Colin Chapman’s simple and chilling definition of a Formula One race carS

To see the most interesting document at the Frankfurt Motor Show, one had to get a particular stool at Lotus then not sit down on it. Beneath a layer of glass was a page from Colin Chapman’s notebook from the summer of 1975 which contains many of his iconic quotes about Formula One cars. Some are simple, some are cavalier, and some, in light of the fate of some of his team’s best drivers, are frighteningly callous.

The document, dated July 17, 1975, is titled “Future Spec for F1 Car”. It is included in Karl Ludvigsen’s book Colin Chapman: Inside the Innovator and is from the interim year between the dominant Lotus 72 and the ground effect Lotuses which followed Chapman’s document.

1. A racing car has only ONE objective: to WIN motor races. If it does not do this it is nothing but a waste of time, money, and effort.

This may sound obvious but remember it does not matter how clever it is, or how inexpensive, or how easy to maintain, or even how safe, if it does not consistantly win it is NOTHING!

“Or even how safe.” In a document written seven years after the death of Formule One world champion Jim Clark, who died in a Lotus F2 car which failed him.

Chapman continues:

2. Having established this what do we have to do to make it win:

(i) Simply stated it must firstly be capable of lapping a racing circuit quicker than any other car, with the least possible skill from the driver, and doing it long enough to finish the race.

(ii) After this, and only after this, and with absolutely no compromising of objective (2)(i) one has to consider how expensive it is, how simple, how safe, & how easy to maintain, etc. NONE of these aspects must detract one iota from (2)(i). “Good enough” is just NOT good enough to win and keep winning.

Six years before he wrote this, Chapman received a letter from his driver Jochen Rindt after a wing failure caused Rindt’s Lotus 49 to crash heavily in Barcelona:

Honestly your cars are so quick that we would still be competitive with a few extra pounds used to make the weakest parts stronger […] I can only drive a car in which I have some confidence, and I feel the point of no confidence is quite near.

Colin Chapman’s simple and chilling definition of a Formula One race carS

Rindt remained with the team in what turned out to be a Faustian bargain. The car he got from Chapman for the 1970 season had nothing about simplicity, ease of maintenance or safety to detract one iota from objective (2)(i). It gave Rindt the world championship—and it took away his life.

Chapman’s design document would result in the Lotus 79 two years later, which gave the team its last world championship in the hands of Mario Andretti.

As for how historic Formula One documents end up in Frankfurt, it was the exhibition area of the Group Lotus side of the maddening Malaysian mess which has replaced Lotus’s legacy these days, the company which makes the road cars and which is involved with the Luxembourg investors who picked up the Renault F1 team and now run it as Lotus Renault GP. The whole mess is laid out as clearly as humanly possible on Formula One writer Joe Saward’s blog.