The History of the Lotus 72 – F1’s Most Successful Car

In the 1970s Lotus and Colin Champan introduced a car that would go on to dominate the world of Formula 1 racing. The car was so successful that it competed in not one, not two, but six different seasons from 1970 to 1975, winning 20 races along the way. This car was of course the Lotus 72, arguably the most successful Formula 1 car of all time.

The History of the Lotus 72

Mitter Gerhard in his Lotus 25 1965

The story of the lotus 72 goes back as far as 1962 with the creation of the Lotus 25. Up until this point, all Formula 1 cars had used a tubular frame for their chassis, however, Chapman realised that a different design was better.

He created a U-shaped monocoque structure that carried the fuel tanks, engine and cockpit. This design was not only rigid enough for the demands of Formula 1 racing, but also lighter and with a lower centre of gravity.

While there would be some teething problems with the 25, it was far ahead of the competition, carrying Jim Clark to seven wins over the course of the 1963 season. The 25 and a later evolution, the Lotus 33 would then earn Clark six successive victories the next year.

However, Lotus would be dethroned with the introduction of new regulations that allowed for engines up to 3.0-litres in size. Despite having some success in this new larger engined era, Chapman and Lotus struggled to find a suitable engine for their car.

Most teams jumped at the chance to run 3.0-litre V12 engines as they believed that the increased power would provide them the performance they needed. However, a drawback of this design philosophy was that the larger engines lead to an increase in weight to the detriment of handling and fuel economy.

As this was the case, Chapman decided that a slightly smaller engine would be more suitable for the teams next Formula 1 car, the 49. He enlisted the help of Cosworth, a British automotive engineering company that specialised in internal combustion engines for race cars.

While Cosworth was eager to help, the development budget for the new engine was around £100,000. To raise funds, Chapman approached the Ford Motor Company and David Brown of Aston Martin, however, neither of them were interested.

Undeterred, he then went to Ford UK’s public relations chief, Walter Hayes, who he had developed a close working relationship with in the early 1960s. Hayes then introduced Chapman to Harley Copp, a British-based American engineer who helped Ford’s successful entry into NASCAR in the 1950s.

The three managed to convince Ford UK’s new chairman Stanley Gillen to back the deal. With funding secured, work on the new engine could begin.

Despite first being revealed at the end of 1965, the engine wasn’t ready until the third race of the 1967 season. Still, it was worth the wait as Cosworth had truly produced a masterpiece.

Graham Hill Lotus 49

The Cosworth powered Lotus 49 claimed pole position with Graham Hill behind the wheel for its first official race at Zandvoort. The race would start well for Hill, however, after ten laps the his new Lotus was sidelined when a gear broke in the camshaft drive.

However, despite this disappointment the Lotus 49 would redeem itself when team-mate Jim Clark stormed through the field in an identical car to take the win. Clark would go on to take three more wins that season, but reliability problems left him third in the Drivers’ Championship.

Lotus was back on form for the next season with Graham Hill winning his second World Championship at the Mexican Grand Prix. Sadly, the 1968 season was marred by the loss of the legendary Jim Clark at a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim in Germany.

By the end of the 1960s, aerodynamic wings at the front and rear were making big waves in the world of Formula 1 racing. Chapman understood that any new car he designed would need to take as much advantage of the benefits of aerodynamics and other technologies as possible.

This would lead him and Maurice Philippe to develop the turbine powered four-wheel drive Lotus 56. While this car was intended for the Indianapolis 500, many of its concepts would be implemented into the Formula 1 destined Lotus 63. Unfortunately, the 63 would prove to be a flop and an improved version of the 49, the 49C, was pressed into service until a suitable replacement could be built.

With the Lotus 49 getting a bit long in the tooth and its replacement being a total disappointment, Chapman and Philippe needed to create a revolution.

The Lotus 72

Lotus 72 Design

Their new creation came in the form of the Lotus 72 a car that would change Formula 1 forever. Compared to the team’s old Formula 1 cars, the 72 was dramatically different.

The radiator location was moved from the front of the car to two smaller ones mounted either side of the monocoque chassis. This not only improved the aerodynamic performance of the car, but also helped with weight and traction at the rear.

The new radiator location had another benefit in that Chapman and Philippe could now design the nose of the car to be very flat and wide. It also allowed Philippe to rework the entire front suspension system and to move the disc brakes inboard, which shifted some of the weight out at the wheels in towards the centre of the vehicle.

However, this did pose a challenge as he found that the front brake discs were larger than the wheel structure itself. To fix this problem, he simply allowed the discs to protrude from the top of the nose and then put a shroud around them to improve aerodynamic performance.

At the rear of the vehicle the disc brakes were moved inboard as well. Ducts above the suspension members directed air onto the brakes to help cool them.

