Formula 1,  History,  Single seaters,  The Pantheon

Lotus 72 at 50: Formula 1’s greatest car

Lotus 72 first turned a wheel in anger 50 years ago today, in the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. It was not the first time that Colin Chapman’s Lotus team had arrived with a new car that proved to be the class of the field, nor would it be the last. But Lotus 72, even by their own high standards, stands apart as the most extraordinary, revolutionary machine ever produced by the Norfolk stable.

Simply put, Lotus 72 changed the way racing cars were designed forever after. Fifty years later, every car on the Formula 1 grid still embraces many of its fundamental design principles.

Colin Chapman, Formula 1's greatest designer
Colin Chapman, Formula 1’s most luminous design genius

Over five and a half years, it would start 75 Championship Grands Prix, 17 from pole position and winning 20. On two occasions its driver would be champion of the world, on three it would secure the team the Constructors’ Cup. This is its story.

It was a quiet revolution, or at least, one that had a very low-key beginning. The 1970 Spanish Grand Prix was a chaotically-organised affair, now very much best remembered for a firey accident on its first lap, Jackie Oliver’s BRM suffering brake failure, scudding sideways and out of control into the side of Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari as it entered a slow hairpin. The two cars, made from paper-thin aluminium and brimmed with fuel, immediately erupted into a vast fireball. The aftermath looked more akin to an aeroplane crash, but both men somehow walked away virtually unscathed, Ickx suffering some minor burns.

The organisers of that year’s event at the Jarama circuit near Madrid had been busy innovating. Their key idea was to introduce a seeded qualification system for the race. The ten most high-profile drivers – all the field’s previous World Champions plus the leading competitors from all of the major teams – were guaranteed a place in the field, leaving the remaining 12 entrants fighting it out for the remaining six places on the grid.

Or eight. Or ten. Or even twelve, because the Spanish motor sport authorities spent the practice sessions vacillating about how many cars would be allowed on the grid until the CSI, the sport’s governing body, stepped in and confirmed that the number would, definitively, be the originally stated 16.

One of the consequences of this decision meant that Lotus 72 chassis R1, driven by John Miles, failed to qualify for its debut race. His teammate Jochen Rindt, winner of the previous year’s United States Grand Prix and the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours, was fortunate enough to be of sufficient profile to not have to worry about such fripperies, but would line Lotus 72/R2 up only 9th on the grid after handling problems in practice. In the race he would manage only 9 laps before being sidelined with an engine problem.

Worse was to come the following weekend, as Rindt and Miles struggled through the International Trophy meeting – an annual non-Championship Formula 1 race held at Silverstone usually attended by the majority of the works teams – with Rindt again halted by engine problems and Miles, beset with difficulties, eventually finishing 15 laps behind the winner, Chris Amon’s March.

This was par for the course with Lotus. Chapman’s luminous genius was just as likely to pursue a doomed concept down a blind alley as it was to produce a field-crushing engineering masterpiece. The initial results for Lotus 72 did not appear promising, another potential giant leap too far. When the team pitched up at Monaco for the next World Championship round, a despirited Rindt would be driving last season’s already antiquated 49B.

Racing car design changed forever in 1959, when John Cooper, Owen Maddock and Jack Brabham produced the Cooper T51, a simple, lightweight chassis with the engine behind the driver. Up until this point, Grand Prix racing had been the fiefdom of the major European manufacturers and famous racing marques. Subsequent to Cooper’s rear-engined revolution, however, the way forward was shown by a series of ramshackle British-based oily-handed garage dwelling enthusiasts, cobbling together a chassis to be paired to a purchased engine.

Enzo Ferrari, whose team would prove to be the only one capable of breaking their monopoly on Formula 1 success from that point forwards, coined the dismissive term Garagistes to describe them. And it stuck.

Lotus arrived on the Grand Prix scene at roughly the same time as Cooper, at it would be the team’s brilliant founder, owner, designer and spiritual guru Colin Chapman who would be responsible for most of the paradigm-shifting strides forward in racing car design in the sport for the next 20 years.

In 1962 came Lotus 25, the first Formula 1 car with a monocoque chassis, which in the hands of Jim Clark would dominate the sport for the next three seasons. In 1967 came Lotus 49, the first Formula 1 car to incorporate the engine as a stressed member of the chassis. In 1970 came Lotus 72.

Formula 1 in the 1960s was a far more ad-hoc affair than its modern day equivalent. Cars might be used for two or three or even more seasons. If its successor proved uncompetitive, the old car would often be brought back into service. Engines would come and go, often during the course of a single race meeting.

