Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, born on 9th of May 1928 in London as the son of a hotel manager, graduated civil engineer from University College London, qualified as a pilot, part-time race driver and founder of Lotus Engineering Co Ltd., is perhaps the most brilliant all-round Formula 1 personality in history. He designed cars, initially fabricated and raced them himself, was an avid businessman, great promoter of his products and his own self as well as very competent owner and operational head of Team Lotus. 25 years into his passing to the date Colin Chapman is still remembered as one of most remarkable motor racing greats.
ACBC – the race car designer
Keeping weight to a minimum was Chapman’s recipe for quick cars; he was a constant source of technical innovation leaving his mark along the history motor racing. His first design to win at an international event was the Lotus 11, designed and built for customers, that won the 1956 Le Mans 24 hours race in 1100cc and 1500cc classes as well as taking the “Index of Performance” apart from setting a speed record for its engine size.
With the Lotus 12 Chapman entered in 1958 the arena of the big European constructors like Ferrari, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Maserati which dominated Grand Prix racing. The Lotus 12 was the first F1 Lotus. In 1960 Stirling Moss, driving the much better designed and more reliable Lotus 18 took the first F1 win for Lotus at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. Funny enough the Brit drove a privately owned car run by Rob Walker. Lotus also was making a name in sports racers and dominated the Formula 2 scene.
Chapman had already integrated his cars’ panels in to the chassis rigidity structure, launching the Lotus 25 in 1962 he’d come up with an important innovation: The monocoque chassis. Its reclined driving position and taylor-made width and length to the driver’s body size made for better aerodynamics on the straights and helping cornering speeds through lower center of gravity. After coming close in 1962, Lotus finally won the Constructors’ Championship and Jim Clark the Driver’s in the same car in 1963. The design would soon be copied by all others.
Meanwhile Chapman was planning the next big design leap with his former employees Frank Costin and Keith Duckworth, who had set-up their own engine shop. With backing from Ford the pair built the first F1 engine that would suit as a stressed member. The new Lotus 49 was designed to use the engine as an integral part of the cars structure, the chassis’ connecting unit between tub and gearbox which would carry the rear suspension. Like the monocoque this solution is being used till present.
The 49 only got ready for the 1967 Dutch GP and won straight away with Clark at the wheel, too late to turn the team’s fortunes around that year. Jim Clark’s tragic accident during an F2 race in Hockenheim marred the 1968 season, Graham Hill took the Drivers’ title, and Lotus took a hapless third Constructors Championship after ’63 and ’66.
With other teams having access to the same Ford Cosworth DFV engine it would became tougher to find that little extra of technical advantage. So the following year Chapman ventured into radically new territories with the four-wheel-drive Lotus 63. The only Lotus in history to be too heavy to be competitive, it never raced for its complexity and persistent reliability problems. But, along with 56 turbine car for the Indy 500, it gave the cue for a new radical aerodynamic solution: The wedge shaped Lotus 72, debuting in mid-1970, the first F1 car to use side radiators or a multi-element rear wing. With 20 GP wins, three Constructors championships and two Drivers titles it would become the most successful F1 car of all time, its glory tainted though by taking Jochen Rindt’s life 1970 in Monza when its inboard front brake discs layout cracked.
The Lotus 78 pioneered ‘ground effect’ in 1978. While using a wind-tunnel (stop us if this is starting to sound familiar, but all teams now use wind-tunnels) at Imperial College in London, the Lotus engineers noticed that their results were varying dramatically as they varied the suspension ride-height by a few millimeters. To cut a long story short, they discovered that air-flow under the car could produce more downforce (pushing the car onto the track and thus increasing cornering speed) than airflow over the car. The 78 was let down by reliability, but the 79 won both championships the following year.
Without a doubt Lotus’ most controversial car was the Lotus 88 in 1980, which had two chassis, one inside the other, connected by a very weak suspension system. The outer one contained the aerodynamic bodywork, but at high speeds the downforce would flatten the inter-chassis suspension, effectively connecting the wings directly to the wheels. The driver, meanwhile, was in the inner chassis, which had its own ‘proper’ suspension to keep the wheels pressed to the track.
Despite being within the F1 regulations and cleared to race by the FIA, the race stewards refused the car permission in the opening round race without giving a reason. The car never raced. Chapman had finally reached the limits of what was permissible in F1, just as he had in Indycar 15 years earlier and in club racing before that. The 1983 Lotus 92 with active suspension was the last car that Chapman worked on. It was rolled out in Snetterton for the first time with test-driver Dave Scott at the wheel the very morning Chapman suffered a heart attack.
It’s safe to say that all modern F1 cars are based on the design of the Lotus 72, featuring a truncated monocoque, even if nowadays they are made of carbon fibre, multiple-element wings and general importance of aerodynamics, driver, engine and radiator position are all directly evolutions of Colin Chapman’s innovative design leaps decades ago.
ACBC – the race Driver
Chapman started out building competition cars for himself and built quite a reputation around the British club-racing scene. By winning races constantly in 1951 he created a demand for his Lotus 3 and increasingly focused on fabrication and sales. He couldn’t resist though, when he was asked by Vanwall, where he was a technical consultant, if he wouldn’t want to race one of the cars in 1956 French Grand Prix. Qualifying 5th he came to experience one of Vanwall’s main problems that season: Locking brakes. He crashed the car and didn’t make the grid.
Although he was considered quite capable of mixing it with the top drivers by those who witnessed his sole F1 outing, the responsibility and determination to grow Lotus into a serious car manufacturer and racing team prevailed. Other than privately taking the wheel of one of his race cars, his only other major race was the 1960 British Grand Prix touring car support race, which he won in a Jaguar. In other circumstances, his short career as a driver might have been seen as a loss to the sport.
