Great F1 cars of the last six decades: Lotus 72 (Autosport International)

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Lotus 72

The Lotus 72 is featured at this year’s Autosport International show as one of the great racing cars of the last six decades.

Although 40 years have passed since the 72 first appeared its designer faced much the same challenges the likes of Adrian Newey do today: like how to make the car work on heavy and light fuel loads

But it’s doubtful any of today’s cars will mimic the 72’s feat of winning two world championships in a six-year life span – and still notching up race wins as late as its fifth season.

Lotus is renowned for the innovative and iconic cars it raced in F1. But while Lotuses like the Cosworth-powered 49 and the ground effect-pioneering 78 made great technological leaps forward in one area, the 72 pioneered several new design concepts.

Problems on debut

The Maurice Phillippe-design focused a lot of attention on the positioning of weight: moving it rearwards to aid traction and moving it away from unsprung areas of the car to improve its handling.

This led to the repositioning of the radiator from the front of the car to two sidepods – an innovation which has now been commonplace for decades. The brakes were moved inboard to improve the car’s centre of gravity.

The suspension was designed to keep the car’s handling consistent throughout a full race distance which, like this year, did not include scheduled pit stops to refuel. The 72 featured torsion bar suspension instead of the widely-used coil springs and innovative anti-dive and anti-squat technology to prevent the car pitching forwards and backwards under braking and acceleration.

Tragic title

This proved problematic at first and the car struggled on its debut at Jarama in Spain in 1970. The anti-squat robbed it of grip under acceleration and the anti-dive did much the same under braking, so both were removed.

Two months later at Zandvoort Jochen Rindt gave the car its first victory from pole position, though the death of Piers Courage during the race made it a joyless maiden triumph.

The car’s handling now sorted, Rindt hit his stride and won the next three races in a row. Lotus continued to develop the car, introducing an airbox for the engine – another innovation – at the British Grand Prix. Those four wins in the 72 plus his earlier triumph in the 49C at Monaco gave Rindt an almost uncatchable lead in the drivers’ championship. But the season was about to take a tragic turn for the team.

Heading into the Parabolica during practice for the Italian Grand Prix, Rindt lost control of his 72C and crashed. He suffered appalling injuries and was killed. Lotus abandoned their preparations for the race.

Rindt had led the drivers’ championship by 20 points at the time of his death, and over the final three races of the year no-one was able to surpass his tally. Emerson Fittipaldi won the penultimate race of the year in a 72C at Watkins Glen.

Fittipaldi becomes champion

The young Fittipaldi, with just six F1 starts to his name, led the team into 1971 but was injured in a road accident early in the year and struggled to compete with the dominant Tyrrells.

The pendulum swung the other way in 1972 when Fittipaldi took the title from an often unwell Jackie Stewart. Fittipaldi won in Spain, Belgium, Britain, Austria and Italy, and added a trio of podiums to take the championship. It was also the year Lotus swapped its Gold Leaf sponsorship for the classic black and gold colours of John Player Special – a livery the team kept for most of the next 14 years.

The 72 was updated again early in 1973 to meet new technical regulations and also to accommodate a switch from Firestone tyres – which the car was designed for – to Goodyears. Instead of a journeyman in the second car Fittipaldi was joined by rapid Swede Ronnie Peterson.

Fittipaldi won three of the first four races. But a spate of retirements in the middle of the season thwarted his efforts to retain his title and prompted a move away from Lotus to McLaren for 1974.

Fifth-year win

Lotus intended to replace the 72 with the 76 for 1974 – but the new car proved unreliable and its radical four-pedal layout too difficult to drive. Peterson lobbied for a return to the 72 and his demands were justified when he won with the old car at Monaco. He repeated his wins at Dijon and Monza, again having to overcome Colin Chapman’s requests for the new car to be used.

Peterson finished the year fifth in the world championship – 20 points behind winner Fittipaldi. New team mate Jacky Ickx also steered the 72 to a win at a wet Brands Hatch in the non-championship Race of Champions.

By 1975 the 72 was very long in the tooth, but still good enough for the occasional podium finish. A glance at the rival machinery which had surpassed it on the track showed the extent of the car’s influence: the successful developments introduced on the 72 were commonplace up and down the pit lane.

Lotus-Cosworth 72

First race: 1970 Spanish Grand Prix
Last race: 1975 United States Grand Prix
Total races: 79
Wins: 20
Pole positions: 17
Fastest laps: 9

Lotus 72 pictures

Lotus have recently produced a road car which harks back to the 72 – read more about it here: Lotus builds black and gold Exige S Type 72

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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17 comments on “Great F1 cars of the last six decades: Lotus 72 (Autosport International)”

  1. the shot of the rear is awesome, bring back slicks like those!

  2. HounslowBusGarage
    16th January 2010, 16:33

    Nice article as always, Keith. A real pleasure to read.
    I was going to say that I couldn’t remember seeing a 72 in Gold Leaf livery, but here is one on the Wiki Commons site,_Lotus_72_(kl).JPG
    Note the size of the air scoop versus the massive anvil head of the later JPS version.

    1. Yeah once they realised you could get even more power by ramming air in, airboxes got very big very quickly!

    2. And if you like the JPS livery check this out posted by Dank on Twitter – Ayrton Senna in a JPS Sinclair C5:

      1. Ayrton Senna in a JPS Sinclair C5 is defiantly something I did not thought would have happened.

        1. HounslowBusGarage
          16th January 2010, 19:46

          I can’t imagine what he thought of it . . .
          Actually, when it was generally realised that C5s were about as much use as a fried snowball, I was offered one for £10. Like an idiot, I kept the tenner in my pocket. Wish I’d actually bought one, it would be fun to have one now.

  3. the most beautfiul f1 car of all time? probably…
    and it was driven by Emerson, which is even better!!!

    1. I’ve always thought of it as the most beautiful, particularly in the JPS livery. Tremendously clean and uncluttered. A huge pity Emerson didn’t continue in top teams, his record was nothing like as great as his ability.

  4. Ah, this brings back memories of when I first became an F1 fan.

    My first real exposure to F1 was attending the 1974 US GP at the Glen, when Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx were driving the 72D.

  5. Just beautiful the slightly wedge shape pushing it down and through the air and in the wet slipping like hell on the corners if the power was put down to early – no abs or power steering – traction control? – right foot – they were brilliant to watch – must have been buggers to drive at times though – nice pictures Keith

  6. Check out this lotus-inspired lawnmower!

  7. One of the most known cars in F1 history.

  8. A really nice shot of this car in action is the 1975 shot on this page. Observe the four wheel drift since Ronnie is counter steering.

  9. Quite apart from being such a fantastic car, the livery was just stunning and has never been bettered!

    We’ve built up masses of Scalextric over the years (I’m only 61 so there’s time for more yet) and the old JPS stands out a mile from everything.

  10. Beautiful car!

  11. I have just stumled upon browsergames forum , have You checked it yet? Bye!

  12. Je suis désolé mais je ne parle pas bien anglais , et l’écrire encore moins…mais j’adore LOTUS et la type 72 est ma préférée. Je suis pilote en France , et je voudrais reconstruire une type 72 , pouvez vous m’aider ??? can you help me ????

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