Simanaitis Says

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THE 1961 LOTUS F1 car lacks the Wagnerian force of the Grand Prix Silver Arrows of the late 1930s. Its Philip Glass-like minimalism contrasts with Formula One’s recent hypercomplexity. Sixty years ago, the Lotus was exemplary of this highest form of international motorsport, as displayed in F1’s 1961–1965 1.5-liter normally aspirated era.

In R&T, September 1961, David Phipps reported on the Lotus 21, a refinement of Colin Chapman’s first mid-engine Formula One car, the Lotus 18. Here are tidbits showing a marked contrast with modern F1 machinery. 

A Space-Frame Chassis. “As last year,” Phipps wrote, “the design is based on a space-frame chassis having four main bulkheads and complete triangulation of all bays except the one occupied by the driver’s body.” 

The top rear bulkhead and Y member are removable for engine changes. The forward bulkhead also serves as the instrument panel. This and the following images from R&T, September 1961.

By contrast, chassis of today’s F1 cars are monocoques fabricated of carbon fiber and other ultralight materials. 

A Dual-Use Chassis. “It was particularly difficult to find room for water and oil pipes, and as a result the longitudinal chassis members are used for this purpose, the top right and bottom left tubes linking the engine and oil radiator…, with the other two carrying water.”

Phipps made no mention as to whether these hot liquid transfers had any effect on the driver in close proximity.

Multiple Fuel Tanks. “Another problem,” Phipps noted, “was to find adequate space for fuel without increasing the over-all width of the car. This has been achieved by fitting one tank behind and on either side of the seat, with hollows scooped out of it to clear the chassis tubes, and two small tanks—similarly tailor-made—along side the driver’s calves; the main tank stops short on the right-hand side to leave room for the gearshift.” 

What’s a gearshift, Grandpa?

The Lotus cockpit, with its oddly patterned gearshift on the right and the battery under the driver’s legs just forward of the bulkhead.

Gearbox Unorthodoxy—and Innes’s Unorthodox Tunnel Exit. Phipps wrote, “The new gearbox is of conventional design, with 5 forward speeds and reverse. The layout of the shift gate is rather unusual, however, with first away from the driver and 5th toward him, and this was responsible for Innes Ireland’s practice crash at Monaco, when he selected 2nd gear instead of 4th.” 

This horrific shunt occurred upon exiting the tunnel of the Monte Carlo circuit in 1961. Years later, Innes told me it was the only time he left the tunnel ahead of his car.

All this is in marked contrast to today’s driver safety equipment, including titanium Halo structures surrounding the cockpit, Kevlar fuel tanks, and Hans devices for neck protection.

Other Lotus 21 Refinements. Relative simplicity is evident in the Lotus 21, especially contrasted with today’s supercharged hybrid power and aerodynamic wizardry. Phipps noted, “The car was first tested with the rear brakes mounted inboard, but high gearbox temperatures led to their being moved outboard—increasing the efficiency of both transmission and brakes at some expense in terms of unsprung weight.”

The Lotus 21’s front suspension had its damper-coil units mounted inboard; “the chief reason for this,” Phipps noted, “is to reduce aerodynamic disturbance.” 

Aerodynamic Refinement. “The smoothly profiled body is made of glass-reinforced plastic, with the rear ‘hood’ hinged and the whole front section quickly removable, A double windscreen is used, and the driving position is essentially tailored to suit individual drivers.”

Above, Innes Ireland’s Lotus 21 at Monaco 1961, just before his shunt exiting the tunnel. Below, Stirling Moss in Rob Walker’s earlier Lotus at the same venue.

The 1961–1965 Era. The Lotus 21 proved only moderately successful in 1961, with Ferrari’s shark-nose F156 dominating. Innes piloted a Lotus 21 to the works team’s first F1 victory, at the U.S. Grand Prix (which Ferrari chose to miss that year). Successors Lotus 25 and 33 did better, with World Constructors’ Championships in 1963 and 1965. The Lotus 29 introduced mid-engine cars to Indianapolis in 1963; the Lotus 38 was the first mid-engine car to win there, in 1965. 

Not bad results for such “minimalist” race cars. ds  

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

One comment on “FORMULA ONE—A 1961 STATE OF THE ART

  1. Michael Rubin
    August 11, 2021

    Just re-read an old article about the Porsche 917 which also used chassis members to pipe oil between the engine and oil cooler mounted in the nose. No comment there, either, about driver comfort, or lack thereof.

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