In our first ever Motorsport Engineer Hall of Fame we revisited the career of F1 great Harvey Postlethwaite, who sadly died in his prime at the age of 55. This week, we look at another premature loss to the world of motorsport – an engineer close to the hearts of many at the NMA – Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus. Colin Chapman’s contribution to the world of motorsport, and the automotive industry as a whole, was such that when he died, aged only 54, the news was met with tributes from racing greats and superstars and conspiracy theories raged.
So how did the son of a hotel manager from Muswell Hill, London become a super-power in motorsport? For anyone unaware of the Lotus journey and the legacy that Chapman left, they may well read on….
Colin Chapman – Humble Beginnings
Chapman was born in 1928, the son of a publican. After starting a structural engineering degree at UCL, Chapman got a little distracted by the lure of the skies and joined the University of London Air Squadron. This led to him joining the Royal Air Force in 1948 but despite being offered a permanent commission, Chapman returned to Uni to finish what he had started.
Whether he started out as a burgeoning adrenaline junky, or an enquiring engineer is not known but in 1948, whilst finishing his degree, Chapman built his first racecar – the Lotus, also known as the Mark 1. The Mark 1 was a modified Austin 7 which Chapman entered into local races. It started winning and with the prize money the Mark 2 was born. It took only 8 years for Chapman to go from his modified Austin into the production of his own fully-fledged kit car.
Working Within the Rules
One of Colin Chapman’s trademark characteristics was the ability to adapt his designs to be just within the rules. Usually, his idea would be such a success that it would cause the rules to be changed for future races to invalidate any benefit he may have gained.
The first example of this was on one of the early 1950s Lotus models. Chapman had identified that he’d get more power from an 8-port head. Without the money and resources to have one made, Chapman reconfigured the 6-port head he had. He then just changed the manifolds and added a new camshaft. He blitzed the field. The rules were then changed to prohibit the specific change he had made.
The are many ideas and designs attributed to Colin Chapman which changed motorsport and indeed the automotive design process forever. One of Chapman’s earliest innovations was to introduce struts into his rear suspension designs. Despite front struts having already been pioneered by another business some ten years before, Chapman’s adoption of rear struts on the Lotus 12 in 1957 led to the designer forever being known as Chapman Struts.
Chapman’s driving motivation was to make his Lotus designs as light and powerful as he possibly could by introducing new methods and composite materials such as the fibreglass monocoque on 1958 Lotus Elite. He identified early on that by sacrificing outright power and the weight that came with the larger engines of competitors like Ferrari and Maserati, his smaller lighter designs would handle far better. His now famous quote “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere” is still a motto to live by for modern motorsport engineers.
When Chapman set his sights on Formula One in the late 1950s no one knew that it would be the start of something truly special. From a debut at the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, through to 1961, Team Lotus went without a GP race win, despite seeing success in both Formula 2 and Formula Junior.
The Ford-Cosworth DFV
When Formula One increased the engine size from 1.5 litres to three litres in 1966, Lotus was unprepared. The extra weight messed with everything. In preparation for the 1967 season, Chapman enlisted the expert help of and ex-Lotus engineers, Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin and their fledgling business Cosworth, and long-standing Lotus fan, designer Maurice Phillipe. After securing £100,000 of funding from Ford, the Ford-Cosworth DFV powered Lotus 49 was born.
The debut of the Lotus 49 was a huge success. Driver Graham Hill qualified fastest and led the race for the first ten laps until a broken gear in the camshaft drive ruined his chances of a win. His team-mate, Jim Clark had no such issues and won the race. Clark came home first in another three races that season, but other component issues meant he missed out on the Driver’s Championship by 10 points.
The new 3 litre rules had meant that most teams were struggling to put out a reliable and powerful engine so despite a binding exclusivity agreement with Lotus, Ford decided to offer the DFV out to other teams for the 1968 season. This was in part to stop people accusing Lotus of having no real competition and partially to ensure Ford dominated the Formula One.
The Double Four Valve design became the go-to engine in the 1970s for almost all Formula One teams except for Ferrari, Renault, BRM and Matra. Between 1969 and 1973 every world championship race was won by a DFV powered car. Things were getting desperate at Team Lotus as they longed to retain the championship. Within 20 months between 1967 and 1969, Team Lotus was involved in 31 accidents.
Like the Wind
Chapman needed a new edge. Inspired by another legendary motorsport engineer Jim Hall, Chapman decided to look more closely at the science of aerodynamics as a way to improve race performance without messing around with what they knew was a championship winning powertrain. Through adding wings onto the car, Chapman utilised the concept of positive aerodynamic downforce. He also became the first to move the radiators away from the front of the car to decrease drag and make the weight distribution more even – something which is seen on almost all high-performance race cars even now.
The Lotus 72 became legendary. It combined all that was good about the Lotus 49 with their new aerodynamics package to produce something that was almost unbeatable. When tested against the Lotus 49 with the same powertrain, the improved aerodynamics benefitted the 72 by a massive 12mph. This was the Golden Age for Chapman in Formula One as they won the Constructor’s Championship in 1968, 1970, 1972 and 1973.
In addition to Chapman’s contribution to the development of modern racecar chassis design, his work and innovations in aerodynamics still heavily influence the design of modern single seater race cars. But the success of Team Lotus in the 1960’s and 1970’s came at a cost.
The controversy surrounding Colin Chapman’s legacy isn’t limited to his business practices*. He regularly came under fire for the fragility of his designs, and it was often debated as to whether, in his quest for the lightest design he sacrificed the safety of his drivers. A number of top drivers were badly hurt or killed whilst driving for Lotus, including Sir Stirling Moss, Mike Taylor, Jim Clark, Mike Spence, Graham Hill and sadly, Jochen Rindt, the only person to ever be named the Formula One Driver’s Champion posthumously.
When he joined Lotus, Rindt famously said “At Lotus, I can either be world-champion or die” – this sadly came true in both respects. Much is made of the removal of Rindt’s wings on that fateful race, yet it is also known that Rindt did not wear all of the safety gear available to him, including using only 4 points of his 5 point harness and refusing to wear crotch straps. A combination of the failure of the car’s inboard brake shaft, poorly installed crash barriers and the lack of driver safety equipment led to Rindt’s death.
An Untimely Passing
Colin Chapman’s life had been lived at full speed. His power and personality were legendary. But his death couldn’t have been more quiet and understated. On 16th December, he suffered a fatal heart attack at his home. A truly great motorsport engineer and industry powerhouse, Colin Chapman’s death was met with disbelief. So much so, that conspiracy theories raged as to whether he had faked his own death to avoid the scandal that was about to break. **
Whatever the true story, no one can deny Colin Chapman’s legacy – in Formula 1 and the world of prestige automotive. Lotus lives by Chapmanisms even to this day. “Simplify, then add lightness”. The iconic brand continues to push the boundaries but with a heavier focus on the road rather than the track. Their first EV, the Lotus Evija went into production in 2021. Lotus claims that the ‘Type 130’ will be able to accelerate from 0-100 km/h in under 3 seconds and 0-299 km/h in under 9 seconds. With a top speed of over 200mph, the lightweight Evija is the second most powerful production car ever made. A legacy Colin Chapman would be proud of.