Colin Chapman and Lotus 3 - The dangers of ambition

  • 16 April 2021
  • 4 min read
  • 9 images
Colin Chapman and Lotus 3 - The dangers of ambition image

To understand what Colin Chapman meant to the world of motoring, you only need to study a few dates: The first victory with the Lotus 18 in Monte Carlo in 1960, a World Championship Title with Clark in 1963, World Champion and winner in Indianapolis, once again with Clark in 1965. One of the reasons for this success was yet another Chapman invention: the rigid, light and compact monocoque chassis, that even placed the fuel tanks within the structural section.

1-2 Chapman and Clark on the podium after the victory lap of honour at Silverstone. The year was 1963, three years after his first success in F1. At the end of the season Lotus will be world champion

This dizzying rise that immediately suggested that the young English manufacturer feared nothing and no-one, was defined by a common element: innovation and risk. More precisely, he always pushed his cars to the limit so that they delivered maximum performance even when the engines were not the most powerful on the track, sometimes even putting the life of his drivers at risk. Chapman’s logic was that if something broke, it could be strengthened. But after the failure, of course, with all the consequences that came with it.  Judging a genius is not appropriate. Presenting his style is useful to understanding how Formula 1 got to where it is today. The pursuit of perfection introduced by Lotus has become the model that everyone follows to this day.

2-4 The World Championship returned to Lotus in 1965 and the collaboration with Ford allowed Chapman to take the 38 to Indianapolis. The small European car driven by Jim Clark defeated the entire American line up

Chapman’s genius, as we’ve already seen, was not limited to the track: along with the overwhelming success of little Seven, a sort of street-legal Formula 1 car that jostled between trucks like a gazelle whizzing past a hippopotamus, Lotus – the name of the flower that many think was a message to his beloved wife - in 1957 he presented another road car, designed with the track in mind of course, that was truly surprising: with its reinforced fiberglass monocoque combined with structural steel elements, it weighed just over 500 kilos and, although it was powered by a small 1,216cc Climax engine that produced 72 horsepower, it was unbeatable both on the streets as well as on the track. Nürburgring and 24 Hours of Le Mans were soon among its victories. 

3-4 Formula 1 successes did not distract Chapman from the production of road-legal cars. The small Elite, weighing just over 500kg, won both on the road and on the track

While Chapman grew up in racing, his energy did not neglect the road – and in 1962, the Elite was joined by the Elan, the first road car to use a steel backbone chassis with a fiberglass body. Again, an average-sized engine – a 1,558cc Ford Kent producing 108hp – but performance that was above any average. All this before Chapman reached the age of forty!

4-4 The Elite, fresh from its presentation, immediately won its category at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, giving it a priceless business card

Just how much Chapman was laser-focused on anything that could take his Lotuses to success can be seen by a number of facts: among the many hypotheses behind the causes of the accident that ended Moss’s career at Goodwood: the rear suspension of the Lotus 18 used lower radius arms with reversed lower wishbones that came close to the ground, beyond the edge of the radius of the wheel in fact, meaning that should the tyre deflate, it would have resulted in contact with the ground and the consequent dynamics of the crash. 

5-5 1967. At the Dutch Grand Prix, Lotus christened the Ford Cosworth F1 engine, which would dominate the highest formula for more than a decade. In this image Colin Chapman is with Keith Duckworth who, together with Mike Costin, would create Cosworth by joining their surnames Cos-Worth

Little known but the result of the testimony of Giancarlo Baghetti who was driving one of the Ferrari 156 F1s at Monza, in the 1961 Italian Grand Prix where von Trips and the American Phil Hill battled for the world title with Ferrari, concerns one of Chapman’s strategies. Clark who was with Lotus, was not competitive on the very fast Italian circuit, but in the first two laps he had remained, surprisingly, in the group of the four Ferraris in the lead. His Lotus braked long after the Italian cars, making up lost ground. At the braking section of the parabolica, on the second lap, when von Trips braked, Baghetti, who was behind him, clearly saw that Clark was still at full speed so he could not avoid colliding with the German driver, causing the fatal accident. According to the Italian driver, Lotus had started with less fuel with the intention of drawing attention to itself before retiring. Strategies that are normal today, but at the time were highly irregular.

6-4 Colin Chapman in the pits at Monza during the Italian GP together with his wife Hazel who, according to many, was the inspiration behind the name Lotus

At that same curve, nine years later, when he was almost mathematically World Champion, Jochen Rindt lost his life due to the failure of the right front inboard brake shaft of his Lotus 72. Another heartache for Chapman was in 1968 with the loss of his great champion, Jim Clark, in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, on the fast section in the woods – that part that is no longer there today. No one ever understood the causes, Clark was not racing for victory, he was alone and there were no risks on that section. Mystery translated into the hypothesis of a technical failure on his Lotus 48.

7-4 Jochen Rindt at the Nürburgring behind the wheel of the Lotus 49 in the red and gold livery of Gold Leaf. With Chapman, the national colours of the single-seater gave way to those of his sponsors

Anyone who thought these episodes would be negative for Chapman’s legacy was mistaken. The great British genius chased after innovation at every opportunity, experimenting with four-wheel drive, gas turbine-powered single-seaters, inventing the use of the engine as a stressed structural member in Formula 1 (a disputed primacy with Ferrari’s Forghieri), ground-effect cars with sliding “skirts” sealing the bottom and a thousand more things to make his cars unbeatable and win 7 world titles.

8-5 Lotus presented the evolution of the Elan which was a great commercial success in both closed and open versions. It was the first road car to use a steel backbone chassis with a reinforced fiberglass body

Alone. Investing his own money and also introducing a great revolution in Formula 1: sponsorship. In 1967, Lotus abandoned the classic, green livery with the yellow stripe made famous by Jim Clark and the V8 Cosworth engine, and became red and gold: Gold Leaf Team Lotus. Then, from 1972, black and gold, as John Player Special Team Lotus.

A genius, but also a man who should have found, like Enzo Ferrari did, a large manufacturer to invest in his company and continue to grow it so that it became larger than the man himself…

9-4 Among Colin Chapman’s experiments was also the gas turbine-powered engine brought to the world championships with the model 56 driven by Emerson Fittipaldi. The small aircraft-derived engine was very competitive on the American oval circuits where he narrowly missed out on victory at Indy, but wasn’t suitable for the type of performance required by F1