Features - Technical

JUNE 2, 1997

Colin Chapman- What would he have thought of Formula 1 today?


On the morning of the 16th December 1982, a small group of Team Lotus engineers and mechanics huddled inside their anoraks in the Pits at Snetterton. With nothing to stop the wind as it blows in across the North Sea straight from the Arctic, Snetterton has always been one of the least hospitable testing circuits, especially in the middle of winter, but it does provide a measure of secrecy. On that day the first Active Suspension racing car was due to be given it's initial test run, and Chapman was expected to attend the test later in the day.

On the morning of the 16th December 1982, a small group of Team Lotus engineers and mechanics huddled inside their anoraks in the Pits at Snetterton. With nothing to stop the wind as it blows in across the North Sea straight from the Arctic, Snetterton has always been one of the least hospitable testing circuits, especially in the middle of winter, but it does provide a measure of secrecy. On that day the first Active Suspension racing car was due to be given it's initial test run, and Chapman was expected to attend the test later in the day.

Shortly before the circuit opened for testing, the group was surprised to see Peter Warr's car drive into the circuit. As team manager Peter did not normally come to R&D tests such as this, and certainly not this early. He called all the members of Team Lotus together and told them that Colin Chapman had died suddenly during the preceding night. After the stunned silence he answered the inevitable questions and asked the group to carry on with the planned test, as this is what Chapman would have wished. Many of the people at the test had been at Team Lotus for some considerable time, some as long as 20 years, and the need to work on with the schedule was the tonic which helped them deal with their private thoughts and to get through that day.

And so, on the very day that Formula 1 stepped tentatively into the era of computers, which dominate the sport today, Colin Chapman died, never to experience the sweeping changes brought in by the microprocessor. What would he have thought about it? Would he have enjoyed Formula 1 in the 90's, in the same way that he enjoyed it in the 60's and 70's? Would Team Lotus have dominated Formula 1 again, and still be competing at the front under his stewardship? In spite of rumours that Chapman is alive and living in South America that just will not go away, I do not have a direct line of communication to him that enables me to answer these questions in the sure knowledge that they are Chapman's answers. However I did work closely with him on numerous projects, from cars to boats and aeroplanes (and even flying saucers - but that really is another story!), and I have spanned the pre-computer era to the present day in Formula 1. I can only use my experiences of Chapman and the way that I perceived him, to try and convey what I think would be his views today. One thing is certain: If he was still leading Team Lotus and participating in Formula 1, he would be doing so from the front with an innovative, trend-setting car, for he knew no other way.

Colin Chapman would have been 70 next year. He entered a Lotus in Grand Prix racing for the first time in 1958, and continued to do so for the next 24 years.Dduring this time Team Lotus won 7 Manufacturers' World Championships. Lotus, accompanied by Cooper and Lola, revolutionised racing car design, placing a premium on chassis, suspension and aerodynamics, rather than brute horsepower. Chapman introduced and scored with the monocoque (T25), the fully stressed engine (T49-Cosworth DFV), a downforce generating body shape (T72) and ground effect (T78). Not necessarily the true originator of all these concepts, nevertheless it was Chapman who saw the potential in motor racing and made them work for him. Not all the concepts that he introduced on Lotus's worked straight away, or sometimes even at all: the gas-turbine (T56B), 4-WD (T63), twin-chassis (T88), and Active Suspension (T92) were all stages on the road to the next idea. He was not afraid to make mistakes - in Formula 1, mistakes are made under the critical gaze of the public and Press - as he believed that it was necessary to attempt difficult and risky projects in order to make significant progress. When it did go wrong, however, he was like a bear with a sore head until he had worked out the next step and his enthusiasm had taken over again!