Chapman’s genius meant that it was normally the arrival of one of his new designs that made everybody else’s cars obsolete and sent their engineers, furrowed of brow, rushing back to their workshops.

The key motivating factor for Formula 1 car designers in the late 1960s was the advent of aerodynamic devices in the sport. It was McLaren who first trialled the concept, inspired by the work of America’s Colin Chapman, Chaparral Racing’s Jim Hall, in sportscars.

However, the McLaren team were brand new and lacked the money or resources to explore the concept properly, so when a Formula 1 car first appeared at a Grand Prix with wings it was, predicatably enough, a Lotus, a 49 with a precariously teetering high wing – like a fat tea tray balanced on a pair of snooker cues – at the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix.

Lotus 72 was one of the first cars to have been specifically designed around the concept of integrated front- and rear-aerofoils: prior to this, teams had merely bolted the new equipment onto their existing machinery, with wildly variable standards of efficiency, stability and structural integrity the almost inevitable consequence.

Aerodynamics was a brave new world for everyone in Grand Prix racing, not least for the drivers. They were already putting their lives on the line every time they stepped into the car, only to discover that their finely-tuned machines were now equipped with an additional way to potentially kill them.

In practice for the 1968 French Grand Prix at the spectacular Rouen-les-Essarts circuit, Jackie Oliver – driving a Lotus 49 – became one of the first Formula 1 drivers to fall victim to “dirty air”. Following too closely behind a rival competitor, his car suddenly lost all its front end grip and pitched Oliver – who unfortunately only appears in this story when he has a genuinely terrifying accident – into a ferocious impact with an Armco barrier.

His car was completely destroyed but its baffled driver, once again, was able to walk away to tell the story to a mystified Chapman.

The red line for high wings on Grand Prix cars came the following year. With the drivers now almost in a state of full revolt and the governing body (for once) broadly in agreement with them, the cars arrived for the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona’s undulating Montjuïc Park circuit to be confronted with a symphony of horrors.

The course featured an array of lumps, yumps and bumps that would pitch the cars into spectacular moments where all four wheels would leave the tarmac. However, these stresses and strains also caused the lightweight mounts of many cars’ wings to fail.

First to go was Graham Hill’s Lotus, suffering a high speed rear wing failure that pitched his car into the barriers. Shortly afterwards, his new Lotus teammate Jochen Rindt suffered an identical failure in the same place, pitching his car into Hill’s wreckage and leaving him hospitalised with a broken nose, a broken cheekbone and a hairline skull fracture.

Bloodied, shaken and thoroughly pissed off, Rindt would later write Chapman a famous letter from his hospital bed, excoriating his team’s patron for continually scrimping on weight and stability in favour of speed.

This was a known pecadillo of Chapman’s and one on which he would rarely, if ever, compromise. When Rindt joined Lotus in 1969, he had done so with his manager Bernie Ecclestone’s advice ringing in his ears: “If you want to be World Champion you should sign for Lotus. If you want to live, you should sign for Brabham”

The chastening experience of Montjuïc spelt the end for high wings, banned more-or-less on the spot by the CSI on safety grounds. Aerodynamics, however, were here to stay. The benefits to lap time, road-holding and speed had already made themselves abundantly clear, and the teams quickly redesigned their wings as lower, flatter and sturdier devices.

Lotus 72, however, was notable for its other aerodynamic considerations. Since the Cooper T51 and Lotus 25 had begun to sweep all before them in the early 1960s, racing cars had fitted a fairly typical design profile: cigar shaped missiles with a front-mounted radiator and a rear-mounted engine, the rear wheels bolted directly onto it.

But Lotus 72 was the shape of a doorstop or a cartoon piece of cheese; a stocky rear tapering to a thin, flat front end.

Maurice Philippe, Lotus 72 designer
Maurice Philippe, co-designer of Lotus 72

For this it drew much of its inspiration from Lotus 56. Like Lotus 72, 56 was designed by Colin Chapman and Maurice Philippe, but with success in IndyCar racing – rather than Formula 1 – in mind. The wedge-shaped, gas turbine-engined 56 dominated the Indy 500 in 1968, proving significantly faster in a straight line than anything else in the field to the point that USAC would change the rules for the 1969 running of the event.

As it was, all three Lotus 56 cars entered at Indy in 1968 failed to make the finish, but the seed had been sown.

