Sunday, 29 April 2012

Lotus in the Sixties - Triumph and Tragedy

Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean scored a double podium for Lotus at this year's Bahrain Grand Prix. It was the first podium for a car under that moniker since Nelson Piquet in Australia, 1988. In view of the resurgent form of Team Lotus, Jem Ruggera takes a look back at the early years of one of the greatest outfits ever to compete in F1.

Of all the evocative sights and sounds that constituted Formula 1 racing in the 1960's, there are few that spring more quickly to mind than the sight of a young Scottish driver named Jim Clark silkily threading an elegant green Lotus 25 along the wet, foggy straights and bends of the epic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, or racing from a lap down at flat-out Monza in 1967 to come within a corner of the greatest comeback drive in history, or winning the German Grand Prix at the deadly Nordschleife from pole, while setting the fastest lap of the race, and leading every lap – to win the championship by early August, a record that wouldn't be broken for another 37 years.

Like Senna at McLaren, or Schumacher at Ferrari, Jim Clark and Lotus will be forever synonmous, where driver and contructor become indistinguishable. Clark would drive in 72 Grand Prixs for Lotus, win 25 of them, set 33 poles and win two championships. He never drove for another team in Formula 1.
                                 Jim Clark and Colin Chapman – two of the greatest in their fields.

What bonded Clark so closely to Lotus? The answer is another man at the very top of his game - Colin Chapman, a designer so innovative, he re-wrote the book on F1 car design several times in his career. But, equally, a designer so innovative, he constantly walked the edge between ultimate pace and catastrophe. The story of Lotus is one that swings wildly from championship highs to crushing lows. This was the brilliance, and tragedy, of Colin Chapman.

Chapman started Lotus Cars in 1952 (and they are still making cars today), after a brief stint in the RAF. Team Lotus split off in 1954 and four years later Chapman decided to enter two Lotus 12's in that years's Monaco Grand Prix, with Cliff Allison and Graham Hill at the wheel. This latter driver, in particular, would have a futher role to play at Lotus in the years to come.

The Lotus 12 was a rear-engined car like the standard setting Cooper-Climax, but introduced several key concepts from the start, chief among these was the rear suspension layout that became known as the 'Chapman struts' and wobbly-web wheels (no, really, that's what they're called) made from magnesium that ensured light weight and structural rigidity.

It was the Lotus 18 that gave Graham Chapman and Lotus there first taste of F1 success, albeit in an 18 leased by Rob Walker Racing and driven by Stirling Moss at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. The car was light and simple (already something of a Chapman hallmark), and handled beautifully. 'The car,' said Moss, 'was a curious mixture of simplicity and sophistication which brought me quite a lot of success when it wasn't trying to kill me.'

Moss won Monaco in a Lotus 18 – this is Rob Walker Racing livery.

That same year, a 24-year-old Jim clark made his F1 debut, in the Netherlands. He retired from fifth when his gearbox failed. The very next race, Belgium, showed just how deadly the Lotus could be. Moss lost a wheel in practise and was severely injured in the ensuing crash. Then news filtered back to the pits that Mike Taylor, in another Lotus, had crashed as well. He reported from hospital that his steering had broken, a subsequent check on the remaining three Lotuses revealed two of them had cracks in their steering as well. Finally, during the race, Alan Stacey, driving for Team Lotus, was hit in the face by a bird. He went off the road, was thrown from the car, and killed. It was the start of a terrible legacy.

“Adding power makes you faster on the straights,” Chapman once declared. “Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.” This design philosophy ensured that Chapman pushed the envelope continually, forever searching for speed

A recovered Stirling Moss won again in the United States for Rob Walker Racing at the end of the year and helped Lotus to second in the championship. The first win for the Lotus-liveried cars (iconic Britsh Racing Green with a yellow centre-stripe) finally came in 1961, when Innes Ireland won the United States Grand Prix. Moss won another two races in a Lotus in 1961 (again in the blue-and-white of Rob Walker Racing)

By 1962, the Jim Clark-Lotus partnership was hitting full stride, as Moss crashed a Lotus at Goodwood that ended his racing career. Chapman had introduced the brilliant Lotus 25 to the world at the Dutch Grand Prix. This was truly a revolutionary design, the first F1 car with a fully stressed monocoque, making it strong, light, and very fast. Clark revelled in it, winning his first three races and if it were not for an oil-leak in his Climax engine at the season-ender, he would have won the world championship. As it was, he lost out to Graham Hill in his BRM.

1963, however, was where the Clark-Lotus legend was born. The Scot romped to seven wins and seven poles, including his astounding Belgian GP in appalling conditions, where he lapped everyone bar one, and led that driver (Bruce McLaren) home by nearly five minutes. Consider too, that Clarks gear lever had snapped off, and he was forced to hold into place with one hand, while steering with the other. Words fail.

