Formula 1 cars straddle the blurred boundary between science and alchemy.
At their most basic, they are simply machines designed to do a job. Yet, the finest of their breed cast off their shackles as mere mechanical instruments. They develop their own character and add to the beauty of Grand Prix racing.
Such cars are rare. In this article, we pay tribute to the F1 cars that have made a name for their own. The cars that have transcended the boundary of just being machines and becoming a revered entity in the fraternity. Here, we look at the nominees for the best ever Formula 1 car.
THE GAME CHANGING CAR: LOTUS 49
When the new Lotus 49s first appeared in the Zandvoort paddock in June 1967, Formula 1 witnessed a revolution. With his monocoque Lotus 25, Colin Chapman had already rendered conventional F1 chassis design obsolete in 1962. Now he would reboot a concept first tried in the 1950s, to propel the sport further.
The holy grail in engineering is designing an entity to fulfil more than one function. Chapman had eliminated the inherent wastefulness of the steel spaceframe concept. He used the 25 as a load-bearing part of the chassis, with integrated fuel tanks mounted on each side of the driver in a folded steel structure
This was perfect for the 1.5-litre F1 era. It was a time when engines were underpowered and lightweight, and aerodynamic efficiency was the key competitive differentiator. After the three-litre formula began in 1966, the 49, designed by Chapman and Maurice Philippe, took this a step further. They used an engine specifically created to act as a structural element of the car.
The 1966 Lotus 43 might have achieved some success, if not for the BRM engine’s weight and unreliability. Jim Clark managed just one grand prix win – a fact that was not lost on Chapman. He needed a different, better engine. Chapman even won the Indy 500 using Ford power. He persuaded Ford’s Walter Hayes to underwrite the costs of developing a new aluminium V8. Cosworth would build and design the engine.
Graham Hill set pole position on the 49’s debut at Zandvoort, and team-mate Jim Clark won.
Rivals were soon lining up to obtain Ford-Cosworth power for themselves. Poor reliability cost Lotus the 1967 title. But Chapman’s genius left its mark. Since then, every championship has been won with an engine acting as a structural element of the car.