Lotus 72 also relied heavily on its immediate Formula 1 predecessor, the four-wheel drive Lotus 63. Chapman went to his grave swearing blind that the 63 was the way forward and all it needed was development time, but its drivers universally hated it. Both Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt refused to drive the thing in 1969, with Hill calling it “a deathtrap”.

Chapman, growing increasingly frustrated by his drivers’ intransigence, would enter the wedge-shaped 63 into Grand Prix races throughout the 1969 season with Mario Andretti, John Miles and Jo Bonnier as guinea pigs, but it failed to score any World Championship points. Ultimately, Chapman accepted defeat with no small amount of ill-grace, and focused instead on Lotus 72.

In terms of appearance, 72 owed more to the 56, but underneath the skin it had much in common with 63, a car which featured a standard petrol engine and a conventional transmission system rather than the gearless, jet powered, whistling Lotus 56.

Lotus 72 was the first Formula 1 car to feature side-mounted radiators – pretty much standard on every single-seater racing car built thereafter – meaning that the wedge shape at the front could be as low slung as possible. With the car’s frontal area radially reduced, Lotus 72 proved to be 12 mph faster than Lotus 49 in straight-line testing, using an identical Ford DFV engine.

Other innovations that Lotus 72 brought to the party were the airbox behind the driver’s head on the rollover hoop, again now a familiar sight in motor racing all over the world. The car also featured inboard brakes and revolutionary anti-dive front suspension and anti-squat rear suspension. These were designed with a view to maintaining a consistent aspect as the car went around the track but, in fact, proved to be the car’s Achilles heel.

Drivers found they were able to lap Lotus 72 just as quickly as they could its predecessor, but its lack of feel meant that they were unable to do so consistently.

As Jochen Rindt sulked his way through the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix in an old 49B (he would win the race after a remarkable and unexpected late-race charge pressured Jack Brabham into a mistake at the race’s final corner), Maurice Philippe went back to the drawing board, producing the Lotus 72B (the “B” designation referred to the removal of anti-squat rear suspension) and Lotus 72C (which featured more conventional suspension on the front and rear).

Rindt found 72C very much to his liking and would win its debut race, the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, just as Jim Clark had done with Lotus 49 at the same venue three years previously.

Jochen Rindt, Austrian racing driver and 1970 World Champion
Jochen Rindt, Lotus 72’s first World Champion

From this point, Rindt proved almost invincible and he promptly racked up a further hat-trick of Grand Prix wins in France, Britain (the first appearance of the overhead air intake) and the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. “A monkey could have won the race in my car,” came the Austrian’s post-race verdict on the superiority of his equipment after a race-long duel with the outdated Ferrari of Jacky Ickx.

Rindt suffered another engine failure in his home race at the newly-opened Österreichring, but nevertheless his dominance of the season saw him arrive in Monza for the Italian Grand Prix leading Jack Brabham by 20 points in the World Championship standings, with just four races left to run and only 36 points left to play for.

It looked as though Rindt had built himself an unassailable lead in the title chase and, unbeknown to almost everyone, he planned to retire from motor racing once the crown was his. The risks of continuing having already reached the summit, he reasoned, far outweighed the rewards.

Rindt was one of the most vocal opponents of the aerodynamic era of motor racing, considering the benefits afforded by such devices to have no bearing whatsoever on the purity of the sport itself, merely adding an extra layer of danger and unpredictability to proceedings, as well as removing some of the fundamental skills required to operate at the highest level.

The tragic irony is that on Saturday 5th September, Lotus decided to run their 72s without rear aerofoils for the final day of qualifying practice with a view to reducing drag and increasing their car’s top speed.

This was the kind of experimental thinking that made Lotus the team that it was, but in hindsight it seems reckless in the extreme. Lotus 72 was designed around the concepts of aerodynamic Formula 1 cars and, when John Miles took the first run in the wingless 72 he returned to the pits white as a sheet, reporting that the car was terrifyingly unstable on the straights.

Rindt remained confident in the idea, though, and shortly afterwards went out to begin his next run. As he braked for the Parabolica corner at the end of the lap, his 72C suffered a catastrophic brake shaft failure, pitching the car to the left and straight into the Armco barrier at 140 mph.

As was so typical at the time, these guardrails had been improperly maintained and the lower part of it failed, Rindt’s car sliding underneath it. Rindt, who refused to wear a crotch strap harness out of fears it could trap the driver in the car in the event of a fire, was forced downwards into the cockpit.

