PART 1: The legends that changed F1 - Colin Chapman

08-08-2019 10:53
by Adam Newton
PART 1: The legends that changed F1 - Colin Chapman

Welcome to a brand new GPBlog series, something we are calling ‘The legends that changed F1’. The sport has come a long way since its inception in 1950, and there have been plenty of key figures who changed the game. This week, we’ll be focussing on former Lotus boss Colin Chapman.

If an individual changes the sport just once, they’re considered an icon, but Chapman did it multiple times.

His Lotus cars revolutionised the way designers and engineers thought about building racecars, and his success as team owner will always go down in history as one of the most influential eras in F1.

Chapman began designing and building cars in the late 1940s, racing them himself in local events, with success. He used his prize money to further develop and design new cars, some of which he built in bulk and sold to the public, beginning the familiar Lotus cars brand we know today.

He entered one F1 race in 1956 at the French Grand Prix, but a crash in qualifying led him to focus on the engineering side rather than the driving.

It’s safe to say that this was the correct decision, with his first revolutionary design being the monocoque chassis used on the Lotus 25.

As was the way with many cars back in the 1960s, the Lotus 25 wasn’t reliable, but when it finished, it more often than not won. At the hands of Jim Clark, the car won 14 of the 18 races it completed, proving its dominance.

Perhaps the most beautiful and certainly the most elegant F1 car of all time, the 25 had a power deficit to its rivals, but made up for it with far superior handling. The monocoque chassis gave the 25 a huge weight advantage over its rivals and it was no surprise that within a few years, it had been copied by others.

Clark won two titles with Chapman’s Lotus team, in 1963 and 1965, and looked set for another in 1968 in the Lotus 49. The Scot won the first race of the season, but was tragically killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim at the age of 32.

The most dangerous era of motor racing had claimed the life of its biggest talent, but the show had to go on and it was Graham Hill who took up the mantle as team leader, and he duly won the title in Clark’s honour.

The 1968 car saw Chapman’s second revolution, but not on the engineering side. These days, we are used to seeing cars and drivers clothing adorned in sponsors, but back then it wasn’t so common.

Cigarette brand Gold Leaf had its branding along the side of the 49, and the colour of the car had changed from green to gold and red to fit in with the sponsors brand.

These days, the colours of cars can change from season to season based on sponsors. Who remembers the blue Saubers in this decade? And what about when Force India switched from its Indian flag colours to the pink we see on today’s Racing Point? And of course the now questionable decision for Haas to change to the black and gold of Rich Energy?

As was the era, triumph and tragedy continued for Chapman and his team, with the Lotus 72 bringing success for Austrian Jochen Rindt in 1970. Four mid-season wins gave him a commanding lead in the championship at the time of his fatal crash during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix.

Rindt became the first and hopefully only posthumous champion, as nobody was able to catch his 45 point haul for the season.

Another drivers’ title followed with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972 and constructors’ success in ’72 and ’73, before a relatively quiet period in the history of Lotus.

The mid-1970s yielded just four wins in three seasons as reliability affected newer versions of the 72, but Chapman was ready to change the sport once more, with the Lotus 78 and 79, both of which were way ahead of the field.

The 78 began testing with ground effect and had some success with Mario Andretti with four wins in 1977, but it was the 79 that made a real impact on the history of the sport the following year.

Ground effect created huge amounts of downforce using body skirts, rather than huge wings to decrease drag. The 79 was a continuation of Chapman’s philosophy, creating sleek cars that stuck to the road in the corners, securing an advantage over the competition.

As was the Lotus 25 in the hands on Jim Clark, the 79 with Andretti and Ronnie Peterson was virtually unbeatable when it finished the race.

The car won six out of eight races in the middle part of 1978, including four one-two finishes led by the American.

Andretti duly won the title but it was marred by another tragedy, as Peterson was killed in a multi car pile up at the start of the Italian Grand Prix.

The 79 was Chapman’s last major contribution to F1, with a dual chassis trialled in 1981, but banned after other teams protested the development.

Chapman died after suffering a heart attack at his home in Norwich in 1982 and Lotus would only win seven more races before folding in 1994.

Lotus was the first team to reach 50 Grand Prix wins, and Chapman’s mark on F1 will always be there. Chapman was a genius when it came to development in F1. The monocoque chassis is still used by all teams in many forms of motorsport worldwide. We will always see sponsors adorning the sides of racecars and there has even been talk of ground effect being unbanned and used in the sport again.

Chapman’s record of seven constructors’ titles and six drivers’ titles is a brilliant achievement, and perhaps the achievement that best sums up his genius was his impact on the Indy 500.

With Clark at the wheel, Lotus almost won their first attempt at the famous race in 1963, and two years later, Lotus became the first mid-engined car to win the 500, signalling the end of the front-engined cars of the American racing scene.

In just a few appearances, Chapman changed the face of IndyCar as well, and his impact on Formula One will never be forgotten.

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