The seven best F1 cars of the 1970s

14th April 2021
Ben Miles

The 1970s was an era of great change for Formula 1. There was a shift away from the old school of turning up with a car you’d designed and tinkered with until it was right, toward a more professional approach. That yielded some real advances in design, and it was this decade that really cemented the idea that aerodynamics were king. Here’s the seven cars that really stood out to us.


Lotus 72

Possibly the most famous F1 car of the 1970s is also the one with the greatest longevity of wins. The Lotus 72 won three Constructors’ Championships, two drivers’ titles and 20 races across an almost unbelievable six seasons of competition.

It was a marvel of technological advancements, filled with the invention that had made Colin Chapman the engineer of his age. It featured inboard brakes, side-mounted radiators for the first time, and was designed to represent a wedge, in an era of cigar-shaped chassis. The shape alone resulted in a 12mph increase in top speed over the outgoing 49 (itself no slouch) with the same engine and its innovations led to four wins in a row after some teething issues had been sorted out.

Titles would follow for Jochen Rindt (posthumously) and Emerson Fittipaldi, with only the emergence of the Jackie Stewart/Tyrrell pairing stopping almost total early-decade dominance for Lotus.


Tyrrell 002/003

In 1971 Jackie Stewart finished eight races in the Tyrrell 003 (he retired twice). Of those finishes he was only off the top step twice. It was a development of the Tyrrell 001 – the first car that Ken Tyrrell and his team built themselves, having become fed up of the March chassis they had been employing.

Given a more aerodynamic nose section, higher airbox, longer wheelbase and a slightly narrower monocoque the Derek Gardner-designed car went from perennial retiree, to instant winner on day one. With François Cevert running an almost identical car (called 002, with each chassis having its own name), Tyrrell would finish on the podium nine times out of 11 races and hand Stewart a totally dominant second title. In fact so far clear of nearest rivals BRM and Ferrari was Tyrrell that it amassed more points over the season than the two combined.

The 003 would race on into 1972, securing two more victories for Stewart before it was replaced by the 004 and 005, which completed the season. Between them 002 and 003 would win nine races and secure six pole positions in just under two seasons.

Read our list: the seven best F1 cars of the 2000s.


Ferrari 312T

For Ferrari the 1970s pretty much meant the 312T. The car was introduced part-way into the 1975 season and, after a couple of races getting its eye in, the car swept Niki Lauda to his first title, and Ferrari back to the F1 crown for the first time since 1964. With the 312T (and the developed 312T2, 2B, T3 and T4) Ferrari would win four of the next five titles as well as three Drivers’ crowns. There’s an argument that the ‘70s was the Lotus 72, Ferrari 312T and McLaren M23 and everything else was just an anomaly.

Designed by Mauro Forghieri, the 312T was a radical rethink of design after it was decided that issues with the chassis of the 312B just could not be solved. Firstly the gearbox was mounted transversely – hence the T in the name – allowing it be positioned ahead of the rear axle for better packaging and weight distribution. With a narrower chassis and newly designed suspension the 312T solved the hideous understeer issues that had begun to blight its predecessor. The base chassis was so good that the car was able to stay with the competition, despite the radical shift to ground effect aerodynamics in the late ‘70s. It would win at least four races in every season from 1975 to ’79, handing two titles to Lauda and one to Jody Sheckter, but perhaps becoming most iconic for being hurled around with abandon by Gilles Villeneuve.

Love Ferrari? You’ll love our list of the greatest Ferrari racing cars of all time.


Lotus 78

The Lotus 72 aged, and both cars that followed it turned out to be pretty abject failures. Lotus needed something new. Chapman turned to an unusual place for inspiration – a de Havilland Mosquito fighter bomber. Using Chapman’s findings, engineer Tony Rudd and chief designer Ralph Bellamy set about revolutionising how Formula 1 cars harnessed the air around them.

While loosely still based on the 72, the car that would come to be known as the Lotus 78 harnessed an unusual aerodynamic anomaly known as the ground effect. Effectively turning the whole car into an entire wing, the 78 basically sucked itself to the floor, producing almost prodigious (for the time) levels of downforce.

