There were a lot of places where people were loving the summer of 1967, but the cockpit of an F1 car with a brand new 3-liter engine was not one of them. The engine formula had just been changed in 1966 to allow 3 liters of displacement, up from 1.5 liters in previous years. 1967 was the first year the teams had time to produce new engines to fully exploit the additional power. And that power was considerable—in just about a single year the drivers (and car designers) had to cope with a doubling of the power, from 200 to 400 horsepower. This created some problems.
The tires of the day were still treaded street tires, essentially—the era of gooey, wide, racing slicks was a few years in the future. At the time, aerodynamics was simply about reducing drag as much as possible in order to increase top speed. Take one look at a 1967 era F1 car and you’ll see it isn’t much more than a tiny aircraft fuselage, without the wings. (Where do they put the fuel, I wonder? – hint: the part of the car where the driver sits is called “the tub.”) Aerodynamic downforce was not a widely understood concept just yet. So grip levels were quite inadequate for all that new-found power. And it’s not just cornering grip that was inadequate. Braking distances were absurdly long, by today’s standards. With very little aerodynamic drag to help slow the car, rock hard tires (by today’s standards), and prodigious top speeds, drivers needed to start braking yesterday, in order to turn into a corner tomorrow.
Pressing on the accelerator pedal was also a very exciting event. An equation illustrates: very light car + very little grip + rear wheel drive + 400 horsepower = instant spin. A couple of thoughts on spinning from legendary Skip Barber Racing School senior instructor Bruce MacInnes pretty much sum up the excitement involved: “a spin is a crash with no noise at the end,” and its corollary, “if you spin, you deserve to die.” So you can see why a 1967 F1 driver would need to apply throttle as carefully as one might defuse a bomb. And the Lotus 49, powered by the groundbreaking Ford-Cosworth DFV, was the pinnacle of F1 design at the time, the most powerful bomb on the grid.
It therefore comes as no surprise that drivers of the time, while perhaps not complaining per se, were, shall we say, eagerly looking for some way to improve their lot. It is not a coincidence that 1967 was the year F1 designers were starting to consider four-wheel drive systems, and that two great innovations were just around the corner: wide slick tires, and wings. But in the summer of 1967, those ideas were of no help, if you were in the cockpit. Your survival would depend on your doing three things: (1) braking early, (2) turning slowly, and (3) applying the gas gently.
Fast forward to 2013, and you can now drive the Lotus 49 yourself using the iRacing simulator! Why on earth would we even try to make this possible? Frankly, we don’t know.* Some of you will (justifiably?) see this simply as 46 years of engineering progress thrown out the window, nothing more than thinly veiled insanity. Others will see it as a chance to travel back in time, step into the shoes of legendary drivers from a dangerous past, and take on a monumental challenge. It may not be for everyone, but it can be extremely fun, instructive, and very rewarding—IF you always, always: (1) brake early, (2) turn slowly, and (3) apply the gas gently. Let’s talk a bit more about these techniques.
Braking early. The Lotus 49 can accelerate almost as quickly as a modern race car. It is very light, has very little aero drag, and a 400 horsepower engine. The car is most similar to the Skip Barber car, but it weighs about 250 pounds less, has more than three times the power, and less aero drag. It will attain a very high speed very quickly. This is sometimes difficult to perceive in the simulator, since you don’t feel the G’s, and you will come out of corners at Skip Barber car speeds, which will always seem slow compared to the speeds you can achieve on the straights. The usual impression is that you are absolutely crawling through the corners, but if you take a look at your corner speeds in a replay you will see they are actually a bit faster than the Skip Barber car in any given corner. It seems slow because of the vast speeds you are able to achieve in between the corners. Here’s where braking comes in. In a modern car, a lot of the engine’s power is used to push the car down onto the track aerodynamically—and to do that, there also needs to be a fair amount of aerodynamic drag. In a modern, high downforce car, you can slow down a lot (in some cars, by more than one G at high speeds) just by lifting off the gas. If you lift off in the Lotus 49 you will just continue to sail along in comparison, with only a little less rear tire grip to show for it due to engine braking. You need to apply the brakes if you want to slow down. And you will want to slow down if there is a corner ahead. There are very few flat-out sweepers in the Lotus 49. Without the aerodynamic drag and downforce, it will take your brakes a long time to slow you enough for the next corner.
