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

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Lotus 72
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