07 Jun 2020


In our previous feature on ground effect last month we touched on the innovations of Team Lotus. For this month’s spotlight feature we focus on the man behind one of motorsports most famous teams, Colin Chapman.

Colin Chapman was born in North London in 1928. He studied structural engineering at University College London, where he gained his degree in 1950. While studying he joined the University of London Air Squadron and learned to fly.

Following a brief commission in the RAF he took a job selling Aluminium to the construction industry, a role where his knowledge of structural engineering served him well. In his spare time, he designed his first race car which he based on an Austin 7, racing it at local events. He named the car Lotus which was rumoured to be after the nickname he gave to his girlfriend Hazel, later to become Mrs Chapman.

Driving the car himself he achieved some success, and with the prize money he developed the first officially named Lotus, the Mark 2. Chapman immediately began to demonstrate his innovative flair modifying the engine extensively to create more power. The results instantly paid dividends.

In 1952 he founded the sports car company Lotus Cars with Colin Dare, a fellow graduate of UCL. The factory was based in an old stable block behind the Railway Hotel, Hornsey, which was managed by his father.

The business was initially run in his spare time while still working for British Aluminium, however he was soon running the business full time selling kits of his successful designs. By the end of 1956 he was on his sixth Lotus iteration and selling 100 cars a year. 1957 marked a step change in the business’ growth with the launch of the now fabled Lotus 7, a design that was much copied and is still officially manufactured and sold under licence by Caterham Cars.

He continued to take part in racing, designing and building a series of highly sort after racing cars. Their competitive success would ultimately propel Lotus to the Formula 1 stage. Although his cars were achieving success, Chapman maintained his love of driving by racing for the Vanwall team. This came to an abrupt end in 1956 when he crashed into his teammate, Mike Hawthorn, during practice for the French Grand Prix in Reims.

Following the end of his driving career he turned his focus to car design with Team Lotus. During 1957 and 1958 Chapman’s team competed successfully in Formula 2 winning the F2 class in the International Trophy at Silverstone, beating rivals Cooper into second place. By this time Lotus were on their 14th evolution of Chapman designs. Coventry Climax engines had by this time become Chapman’s preferred choice and his Climax powered Type 14, won six class victories, plus the “Index of Performance” several times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

By 1959 Lotus was competing in Formula 1 using a larger 2.5 litre Coventry Climax engine. These front engine cars delivered little success and Chapman knew that if he was going to compete in the premier formula he had to innovate. In 1960 Lotus unveiled the Type 18, a mid-engine car capable of competing in both Formula 2 and Formula 1. The small, lightweight design gave away much in terms of power, but superior handling meant their competing cars were capable of taking on the dominant heavier front-engine cars of Ferrari and Maserati.

In 1960, Stirling Moss recorded the first victory for a Lotus car at Monaco in a Lotus 18 entered by the independent Rob Walker Racing Team. The first Formula 1 victory for Chapman and Team Lotus came in 1961 with Innes Ireland driving a Lotus 21 in the United States Grand Prix.

A year before Ireland’s victory, Chapman had signed a young Scottish driver named Jim Clark as his 3rd driver. This proved to be a game changing appointment for Lotus and in 1963, Clark drove the Lotus 25 to the World Championship with seven wins, a record which would not be broken until 1988 by Ayrton Senna with 8 wins. What was also notable about this title win was that it was achieved using Chapman’s innovative monocoque chassis design. The success in 1963 was followed up with a further world title for Clark in 1965 in a Lotus 38 as well as winning the Indianapolis 500.

If hiring Clark in 1961 had been a defining moment for Chapman, so too was the decision in 1967 to use the Cosworth DFV engine developed by Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin, both former Lotus employees. The engine had been specifically designed to be an integral part of the cars overall structural integrity. This game changing stressed-member drivetrain design was employed in the design of the Lotus 49. Just as Chapman’s use of monocoque chassis and mid-engines had become standard practice in Formula 1, the stressed-member drivetrain was destined to be equally as important.

The combination of car design and the DFV engine returned Lotus to the top of the podium again with Jim Clark and now with Graham Hill, finishing first and second at the season-opening 1968 South African Grand Prix.

