Flying Closer to the Ground – The Advent of Aerodynamics

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Jennie Mowbray


“The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

~Muhammad Ali~

It was Christmas Eve, 1968, and James Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders were beavering away at their allotted tasks in the close confines of their Apollo 8 spacecraft. Three days before they had been blasted into space, the miniature nuclear bomb of the Saturn V rocket propelling them onwards and upwards towards the moon. Their first assignment was to persuade the Apollo 8 to exchange earth orbit for lunar orbit. William Anders graphically described it “like driving your hot rod to try to beat the train to the railroad crossing. It’s going through, God knows, how many thousands of miles an hour around the Earth, and we scoot right in front of it and slow down and go into orbit, a pretty dynamic manoeuvre.” The astronauts were now busy with the routine duties of the mission, systematically photographing the surface of the moon and visually evaluating possible sites earmarked for a future moon landing…looking for craters and volcanoes that could cause havoc for a fragile lunar rover attempting to settle on the yet unknown surface.  The capsule was initially circling the moon backwards, the lunar surface beneath them zipping by as if viewed through a glass-bottomed boat.  During the fourth orbit, while in the process of rotating the spacecraft into a forward-facing position, Anders happened to glance out of a nearby window. There in front of him, far beyond the curve of the barren brown vista of the moon’s surface, rose a tiny, blue, gibbous earth – adorned with swirls of white clouds like icing on a cake.

It was also during 1968 that wings were first fastened precariously onto Formula One cars. The Apollo 8 mission took men further into space than they had ever been before. The function of wings was to achieve the exact opposite. They kept tyres planted more firmly to the ground than they had ever been before. The use of softer rubber and broader tyres had ably demonstrated to car designers that good road adhesion was just as necessary as a powerful engine for generating fast lap times. This desire to further increase tyre adhesion led to a revolution in racing car design…the introduction of inverted wings to produce negative lift or down-force…which, in turn, enhanced corner speed. The increase in down-force also allowed the tyres to transmit a higher thrust force without wheel spin, resulting in the further benefit of improved acceleration. When Graham Hill arrived at Monaco in May 1968, a modest front wing and a very subtle rear spoiler secured to his Lotus 49B, it would herald the advent of aerodynamics in Formula One.


Michael May’s Porsche 550 Spyder with Wing

Wings first appeared attached to a race car at a race track when 22-year-old Michael May arrived at the 1956 Nurburgring 1000, astonishing his fellow competitors with his outlandish be-winged Porsche 550 Spyder. Unfortunately for May, Porsche racing boss Huschke von Hanstein was also impressed…maybe too impressed. He got it banned before the close of practice…purportedly under safety grounds. Practice on day two had been wet, showing to full effect the car’s improved road holding ability, and unfortunately for May, it had been faster than all the factory Porsches. It is probable that von Hanstein’s action was more due to his resentment of being beaten by a callow youth, bending the rules with some new-fangled contraption hovering over his car than any sincere concern for the safety of participants and spectators. May then decided to study engineering…though he also kept racing, winning the inaugural Formula Junior championship in 1959. He eventually ended up at Ferrari in 1962 as a consultant on fuel injection – but would have much more to offer them than just improving the flow of combustible liquid to their engine.


Chaparral II with front and rear spoilers

Jim Hall managed to actually race his winged car, albeit his fledgeling excursion into the domain of aerodynamics was far subtler than May’s had been. Influenced by the aerospace industry, the body of the Chaparral II consisted of a plastic reinforced fibreglass chassis moulded into a smooth, sleek design…making it look more like a plane than a car. When it was first run with its elegant fibreglass body in place, it was unexpectedly slower than the tub they had initially been testing. Despite the fact that logic dictated that an aerodynamic covering should have made it significantly faster, its front end lifting at high speed was slowing it down. Hall put what he referred to as a “snowplough” on the front – two curved front wings looping around on each side. This cured its propensity to take off like the plane it was inspired by, but as a throw on effect, the car now had terrible understeer. Hall then thought if he could get rid of 300 pounds of lift on the front, why couldn’t he get something to push down on the back. On went the ducktail and down went the lap times…by an amazing three seconds. The Chaparral II would win 22 of the 39 races that it entered. Hall later said, “I was young enough that I was willing to go ahead and do what I thought was best. It’s only when you get older, and you make a few mistakes that you become afraid to take those sort of chances.” Over the next few years, experimentation and evolution continued unabated, eventually culminating in the dramatically high wing, mounted on pivots, of the 1965 Chaparral 2E. Despite Hall’s success, none of the designers in Formula One seemed to take much notice…

