Colin Chapman would have celebrated his 87th birthday on the 19th May. With Formula 1’s design philosophy future up in the air, let’s look back and reflect on the celebrated English pioneering design engineer’s relevance in current F1.
There have been many biographies charting how the garagista brought his aeronautic mechanical engineering and design process to the motor industry in both road cars and racing cars. His over riding principal of using design to make vehicles lighter, thus faster, was also hugely influential in motor yacht design and before his sudden death, he was (almost back to his roots) exploring the practical use of microlights. He was enthusiastic about any form of transport, whether on road, water or air, always striving for improvements. He also played a key role in the establishment of British Motor Racing as part of his legacy.
His influence at his time of racing was huge, moving from a consultant to the racing teams of Vanwall and BRM whilst racing his own cars in club formula, before starting his iconic Lotus racing team, with road car production. Colin was often controversial as he was arguably the first of modern designers to really push the limits of regulations to maximise the speed. His success with Lotus is unarguable in winning 7 constructors championships and 6 drivers championships. As an independent F1 unit, that was quite an achievement. His development company in Hethel, Norfolk served both his marine and automotive designs – for example his VARI moulding technique was used in both racing and road cars and revolutionised boat building, a technique used on the below Moonraker.
Jackie Stewart described Colin Chapman as, ‘the most creative designer of racing cars in the history or motor racing.’
What remains of his influence to modern F1? There are many facets and details that could be listed, but these are arguably the main contributions that still remain:
Engine Placement and Fuel Tanks:
In 1958, ahead of the first race in Monaco, Chapman took the innovative step of moving the engine to the rear of the car in order to maximise the weight distribution. This paid off in 1960 when the Lotus 18, driven by Stirling Moss won its first race.
Chapman’s explanation of his rear engine decision demonstrates much of his thinking about design and certainly the influence of this can be seen in modern cars, ‘The rear engine layout offers several advantages for an F1 car – low frontal area, a low centre of gravity (with no propeller shaft problems) and minimum power loss problems through the transmission. The chief disadvantage of such a car is that is has a low polar moment of inertia.’
Following in the steps of the likes of Ferdinand Porsche, Chapman had been experimenting with the placement and use of fuel tanks in an attempt to get it close to the centre of gravity and nullify the effects of its weight loss as fuel was used during the race. Again, his explanation, although in 1950’s terminology, has repercussions in modern racing, ‘Fuel comes from a 12 gallon scuttle tank mounted midships over the drivers legs in the usual Lotus practice of minimising the handling changing which takes place as the fuel level drops. With only this tank in the car the weight distribution is 53% on rear wheels and 47% on the front. A 10 gallon tank can (also) be mounted on the tail, which if used can give a 60/40 weight distribution.’
Engines and fuel tanks have moved around since, but Chapman demonstrated that in racing car design, nothing is fixed. To innovate and maximise you may have to rewrite what is considered as standard – thus paving the way for modern designers such as Adrian Newey.
Introduction of Monocoque and Driver Position:
F1 history is unfortunately one full of driver deaths and serious injury. Chapman’s introduction of the monocoque in the 1960’s ( the Lotus 25 was the first to feature this design taken from his aeronautic background), did provide a more secure surround for the drivers as in addition to being lighter, it added strength. However, the sport required many more interventions before safety was significantly improved. This monocoque changed the tradition ‘upright’ driver seated position, as if driving a road car, to the reclined, almost laying down position we see today. Jim Clark won 7 races with this position in 1963 in the Lotus 23.
Of this new driving position, Jim Clark reflected, ‘This lying down position, though not completely new to me, was somewhat more accentuated than it had been in either the Lotus 21 or 24. I required some time to become accustomed to it. It was a good benefit to the designer s from an aerodynamic point of view, but at first it held some difficulties for the driver. For example, the worm’s eye view of the track this position gave meant re-orienting oneself with the features of the track to which one had become accustomed. However, once I had mastered the new position, I wondered how I had ever driven a racing car any other way.’
This was the concept of making the entire car function as a giant wing to increase downforce – and this was in the days before such luxuries as wind tunnels and CAD engineering models were available. The use of ground effect was eventually banned as it was seen as at least partially responsible for the death of Jochen Rindt and for the accident that befell Niki Lauda.
The downside of the ground effect was that it gave the car an aerodynamic lift during high speed cornering and simply lifted the car into the air. A further design was seen on the Lotus 79 and has been described as ‘simple but brilliant’ in that is had rubber skirts down each side of the car which effectively sealed the car to the ground, thus increasing downforce, stability and speed, particularly in the corners
Colin had begun work on Active Suspension technology in 1982 incorporating the use of computers in managing hydraulic active suspension. Sadly his death in December of that year meant he never completed it, but Lotus did fit a prototype version of his original plan to the demonstration 1985 Excel road car, but it did not progress into general production. The ideas however were incorporated into other road cars and F1 teams developed it further, including that which contributed to the Williams team success with the FW15c which won both the 1993 championship titles.
Commercial Sponsorship on Cars
It is almost unimaginable to consider F1 teams functioning without commercial sponsorship, or without various sponsors logos over both drivers and cars. In 1968, Lotus was the first F1 car to sport commercial sponsorship on the Lotus 49 with Graham Hill as driver. This caused huge controversy at the time, but soon other teams followed to generate the much needed cash to fund this expensive sport and developments. Not only did Colin Chapman set the first building block of the commercial relationships that are now essential to the sport, but he also established a business model with image savvy PR that F1 uses today.
In addition, Chapman pioneered the use of wheel struts on racing cars and, of course, his legacy in the name of Lotus is till in F1. The return of the black and gold livery stirred many memories for those old enough to remember the original, taking the cue from the tobacco sponsorship that supported the team. The man certainly progressed the field of engineering and design in the sport to a format that is recognisable even in today’s technical world- and this engineering design skill is now key to any car on the grid.
Much has been written about this sometimes abrasive and controversial individual’s character and personality, however the words of Racing Team Manager Peter Warr appear to sum him up more aptly, ‘His most amazing characteristic was that he was always right. When Chapman came in with one of his brain waves, you’d think ‘he’s really gone off his rocker this time’ and 9 times out of 10, the bugger would turn out to be right…..but when he did get it wrong, he made some big ones.’
Sarah Jane Mogford has written a definitive book on Chapman’s Moonraker Enterprise, with insight and information provided by the Chapman family. You can order the book via her website www.moonrakerboats.com