The nine best Lotus racing cars

28th May 2020
Will Bibb

When I think Team Lotus, my mind instantly flicks to the spectacular image of Jim Clark’s green and yellow Formula 1 car airborne through Pflanzgarten at the ‘Ring. Others may think of Graham Hill’s Gold Leaf Lotus 49 contrasting with the Glen’s autumnal hues. Some may picture Emmo’s glorious black and gold Lotus 72 sweeping across the finish line at Monza Autodrome. 

One thing is for certain, Team Lotus are synonymous with motor racing having won seven Formula 1 Constructors' Titles, six Drivers' Championships, and the Indianapolis 500 between the years of 1962 and 1978. Headed by founder and chief designer Colin Chapman, Lotus were at the forefront of innovative and experimental designs in motorsport. Chapman’s genius philosophy of "simplify, then add lightness" was also applied to Lotus’ sportscars and tin-tops, also to great success. The following is an attempt to chronicle our favourite Lotus motorsport machines.


Lotus 18 – the first Lotus F1 winner

Introduced in 1960, the Lotus 18 was the first rear-engined car produced by Colin Chapman’s team. The car became synonymous with Stirling Moss after he took Team Lotus to its first Formula 1 win at Monaco in 1960. After taking the Type 18 home for another win in the 1960 US Grand Prix he returned to Monaco the next year for a second consecutive win in spectacular fashion against tough opposition from Scuderia Ferrari, who fielded three, much more powerful Sharknose 156s. Moss later recalled: ‘The best thing about this car is that it is very, very manoeuvrable, and I think the Ferraris were much harder work to race!’ 

Here we see the genius of Chapman and his Lotus squad – The 18 was small, simple, and lightweight, but critically its religiously triangulated spaceframe gave it a stiffness that allowed the suspension to optimise grip from the latest generation of Dunlops. Such detail was typical of the small British team that would go on to would beat the powerhouses of F1. 


Lotus 25 – the first monocoque F1 car

Chapman’s genius was the way he extracted the most from every single component. It was a philosophy led to the Lotus 25 and its monocoque construction. While not the first example of monocoque construction in motorsport, the simplicity and effectiveness of Chapman’s application combined with its success in the hands of Jim Clark, marked it as a revolution in race car design.

The monocoque was little more than a pair of D-shaped alloy box-sections (carrying fuel bags either side of the reclined driver) connected via transverse bulkheads. Amazingly, the whole ‘bathtub’ – as it was dubbed – was only half the weight of a contemporary spaceframe, while being three times as stiff. These advances allowed Lotus to use more supple suspension, which offered great advantages in slower, tighter turns.

Jim Clark dominated the Formula 1 season of 1963 after winning seven of ten races with the Lotus 25, propelling him to his first World Championship title and Lotus’ first Constructor’s Title. The 25 was still used until well into 1965, despite the introduction of the Lotus 33 in 1964 earning a total of 14 F1 wins between 1962 and 1965. Certainly, worthy of a place on our top racing Lotuses list.


Lotus 38 – the Lotus that took the US by storm

The Lotus 38 was the first rear-engined car to win the Indianapolis 500, breaking the dominance of the front-engined American roadsters. In 1965, Jim Clark, driving a 38, not only claimed a race record with an average speed of 150.686mph, but led also 190 of 200 laps, making it one of the most dominant performances in Indianapolis 500 history. Lotus became the first British manufacturer to win the Indy 500 and Clark became the first non-American to win since 1916. After three Indy 500 attempts, Team Lotus and Clark convincingly stole the show in 1965. In 1966, Clark and the Type 38 led for 66 of 200 laps and, despite two spins, it was believed he had done the double. However, after some confusion and seeing Graham Hill and his Lola already in the winner’s circle, a second place was gracefully taken. 