At the end of 1981, Chapman's enthusiasm for Formula 1 was at the lowest ebb since I had known him. For much of the year he had fought competitors and FISA alike to be allowed to race the twin-chassis T88, and lost. What mattered was not the denial of being able to develop and race the car, which had so much potential to be the solution to the new, no-skirt regulations, but the fundamental principle of being allowed to innovate. Chapman sensed a new thinking in Formula 1: a need to control the development of the cars so that no one team dominated in a given year, which would spoil the "show" for the emerging TV audiences. The door was shutting on aerodynamic innovation which had served the British constructors so well, enabling them and the Cosworth DFV to remain competitive in the face of the Italian 12-cylinder engines. Formula 1 was fast becoming big business, where the richest and best organised and presented team was likely to be the most competitive. This was not motor racing as Chapman knew and loved it. It was no longer fun, nor could he reckon to beat the opposition by being technically smarter than them. Computers and the control systems they made possible were coming fast and he was both fascinated by and supportive of Active Suspension, but it was not the kind of engineering that he understood or in which he could become intimately involved. It required a new breed of young boffins, and used a technical language with which he was not familiar. No longer could he take any part of a racing car in his hand, discuss it with colleagues and understand how it worked (or more often, why it did not work) just by examining it.

Chapman was competitive in everything he undertook, intensely so when it mattered and playfully, and only slightly less intensely, when it did not. There was a well reported incident in 1968 at the French GP, where Lotus first appeared with a high mounted wing, supported on struts fixed to the rear suspension. Jackie Oliver had a big accident in his Lotus T49, crashing on the straight into some large stone gate pillars. The car was broken into two pieces, and Jackie lost consciousness for a short time. When he came to, and once he had reassured himself that was not entering Heaven through the Pearly Gates, all he was able to tell Chapman was that the car had suddenly gone out of control. TV film of the aftermath shows Chapman, not sure about the cause of the accident but suspecting that the bellhousing, between the Cosworth DFV and the gearbox, may have broken, walking up and down the Pitlane to warn his competitors, who were using the fully stressed DFV for the first time that year, that they ought to stop running and check their bell-housings. If he was in technical trouble, he reckoned that he might as well pass on some of it to his competitors, and try and slow them down. It turned out that Oliver had suffered what was probably the first incident caused by loss of aerodynamic downforce due to being in the wake of a preceding car.

Even on trips to the Farnborough Airshow, a biennial event where the aerospace industry exhibits it's wares and a Mecca for the motorsport industry to obtain first hand knowledge of the latest aerospace technologies, Chapman's competitiveness could not be suppressed. On arrival he used to head straight for the large exhibition halls, with 2 or 3 Team Lotus designers in his wake. With instructions to meet back in two hours and whoever had the most brochures was the winner, he would set off round the stands. Inevitably he won, arriving back at the meeting point carrying a large rubbish sack full of catalogues, which were distributed to any designer who had not visited a particular stand, so that relevant process/component/technology could be followed up.

Traffic jams frustrated Chapman to distraction. His usual style of driving was very fast and very skilled, seldom pausing as he swept past cars ahead. Occasionally he was forced to brake heavily at the last minute, due to an on-coming vehicle, but he considered this a sign of having misjudged the situation. Stationary traffic was to him a sign that he was going the wrong way. If so many people were stuck, going in one direction, then it must be the wrong direction. A quick U-turn and instructions to his passenger to plot a new route, and we were off again, at full throttle in the opposite direction. He was usually right, arriving at his destination well ahead of the less determined. This approach to driving mirrored his attitude to everything he undertook, especially Formula 1. He loved change and nothing stimulated him more than a whole fresh way of doing something. Once a technical pattern had become established, and he found that he could not beat his competitors as they caught up and became expert in that technology, Chapman set out to find a new direction. Once he had worked out what it was - for example, the monocoque - it was flat out all the way to building a car and racing it. All through the design and build process he would constantly find better ways of executing his new ideas, frustrating designers and workshop staff alike with a continuous stream of changes. As the deadline for completion of the new car crept closer, and every time a part or assembly was completed Chapman would inspect it, and be able to actually see and hold it for the first time, he would immediately realise how it could be made lighter/smaller/stronger/better. Calling for paper and pencil and the poor designer responsible for the part, he would sketch out changes (or sometimes a whole new design) in his immaculate style, for he was a skilled and neat draughtsman. When it finally became clear that if this went on any longer the car would not be built in time, he would disappear to do something else altogether in some other part of the Lotus empire, unable to watch a car being built that was not as perfect as he could visualise it. He suffered the permanent frustration of the perfectionist.

