Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Colin Chapman: The tireless innovator

One of the reasons that makes me feel enthusiastic about the return of the name Lotus to the Formula 1 grid, is that it will make people remember and find out who was its creator, Colin Chapman 

No other engineer in the history of Formula 1 has been more decisive in the evolution of its technology, it may sound an exaggeration, but seasoned F1 fans and Team Lotus nostalgics will gladly agree.

Colin Chapman: A tireless innovator, a visionary and a true genius
The engineer from Richmond (Surrey, United Kingdom), was the first to introduce the concept of a monocoque chassis instead of a tubular structure, making the car much more rigid and light. That enabled Jim Clark, who only drove for Lotus during his Formula 1 career, to blow away the opposition in 1963, with the Lotus 25 (7 wins). Team Lotus was the first to mount the newly designed Ford Cosworth DFV (Double Four Valve) V8 engine (that's why the association between Lotus F1 Racing and Cosworth -no longer Ford- sounds like music to many of us), on the 49. Moreover that innovating car used the engine as a stress bearing structural element between the monocoque in the front and the gearbox and rear suspension. It would give Graham Hill 3 wins in 1968 and the World Championship. Of course I cannot quote all the innovations, as it would be endless. Although unsuccessful, the 56B would race the 1971 Italian Grand Prix powered by a Pratt and Whitney turbine and using four-wheel drive and no gearbox (brought from the 56 an Indy racing model).

Lotus 56B: Pratt and Whitney turbine, 4 wheel drive and no gearbox. 
Anything else? (Emerson Fittipaldi, Italy 1971)
Colin Chapman always tried to be one step ahead of the others, some speak of the "unfair advantage" of the new element that gives you an edge over the opposition, I simply call it genius.
But it did not stop there, the 72 which racing career stretched in its different evolutions for 5 years, introduced anti-dive and anti-squat suspensions, sidepods radiators, inboard brakes... The amount of innovation brought by the 72 was just overwhelming and would give Lotus two Driver Championships (Jochen Rindt in 1970 and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972) and three Constructors' (1970, 1972 and 1973). Later would come the 78 and 79, "wing-cars", which in the experienced hands of Mario Andretti, would wipe out the opposition in 1978 after some brilliant victories in 1977. Required by the American ace to provide a car with downforce and no drag, Chapman's genius designed a single seater, which sidepods where shaped as inverted wings having their airflow preserved by "flexible skirts" that would touch the ground... It was a revolutionary concept, that would push performance so far away, that it had to be banned altogether at the end of 1982...

 Lotus 78: The first "wing-car" (Mario Andretti, Italy 1977)
The forbidden 88 (1981) was the swansong of Chapman's creativity (because of his early death at age 54 in December 1982). Required by regulations to keep a minimum distance between the chassis and the ground and excluding mobile "skirts", the whole paddock "cheated", making the car go down on its suspension once it was on the track. To ensure the channeling of the airflow, most engineers just stiffenned their suspensions, Lotus turned up with a double chassis, one that would take the aerodinamic pressures with a hard suspension and another that would hold the cockpit with a normal one. Moreover it was the first car to be mainly built in carbon fibre... It was simply a strike of genius that outraged the opposition who had it banned by the FIA.
One can hardly imagine what would have happenned if a tandem Chapman-Senna could have worked together...

Colin Chapman was a true genius

 There is only one "MAGIC": AYRTON SENNA