The front and rear suspension was designed with torsion bar springs with progressive rates. Initially, the setup consisted of upper and lower (only lower at the rear) wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bars and telescopic dampers mounted inboard. However, the rear dampers were soon resituated to the outboard position because of overheating.

To maintain the same ground clearance and thus consistent aerodynamic performance, the front suspension had anti-dive geometry to prevent the car from dropping its nose under hard braking, while the rear suspension and had anti-squat geometry to prevent the front end front lifting under acceleration.

The suspension was attached to an aluminium monocoque chassis that was much lower to the ground than the bathtub style one that the Lotus 25 featured.

To improve aerodynamic performance, the 72 was given small wings at the front and a large rear wing that was the biggest seen yet on a Formula 1 car. However, the wings could be removed if needed which would be done at the 1970 Monza F1 race. During its service, the Lotus 72 featured various different wing configurations.

Powering the Lotus 72 was the same Ford Cosworth V8 engine that the 49 featured. It was mated to a Hewland FG400 5-speed manual transmission and produced as much as 420 horsepower.

The 72 Goes Racing

Jochen Rindt Lotus 72 1970

The Lotus 72 first turned a wheel in anger at the Spanish Grand Prix in April 1970, with Jochen Rindt and a young John Miles at the wheel. Unfortunately, the futuristic looking Lotus got off to a rocky start, finishing well down the field.

The poor performance continued at the next event at the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone 7 days later. Following these two disappointing races, Lotus decided to temporarily withdraw the 72 from service and thoroughly rework it at their factory.

They decided to remove both the anti-squat and anti-dive systems from Rindt’s car to improve cornering performance. Miles’s car was less extensively modified with the removal of the anti-squat geometry only.

With the changes made, the cars were given new internal designations, 72B for the car without the anti-squat geometry and 72C for the car with both systems removed.

According to Phillipe, the problem with the anti-dive suspension system was that it gave the driver very little “feel”. They found that the drivers could lap just as fast without the system, but more consistently.

Following these modifications, the Lotus 72 was ready to race once more. It instantly proved its dominance, winning four races in a row and ensuring that Rindt had a massive lead in the drivers’ title.

Despite its incredible performance, Lotus didn’t stand still with the design. The team fitted the car with the sport’s first top mounted airbox just in time for the British Grand Prix. This new innovative air intake greatly increased air pressure to the engine improving power and performance.

However, the Lotus 72’s incredibly winning streak would be interrupted by tragedy when Rindt was killed in a crash during free practice at Monza. He had been testing his 72C with no wings as it was believed that the lower downforce arrangement was better suited to the high-speed Italian circuit.

While braking from maximum speed on the entry to the famous Parabolica, Rindt’s 72C snapped to the left and hit the poorly installed safety barriers. It was believed that the accident was caused by a failure of one of the front brake shafts dye to poor manufacturing.

Lotus replaced the incredible Jochen Rindt with Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi. The young driver rose to the challenge magnificently and managed to win the penultimate race of the year in the United States to claim the World Championship for both Lotus and Rindt.

Jochen Rindt was replaced in the team by a young Brazilian named Emerson Fittipaldi who rose to the challenge magnificently and won the penultimate race of the year in USA to clinch world titles for both Jochen Rindt and Team Lotus.

1971

Emerson Fittipaldi Lotus 72 1971

Despite the tragedy of the previous year, Lotus and Fittipaldi were back for the 1971 season. This time they were doing the chasing with Jackie Stewart’s Tyrell being the dominant force on the track. Lotus would claim some podiums, but there was not stopping Stewart and Tyrell who would go on to win both championships.

While the team was disappointed with their result, one good thing that came out of the season was Tony Rudd’s updates to the car. He redesigned the rear suspension and modified the rear wing to produce more downforce. The updated Lotus was known as the 72D and it was introduced just in time for the Monaco Grand Prix.

1972

In 1972 things improved dramatically for Lotus. They continued to run the D specification of the 72 but with a few updates. The oil tank was modified and the rear wing was pushed back even further than it previously was to improve rear end downforce. Lotus had to modify the fuel tank because new regulations demanded thicker protection to improve safety.

The biggest visual change was the new paint job. Lotus ditched the red and white paint scheme and replaced it with a black and gold one that would become known as the ‘John Player Special’ due to their sponsorship agreement. This would go on to become one of the most iconic race liveries of all time.

With Fittipaldi at the wheel the black and gold Lotus crushed the field, winning five of the eleven races that year, making the Brazilian driver the youngest World Champion until Lewis Hamilton decades later.

The title was claimed at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. However, this almost didn’t happen as the transporter that the cars were in had an accident, leaving both of them damaged. The team immediately sent a replacement, but this left them with only one car, which meant that Fittipaldi’s teammate had to skip the race.