This approach to designing a racing car was feasible 20-30 years ago, when one or two designers drew the car and a mere handful of craftsman-fabricators and machinists constructed it, the whole process taking a few months at the most. To be told, as he would be now, that certain design features had to be frozen, up to 6 months ahead of the launch of a new car, in order that the complex, critical path schedule worked seamlessly, would have caused Chapman immense annoyance. The organisation and structure necessary to co-ordinate the 100-200 person design, engineering, manufacturing and racing departments of today's top teams, would not have been to his liking at all. When he died, Lotus Cars' engineering side was already operating in this way, essential for the sophisticated road car projects that it carried out, and there were signs that he found it both alien and frustrating. When the original Elan and Europa were created, Chapman was able to work closely with a designer to turn his vision into metal and fibre-glass, with the minimum of compromises and interference.

As much as he loved new ideas and change, he detested regulations. The mass of Type Approval regulations that came into force during the 70's and 80's, controlling every aspect of the design of road cars and enforcing safety and emissions legislation, took the fun and excitement out of designing road cars for Chapman. Indeed he believed that it took the spirit out of the type of cars he created, the Esprit being the last true Chapman Lotus. The resistance he encountered in trying to introduce and race the twin-chassis T88 were the writing on the wall for him concerning freedom of design in Formula 1. Suddenly there seemed to be an opinion that it was no longer acceptable for one team to develop an "unfair advantage", as Lotus had done with ground effect, particularly if it caused Ferrari to be uncompetitive. Chapman was in racing to beat the others by whatever means were at his disposal. He wanted to prove that he was technically smarter than them, and gaining an "unfair advantage" was an integral part of his strategy. It was the very essence of Chapman and Lotus. When he was not to be allowed to do this, constrained in almost every direction by performance limiting Technical Regulations, and had to compete on resources, funding, size and organisation, it was not his way and he began to lose interest in Formula 1. Team Lotus's subsequent performance reflects this.

Instead he turned his interest onto his other passion - flying. Ever since learning to fly, he had a vision of designing and making an aeroplane for the individual, a sort of Lotus of the sky. Of course aeroplanes are even more regulated than cars will ever be, and this he discovered when he initially toyed with the concept of a personal jet (rather in the same mould as the Bede jet) back in the 70's. Now he discovered an unregulated niche of aviation (or to be more precise, self-regulated), where he would have the freedom to develop his ideas - ultralights. An emerging hobby-sport, the devices in existence were not much more than fabric winged hang gliders with a small 2-stroke engine and propeller. He envisaged something much more sophisticated: small, cheap, unrestricted, 2-seat aeroplanes which people would use for business and leisure.

In typical fashion, Chapman approached this new project with no half measures. He toured the world in search of the experts in light aeroplane design, and the best components and technology. It did not take him long to discover that everyone else in the ultralight business was doing it "wrong", and that no engine or airframe was small, light, efficient or elegant enough to meet his exacting requirements. He also discovered Burt Rutan, the innovative designer of a range of canard, home-build aircraft, who at that time was in the middle of designing the Voyager in which his brother, Dick Rutan, and Jeanna Yeager became the first people tp fly around the world non-stop and unrefuelled, taking nearly 10 days to complete the circumnavigation.

Chapman commissioned Rutan to design and build a prototype side-by-side 2-seater ultralight for him, that was to have a rigid, all enclosed fuselage and wings made out of GRP. At the same time, Lotus designed a range of 2 and 4 cylinder, 4-stroke engines to be as light as the existing 2-strokes, but quieter and more fuel efficient. The project was under way, and Chapman hoped to learn all there was to know about forward thinking light aircraft design from the master of the time - Burt Rutan. This was the project that was taking most of his interest and energy when he died. Today, 15 years later, many of his ideas have been brought to fruition by others. One wonders what sort of aeroplane he would be designing now.

