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The Colin Chapman F1 Legacy: Revolutionary not allowed

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Colin Chapman was a British engineering genius and founder of the renowned Lotus Team, he was also the man behind many of the most groundbreaking, most controversial features on F1 cars. To this day, he is considered to be one of the most successful and innovative team principals and engineers in the history of the sport.

He was also a fascinating character! Chapman was not only a prominent figure within the ranks of the racing. He was a successful businessman as well. He founded his own company, Lotus Engineering, in 1952. The company was selling engineering components and provided design and development services for other companies.

Besides designing sports cars, Chapman was an outstanding yacht designer too. So much so that a number of his boats became race winners at the America’s Cup. He also enjoyed facing danger himself, he was an avid pilot and often traveled to races and test sessions flying his own plane.


Despite the outstanding success Chapman’s wild features brought to his team, a number of his innovations on historical Formula 1 cars got banned due to growing safety concerns.

How did the British mastermind, with his wild features, push the boundaries of what was possible in Formula 1? And why did they ultimately prove to be too controversial for the governing body of the sport? Here are some of the legendary innovator’s most important and most eyebrow-raising inventions.

High-Mounted Wings


The “notorious” high-wing era of F1 spanned from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. This period is characterized by intense experiments with different aerodynamic designs. Teams were pushing the technical boundaries of their car in order to increase downforce and improve handling of the vehicle. This resulted in the development of high-mounted rear wings.

The infamous feature was first installed on the Lotus 49B in 1968. It massively increased the cornering speed of the car and generated significant downforce. The very first high-mounted rear wing was an immediate hit, and majorly contributed to Graham Hill’s World Championship Title.

In no time, other teams were following in the footsteps of Lotus. Brabham, Ferrari and McLaren immediately started developing their own high-wing designs. By the 1970 season a large, flat rear wing called “tea tray” wing was introduced by the Lotus team. This new take on the feature too, was quickly adopted by the other teams.

However, a series of accidents in 1970 and 1971 led to new regulations that majorly limited the placement and the size of wings. The most notable crash, which played an important role in the restrictions, was Jochen Rindt’s fatal accident at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix. The German (posthumous) Champion had a severe rear wing failure, which caused him to lose control of his Lotus and crash.

By the mid-1970s, the powerful but alarming high-mounted wings had been banned entirely.

The Ground Effect Car

Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus 79 effectively sealed the world championship with his sixth win of the season, beating his number two team mate Ronnie Peterson (SWE) Lotus 79 to second position. Dutch Grand Prix, Rd 13, Zandvoort, Holland, 27 August 1978. BEST IMAGE

Ground-effect cars were introduced in the late 1970s. The idea behind the revolutionary technology was to generate downforce without relying on wings. Cars used the airflow underneath them, almost as a vacuum, to create a low-pressure zone.

This allowed them to stick to the track, improving grip and generating more downforce. Since the cars were “sucked” to the track, they could take corners with great stability even at a really high speed. Moreover, the technology allowed drivers to brake later and accelerate harder.

The first ground effect car was first introduced by Chapman and Lotus in 1977. Soon the radical, new design spread to all corners of the paddock. By the early 1980s, every other team favored the new ground effect technology to its predecessors. Williams, Brabham and Lotus won multiple Championships due to their reliance on ground effects.

However, the technology was banned in 1983 due to safety concerns. The skirts started to be seen as a potential hazard, as they could dig into the track, causing the car to suddenly lose grip, and spin out of control. Despite the ban coming into effect in the 1984 season, some teams kept on using ground effect technology in a modified form. However, little by little the entire technology was left behind.

Active Suspension

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Active suspension was a system that used sensors and hydraulic actuators to adjust the ride height and stiffness of the car in real-time. This new technology helped the car maintain firm grip at all times, reducing its time spent bouncing. It also made the vehicle easier to drive and control, improving both smoothness and lap times.

Active suspension was first introduced to the sport by Lotus in 1987, and it became widespread by the early 1990s. With their active suspension system, Williams won both the F1 Drivers’ and the F1 Constructors’ Championships in 1992 and 1993. Williams’ massive success and competitive advantage made other teams turn to the technology too.

However, the FIA had raised concerns over the unfair advantage the system gave to certain teams, and fears over the dangers of active suspension. The governing body of Formula 1 feared that the technology could malfunction, making the car unstable and even undrivable. Therefore, the FIA decided to ban active suspension at the end of the 1993 season.

During the first few races of the next season, some teams still raced their active suspension car, claiming they needed more time to adapt to the new regulations. However, early into the 1994 season the FIA put an end to “the glorious run” of active suspension and phased it out entirely.

As we look back on the legacy of Colin Chapman, we can see that it has always been tempting to push the boundaries and experiment with new systems. However, the potential risk of new technologies must always be carefully weighed against the potential benefits.

By prioritizing safety above all else, we can ensure that Formula 1 continues to be thrilling, innovative yet safe. Today, despite the inherent risks encoded in the “DNA” of motorsport, Formula 1 is safer than ever due to its advanced safety systems and strict regulations. Also, let’s all hail the Halo!