Chapman’s turbine racer. Simon Taylor is the only journalist to have driven Lotus’ radical F1 jet car. ‘Maurice Philippe consulted his Sliderule and read off my speed: 164mph’ The only turbine Formula One car had a short racing life, but Team Lotus let Simon Taylor drive it at Silverstone. Photography LAT.
Imagine a futuristic turbine car turning up on a Formula One starting grid today. It wouldn’t be allowed, of course: for a long time, the F1 regulations have forbidden any power unit except a reciprocating piston engine. But 50 years ago the rule-makers encouraged different approaches, and the dream persisted of an effective racing car using gas-turbine propulsion. For three years there was a Rover-BRM turbine at Le Mans, and later the American Howmet ran in international sports-car races. Then in 1967 Andy Granatelli, punchy boss of the STP oil additive firm, entered a turbine car in the Indianapolis 500, and Parnelli Jones nearly won.
For 1968 Granatelli got Colin Chapman to design him a new Indy car, the Lotus 56, and four were built. One was written off in Mike Spence’s fatal practice accident, and three started the race. Joe Leonard and Graham Hill qualified first and second, and Leonard was leading when his fuel-pump drive broke just before the end. After that showing the Indy rules were hurriedly changed, and the cars became redundant.
But Chapman, ever keen to explore new avenues, reckoned they could work in Grand Prix racing. So, probably using parts from the Spence wreck, a fifth car was built to the F1 equivalency rules and, called the 56B, was fielded in 1971. With a rather bigger dose of effective horsepower than other F1 cars of the day, plus four-wheel drive, no gearbox, severe throttle lag and no engine braking, it required a completely different driving technique. It was raced seven times, in the hands of Team Lotus drivers Emerson Fittipaldi, Reine Wisell and Dave Walker, and John Miles did much of the early testing. Only one other man ever drove that revolutionary car: and you’ll be surprised to learn that he was me. Read on, and you’ll find out why.
There was much media excitement when it leaked out over the winter of 1970/’71 that an almost silent single-seater shaped like a wedge of cheese had been seen testing on the private Lotus track at Hethel. What follows cannot be historically proven, but it’s what I picked up at the time, and some 40 years later when I asked Lotus team manager Peter Warr if it was true, he just gave me an enigmatic grin.
It seems that the debut of the much-heralded Lotus 56B – the daily papers were already calling it the Jet Car – was planned for the Silverstone International Trophy in May, and Chapman negotiated a hefty start money deal with the BRDC. But when John Webb, boss of Grovewood Circuits, heard about it he immediately offered Chapman a higher fee to get the car first for his two non-championship F1 events, the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in March and the Oulton Park Gold Cup in April. The BRDC was very upset so the mercurial Chapman, rather than seeing his Silverstone start money reduced, promised that he’d get a major feature about the car on network television to preview the Silverstone race.
He then said to Peter Warr: “Get David Coleman [the presenter of BBC’s Grandstand] up to Silverstone with a camera crew, and we’ll put him in the car. You can disconnect the throttle – it’ll do 85mph on idle – so he can’t hurt himself.”
But the BBC, unsurprisingly, said neither they nor their insurers had any interest in putting Coleman in a racing car, even if the throttle was disconnected. Unabashed, Chapman told Warr to: “Find some bloody journalist to do it.”
Which is why, late one evening, I had a call from Warr: “Be at Silverstone first thing tomorrow, with overalls and helmet, and we’ll put you in the turbine car. You can trundle around the track on tickover, and your snapper can take some pictures. And you’ll have to give us a front cover and a four-page feature in next week’s issue.” I was editing Autosport then, plus I was a not very successful club racer, and I’d talked my way into track-testing quite a few racing cars for the magazine. So Warr thought I could probably be trusted up to 85mph, and I could interview the car’s designer, Maurice Philippe.
When I walked into the Silverstone pitlane next morning the 56B was waiting for me, having been warmed up by Team Lotus works driver Dave Walker. It really did look different. The Pratt & Whitney STN6 engine was mounted almost in the middle of the car, topped by a big exhaust nacelle pointing skywards immediately behind the driver’s head. Normally used in helicopters, the STN6 had to be much modified to fit. It also required massive fuel tankage, and bags holding 62 gallons of aviation kerosene were built into the sides of the cockpit.