The 38 itself was a clean-sheet design from Len Terry – not a simple adaption of the existing Lotus F1 cars, as the 1963 and 1964 Indy challengers had been. With Chapman focused on the Tasman Series, Terry moved from the open tub Chapman favoured previously to a fully enclosed sheet-aluminium cockpit. The design was disliked by Chapman due to limiting access to mechanicals, however the design vastly improved the chassis' strength and rigidity. Like the Type 24 and 34 Lotus IndyCars that preceded it, the 38 used distinctive offset suspension where the chassis was situated asymmetrically between the wheels, biased to the left and used suspension arms of unequal length. This design was better suited for the constant left turns of oval racing. Powered by Ford’s new quad-cam V8 that developed a heady 500bhp at 9,000rpm and paired with a two-speed ZF gearbox, this car was made for Indy domination.


Lotus 56 – the turbine car

At Indy the next year, as Clark’s Lotus 38 ate its own engine, Chapman bore witness to the experimental, turbine-powered, four-wheel-drive STP-Paxton Turbocar that lead most of the race. Piloted by Parnelli Jones, it led until just eight miles from home. The chairman of STP and the man behind the Turbocar, Andy Granatelli, proposed a partnership with Lotus, and persuaded Chapman to pursue the turbine route for the next year’s Indy 500. 

The resulting design – designated 56 – incorporated the Ferguson all-wheel-drive and a mid-mounted Pratt & Whitney ST6 turbine engine into the iconic wedge-shaped aluminium monocoque designed by Maurice Philippe. Carefully developed in the wind-tunnel, the design was simple but aerodynamically advanced for the time. 

Battered by the devastating loss of Jim Clark, Chapman and Lotus were set to field four Lotus 56s for the 1968 Indy 500. Mike Spence, Clark’s Indy replacement, had set impressive times at the Speedway in practice, but tragedy struck again when he crashed and succumbed to his injuries. In the face of great loss, Lotus fielded three 56s in 1968 driven by Graham Hill, Joe Leonard and Art Pollard. There was no doubting the cars speed. Hill and Leonard both set record times in qualifying, grabbing pole and second on the starting grid. In the race, Hill retired on lap 110 after hitting the wall and a fuel delivery problem on the Leonard car saw him retire in the lead with nine laps to go. Pollard’s car failed similarly moments later. For such a cutting-edge machine the Lotus 56 was remarkably fast from the get-go and came agonisingly close to a win on its debut. Unfortunately, both turbine engines and four-wheel-drive systems were subsequently outlawed by the USAC. 

Though rendered obsolete in America, the 56 resurfaced in 1970 for testing fitted with large front and rear wings. The four-wheel-drive system was effective, but terrible lag from the turbine meant a driver had to maintain throttle through braking zones just to keep turbine speed necessary for acceptable acceleration. Whilst entered into a few F1 events in 1971, the 56B proved temperamental with little success and was ultimately shelved. 

The Lotus 56 remains iconic despite its chequered competition history. It pushed the boundaries of design, engineering and even motorsport regulations to the limit.

Lotus 72 – the big success

The Lotus 72 solidified Team Lotus’s standing in Formula 1, continued their successes into the 1970s. With twenty race victories, two Drivers’ and three Constructors’ Titles, the Lotus 72 remains one of the most successful designs ever to grace the F1 starting grid. The car was immortalised through the famous Gold Leaf and John Player Special liveries and scintillating performances by drivers including Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx. Chapman’s design innovations were ripe as ever. The 72 featured inboard brakes which reduced unsprung mass. The move to side-mounted radiators in sidepods allowed for a more aerodynamic wedge profile resulting in higher top speeds. The overhead air intake, also featured on the 72, became a distinctive feature of the early 1970s era. The Lotus 72 was competitive for almost the whole of the five years it raced.


Lotus 78 and 79 – the ground effect revolution

In 1977, Colin Chapman and aerodynamicist Peter Wright pioneered ‘ground effect’ in Formula 1 with the Lotus 78 ‘wing car’. The Lotus 79 – though a clean-sheet design – built on the ground-breaking principles applied in the car that preceded it, and was a Championship winner in the hands of Mario Andretti. Both cars marked a huge shift forward in motorsport design and proved yet again the genius of the man behind Team Lotus.