Jim Clark and a Lotus 25 – it brings a tear to your eye

Competing teams were now scrambling to emulate the Lotus 25, while Clark continued to win. A revised version of the 25, the Lotus 33, proved somewhat unreliable, but even so, only another oil leak in the Climax engine at the season ending Mexican GP prevented Clark from taking his second title in 1964.

This situation was rectified in 1965, when Clark took another seven wins and his second title, the Climax engine again proving unreliable, but only after the championship was secured. Clark was also making history by winning that years Indianapolis 500.

Following several years of unreliable machinery after the FIA introduced the new 3-litre engine rule, Colin Chapman went back to the drawing board, and came up with a race car so packed with design innovations it ranks as one of the most signifigant Formula 1 cars of all time – the Lotus 49.

Jim Clark and a Lotus 49 – more damn tears

Where to start with this car? The most important was Chapman's use of the engine (Lotus was the first to use the classic Ford Cosworth DFV) as a stress-bearing structural member, a concept followed by practically every Formula 1 car since. The 49 also saw the introduction of aerofoil wings partway through the 1968 season. At first these towered over the car, looking for undisturbed air, and were bolted directly onto the rear suspension. This proved flimsy and incredibly dangerous, amd after several massive crashes, the FIA stipulated that the rear wing had to be mounted directly to the bodywork. More on this later.

The team started 1968 in perfect fashion, notching a 1-2 at the South African GP, Clark leading home Graham Hill, to take a record-breaking 25th victory. But then, tragedy struck. Some three months after the season opener, Clark entered an F2 race at a wet Hockenheim driving a Lotus 48. A suspected deflating rear tyre let go, and Clark was pitched into the trees. Formula 1, and Lotus, had lost its greatest driver.

The death of Jim Clark can only be compared to the death of Aryton Senna 26 years later. The sport was left devasted, and bewildered. Clark was considered inviolate - if he could be killed, then no driver was safe. Chapman wasn't at the circuit that day, but immidiatly drove to Hockenheim when he heard the news. Chapman was a hard man, but there is no doubt that Clark's death made him re-evaluate his commitment to the sport.. Chapman claimed he had lost his best friend, and a man he had been working with intensely for the last eight years.

Graham Hill was competing in the same F2 event; he stopped mid-race, organised a truck and some mechanics to go out to the crash site and collect the remains of the Lotus. Hill proved a rock for the team that season. He won the very next race in Spain, a feat of outstanding courage. The Lotus 49 he drove in this race sported another Chapman innovation – sponsorship. The 49 was painted cream, gold and red after Chapman signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Gold Leaf cigarettes. This was one of the first examples of an F1 car giving over its team colours to the livery of its primary sponsor. The practice, of course, became standard.

Gold Leaf livery – goodbye to British Racing Green

This victory proved that Lotus could continue without Clark, and Hill won twice more to clinch that years title from Jackie Stewart.

The next twelve months saw Colin Chapman take a technical dead-end – that of four-wheel-drive. He was convinced that the system had potential in F1, but the car he fitted it to, the Lotus 63, was a shocker. After a single test, Graham Hill flatout refused to drive the car again, calling it a 'deathtrap'. Jochen Rindt, who had joined the team at the start of the 1969 season, agreed.

By now, the cars were sporting wings, huge aerofoils mounted on flimsy struts. At the Spanish Grand Prix, both Hill and Rindt suffered high-speed crashes when their suspension-mounted wing supports failed. These accidents prompted Rindt to write to Chapman, saying, 'Honestly, your cars are so quick that we would still be competitive with a few extra parts to make the weakest parts stronger. Please give my suggestions some thought. I can only drive a car in which I have some confidence and I feel the point of no-confidence is quite near.' Chapman was reportedly not amused.

Moments after Rindt suffered catatrophic wing failure at the Spanish GP

Rindt claimed his first victory at the final Grand Prix of the season – the same race where Graham Hill crashed and horrifically broke both his legs. In many ways, it was a fitting end to the decade for Lotus, success and disaster intertwined to the very end. Jochen Rindt seriously considered heading back to Brabham (the car he made his F1 debut in five years before) for the 1970 season, but as his de facto manager, Bernie Eccelestone, told him, 'If he wanted to be happy and content, then he should go back to Brabham. But if he wanted to win the world championship, he needed to be at Lotus.'

Rindt, despite his misgivings about the engineering knife-edge that Chapman lived on, re-signed for Lotus for the 1970 season. Like others before him, he would win the ultimate prize, but pay the ultimate price.


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