Chaparral 2E

Chaparral 2E with high rear wing

Even without its wings the Lotus 49 was a revolutionary car, winning its first outing at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort with Jim Clark at the wheel.  It was the third Grand Prix of the season, and the Lotus 49’s now legendary Ford Cosworth DVF engine had been fitted only a few days before.  Jim Clark had not even laid eyes on the car, and Graham Hill had spent just a few brief hours gaining some degree of familiarity with his new steed.  Hill put it on pole but retired from the lead on lap eleven with a broken tooth in the timing gear. Clark was back in fourth, but after Hill retired he persistently worked his way up the field, overtaking Jack Brabham for the lead on the sixteenth lap. Clark went on to win the race by 23 seconds with Brabham in second. The car had finished higher than anyone had dreamed possible and Lotus and Ford were ecstatic.  Not since Fangio had won in a Mercedes in 1954 had a Formula One car performed so well on its first outing.

First Race for the Lotus 49 and Ford-Cosworth DFV

By the end of the season, Clark had four wins to his name, but the better reliability of the Repco powered Brabham gave New Zealander Denny Hulme, despite only two wins, the World Championship title. Hulme was only a handful of points ahead of his triple champion team owner, Jack Brabham.

The 1968 season started well for Lotus with Jim Clarke winning the first race of the season at Kyalami. He had taken the lead on the second lap and was never bettered, teammate Graham Hill finishing second 25 seconds behind. It was Clark’s third consecutive GP win. Tragically, it would also be his last, the paddock devastated by the heartbreaking news of Jim Clark’s death while driving a Lotus in a Formula 2 event at Hockenheimring. With Colin Chapman not even showing up for the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, it was now up to Graham Hill to try to pull his grieving team together. It had been over two years since Hill’s last victory, and he could only manage sixth in qualifying. However, the field was close, less than a second separating the top seven drivers.  Lotus had the added mental pressure of having to argue with the authorities in Spain about the legality of their new livery. Gone was their longtime British racing green, their car now looking like a moving cigarette package, emblazed with the eye-catching Gold Leaf sponsorship. They eventually had to use tape to obscure the objectionable tobacco logos from view.

One by one the cars in front of Hill were forced to retire because of mechanical failures or accidents.  Eventually, Hill ended up in the lead after Chris Amon’s fuel pump failed. Although pursued by Denny Hulme, Hill was aided by Hulme losing second gear, culminating in Hill taking the win, with Hulme 16 seconds behind. Graham Hill told reporters, “We badly needed this win just now.  It’s been a long time coming, and it could not have happened at a better time.  I reckon I completed 1350 gear changes during the race today. It was real hard work.”

It was at the next race in Monaco that the Lotus 49 appeared with the first hint of aerodynamic appendages.  Despite the team still coming to terms with the death of Jim Clark they unveiled their new Lotus 49B and the press were immediately impressed. It had unsloping, wedge-shaped bodywork covering its Cosworth engine and a small front wing.

In November 1967, Jim Clark had raced an American Indy Car called a Vollstedt at Riverside, California.  The Vollstedt had understated extensions on either side of the radiator inlet which inclined upwards to the front suspension, and a sloping covering protecting the engine. Hugely impressed with its grip and stability, Clark later said that the Vollstedt “had driven faster than was thought capable by a mortal man.” Subsequently, during the lead up to the 1968 Teretonga-Tasman race in New Zealand, Clark persuaded his mechanics to build him a rear wing from a helicopter rotor. There appear to be no photos of this, as it wasn’t used in practice, qualifying or the race, but the pieces were starting to come together for an innovative way to get more speed in Formula One. An eagle-eyed Ferrari engineer also took note of what Lotus was up to, and the result of the new ideas he brought back to the Ferrari factory would later be seen at the Belgium GP.


