The Lotus that changed Formula 1

The Lotus that changed Formula 1 01

Among the many highlights of the Chinese Grand Prix, the 1000th race in Formula 1, was a car that itself made history – displayed in the F1 Pirelli Hot Laps garage on Friday.

We’re talking about the iconic Cosworth-powered Lotus 49, which made its debut in 1967 yet actually raced on until 1970. It won its first grand prix in the hands of Jim Clark, but the car that visited the Pirelli Hot Laps garage in China was actually Graham Hill’s 1968 title-winning example.

This was the last championship that Hill won, thanks to three victories that year (Spain, Monaco and Mexico) as well as two second places. It also made history for a different reason: in its distinctive Gold Leaf livery, the Lotus 49 was the first car that benefitted from a major corporate sponsor. Gold Leaf, owned by Imperial Tobacco, came on board for the Monaco Grand Prix 51 years ago and changed the face of how Formula 1 teams fund themselves ever since.

Also introduced on the Lotus 49 at Monaco were aerodynamic wings – which would equally go on to alter the whole look and engineering philosophy of the sport. In so many ways, the Lotus 49 was a pioneer.

Driving this landmark car for a special two-lap display in China was Damon Hill, Graham’s son, who became world champion himself in 1996 and is now a commentator for Sky TV. At the end of those two laps, Damon ended up in the hot laps garage for a special ceremony in which a commemorative poster was revealed to celebrate 1000 races.

The Lotus that changed Formula 1 02

Damon was only 15 when Graham died in an air crash, and only eight when Graham was racing the Gold Leaf Lotus. But as Damon writes in his autobiography – one of the most raw and honest books about racing ever published – Graham’s exploits had a profound effect on the man he is now.

The Gold Leaf Lotus 49 encapsulates that era perfectly. It’s a slender, delicate cigar tube with a fragile beauty that belies its brutal efficiency as a race car. In total it claimed 12 wins and four titles – including both championships in 1968.

Compared to today’s ground-breaking F1 cars, it’s not especially fast of course. But the skill and bravery needed to drive it on the limit – constantly feeling the edge of adhesion and knowing the dire consequences of exceeding it – are from a different world. It’s this noble tradition that we celebrate now at race number 1000. And we’re proud to welcome Damon and the iconic Lotus to our garage.

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