Lotus Racing Heritage

Note: The following pictures were scraped off the Internet from various sites. I do not know who has the copyrights. Thank you in advance for use. If there is a problem, please leave me a comment; I will address any complaint.

A large part of the appeal of owning a Lotus derives from Chapman’s great success at building world-class racing machines. By the late fifties, Chapman had opted for mid-engined racing cars, inspired by the successful Cooper layout, itself a post-war continuation of earlier German designs.

Putting the engine behind the driver saved the weight of a drive shaft, lowered the driver’s seat, and reduced the frontal area. The successful Type 18 was the initial realization of the Lotus mid-engine racer in 1959. Lotus Type 22 and 23 were popular mid-engined racers of the early 60s.

Cooper T45/51 F1 1958 (top left); Lotus 22 F-Jr 1962 (top right)

Lotus 23-C Sports-Racer

The Lotus Type 25 and 33 brought the initial successes in F1. Jim Clark finished second in 1962 and won titles in 1963 and 1965, as well as winning an Indy 500 in a Lotus Type 38. The winning Lotus formula was a light car based on an aluminum monocoque body (no chassis), teamed with one of the best racing drivers of all time.

Lotus 25 F1

Lotus 38 Indy

When F1 switched to a 3-liter formula in 1966, Jack Brabham ‘owned’ the formula for two years. Chapman came back in 1967, collaborating with Cosworth and Ford on the Lotus Type 49, emulating Brabham’s break with the conventional wisdom that 12 cylinders were necessary. The new winning Lotus formula terminated the monocoque chassis just behind the driver. The engine bolted to the monocoque body structure at this point and was the only structural member behind the driver, the rear suspension bolting directly to the engine.

The reliable, compact, broad-power-range Cosworth-Ford DFV V8 produced 440 hp from 3 liters. Teething problems cost Lotus the championship in the 49’s first year, although Hill and Clark had victories in it. Graham Hill won the F1 championship in 1968 (to go with his prior championship with BRM). Jochen Rindt became F1 champion in 1970.

The Lotus 49 was succeeded by the Type 72. Wings and ground effects were new F1 innovations in the 70’s, adopted by Lotus as well, with the DFV the invariant part of the equation. Fittipaldi became the youngest F1 champion ever in 1972, driving a Lotus 72. But the subsequent models in the mid-70s did not achieve a championship, even with a driver of Ronnie Peterson’s caliber at the wheel.

Lotus fortunes would change once more in 1976 when Chapman brought Mario Andretti on board. Andretti and Chapman had been acquainted since the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Andretti wanted F1 experience, but his ties to US racing interests meant a full-time ride was not possible, so he drove F1 sparingly over the next decade. Chapman first provided Andretti a Lotus 49 for the 1968 US Grand Prix and he qualified it on the pole. When Andretti joined Lotus full-time, he provided more than driving talent. He was a successful race car designer/developer. Together, they perfected the ground-effects Lotus 78 and 79, engineering Lotus’ last championship. Lotus stands fourth in the all-time F1 constructor’s ranking, behind Ferrari, McLaren, and Williams, all still currently racing.

The early death of Chapman in 1982 marked a point of no return for Team Lotus, although its decline had been underway since 1979. There was a brief renaissance in Lotus’ fortunes in the mid-80s with the turbo cars. Lotus hired Ayrton Senna to drive the quick but less than reliable 97T, 98T and 99T. Senna was one of the best of the best, considered at least on a par with the prior great Lotus winners, and he helped Lotus win three consecutive 3rd place F1 Constructors finishes from 1985-87.

Senna sensed that Lotus and he were heading in opposite directions and left for the McLaren team in 1988, marking the beginning of the final descent for Lotus. John Hopkinson writes, “Lotus cars steadily slipped back down the grid and rather like an old soldier, the team ‘just faded away’. “ The organization ceased to exist in 1994. To punctuate his decision to leave Team Lotus for a more competitive ride, rising star Senna won his three F1 championships for McLaren. The 2010 movie ‘Senna’ is an excellent documentary, both of his career and of F1 racing.

Lotus 49 F1

Lotus 72 F1

Lotus 79 F1

Great sadness became part of the Lotus aura, as Clark (1968), Rindt (1970), and Peterson (1978) all died of injuries sustained in Lotus race cars. After Clark’s death, Chris Ammon remarked “if it could happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have?” Rindt remains the only F1 driver to win a world championship posthumously. Lotus driver Emerson Fittipaldi won the last race of 1970, the USA Grand Prix, to preserve Rindt’s title.

Clark, Rindt, and Peterson (who never won a F1 championship) will be remembered as being fastest during the Lotus championship years. One might think their need to be on the ragged edge of the possible did them in, but it was equipment failure and bad luck. Some have viewed it a dark legacy of ‘Chunky’ Chapman’s philosophy of taking a chunk out of any working part to reduce weight, where success was seeing the part fail just after the race was won. While it is perhaps unfair to single out Chapman, on the other hand, Sir Stirling Moss is reported to have quipped: “Driving a Lotus is a triumph of bravery over intelligence”.

Other teams also experienced catastrophic racing mechanical failures. It is suspected that a steering component broke on a Williams car in 1991, taking the life of Senna.  Hopefully lessons learned have made the sport safer; it has been two decades since that last F1 racing fatality.

French Resistance

Lotus sports racers were fixtures at Le Mans from 1955, competing well in class with the Type 11, 15, and Elite.

Then, in 1962, the new space frame Lotus Type 23 sports racer was introduced and it smoked all the regular suspects from its introduction. It was so scary fast for its time that it was banned from Le Mans, at first for trumped-up specification violations, but ultimately simply for being so fast as to not be in the spirit of the event. It was a French political decision to allow French teams a better chance to win. The infuriated Chapman kept his word never to compete at Le Mans again, thus further lessening the prestige of that race.

Chapman, always the practical man, was willing to let bygones be gone somewhat, adopting a Renault engine for the Lotus Europa.

French Art at Long Beach (Personal Remembrance)

To their unaccustomed credit, the French Matra F1 organization developed a 12 cylinder engine in the mid-1960s. The Matra and Ligier teams that used it in the late 60s and 70s had only minor success. But those of us who have heard that engine wail in full song are haunted by its ethereal sound, knifing straight through the usual racing din.

That work of sound art remains my most moving memory of the 1978 Long Beach Grand Prix. Lotus’ Andretti and Peterson finished 2nd and 4th behind Reutemann’s winning car of the wire-to-wire Ferrari team. Peterson finished just ahead of Jacques Lafitte’s soulful Ligier-Matra. Peterson, killed five months later at Monza, missed seeing teammate Andretti win the last-ever Lotus F1 title.


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