In spite of the fact that his interests were directed elsewhere, Chapman still went Grand Prix racing, and would probably still be doing so today if he was alive. However, I doubt that he would be intimately involved in the design and engineering of the car as the critical technologies, other than CFRP structures, were not really his specialities, and the techniques of refining and optimising everything to the nth degree was not his style. He had the vision to realise that computers would dominate all areas of life, and that they were going to play a large part in Formula 1. However he did not understand how they worked, nor how to operate one and so he neither liked them nor really trusted them.

Once in the late 1970's when ground effect was in it's infancy, I went to see Chapman armed with sheets of computed data and plotted graphs, in order to show and hopefully impress him with the latest wind tunnel test results. He looked at them briefly and said: "Good, why don't you go and show them to the man with the chequered flag?"

However active suspension intrigued him, as it potentially offered an "unfair advantage" to replace the banned twin-chassis concept. He did not like being beaten and was loath to give up, and was keen to have another go at the next step in getting the most out of ground effect. When I went to him to propose the project, which was really pretty far-fetched and technically risky, I went well prepared with arguments and backup information, expecting a long battle to gain approval to build an Active Lotus Esprit as a test car. He listened for 10 minutes, asked a couple of questions and how much it would cost. I told him a low figure, which he certainly knew bore no possible relation to what the true cost would be, and said: "OK, do it". He did not want all the backup figures that getting such a project off the ground would entail today, instead he was prepared to use his technical judgement to back a hunch. 5 months later we had the Active Esprit up and running in the workshop, and ready to demonstrate to Chapman. The console was equipped with a series of sliding controls, rather like a graphic equaliser (these were the days before digital control electronics - the car was fitted with an analogue computer), with which the passenger could adjust the settings of the suspension while the driver tested the car. Showing Chapman how it was possible to change the ride height, something went wrong and the car leapt into the air, all four wheels leaving the ground according to those watching. Chapman looked on sceptically and soon departed with the comment: "The only difference between men and boys, is the cost of their toys."

A few months later, Elio de Angelis drove him round Snetterton in the car, so impressing him that he immediately gave the go-ahead to build a Formula 1 version. Unfortunately he never saw it run, nor was he able to put his support behind it, which would have enabled Team Lotus to continue developing Active Suspension and so capitalise on the enormous technical lead they had in 1983.

The years Chapman had enjoyed the most were those during which he had formed a close personal relationship with his driver. In the early days, his drivers had been the same generation as him and often were in equivalent stages in their careers as he was. In particular, Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill lived the same sort of lives, enjoying flying themselves about the Grand Prix circuits, as Chapman did. Clark and Chapman often shared hotel rooms and were happy to spend time together away from the track. Probably the last driver to have this kind of relationship with Chapman was Mario Andretti. By the time Andretti won the Championship for Lotus in 1978, both he and Chapman were at the heights of their careers, enjoying lavish but busy lifestyles. The new breed of drivers that emerged in the 80's were a different generation. They were new to top class motor racing, and had few other cares in the world. Chapman, by then, had many other businesses and some of them gave him a great deal to worry about. His relationships with these young drivers, Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis for example, were more like that of father and son. In their early days in the lower racing classes, they had dreamt of driving for Lotus and working for Colin Chapman. They were somewhat in awe of him, preventing a closeness that Chapman had enjoyed with his drivers in his early days in Formula 1. The pressures of sponsorship and the rising profile of Grand Prix racing were taking the fun out of it and turning it into one of the biggest businesses in sport. While Chapman enjoyed the ever increasing rewards of participation in Formula 1, the new seriousness undoubtably inhibited his style, his innovative flair and especially his highly developed sense of fun. There was never a dull moment when he was around and he was the most exciting person to work for. I certainly miss him and I believe Formula 1 does too.