Vollstedt 67-B which was raced by Jimmy Clark in America in 1967

Lorenzo Bandini had been killed the year before at Monaco, and Ferrari didn’t attend the 1968 race amid reports that the team was not happy with the safety standards at the circuit.  There was also a lot of political unrest in France at the time, and threats of a power cut meant the organisers borrowed generators to ensure they would not suffer the ignominy of the tunnel being plunged into darkness during the race. Graham Hill was on pole, 0.6 seconds ahead of the next fastest car. Johnny Sevox-Gavin was the first off the start, but Hill took the lead early after Servoz-Gavin suffered a driveshaft failure on lap three and crashed his Matra.  Hill then held on to the lead until the end.  Richard Atwood in his BRM gave Hill a fight for the win, setting a lap record on the last lap on the race and finishing only 2.2 seconds in arrears. They were the only two drivers on the lead lap, and just five drivers finished the race due to multiple accidents and mechanical failures.


Lotus 49B being admired closely in Monaco

The 1968 Belgium GP saw the return of the Ferraris. They had put their time off to good effect as Chris Amon’s V12 was now sporting a rear aerofoil. This was more than just a curved covering over the engine. Instead, it was a slim expanse of scarlet that appeared to levitate above the rear wheels, the mass of engine exhaust pipes looking like an octopus seething beneath it. The first Ferrari to have the benefit of aero experimentation was Vittorio Jano’s 1961 246 SP Dino sports-car which was given a ducktail spoiler. Michael May arrived at Ferrari in 1962 as a consultant on Bosch direct fuel injection. He mentioned the function and success of the wing on his Porsche Spyder which he had tried to race with at the Nurburgring to Mauro Forghieri.  With the information gained from talking to May and the intelligence gained about the Lotus wing experiment in New Zealand, Forghieri got to work on their own interpretation of what might give some useful down-force to help them compete with Lotus.

Amon’s pace during the first practice on Friday morning clearly showed the effectiveness of the Ferrari’s high-flying addition.  At Spa, the high speeds meant that any extra rear down-force could add significantly to the stability of a car, without upsetting its overall balance. It was evident that the Ferrari had a spectacular advantage and Bruce McLaren had his mechanics fabricate a small spoiler in time for the Friday afternoon practice session, but with rain the following day, he was unable to further develop this into a high-flying wing like the Ferrari. Both Brabham’s also had fixed wings over the gearbox, but expensive and time-consuming engine issues sidelined them meaning they were unable to adequately assess the effectiveness of their new appendage. Due to heavy rain on Saturday, Friday practice times were used to determine the grid positions for the race…Chris Amon on pole with a lap time nearly four seconds faster than the next fastest car of Jackie Stewart. However, many drivers had had their running curtailed due to mechanical issues, and this was far from an accurate representation of actual race pace.

Spa Amon Wing

Jackie Stwart between two Ferraris

Amon fought a high-speed battle with John Surtees for seven laps before Amon was unfortunately forced to retire after stone punctured his radiator.  Four laps later, Surtees was out when his suspension collapsed.  Stewart was then in front with a commanding advantage, but on the second to last lap had to stop for more fuel because of a miscalculation of his fuel consumption. This put Bruce McLaren unknowingly in the lead as he was unaware that Stewart had had to pit.  It was McLaren’s first win, and Stewart came in fourth despite his late pit-stop. Bruce McLaren thought he had only finished second until he pulled up on the exit of the La Source hairpin to save himself the strain of another 14km cool-down lap. Rival BRM team chief mechanic Cyril Atkins ran up to him shrieking, “You crossed the line number one.” Bruce was momentarily confused as his McLaren car was carrying race number five. Then he got the point as Atkins continued to bawl; You’ve won! Didn’t you know?