And that brings us to turning slowly. You won’t really be turning slowly, but it will seem that way until you become accustomed to it. The difference between corner speeds and straightaway speeds takes some getting used to. If you wait too late to brake, it will seem like you have overslowed the corner, but the car just won’t turn. Why won’t it turn?? Why is there no grip??? Because there is no grip. And you braked too late. If you brake early enough, it will seem like you are just about to park the car—then it will turn in nicely. Go back and look at some replays after seemingly parking the car on corner entry, and you will see that you are still traveling at a very respectable clip. Often you will have to brake well before there is any darkening of the groove. Or before you can even see the corner. Even a flat-out, slight kink or bend in a straightaway for a modern race car can become a braking zone plus a turn at times.
The last crucial technique that you will need to master in order to complete a lap in the Lotus 49 is to apply the throttle gently. Once you have re-learned how to brake and enter a corner, you will need to develop a trait that most of us simracers (and many real racers) do not naturally possess: patience. Here’s why: if you do anything more than crack open the throttle a little bit while in a corner, you will accelerate rapidly beyond the maximum speed at which your car will stick to the road. You will visit the weeds or the nearest barrier faster than you can say, “Wha…??!” This is not due to something wrong with the tires, or the simulation. Thanks to ongoing advances in aerodynamics – and rules limiting engine power in order to contain speeds – there simply aren’t any modern race cars that are simultaneously light, powerful, and down-force free, like the Lotus 49. Put another way, any modern race car is either: heavy, not very powerful, or glued to the ground with downforce. So our modern brains are ill-equipped to understand why we can’t just get back on the power. Heavy cars accelerate slowly. Cars with little power accelerate slowly. In either case, you can mash the gas mid-corner — or even earlier — and still manage to exit the corner at only a slightly higher speed, requiring only a little extra grip (or a slight increase in turn radius). In a car with gobs of downforce, an interesting thing happens. As you increase your speed, you need more grip, of course. In fact, to corner at twice the speed, you need four times the grip. But downforce grows with speed too! As you double your speed, downforce increases four times. Now it doesn’t quite work out that your grip increases by a factor of four, since the downforce is only a percentage of the load on the tires, but you still generate a great deal of extra grip as you accelerate. So even though you are adding a lot of speed, you are adding grip as well, so applying a lot of power early in the corner also works. This happy state of affairs is non-existent in the Lotus 49 cockpit. If you add a little speed, you may be ok. But if you add a lot, hello weeds. And you will add a lot of speed if you use any more than about 25% throttle. So be careful, and squeeze the throttle gently. Once the car is going straight, you can squeeze to full power. And then long before you can even finish this sentence, BRAKE!!
An interesting related sidenote: we decided in order to improve the driveability of the Lotus, we would install a throttle cam to give more sensitivity with partial throttle inputs; so full power comes on more rapidly toward the end of pedal travel. This worked, and made the car a bit easier to handle. Well, it turns out that Jim Clark had exactly the same modification made to his Lotus 49’s throttle linkage in 1967. Just because the rear end is hanging out in some photo doesn’t mean the driver is at full throttle. Oversteer is available at 30% throttle or so. Be careful.
Those are the main points to keep in mind, but of course there are more gotchas. Almost all of them involve the lack of a downforce-provided safety net. Downforce masks a lot of things, and can make us lazy, despite the fact that we are traveling faster in today’s cars. One particularly important thing to remember is that any type of road camber (banking) change, or crown, can have a very pronounced effect. You may find yourself spinning off suddenly without any clue as to why—until you think about it and realize that maybe a slight crest or dip in the road caught you out. A slight crest can have you almost flying through the air if you go over it at 170 mph. When I say there is no grip in this situation, it’s not an exaggeration. Areas of racetracks formerly known as straightaways can become evil, tricky gauntlets to be negotiated using timely speed corrections and well-synchronized steering inputs, along with a carefully chosen line.
Once you have learned to restrain the natural impulse to overdrive the car (we all do it), you will find the Lotus 49 is quite a fun and challenging car. But it is a very different experience than any other car in the simulator. Smoothness is greatly rewarded, a momentary lapse of concentration is not. This makes it a terrific training tool for a race car driver. So should you give this car a try? I guess I see it this way: if you are the type to scoff at idiotic ideas from the unenlightened past, and are eagerly looking forward to a luxurious chauffeured ride in a Google self-driving car, then you will want to stay far, far away from the Lotus 49. If, on the other hand, you understand the appeal of hunting a lion with nothing but a wooden spear in your hand, then you will appreciate this car like no other.