No clutch or gearbox, of course: instead, at the front of the engine there was a giant sprocket and chain arrangement, spinning at unmentionable revs right behind the driver’s back. This took the drive to an epicyclic reduction box on the left of the car, which split the drive between the front and rear wheels via shafts running fore and aft. Because of the proximity of this whizzing mass, an air duct was fitted under the seat to try to keep the driver’s nether regions from melting. Suspension followed contemporary F1 practice, but huge ventilated brake discs were mounted clear of the wheels for maximum cooling, because this car was going to take a lot of stopping. Apart from the lack of engine braking, it was heavy, carrying some 200kg more than its conventional stablemate, the Lotus 72.
It was while I was pondering this red, white and gold beast that Peter Warr’s tall figure strode up to me. “Look here, chap,” he instructed. “This will be a busy day’s testing for us. [Walker was evaluating some even bigger discs after the brakes had proved inadequate in the car’s first two outings at Brands and Oulton.] It’ll take too long to alter the throttle so it only runs at idle. You’ll just have to drive the thing as it is. Talk to Maurice, he’ll tell you what to do.” Gulp.
Although the car looked hefty from the outside I found the cockpit very tight, wedged between those mighty fuel tanks and pushed forward by the engine and power take-off casing, so my feet were ahead of the front axle line and I felt as if I could almost touch the front wheels.
Getting my legs down into the depths, pointing my feet like a ballet dancer, wasn’t easy. I had to thread them under the steering rack, which passed over my shins, and then beneath the front driveshaft which ran over my ankles, with the front differential squeezing my left calf.
Holding the wheel, which was quite large by racing car standards, I was confronted with a mass of dials, dominated by two marked in percentages up to 100. The right-hand one showed the speed of the gas generator section of the engine and was rather like a rev-counter, 100 per cent being maximum power. The left-hand one measured the rotation speed of the power turbine, and was thus directly relevant to road speed. The other dials showed inter-turbine pressure, pressure and temperature of the shafts’ lubricating oil, fuel pressure and engine torque.
Once the car’s chief mechanic, Dougie Bridge, had strapped me in, Maurice took me through the starting procedure. This was different, too. Left foot firmly on brake pedal. Fuel booster pump switch, on. Igniter switches 1 and 2, on. Starter generator switch, on. Now the turbine begins to turn. When right-hand dial reads 15 per cent, advance fuel control rod one notch. Whoosh! The engine has fired up.
Watch inter-stage air temperature gauge: 800ºC is normal, but if the needle approaches 1000 degrees, hit the Kill Switch on the right-hand steering wheel spoke and then start the whole process again.
Progressively the hiss and whine of the engine is rising in pitch, and I’m hard on the brake pedal to stop the car driving itself off down the pit lane. When the right-hand dial reads 70 per cent, push the fuel rod fully home, switch off igniter switch 1 but leave on igniter switch 2. Starter generator switch off, main generator switch on. Reduce left-foot pressure on the brakes ever so slightly – and we’re moving.
Philippe advised me to ignore the right-hand pedal for the first lap and cruise around until I’d got the feel of things. The mirrors, mounted on long stalks to give a scant rear view past the big wing, were crucial because this was an open F1 test: Ronnie Peterson (March), Graham Hill (Brabham) and Howden Ganley (BRM) were sharing the track with me, at full race speeds.
Gradually I became braver. The acceleration felt as strong or stronger than the conventional F1 cars I’d driven, but with no gearchange blips the speed just kept rushing at you, climbing higher and higher. What was really unsettling was to approach a corner and, on lifting the right foot, continue at apparently unabated speed, with no engine braking and no down-change to help slow the car. Then when you pushed the right-hand pedal to accelerate out of the corner there was a small pause while the car gathered itself, and then launched itself at the horizon.
Dave Walker told me that the quickest way was to lift off and brake, and then plant your right foot while you’re still braking so that the turbine is coming out of its throttle lag just when you need the power on your exit line. This, for me, wasn’t as easy at it sounds, and I never really got my head round having both feet hard down as the corner came up, braking and accelerating at the same time. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like in the cut and thrust of a race, trying to snatch a place under braking. And, because of the slow throttle pick-up, if you did make a mistake there would be no quick engine response to help you out of trouble.