The Lotus 72C spun to a halt, with the following cars of Denny Hulme and François Cevert already pulling up to see if they could offer assistance. Marshalls and an ambulance were, by the standards of the time, on the scene equally quickly, only to discover that Rindt – who had also sustained badly broken legs – was already mortally wounded, his throat slit open by the buckle of his lap belt. He bled out on the way to the hospital.

Jacky Ickx won the following race in Canada to close to within 17 points of Rindt and retain a mathematical chance of securing the title. It was, therefore, a great relief to everybody involved (including, by his own later admission, Ickx) that Lotus’s newly-discovered Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi would take Lotus 72/R5 to a famous win at Watkins Glen in the United States –in only his 4th Grand Prix start – to mathematically secure the title for Rindt, the sport’s first and so far only posthumous World Champion.

Fittipaldi’s breakthrough also secured the destiny of the Constructor’s Cup, Lotus 72 having emerged from a difficult birth and the tragedy of Monza to firmly establish itself as the class of the field. Once more, every other team were playing catch-up.

Emerson Fittipaldi, Brazilian two-time World Champion
Emerson Fittipaldi, Lotus 72’s most successful driver

Lotus were, alas, no strangers to the circumstances in which they now found themselves: their leading driver Jim Clark having perished in an insignificant Formula 2 race in 1968 while leading that year’s World Championship. With Rindt now gone as well, their challenge for the 1971 Grand Prix season would rest on the inexperienced Fittipaldi and his similarly green Swedish teammate Reine Wisell.

It proved to be another car that arrived in Formula 1 at the 1970 United States Grand Prix – the brand new Tyrrell 001, the team’s first self-built Grand Prix entrant – that would dominate the season. Shorn of their lead driver and with Chapman beset with legal difficulties in Italy similar to those that the Williams team would experience after the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, the Lotus team seemed to spend 1971 in a daze. Jackie Stewart, since the passing of Rindt now undisputedly the sport’s leading driver, took his new Tyrrell to six wins from 11 race meetings.

Lotus failed to take a single win or pole position all season, Fittipaldi’s three podium finishes proving to be as good as it got. The team finished a distant 5th in the final standings, behind Tyrrell, BRM, Ferrari and March.

Looking back now, 1971 was a beguilingly anomalous season for Lotus. Their rivals competed mostly in tweaked and updated machinery rather than in bold or brand new designs, yet despite running the car that had dominated the 1970 season (and would prove do so again in the future) Lotus were also-rans.

Ultimately, it was probably a season of relative peace and quiet that everyone involved in the tumult and tragedy of 1970 needed. It certainly proved to be an important learning year for Emerson Fittipaldi, still only 24 and in his first full season of Grand Prix racing (although he would miss the Dutch Grand Prix having been injured in a road accident).

Len Terry, Formula 1 car designer
Len Terry, designer of Lotus 72D

Because in 1972, the real Lotus returned. Over the 1971 season, former BRM designer Len Terry had been employed by Chapman to develop and perfect the 72 and help it adapt to the new treadless racing slick tyres that had made their Formula 1 bow at the 1971 Spanish Grand Prix. Terry’s tweaked car, the Lotus 72D, featured heavily revised rear suspension and a new rear wing, mounted rakishly outboard on a central pillar.

It would prove to be the dominant machine in both the 1972 and 1973 Formula 1 seasons. It would also capture the imagination of the public like no Formula 1 car ever before, in its sharky new black and gold John Player Special livery.

Fittipaldi began the 1972 season switching from his existing chassis, 72C/R5, into a newly-built 72D/R7. This car would prove to be the most successful of the nine Lotus 72 cars that were built, securing 5 wins, 3 poles and 92 points from its 22 Grand Prix starts.

He also received some unexpected help from his main rival, Jackie Stewart. The reigning World Champion was rushed off his feet with racing, commercial and broadcasting commitments both in Europe and the United States.

This stress eventually revealed itself in the form of a stomach ulcer which necessitated the Scot missing the Belgian Grand Prix on medical advice. By the time he returned to beat Fittipaldi to win the French Grand Prixin July, he was already trailing the Brazilian by 13 points in the standings.

Fittipaldi, who had already taken wins in Spain and Belgium, then added wins in Britain, Austria and Italy to become the sport’s youngest World Champion to date. Thanks to Stewart’s troubles, Lotus were also able to add a second Contructors’ title to the 72’s roster, despite none of the team’s other drivers – Reine Wisell and Australia’s Dave Walker – scoring a point all season.