While Mario Andretti wanted the team to introduce the car early in 1976, Chapman didn’t want other teams seeing the advancements Lotus had made. Continuing to do all they could to hide the advancements under the car, Lotus would win five races in 1977, held back to second in the Championship by the teething issues of the new technology on the 78. It even soldiered on into 1978, winning a pair of races and taking two more podiums to set up Mario Andretti to win the Drivers’ Championship in the following Lotus 79 – which took the 78’s concepts and harnessed them to full effect. While the 79 was notably more dominant (until the competition caught on) it was the 78 which led the revolution.

Read another list: the eight best F1 cars of the 1990s.


McLaren M23

The 1970s really were the era of longevity for racing chassis. The 72 and 312T’s successes came across multiple seasons and the McLaren M23 was exactly the same. Founded in 1963 Bruce McLaren’s team hadn’t even really found its feet as a proper front runner in F1, its successes coming more in sportscars than open wheel racing. The M23 would be the car to change all that. After its introduction McLaren would not finish out of the top three in the championship until the ground effect revolution of 1978.

Powered by a Cosworth DFV which had by that point been developed to nearly 500PS (365kW), the M23 was developed not from its M19 predecessor (a more old-fashioned cigar-style car), but from the M16 that McLaren used at Indianapolis. Taking clear influence from the Lotus 72, the wedge-shaped M23 was instantly successful, taking two wins and third in the Constructors’ Championship in 1973.

But it was when Emerson Fittipaldi – a man with intricate knowledge of the 72 – joined that the potential inside the M23 was unlocked. Using his development knowledge the M23 became the car of the field, taking both titles and four wins. While no more Constructors crowns would follow, Fittipaldi would finish runner-up in 1975, before British hero James Hunt grabbed six wins and the Drivers’ title in 1976.

McLaren fan? Have a read of our list of the best McLaren racing cars.


Brabham BT44

So dominated were the ‘70s by the cars already mentioned, that the rest of this list are some of the cars that picked up the other wins through the decade. It’s perhaps slightly controversial to pick the BT44 here rather than the 46 – but the BT44 was actually more successful, even though we’ll never truly know how good the 46B could have been, had that fan not been withdrawn.

The BT44 was the second car fully developed by Gordon Murray, following on from the BT42, which had shown promise, but not much more. The BT44, powered by another Cosworth DFV, was a particularly graceful development of the wedge-y, high-airboxed cars of the time. With air dams and sloped side-skits forming a vague precursor to ground effect. In the hands of Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pace it would take five victories, with Reutemann taking third in the championship in ’75 and Brabham second in the Constructors’.

While it never won a title, it set up Brabham and Murray for ones to follow in 1981 and 1983, and began the route down which Brabham would travel to develop perhaps its most iconic car of all time, in the form of the one-off BT46B.

Have a read of our list of the eight best F1 cars of the 1980s.


Ligier JS11

This particular writer would argue that the Ligier JS11 is the best looking of all the ground effect cars that proliferated the late 1970s, although anything built by Shadow would run it close for best of the decade. In the hands of countryman Jacques Lafitte the JS11 would win its first two races, and then another in Spain for Patrick Depailler, and would continue to score points through the season.

Any hopes of a title challenge, though, were stymied by two separate issues. Firstly Depailler injured himself in a hang gliding accident (imagine a modern F1 driver doing that?) and had to be replaced by veteran Jacky Ickx for the rest of the season – who struggled to keep up with his team-mate.

Secondly, and perhaps more crucially, the JS11 was actually too good at its job... So much downforce was produced by the car that the chassis just couldn’t cope. As a result the JS11’s chassis was susceptible to flexing, which, in turn, caused the skirts to lift partly away from the ground, ruining the enclosed ground effect.

Come the following season it would also suffer from several catastrophic tyre and suspension failures through the season, basically ending Lafitte’s hopes of properly challenging the Ferrari and Williams cars. The upgraded JS11/15 scored a pair of victories with Lafitte and Didier Pironi, but again the caused too much downforce, pushing down onto the suspension and wheels, causing stress fractures.

Which are your favourite F1 cars of the 1970s?

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • Lotus

  • 72

  • Tyrrell

  • Tyrrell 002

  • Tyrrell 003

  • Ferrari

  • 312T

  • 78

  • McLaren

  • M23

  • Brabham

  • BT44

  • Ligier

  • JS11

  • List

  • Jackie Stewart

  • Jochen Rindt

  • Emerson Fittipaldi

  • Niki Lauda

  • Jacky Ickx

  • Gordon Murray

  • Colin Chapman

  • Bruce McLaren

  • James Hunt

  • Carlos Reutemann

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