1973

Ronnie Peterson 1973 Dutch Grand Prix Lotus 72

Lotus and Fittipaldi were keen to repeat the success of the previous year and the team decided to hire Ronnie Peterson, a rising star from Sweden and the 1971 runner-up. However, Tyrell and Jackie Stewart were hungry for another World Championship win and were on their best form.

The first two races of the season went well for Lotus with Fittipaldi winning in both Argentina and Brazil. Peterson showed his form in qualifying as well, but had problems during the race. South Africa wasn’t as good for the team, but Fittipaldi still managed to claim a podium position.

However, new regulations from the Spanish Grand Prix meant that Lotus had to redesign the car. The bodywork was now 20 cm wider and the previously detachable sidepods were now moulded into the monocoque to make a deformable structure.

This updated model was given the designation 72E and it also received further modifications to the rear wing, oil tank and suspension, which had to be extensively modified to suit the ever-changing tyre designs for the season.

Lotus also lost Phillipe who decided to leave the team. While this was a lost, they got two new designers, Martin Ogilvie and Ralph Bellamy.

Despite the changes, the 72E was still a dominant force on the track, however, reliability problems would plague the car. Fittipaldi would storm to victory at the 72E’s first race in Spain, but reliability problems would plague the car and he failed to win another race for the rest of the season.

His teammate, Peterson, performed well at the start of the season, but it was the second half where he really shone. He claimed his first win at the French Grand Prix and then managed to take another three wins later in the season for a total of four. This would hand Lotus the Constructors’ Championship, but the mighty Jackie Stewart would take his third and final Drivers’ Championship.

Had all of Lotus’s efforts been concentrated on one driver they may have been able to win both titles. Fittipaldi felt that this was the case and decided to part ways with the Lotus team at the end of the season, heading for McLaren for the next year.

1974

Jacky Ickx Lotus 72 Race of Champions 1974

With Fittipaldi gone, Lotus needed a new driver to partner with Peterson. Jacky Ickx was the man for the job. He had extensive experience racing in Formula 1 and even had a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans under his belt.

Along with a new driver Lotus also introduced a new car, the 76. The Lotus 76 was intended to be a more advanced version of 72. It was still powered by the Ford Cosworth DFV engine, but featured improved aerodynamics, a lighter chassis, longer wheelbase and a narrower lower monocoque.

While the 76 looked good on paper it proved to be an absolute failure and the drivers had to revert to the old 72. Incredibly, despite its age the 72 managed to take four wins during the season, with three going to Peterson and one very wet race going to Ickx. It may have been even more if reliability problems hadn’t come into play during many of the races.

Unfortunately, four wins wasn’t nearly enough for either title and Lotus placed fourth behind Tyrell and Ferrari. First place in went to McLaren and former Lotus driver Fittipaldi claimed his second Drivers’ Championship.

1975

Ronnie Peterson in his Lotus 72 1975 Race of Champions

The 72E was once again pulled back into service for the 1975 season. However, by this time the late 1969 design was starting to show its age. The car was unsuitable for the latest generation of tyres, which meant big problems for the team.

The 72E’s problem was that the weight bias was too much towards the rear and the car couldn’t heat the front tyres properly. Lotus redesigned the 72 with a wider front track and a 5 cm longer wheelbase to try and fix the problem. They also gave the car cable operated torsion bars which worked only under tension.

Later in the season a combination of torsion bars and coils were tried and an 72F model was introduced with coil springs instead of torsion bars at the rear.

Unfortunately, absolutely nothing helped bring the 72 up to speed with the top runners. Things got even worse when Ickx decided to leave the time part way through the season, however, Peterson would fight until the end. Lotus would wind up finishing seventh in the Constructors’ Championship with seven points, while Peterson would have to settle for 13th in the drivers’ title

Following the 1975 season the Lotus 72 was retired from racing and replaced by the new 77. After a slow start to the season the new Lotus proved to be the best of the rest behind Ferrari, McLaren and Tyrell.

Conclusion

Ronnie Peterson British Grand Prix 1974

With 20 wins, two Drivers’ and three Constructors’ Championships, the Lotus 72 is arguably the most successful Formula 1 car of all time. While the 72 wasn’t as dominant over a whole season as something like the McLaren MP4/4, its longevity showed that it was an incredible machine.

Lotus 72 Specifications

ModelLotus 72
Years of Service1970 – 1975
Layoutmid-engine, longitudinally mounted, rear-wheel drive
Engine                V88 Ford Cosworth DFV, naturally aspirated
Capacity2993cc
TransmissionHewland FG400, 5-speed manual
ChassisAluminium monocoque
Front SuspensionDouble wishbone, inboard spring/damper.
Rear Suspension Parallel top links, lower wishbones, twin radius arms,

outboard spring/damper (original inboard at the rear)

Tyres1970-1972, 1974: Firestone

1974: Goodyear

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