For 1973, the team would bolster its driving strength yet further. That season was undeniably the zenith of the Lotus 72’s life, the campaign where it was the most dominant and superior machine on the grid.

The ubiquity of the design concepts that the car had introduced were starting to become abundantly clear by even the most cursory glance down the grid at its rivals: perhaps the most striking in its similarity was McLaren’s new Gordon Coppuck-penned M23, a car which would go on to enjoy similar levels of longevity and success to the car that inspired it.

Formula 1 in the 1970s
Formula 1 in the 1970s

Yet, despite Lotus adding a third Constructors’ Championship title to the 72’s honour roll that year, it would be Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell who would secure the honours in the Drivers’ standings.

It was a case of winning all the battles only to end up losing the war: for 1973, Chapman spashed out on a second top-line driver to accompany Fittipaldi in the team, with Sweden’s highly-rated Ronnie Peterson moving across from March.

Over a fifteen race campaign, Lotus won seven times, securing 10 pole positions and setting seven fastest laps. However, while Jackie Stewart consistently brought his brilliant best to every race meeting, Lotus seemed to only be able to dominate proceedings with one driver at a time.

Fittipaldi was the first to strike, winning three times in the first 6 Grands Prix, finishing second and third (twice) in the others. After the Monaco Grand Prix, which saw Stewart take his third win of the season, the Brazilian led the Scot by 41 points to 37.

Peterson, meanwhile, had only 4 to his name, despite having started four of the first half-dozen races from pole position. The Swede just couldn’t catch a break.

The seventh round of the season was the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp. Peterson, whose success in the sport had inspired the creation of the event itself, dominated the meeting only to hit tyre trouble just miles from the chequered flag, losing the win to Denny Hulme’s McLaren M23. Stewart was only 5th, while Fittipaldi’s gearbox failed 4 laps from the end.

Peterson’s luck finally changed at the French Grand Prix, where he comfortably won his first World Championship Grand Prix. It also proved to be the passing of the torch between the two Lotus drivers. Fittipaldi hit trouble in France and again in Britain while Stewart, who could only manage 10th in his home race after spinning out trying to pass Peterson for the lead, emerged as the new championship leader.

Fittipaldi then broke his wrist in a practice crash at the Dutch Grand Prix, a race which Peterson led from pole only to suffer engine failure and leave Stewart to take an easy win. The following race, in Germany, saw Tyrrell again score a dominant 1-2 finish. Fittipaldi, his wrist injury aggravated by the Nürburgring’s jumps and bumps, could only manage 6th. Peterson retired from the lead on lap 1 with electrical trouble.

Stewart left Germany with a sizeable lead. He was 15 points ahead of his teammate François Cevert, 18 in front of Fittipaldi and Peterson fully 35 points in arrears – with just 36 left on the table.

Peterson won the next two races, in Austria and in Italy, although Stewart’s second place finish in the former meant the Swede was already eliminated from Championship contention by the time the circus arrived at Monza. There, Stewart drove an immaculate race after hitting trouble early on, rising back to 4th place from the back of the field to secure his third World Championship.

The final races of the season saw Peterson take pole and retire in Canada and then take pole and win in the United States, where the Tyrrell team had withdrawn from the race, François Cevert having been killed in a practice accident. The final championship standings showed Stewart winning comfortably from Fittipaldi, 71 points to 55, Peterson third with 52.

The wheels had come off the Brazilian’s challenge after his late engine problem in Sweden, only able to add 14 additional points in the season’s final nine events – seven of those points having been accrued after Stewart had wrapped up the championship.

Ronnie Peterson, Swedish Formula 1 driver
Ronnie Peterson, Lotus 72’s most emblematic driver

Peterson, meanwhile, was left to rue his slow start. He retired in Argentina and lost a wheel in Brazil, having started the latter race from pole position. More problems saw him crawl to last place, 6 laps behind, in South Africa, while in Spain he led the first 56 laps from another pole position before his gearbox let him down.

In Belgium he led from pole position once more but dropped back after being passed by Cevert and eventually spun into retirement. By the time he scored his first points of the season in Monaco, he already trailed Stewart by 33 and his teammate by 37. Taking the results from just the Swedish Grand Prix onwards, Peterson scored 48 points to Stewart’s 34 and Fittipaldi’s 14.

Lotus won the Constructors’ Cup by ten points from Tyrrell, but while Fittipaldi was the best driver for the first 6 races and Peterson for the last 9, Stewart was the best over the course of 15, consistently a factor in an inferior car, driving as well as he ever had (which is to say, as well as anyone has).

