Is the Lotus 72 the best Formula 1 car of all time? Thank Frankel it’s Friday

24th January 2020
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

What is the most successful Formula 1 car of all time? There are many candidates, including the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 which won 15 out of 16 rounds of the 1988 championship, and the Maserati 250F whose career spanned the entire 2.5-litre formula from 1954-1960. And what about Mercedes-Benz’s W07, which took a staggering 19 wins out of a possible 21 in the 2016 season?

But I’d like to make the case today for the Lotus 72, not just because this year is it’s 50th birthday, but because when you combine success and longevity I think it’s probably still top of the tree. Factor in innovation and beauty and to me at least, it is unrivalled.


Not that it was great straight out of the blocks. Indeed, according to Jochen Rindt the car was initially lethal and point blank refused to race it. So while it appeared at both the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix in 1970 and was raced to retirement by team-mate John Miles at Spa, it wasn’t until the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort that Rindt elected to drive a much modified car, putting it on pole and beating Jackie Stewart’s March to the chequered flag by half a minute in a race really only remembered for the tragic death of Rindt’s close friend Piers Courage.

Rindt still didn’t trust the car – he’d not be the first Lotus driver of that and previous eras to consider his steed flimsy and liable to break – but there was no doubting it was astonishingly rapid. There were essentially two reasons for this, besides Colin Chapman’s usually obsession with lightness which meant it weighed in absolutely on the 530kg limit including oil and water.

First, by moving the radiators from the nose to the sidepods and designing an aggressive shovel-snouted wedge created a car that was aerodynamically streets ahead of anything else of the era. Second by relocating the front brakes inboard and using anti-dive geometry on the front suspension and anti-squat at the rear, designer Maurice Phillipe produced a car of minimal unsprung mass and pitch change under acceleration and braking. This in turn meant it would be easy on its tyres which could then afford to be made from softer, grippier compounds. Actually it was the lack of feel caused by the radical suspension settings that lay at the heart of Rindt’s initial reservations about the car and it took time to get it right.

But when it was right, it flew. Rindt won not just in Holland, but France, Britain and Germany before his fears about the car’s fragility came horrendously true at Monza, brake failure costing him his life and sadly ensuring his best known claim to fame would be becoming the only posthumous World Champion.

The 1971 season was one of rebuilding, young newcomer Emerson Fittipaldi settling into the team, suffering early season unreliability and claiming just a trio of podium finishes all season. But in 1972 not even the combination of Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell-Ford 005 could keep up with him. Emmo won five times and became F1’s youngest champion, aged just 25. The 1973 season started the same way, the flying Brazilian winning three of the first four rounds, but a string of mid-season retirements where he failed to finish four out of five consecutive races, dropped him to second in the championship. No matter: team-mate Ronnie Peterson won four races in the sister car ensuring that the Constructors’ Championship would stay with Lotus for another season.

And that really should have been that for the Lotus 72. It had delivered (with a little help from its Lotus 49 predecessor) both titles in 1970, taken both again all by itself in 1972 and delivered the Constructors in 1973. Not a bad effort over four seasons. It was to be replaced for 1974 by the Lotus 76, but that turned out to be far too clever for its own good, suffering from braking problems, excessive tyre wear and reliability issues with its clutchless transmission, so the good old 72 was wheeled out again, and used by Peterson to win three more times, in Monaco, France and Italy.

The disaster that was the Lotus 76 also meant Chapman had no new car for 1975 either, so the poor old 72 continued to serve, but by then the opposition had caught up and overtaken. Even so, in its very last race at Watkins Glen in October 1975, Peterson came home fifth, just 2.5 seconds off a podium place. Not back for a car in its sixth consecutive season.

All told the Lotus 72 won 20 championship Grands Prix, an astonishing achievement when you consider that the Maserati 250F managed just eight in seven seasons. One final thing: only three people ever won a Grand Prix in a Lotus 72 – Rindt, Fittipaldi and Peterson. Yet no fewer than 16 people, including Jacky Ickx and Graham Hill, raced them. It was a truly great car, but it needed a truly great driver too.

The Lotus 72 will be celebrated at the 78th Members’ Meeting. Too book your tickets, join the GRRC Fellowship.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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