McLaren Spa 1968

Bruce Mclaren at Spa

Six weeks later when the cars arrived at Brands Hatch for the seventh race of the season, the majority now sported both rear and front wings.  Race footage from the day shows the numerous varieties in the heights and sizes of the aerofoil on the stern.  The only two teams that were missing out on the fun were BRM and Cooper, misguidedly believing that their system of ducting air through the nose to hold it down would be sufficient.  Lotus and Honda attached their struts directly to the suspension uprights, Colin Chapman bragging that he was able to get 400 pounds of down-thrust onto the rear wheels.  Everyone else attached them to the chassis somewhere, compressing the springs with the resultant of the shock absorbers deleteriously affected. Always one step ahead of the competition, Chapman raised his wing by a further foot, now swaying a towering five feet high, so that it would be unimpeded by the turbulence being produced by the other cars.  Beltoise had a self-adjustable spoiler on the Matra, but he didn’t think it helped very much.

This was the Rob Walker Racing Team’s first year using the Lotus. Jo Siffert had crashed his Lotus 49 earlier in the year while practising for the non-championship Race of Champions, at Brands Hatch in March. He had been driving the late Jim Clark’s car, the same chassis Clark had used for his win in South Africa.  Not long afterwards the vehicle was destroyed by a fire at Walker’s racing workshop where it was being repaired. Siffert was now the proud owner of a Lotus 49B, complete with the latest in wings, but the car was not yet completed, and despite three mechanics working all night it wasn’t ready when the first practice session started. Siffert managed to get a few laps in with ten minutes to go, setting the eleventh fastest time. The car must have been fast out of the box because Siffert qualified it in fourth, just behind Graham Hill, and Jackie Oliver in the works Lotus team, and Chris Amon in his Ferrari.

Brands Hatch 1968

Jo Siffert (Lotus) leading Chris Amon (Ferrari) at Brands Hatch

Hill led the race until engine failure on lap 26 forced him to retire.  Jackie Oliver was forced retire on lap 43, leaving a closely fought duel between Chris Amon’s Ferrari and Jo Siffert’s Lotus. The Swiss driver held off Amon to win the race by four seconds as well as breaking the previous lap record.  It was the first victory for a car with elevated aerofoils.  Colin Chapman was there to offer his hearty congratulations to Siffert at the end of the race.

At the Belgium Grand Prix, Denis Jenkinson wrote, “Whether any of these devices had any real effect is debatable for the results depended entirely on the psychological effect on the drivers. Like contented cows, contented drivers drive well, and a driver convinced of the improved stability of his car would take the fast corners just that bit faster.” That theory didn’t last long.  The logic behind wings was to generate down-force. Just what configuration would work best was all presumption and supposition. The engineers merely made it up as they went along. They tried them big and small. They tried them high and low.  As they increased in size on the back, they then also had to get more prominent on the front to even out the myriad of forces acting on the car. The ultimate effect on the car was all guesswork, a far cry from the supercomputers and wind tunnels of today. It might have all made sense at the time…or may it may all have just been arbitrary and accidental.

Graham Hill went on to win the title in 1968, and the Lotus 49 continued winning races until 1970. It would be inaccurate to say that it was due to its wings that Lotus won the 1968 championship.  It won because of the superiority of its Ford-Cosworth engine that Chapman had the foresight to make a stressed member of the chassis. It was also being piloted by a World Champion driver. Be that as it may, the Lotus 49B marks the divide between the pre-aerodynamic era of the sport and Formula One’s modern age.

2 responses to “Flying Closer to the Ground – The Advent of Aerodynamics

  1. brilliant read. got to see those ’67, ’68, ’69, and ’70’s races at Mosport, Mt Tremblant and the Glen…

    • Thanks 🙂 I got to see Lotus 49 racing at the Historic Formula One race at Zandvoort in September in honour of the 50th anniversary of its first race there…not quite the same because it was the only car in the field with no wings…though all of them were running with Ford-Cosworth engines. It was lovely to see it going down the straight at full speed rather than just sitting still in a display! Would love to go back in time 50 years and see it really race 🙂

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