Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
Last weekend Romain Grosjean came home 9th in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a modest result with which to commemorate what will be for the foreseeable future, the last appearance of the Lotus name in Formula One.
Of course his car was not a Lotus in any real sense, the use of the name and the iconic black and gold livery representing a sponsorship arrangement more than any actual Lotus involvement, and part of me is actually glad such a great name that once did so much for the sport is no longer being used in that way. But another part is still sad to see it go. But which was your favourite racing Lotus? Here are some candidates.
Lotus’s first mid-engined Grand Prix car and the car which Stirling Moss used to claim Lotus’ first F1 victory in Monaco in 1960 while racing for Rob Walker. But it also almost killed Moss when a wheel came off at Spa at 140mph on the same weekend that Alan Stacey died in one and Mike Taylor had a career-ending accident in another. Notable for also being available in both Formula 2 and Formula Junior specifications.
Jim Clark, the Climax V8 engine and the Lotus 25: one of the most formidable combinations ever to take to a race track. The 25’s great innovation was its monocoque construction, new to Formula 1 even though Lancia had been using them since the early 1920s. Strong, stiff and light, it made its debut in 1962, Jim Clark taking five fastest laps, six pole positions and three wins in a nine-race championship – denied the title only by miserable reliability. The next year with its problems sorted, Clark won seven out of 10, was on the podium for two more and won his first title. But even that does not describe the dominance of his performance. Fact is he led 506 laps that season, everyone else on the grid put together just 202.
Contrary to popular belief, the Ford Cosworth DFV motor almost certainly wasn’t the most powerful engine on the grid when it arrived in 1967: both Honda’s and Dan Gurney’s Eagle V12 motors probably had a better claim to that crown. But bolted to the back of the Lotus 49 monocoque as a fully stressed chassis member, the combination was one of the single greatest advances in F1 history. It won first time out at Zandvoort but reliability once more denied Clark the third title his talent and the speed of his car otherwise deserved. The following year however not even the tragic death of Clark could stop the superiority of the 49 and 49B shining through and winning championships for both Hill and Lotus.
Imagine an F1 car turning up to the start of the 2016 season next year, and still being out there in 2021. It would be preposterous, but back in the 1970s, that’s exactly what the Lotus 72 did. Jochen Rindt first raced it at Zandvoort in 1970, won and then won consecutive races in France, Britain, and Germany. He scored pole in Austria but was let down by his engine, then came Monza and the tragedy at the entry to the Parabolica. But it was still enough to make Rindt the first (and mercifully so far only) posthumous World Champion. Two years later it was still good enough to make Emerson Fittipaldi the then youngest ever World Champion and while we all remember Jackie Stewart won the title for Tyrrell in 1973, less well remember is that in its fourth season the Lotus 72 won more races than every other car on the grid combined. It was only the fact that these races were divvied up between Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson that meant Lotus was only able to claim the Constructor’s title. And when its replacement, the Lotus 76, failed in 1974, the aged 72 was pressed back into service and, staggeringly, won three more times. It raced throughout 1975 too, six seasons after its debut, but by then not even the Lotus 72 could turn back the tide of time.
Barring the twin chassis Lotus 88, which never raced, this was Colin Chapman’s last world beating design – the car that took the theory of ground effect and deployed it with devastating success. It wasn’t the first ground effect car – its predecessor the Lotus 78 had pioneered the technology – but the 79 perfected it and its performance in the 1978 season with Mario Andretti speaks for itself. Like so many Lotuses before, its reliability was not guaranteed, but there were just two occasions when they finished a race but did not win. They won both the drivers and constructors titles and I am sure that if you’d suggested they’d be the last F1 titles Team Lotus would win I doubt there’d have been a person in the paddock who believed you.
You could argue there should be other cars on this list, like the Lotus 33 that helped Clark win the title in 1965, but it was really only a development of the already mentioned 25. We should mention in dispatches also the Lotus 38 that was the first mid-engined car to win the Indy 500, and the Lotus 16, the team’s first proper F1 car, though it never put a driver on the podium. And I guess the 97T should be here somewhere thanks to the eight poles and three wins it scored in 1985, though as seven of the eight poles and two of the three wins belonged to Ayrton Senna, I have always perhaps unfairly apportioned more of the credit for these achievements to the man rather than his machine.
I hope one day to see a black and gold Lotus back in Formula 1 because the sport is poorer without it, but only as a proper constructor, not some branding exercise. I must confess that seems a long way off so, and for now at least, all we have are the memories. But what memories they are.
Photography courtesy of LAT and Lothar Spurzem licensed under Creative Commons 2.0