed relative user-friendliness, and this came in no small part to the ground-breaking engine it had in the back: the Cosworth DFV.

The compact nature of the DFV – added to its stiffness – made for a seamless integration with the 49 chassis as a stressed load-bearing member.

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Its sympathetic torque curve – in contrast to the Eagle and Honda engines of the time which had more power but delivered less at the lower end – made the car a potent tool in the hands of its champions works Lotus drivers.

It’s something Chandhok first points to in describing his experience of getting behind the wheel.

“It’s the driveability and linear torque curve which makes it an absolute pleasure,” he says.

“In an era where the cars didn’t have downforce and balancing the rear of the car on the throttle was an art form, having an engine that was predictable in its response must have been a huge advantage.

“As you start to accelerate from the apex, the amount of power supersedes the amount of grip and the rear of the car starts to step out of line. Having a torque curve without any obvious dips means that you’re able to start using the loud pedal and just control the wheelspin in a way that after a few laps you find yourself using the throttle to rotate the car around.”

Lotus 49 Ford engine

DFV integration was key to success

Jayson Fong

It doesn’t take long for the former F1 and Le Mans driver to get comfortable on the Hethel test track.

“Before long, you start to dream you’re holding the slides like Jimmy Clark – without a fraction of the great man’s actual talent of course.

“Any mid-corner understeer can be balanced up with your right foot, getting the rear of the car to come around and open up the trajectory to get on the straight quickly.

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“Getting rid of any lateral load and straightening the car is really important as the lack of downforce means that traction is always a challenge.

“Of course with the lack of wings, there’s much less drag on the car and combined with the weight being down at just over 500kg, the 410hp engine helps you accelerate very quickly.”

Chandhok also says he understands why drivers like Clark and Jackie Stewart were successful in this era.

With powerful 3-litre engines and little-to-no downforce on lightweight cars, having a deft touch on the throttle and with the wheel was key.

“Driving these cars was all about smooth applications – give the car a warning that you are about to transfer the weight forward rather than shock it with a hard stab,” he says.

“It’s the same principle with the steering – you have to tease it with a subtle little turn first to get the weight transferred in the right direction before loading it up.

Karun Chandhok drives the Lotus 49

49 was used by Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt to win F1 world titles

Jayson Fong

“You find yourself in this constant dance of hands and feet, manipulating the throttle, brakes and steering wheel to keep the car moving around but always thinking about how to carry momentum through the corners.”

“This is why the great drivers like Clark and Stewart were able to stand out among their peers – the drivers really drove the cars. Every input they made in this dance was translated to the road without being filtered by any electronics for the power steering, brakes or differential.

“The cornering speeds are a long way down from anything we saw once the ground-effects era began a decade later but the cars feel alive and you really have to be comfortable with the constant movement and micro-corrections.”