But the four-wheel drive and huge tyres meant that the car felt very stable. The steering was heavy, requiring real effort, and small inputs seemed to make little difference, but the general feeling was of strong understeer, which could not be balanced out on the throttle as in a normal car because of the lag. Nobody seemed to know what would happen if you went over the limit, although Emerson Fittipaldi had managed to spin the car at Brands Hatch. Philippe’s advice was: “If you get into trouble, lift both feet off. Don’t hit the brakes or it’ll tie itself in knots.”
The other overriding impression was the lack of noise. The hissing from the exhaust was blown away behind the car, leaving only the whine of the turbine shafts spinning at up to 40,000rpm behind my shoulder blades. In the comparative silence I could hear the tyres thumping and chirping on the tarmac, the body panels creaking against each other, the wind buffeting around the cockpit. That turbine speed – around 650 revs a second – helped to explain why the oil lubricating the bearings could reach 1000ºC.
Maybe because of the silence, and the fact that Peterson and Hill were nonchalantly outbraking me all round the circuit, I didn’t get much impression of absolute speed. Maurice had told me that when the right-hand dial was up to 100 per cent the left-hand dial, relating to the speed of the power turbine, in effect showed road speed. Towards the end of my stint I glanced at it before my (very conservative) braking point at the end of the Hangar Straight: it read 92 per cent. Back in the paddock Maurice consulted his slide rule (that’s what engineers used in those days) and read off my speed: 164mph.
I was on the track for a generous 25 minutes before Peter Warr hung out a signal bidding me in. Next time round I peeled off and hissed into the pits, left foot hard down to slow and stop the car. With a mixture of regret and relief, I switched off fuel boost, igniter and generator, unclicked the harness and prised myself out. Dougie checked the dials, the Team Lotus mechanics changed all the wheels, Dave Walker slid himself in, and the day’s testing went on.
History regards the Lotus 56B as a failure. Emerson Fittpaldi called it the worst car he ever raced, and said it frightened him. Probably its best performance was in the Dutch Grand Prix, when the car’s four-wheel drive was an advantage in streaming wet conditions. The turbine’s thirst meant that for a full-length Grand Prix the tankage had to be increased to 75 gallons, but despite all that weight Walker, starting 22nd on the grid, passed 12 cars in the first five laps and was lapping quicker than the leaders. Then, going for another place, he locked up and skated off into the Zandvoort sand. Warr was furious: if he’d maintained that progress for the remaining 64 laps it would have been a podium, or better.
The long straights of the Monza circuit were expected to favour the turbine, but in the high ambient temperature of the Italian Grand Prix it was down on power and Fittipaldi finished a lapped eighth. Its final outing was in the F5000 Preis der Nationen at Hockenheim, where it was allowed to run in a class of its own. Fittipaldi was fastest in wet practice; in the dry race he finished second and set fastest lap. After that the Lotus 56B was seen no more. Happily it is preserved today at Hethel by Clive Chapman and his superb Classic Team Lotus organisation.
The great race car designers such as Gordon Murray and Adrian Newey have always been a courageous lot, never afraid to try going off in a different direction. Colin Chapman was maybe bravest of all, with a constant flow of ideas, most of which worked. Some did not, but that never stopped him trying. I’m very grateful that he decided to build the only gas turbine Formula One car there’ll ever be, because it gave me 25 of the most memorable minutes I have ever spent behind a steering wheel.
‘IF YOU GET IN TROUBLE, LIFT BOTH FEET OFF. DON’T BRAKE OR IT’LL TIE ITSELF IN KNOTS’
Heat from the turbine’s outlet shimmers over the car as Taylor drives down the Silverstone pitlane. Below: Fittipaldi shows off the 56B’s wedge profile.
Above: a lateral chain harnesses the turbine’s power via a reduction box on left of driver to all four wheels. Left: Fittipaldi in the car’s debut at Brands Hatch Race of Champions.
‘WHAT WAS UNSETTLING WAS TO LIFT OFF FOR A CORNER AND CONTINUE AT UNABATED SPEED’
Maurice Philippe, the designer of the 56B, on the left, and mechanic Dougie Bridge go through the complex cockpit drill with apprehensive Taylor.
Clockwise, from below: a somewhat overwhelmed Taylor accelerates out of Woodcote; Reine Wisell understeers in the British Grand Prix; in the tight cockpit, the driver is squeezed forward with his feet nearest the accident.