Chapman asked Wright to experiment with an inverted wing floor as a means to generate a low pressure area under a car. Wright reworked models that he had prepared earlier for BRM, his former employers. Impractical, he’d been told, but with time and Chapman’s encouragement he was able to prove they significant downforce could be generated. By accelerating the air passing through the gap between the ground and the underside of the ‘wing’, he reduced the air pressure under the car, relative to that over it: effectively sucking the car to the floor. Key to the containing the low pressure area – and difficult to engineer – were longitudinal skirts that slid up and down vertically, to seal the gap between the sidepod and the tarmac. The result was downforce without the drag of conventional wings.

Ultimately, the introduction of ground effect through the Lotus 78 and 79 ushered in a period where F1 cars had more downforce and less drag. They were quicker down the straights but speed through corners was greater than ever. Mario Andretti once said the Lotus 78 handled as if it were “painted to the road”. Indeed, the 78 produced four victories for Andretti and one for teammate Gunnar Nilsson but suffered reliability issues throughout 1977, leaving them and Lotus without any titles. 

The developments from the 78 to the 79 were impressive. Chapman and team improved the underside wings and when paired with the new smooth body the Lotus 79 was 25 to 30 per cent more effective than its predecessor. The 79 lapped most circuits two seconds quicker than the 78 and proved to be the car to beat throughout 1978. Team Lotus earned a string of 1-2 finishes, seizing the Constructors’ Title and the Drivers’ Championship for Andretti! 


Lotus 86 and 88 - the dual chassis cars

Faced with an increasingly competitive ground effects field in F1, Lotus were struggling to maintain their position at the front with their latest iterations: the Types 80 and 81. Seeking ever longer venturis in order to optimise ground effects, almost the entire car had become an inverted wing. While ultimately downforce was massive – as registered in the wind tunnel – on the track, where bumps, corners and kerbs affected ride height, the car’s centre of pressure moved fore and aft, affecting suction. One second the car hunkered down, providing prodigious grip, but a millisecond later downforce was lost, causing the car to lurch violently and unexpectedly through corners. 

Ever stiffer settings were tried – as they were by all teams at this time – to maintain a more constant ride height, but the 80 remained ultra-sensitive and the deterioration in ride quality proved too much for either driver.

Chapman on the other hand, sought to remedy these problems through an ingenious twin chassis system. This came first with the experimental Type 86 in 1980, but was followed up by the 88 after the ban on moveable skirts in 1981. At the heart of the 88 was a monocoque tub carrying suspension tuned to the needs of the driver. The second, outer chassis body included the rear wing and the undertray which took the bulk of the aerodynamic forces. This outer chassis was suspended on top of the wishbones via soft springs that compressed under significant downforce to hard end-stops. This provided downforce straight to the tyres through the uprights and also lowered the undertray to the optimum height. A very clever exploitation of the regulations!

Predictably, Chapman’s genius was met with outrage when fielded by Team Lotus in 1981. The FIA upheld the protests and consequently banned the car from competing. Chapman, adamant the car was legal, challenged both the other teams and the FIA, though ultimately the decision stood. After three attempts to field the car, Team Lotus resorted to fielding an 87. The Lotus 88 therefore unfortunately remains an oddity from a bygone F1 era. However, it does make our top racing Lotus list.

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Lotus

  • 18

  • 25

  • 38

  • 56

  • 72

  • 78

  • 88

  • F1

  • IndyCar

  • Indy 500

  • best-lotus-racing-cars-video-21012022.jpg

    Formula 1

    Video: The seven best Lotus racing cars ever

  • goodwood_doug_indy_500_31052017_04.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: Flirting with the '500 – the UK's near 60-year love affair with Indy

  • lotus-38-jim-clark-dario-franchitti-indy-500-1965-goodwood-20082020.jpg

    Goodwood SpeedWeek

    Video: Glorious raw V8 sounds of the Lotus 38