ACBC – the Team Lotus – owner
For 24 years, Chapman’s moustache and cloth cap was a familiar trackside sight around the world. Team Lotus conquered six driver’s World titles, seven Contructors’ titles and a total of 79 Grands Prix. Apart from delivering quick cars to their customers in sports car racing, F2 and F3, Lotus also made history by winning the Indy 500 and being the first foreign entry to earn the biggest cash prize in motor racing at the time.
In 1965, probably the most successful season in Team Lotus’ history, they won both F1 championships, finally the Indy 500 with Jim Clark in the Lotus 38 after final stage bloopers in the two previous attempts, the Australian Tasman series, the British and the French F2 titles. In fact, Jim Clark led every lap of every race that he finished that year and scored maximum points. Just five years after their first F1 victory, Team Lotus was indisputably the best team in the world. They would win the Tasman series again in 1967 and 1968. The wedge-shaped, turbine-powered Lotus 56 lead until breaking down in 1968 Indy 500. Thereafter the Indy rule makers abolished turbine engines and the offended Colin Chapman never entered the Indy 500 again.
ACBC – The PR-Tsar
Chapman’s innovative spirit went beyond the engineering part of his businesses. Very soon he understood that a nice little story will always help to keep you and your business in the headlines. Like, for instance, the story that he used a small loan from Hazel Williams, his future wife, to found Lotus Engineering Ltd., which Colin made up and that had no basis in fact. Likewise he was among the first to understand the benefit to allow photographers and film crews in his factory and racing team premises.
Sponsorship in the 50s and 60s was limited by rule to a few oil and tire companies paying the teams to endorse their products. Although Chapman had decent deals in place, he was clearly looking ahead to the day when the rules would be relaxed. And when it finally happened Chapman, who’d play his political role in the background, was the first to show up with a full sponsor livery in the colors of Player’s Gold Leaf, the first tobacco brand of many others to follow.
When Lotus changed their livery accordingly to their sponsor’s new brand John Player Special for the 1972 season, their black-and-gold livery became one of the most famous in sports sponsorship history. The amazing longevity of the Player’s deal, 17 years in total, was only interrupted by the Martini title sponsorship, followed by controversial oil company Essex in the early 80s. When the deal blew, the Lotus boss would lure his old sponsor back by innovating yet again in PR terms: Chapman became the first team-owner to name his cars after his sponsor, insisting that they be known as John Player Specials. Again, this practice has become standard throughout all formulae of motor-racing.
ACBC – The Businessman
While Team Lotus was Colin Chapman’s ultimate passion, the road car business’ success went in parallel to racing activities. Technical innovation was the essence of Lotus Cars, too, initially an operational spin-off of the 1952 founded Lotus Engineering Co Ltd. The marketplace for nimble but pricey lightweight sports cars wasn’t an easy one. So the technical consultancy business would remain the backbone of the Lotus group. When times were hard for the road car division, the engineering division could be relied upon to provide a steady income. To juggle all his offsprings while being fully committed to the fast-paced F1 environment as designer, team-owner and head of operations was a daunting task.
It is still unclear till the present day how much Chapman knew, or even was involved in the 54 million pounds DeLorean Motor Company fraud. Lotus redesigned the troublesome original DeLorean chassis and when the scandal broke the company faced a criminal investigation into its Managing Director and other senior personnel. Doubts were cast over Chapman’s financial dealings and it has been suggested that his demise saved him from a lengthy and ignominious prison term. With no recent racing successes to fall back on after Colin Chapman’s death, the race team foundered, taking the other branches of the business with it. In 1986, Lotus was taken over by General Motors following the Lotus group’s disastrous collapse, saving the road car business from extinction.
ACBC – The character
A man of many talents, among Colin Chapman’s legendary ability to suck-up intensively and in a sort amount of time information about any subject of his interest. He could submerse himself in literature, never mind if it was about aerodynamics or accounting, until he was satisfied to have achieved the necessary level of knowledge. He wasn’t patient sort of person that would developing something in a calm and relaxed way. When things didn’t progress the way he wanted he would quickly become bored and mount a new, different challenge.
Interestingly enough he was more of an introvert. Despite his almost flash exuberance in commemorating race wins by throwing his cap high in the air to greet his driver at the finish line. Despite the successful communicator he proved to be finding investors for his businesses and sponsors for Team Lotus. He wasn’t the sort of person easy to make friends with. But once one slipped through Colin’s defense shield, Chapman would be a dear and caring friend. Chapman had several close friends in whose company he would feel comfortable to reveal his private self. Some of those close friends happened to be one or the other driver.
Every driver he lost, like Alan Stacey, Mike Spence, Jochen Rindt or Ronnie Peterson, dented his passion for racing severely. But when his close friend Jim Clark died at the wheel of a Lotus F2 in 1968, it had a very deep impact on Chapman. He even lost the will to keep on running Team Lotus, despite being clear favorites for the title with the Lotus 49 mated to the dominant Ford Cosworth. Graham Hill saved Lotus that year from an emotionally led withdrawal by showing the leadership and championship-winning form that the team needed to help Colin to regain confidence.
After many successes in pretty much every category has entered. Colin Chapman died of a heart attack on 16th of December 1982. By this time, he was embroiled in the murky financial waters of the DeLorean scandal, that would eventually also claim the life of his team. The stories about his death being staged to allow him to escape prosecution, allegedly living since in Brazil’s Pantanal area, still persist. I personally find it difficult to believe a character like Colin Chapman submerged without ever surfacing with some kind of brilliant idea.