Journal: Lotus' F1 Cars Were So Fragile That Drivers Feared For Their Safety

Lotus’ F1 Cars Were So Fragile That Drivers Feared For Their Safety

By Michael Banovsky
December 8, 2015

Racing is dangerous. That will never change, and though the tracks, cars, and proceedings become safer each year, unforeseeable danger tends to rear its ugly head from time to time. These days, strange circumstances have taken the lives of a few drivers, but back in the ’60s and ’70s, the cars themselves were often more than suspect.

Formula 1 has long been a cooperation between the talented engineers and mechanics who build a car and the driver who risks everything in order to pilot the car along the line in first. Austrian-German racing driver Jochen Rindt was one of the best, a calm, quick, strategic driver who excelled in long-distance racing—even winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans behind the wheel of a Ferrari 250 LM.

Once he joined Lotus’ Formula 1 team, Colin Chapman gave Rindt the cars to win. And he did, until a number of factors led to his death. See, Champman’s cars were constantly evolving, and in the early days of aerodynamics, experimentation often led to crashes. In Rindt’s case, the crashes weren’t often his fault, but that of parts failures—including the one that initiated his deadly crash in Monza in 1970.

The ever-amazing Letters of Note posted a letter from Rindt to Chapman sent a year earlier, just after Rindt had a heavy crash following rear wing failure at the treacherous Montjuic, Barcelona Circuit.

“I have been racing F1 for 5 years and I have made one mistake (I rammed Chris Amon in Clermont Ferrand) and I had one accident in Zandvoort due to gear selektion (sic) failure, otherwise I managed to stay out of trouble,” Rindt wrote. “This situation changed rapidly since I joined your team, Levin, Eifelrace F2 wishbones, and now Barcelona.”

He continued: “I can only drive a car in which I have some confidence, and I feel the point of no confidence is quite near.” Rindt’s fatal crash, investigators found, was caused a failure of his cars’ right front brake shaft. The improperly-installed crash barriers were found to have been the cause of death, though Rindt’s habit of leaving the anti-submarine belt undone on his 5-point harness saw him slide under the belts and suffer his fatal throat injury.

Later in 1970, Rindt became the only posthumous World Champion.

H/T to Letters of Note

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3 years ago

Who knows how many championships Stewart would have won if Rindt was alive post 1970. Regardless of the cause to finish first you have to finish and somehow in those days that most obvious point was missed and a champion was lost driving a car that was never going to finish. That is the point Jochen was highlighting.

Sifu Alex
Sifu Alex(@sifu-alex)
4 years ago

I don’t know if we can throw all of this on Colin Chapman’s head, the article does state the improperly installed barrier and the anti-submarine belt being left undone. It was the times, it took Jackie Stewart to go on an almost singlehanded crusade to increased safety measures and they really weren’t done until after Senna’s death.

4 years ago

Lotus was generally the fastest cars and often the most fragile. Drivers wanted to race the fastest cars so most didn’t complain. Rindt was probably the first and may have been the only driver to refuse to drive a car he was paid to drive. Jackie Stewart pretty much started the safety revolution in the mid to late sixties but for many years, it was a hard slog for him to make a lot of progress. Most drivers took the danger in stride.

I would say that it Mario Andretti was the first to make Chapman upgrade (initiate?) the structural testing of his cars.

luis enciso
luis enciso(@luis-enciso)
5 years ago

Don’t Forget the mexican driver Ricardo Rodriguez , he die also in an accident due to issues with their Lotus F1 car back in 1962

6 years ago

in this context it is worth mentioning that rindt’s main reason for leaving the anti-submarining belt open was the fear of not being able to make a sufficiently quick escape from a burning wreck after an accident – another prove for his lack of trust in colin chapman’s fragile constructions.

4 years ago
Reply to  austrianguy

It was not uncommon for drivers not to use seat belts at that time. Stewart had to lecture drivers to use them but many drivers felt they had a better chance of getting out of a burning car if they didn’t wear them. Gurney’s Eagle had a magnesium tub and was very aware that if he had a flat, the tub might scrape the track and catch on fire that could not be extinguished. He chose not to wear belts too.

christian mortinger
christian mortinger(@cmort)
6 years ago

Jochen was first and foremost the king of F2, beating Brabham, Hill, Clark, Stewart, etc. on a regular basis. Long distance was not his focus, but in addition to Le Mans 1965 (last overall victory for Ferrari), he also won the 4 hours of Sebring 1966 – the first TransAm race – in an Alfa GTA.