By Ben Selby
When it comes to the cars, Formula One has more highs and lows than the NZ dollar. The Maserati 250F, McLaren MP4/4 and Ferrari F2002 for example, would be regarded by many, myself included, as being a high, if not the peak. However, when it comes to lows, F1 has had its fair share of hopeless bloopers. The woeful LIFE L190 and Mastercard Lola spring to mind.
Fortunately, the Lotus 72 has a solid foothold in the former category, for few F1 designs of the day could compare to Colin Chapman’s innovative winning car. Simply ask anyone to think of 70s F1 and it’s hard not imagine a John Player sponsored Lotus 72 sideways with Peterson or Fittipaldi at the helm
The 72 took part in six full seasons of the Formula One circus and 74 World Championship races, 20 of which it won. This meant, with two World Drivers Championships under its belt, the 72 is one of the most successful Grand Prix cars ever built.
To understand how the 72 came to be, we have to go back to its cutting-edge predecessor, the 49. Powered by arguably the most successful Grand Prix engine of all time, the Ford-Cosworth DFV V8, the 49 saw a tonne of success during the 1967 and 1968 seasons, with Graham Hill winning his second World Championship at the Mexican Grand Prix in 1968. Sadly, that year was marred by the death of all time great and Lotus golden boy Jim Clark at a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim in Germany.
By the end of 1969, the 49 was starting to grow long in the tooth, Lotus snapped up a few wins that season, including Graham Hill’s fifth win at the Monaco Grand Prix. A feat which earned the charming Brit the nickname of ‘Mr Monaco.’ However, the tide was turning against Lotus when a young Scotsman by the name of Jackie Stewart piloting his Cosworth powered Matra run by Ken Tyrrell won the Drivers’ Championship that year.
Lotus Manager and Founder Colin Chapman knew he and his boys had to pull a rabbit out of the hat, and Chapman being Chapman, he knew the way in front was to innovate. Chapman and Lotus had already experimented with potential replacements for the 49, such as the unique 56B with turbine power, and the four-wheel-drive 63. Both these cars never caught on, so for 1970 Chapman needed a revolution, and boy did he deliver.
The 72 was brain child of both Chapman and Lotus Engineer Maurice Phillippe. The most drastic move on their part was to move the location of the radiator from the nose of the car into two smaller ones mounted either side of the monocoque chassis. This not only greatly improved aerodynamics but also helped with weight and traction at the rear.
The 72’s wedge shape was also key in making the car as slippery as possible, and the front wings, previously used on the 49 in 1969, were much improved. The rear wing was the biggest yet seen on an F1 car and was made of three separate pieces.
Underneath you also had torsion bar suspension front and rear, meaning the 72 stayed planted when accelerating and braking, something which many teams still hadn’t mastered at the time. Add new Firestone tyres, slot in the bulletproof 420HP Cosworth DFV, spray the car red and white to reflect the Gold Leaf Cigarette sponsorship at the time, and the 72 was ready to race.
The 72 turned a wheel in anger for the first time at the Spanish GP in April 1970, in the hands of Austrian natural talent and Lotus lead driver Jochen Rindt. The 72 got off to a rocky start with Rindt finishing down in the pack along with fellow Lotus driver John Miles. Eventually the niggles were ironed out and the 72 began to lay waste to the competition. Jackie Stewart, who was still driving for Ken Tyrrell but now in a March 701, even admitted he had no chance of catching Jochen.
During the 1970 season, the 72 was consistently modified, the 72C even sported F1’s first top mounted airbox, which greatly increased air pressure to the engine giving you more power and more oomph. Rindt was so far ahead in the point standings for the Championship when the team arrived at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. The thing about Monza was the sheer number of long straights in which a car needs to be a slippery as possible to gain an edge at high speed. Things like the recent development of high wings, which helped with grip in the bends, created an enormous amount of drag at high speed, thus making the car slower.
For practice on Saturday morning, Rindt knew he stood a better chance of posting a quicker qualifying time if he got his mechanics to remove the 72’s wings. The team was a bit hesitant but Rindt kept insisting the wings had to go. However, the 72 had never been tested at high speed without its wings. While braking into the fast Parabolica section of the track, Rindt’s car became incredibly unstable, breaking away to the left and slamming into the barriers. This sent the car into a wild spin tearing it to shreds with Rindt being hurled around like a rag doll.
Rindt sadly died as a result of his injuries. Later that year, Rindt became Formula One’s only posthumous World Champion with his widow Nina collecting the title on his behalf. Team Lotus also won the Constructors Championship that year thanks in part to Rindt’s brilliant young replacement. An immensely talented driver from Brazil named Emerson Fittipaldi.
Despite being severely cut up after Rindt’s death, Fittipaldi, Chapman and the team returned in 1971 and the 72 was back in action. This time they were always chasing the tail of Jackie Stewart at the wheel of Ken Tyrrell’s own designed and built Grand Prix car. A few podiums helped matters but the nothing could be done to stop Stewart taking home his second World Title and Tyrrell the Constructors Championship.
In 1972, things improved drastically for Chapman and Lotus. The 72 was upgraded again, becoming the 72D and new sponsorship from John Player Cigarettes meant a total rebranding was required. The black and gold John Player Special Lotus was born, creating one of the most iconic race liveries of all time. The team went all out with this theme, even Colin Chapman was seen pacing the pits dressed all in black complete with glam 70’s cap and shades. He did look like the front man from a glam rock band, mind you this was the seventies after all.
That year, Fittipaldi carved up the field winning six races and the Championship. He also set the record for being the youngest driver ever to win a World Championship at 25yr 9 months. This record stood until Lewis Hamilton decades later.
1973 saw Fittipaldi and Chapman keen to repeat their previous success, and the signing of Super Swede Ronnie Petersen as the second driver left Lotus pretty confident for the season ahead. Sadly, it was not to be, with Jackie Stewart winning his third and final championship. However this was in tragic circumstances, with the tragic death of Tyrrell young gun Francois Cevert during qualifying at Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix.
Lotus won the Constructors Championship that year and the 72 was upgraded to the 72E with modifications made to the oil tank, rear wing and suspension. Ronnie Peterson won four races that season but Fittipaldi left to join McLaren for 1974. That year he would win his second World Championship.
For 1974, the 72 was nearing the end of it’s run. Chapman signed up Belgian ace Jacky Ickx to partner with Peterson, who won three races that year including Monaco, Dijon in France and Monza. However, a lack of reliability meant the 72 usually finished runner up to Fittipaldi’s McLaren or Niki Lauda’s Ferrari.
1975 was the last year the 72 was used, with Peterson grabbing a few points in the US Grand Prix. The 72 was now an old design and couldn’t cut it amongst the latest innovations from McLaren and Ferrari. The 72 was officially retired and replaced by the new 77 for the following season.
The Lotus 72 never had a perfect start and win record, few cars ever do, but it’s consistent finishes, legendary drivers who helmed it to glory, and that stunning design with JPS Black and Gold livery, means the 72 will forever live on in our memories as one of the iconic pin ups of Formula One yesteryear.