For 1974, Stewart had retired and Fittipaldi moved over to McLaren, where he would take his M23 to three wins and a second world title. Peterson remained at Lotus as the team’s number 1 driver, joined by Belgian Jacky Ickx.

Like Ickx, Peterson’s Lotus 72E (the “E” designation signifying changes to the crash structures that had been mandated by the rules after several tragedies the previous season) was now clearly past its prime years in Formula 1. Nevertheless, switching to a newly-built chassis R8 (having spent the bulk of 1973 in Reine Wisell’s old R6), Peterson took three more wins in 1974, unreliability preventing him from finishing higher than 5th in the final championship standings

Attention was now focussed on the new Lotus car, the 76. However, as often proved to be the case at Lotus, a masterpiece would be followed by a shitbox. Lotus 76 proved so cumbersome and unreliable that it only scored a single points finish throughout the 1974 season.

This was at the Nürburgring, where Peterson crashed the recalcitrant machine so heavily at Wippermann in practice that it needed to be completely rebuilt ahead of the race. Lacking spares, the enterprising Lotus mechanics essentially grafted pieces of the 76 body kit with an old 72E. Come race day, Peterson took the unlikely half-breed to 4th place.

So disappointing was the 76, in fact, that prior to the 1975 season the team took the decision to throw the thing in a skip, and contest another year with the venerable 72E. Results were predictable: having spawned a field of cars designed to imitate it, the more refined modern machinery made the old 72 look every bit the museum piece it now was.

Jacky Ickx, Belgian racing driver
Jacky Ickx, scorer of Lotus 72’s final podium finish

Jacky Ickx scored an unlikely 2nd place in the truncated Spanish Grand Prix, with Peterson adding a further 3 points scoring finishes, but Lotus were mired resolutely in the lower midfield, finishing just 7th in the overall standings.

Things improved for 1976: the team’s new number 1 driver Mario Andretti taking a win in the new Lotus 77, Peterson having left for pastures new after the season’s opening race. Andretti and his new Swedish teammate Gunnar Nilsson won more races than anybody in 1977, driving the proto-ground effect Lotus 78, only unreliability and the relentless consistency of Ferrari’s Niki Lauda preventing a title challenge.

Then, in 1978, came Lotus 79. Driven by Andretti and the returning Peterson, it dominated the season. Its fully realised ground effect, sculpted underbody and sliding skirts, gave its drivers more downforce and grip than anybody had previously ever imagined possible. Andretti describing the handling of his car as akin to being “painted to the road”.

Whenever the topic of the great Formula 1 car comes up, it is Lotus 79 that will often get the plaudits. Say to a layman that you reckon it was Lotus 72 and you can more or less guarantee it will still be Lotus 79 that they are picturing in their head.

Why? Well, the advent of live television coverage, and regular coverage of every Grand Prix race, has a lot to do with it. Lotus 72 didn’t enjoy either benefit during the peak of its life cycle. The iconic looks and livery, too, are often also cited. But for me, Lotus 72 had look that are just as iconic, and was the progenitor of perhaps the most famous sponsorship paint job in motor racing history.

Most importantly, Lotus 72 stayed the test of time, remaining competitive for a remarkable four-year period, even when it was racing a field of cars that had been developed using its basic concept as a starting point. Lotus 79, meanwhile, had one good half season.

By 1979, when every team with any aspirations of success had returned to their drawing board and produced their own ground effect car – or bolted a fire-breathing turbocharged engine into the back of their existing machine – Lotus failed to win a single race, easily beaten by superior cars from Renault, Ferrari and the outstanding Lotus 79-inspired Williams FW07.

Never again would Chapman produce the car everyone had to copy to beat. For much of the 1980s, this mantle fell to Patrick Head and Frank Dernie at Williams, Gordon Murray at Brabham and McLaren, or John Barnard and Steve Nicholls at McLaren and Ferrari.

Chapman died suddenly of a heart attack in December 1982, having seen his black and gold cars return to the winner’s circle just once – at that year’s Austrian Grand Prix with Elio de Angelis – since the Lotus 79 was in its pomp in 1978.

But if you want to see his memorial, just look around you. Wherever single-seater cars are raced, you are virtually guaranteed to find all sorts of design elements – some of them now so ingrained as to seem completely obvious – that draw directly from his body of work.

None more so than Lotus 72. A massive leap forwards that changed everything for good, forever. The greatest racing car ever made.

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