However, this win for Clark proved to be his last when on 7 April 1968, he was killed driving a Lotus 48 at Hockenheim in a non-championship Formula Two event. Up until that point, Clark’s driving for Chapman’s team had elevated their confidence and they had an air of invincibility about them. Clark had driven the Lotus 25 to the team’s first F1 title in 1963, and the Lotus 38 to victory at the Indianapolis in 1965, the first-ever mid-engine car to do so. With success, Clark and Chapman had become close friends and Clark’s death in 1968 devastated Chapman.

The 1968 season also saw the introduction of aerodynamic aids. The Lotus 49B was fitted with front wings and a spoiler and with Graham Hill at the wheel another world title was delivered that year.

Chapman was also an innovator as a team boss. For 1968, the FIA decided to permit sponsorship after the withdrawal of support from firms, such as BP, Shell and Firestone. Team Lotus was the first works team to paint their cars in the livery of their sponsors, with the first being Clark’s ill-fated Lotus 48 F2 appearing at Hockenheim in the colours of the Gold Leaf tobacco brand.

Engineering innovation was also a focus of 1969 with the Lotus 56 powered by a Pratt & Witney turbine engine and the Lotus 64 running a reverse mounted engine and 4-wheel drive combination. Both showed promise, but their competitive lives proved short lived, mainly due to reliability issues and then falling foul of rule changes.

New for 1970 was the wedge-shaped Lotus 72. The car featured many innovations including torsion bar suspension, mid-mounted radiators and inboard front brakes. Lotus driver Jochen Rindt quickly showed the cars superiority and dominated the championship until he was killed at Monza in an accident attributed to brake failure. Ferrari closed in on Rindt’s undefended lead but with a brilliant drive in the US Grand Prix by his teammate Emerson Fittipaldi, Rindt won the title as the first ever posthumous World Champion.

For 1972, Lotus took the championship again with the iconic liveried JPS Lotus 72 driven by Brazilian Fittipaldi, the youngest driver to do so at the time. Team Lotus also won the constructors title for a sixth time in 1973.

Lotus experienced a period in the doldrums until the late 1970s, when Chapman developed the Lotus 77 and hired Mario Andretti as his number 1 driver. Andretti came with proven development driver credentials, something Lotus needed to improve their unreliable car.

The following year Chapman launched the Lotus 78, the first to use the ground effect concept as a way of improving handling. Read our feature “Going Back To Ground Effect” to learn more. The Lotus 78, and then the Lotus 79 of 1978 were extraordinarily successful, with Mario Andretti winning the F1 World Championship.

Chapman attempted to take ground effect further with the Lotus 80 and he led the development of an all-carbon-fibre car, the Lotus 88, in 1981. However, the 88 was banned from racing because of its ‘twin chassis’ technology where the driver had separate suspension from the aerodynamic parts of the car.

Chapman’s motivation was deeply seated in his personality. He was not a people person although he did have charm which was proven by the long list of brilliant drivers who he persuaded to drive for him. He was also a shrewd businessman.

It is difficult to overstate the influence Colin Chapman had on F1. He was characteristically first in exploiting commercial sponsorship which set F1 on the road to the financial stratosphere. With huge potential financial gains for the sport, particularly from tobacco, it turned out however to not be Chapman who took control of Formula 1 but Bernie Ecclestone, via his Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA).

Chapman did have an opportunity to run the financial side of Formula 1 when during the FISA-FOCA dispute from 1979 to 1981 a plan was hatched by Jean-Marie Balestre, the head of FISA to have Chapman replace Ecclestone as head of FOCA. The attempted coup d’etat came to nothing but if successful, the history of Formula 1 could have been very different. We’ll be focusing on the so called FISA-FOCA War in a future feature on the JDC Media Centre.

The F1 politics was disheartening to Chapman for whom F1 had always been synonymous with the highest level of technical achievement. As a result, he seemed to lose much of his interest in the sport.

Looking back on his achievements its hard to dispute his contribution to motorsport and the British motor industry. Between 1962 and 1978 under his direction, Team Lotus won seven Formula One Constructors’ titles, six Drivers’ Championships, and the Indianapolis 500 in the United States. The production side of Lotus Cars built tens of thousands of cutting-edge sports cars and Lotus remains one of the few more affordable English performance car builders still in business.

It’s said that the golden era at Lotus ended with the death of Colin Chapman in December 1982. It’s clear that the team was never quite the same again following his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 54.

As we head into 2021, rule changes are the top of the agenda with a raft of new regulations around engines, tyres, and aerodynamics and we are sure that the young Colin Chapman would have relished the opportunity to apply his unique talent to Formula 1 in the 21st century.

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Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre