• Interview: Clive Chapman

Guardian of the past

Claire Furnell January 27, 2010

This season the Lotus name returns to the Formula One grid, and with that name comes decades of racing history. We meet Clive Chapman, who looks after the historical cars of the marque and keeps them on track. He has almost as much racing pedigree as the vehicles he cares for - he is the son of Lotus founder Colin Chapman.

What does Classic Team Lotus do?
We set up the company in the early 1990s to look after a lot of the original Team Lotus cars. We work with many of the original team mechanics alongside some younger mechanics that have joined us to learn the ropes. Restoration and race preparation is a big part of our business. We have a big transporter and take the cars round all the big historic events in Europe where they still race flat-out.

Clive Chapman with his father and Mario Andretti in 1978 © Sutton Images
How many cars do you have in your care?
We have a dozen customer cars that we prepare and run in races at the moment. Our customers are enthusiasts from around the world and they like to take their cars to events like Goodwood and Classic Le Mans that is held every two years. Most of the races take place in Europe but there are also a lot of meetings in America and Australia. We are very popular in Japan and we have some owners who fly in five or six times a year to race their classic vehicles.

Are all of the cars that you look after raced?
No, we also restore cars too - we are currently restoring Jim Clark's 1965 Indianapolis-winning car which only did that race. At the end Jimmy switched it off, and since then it has lived in the Henry Ford museum, so it's a real privilege to be looking after that. We are also restoring his 1967 Zandvort car, which was the first car to win with the Cosworth DFV engine.

Sometimes when I lock the door of the workshop at night and go home I think 'god I hope it's all here when I come back in the morning'. It really is a wonderful collection of machines that have been entrusted to us. As well as our customers' cars, we also have a collection of about 24 cars ourselves. These keep us busy if we ever have a quiet day.

Are there any plans to open a museum of classic Lotus vehicles?
This is something we are working on with Lotus Cars, as I think it's something we really need. I hope it will happen in the near future.

What do you remember from going to races with your father?
I went to a lot of races from the late 1970s onwards - that was the era of ground effects. I remember the drivers like Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson and then later with Elio de Angelis and Ayrton Senna. They were exciting times for me as a young boy. I had a lot of great adventures with dad in that period, so it's particularly nice for me to work with these cars and really nice to work with the mechanics that he worked with.

How do you feel about the Lotus name returning to the grid this year?
I am extremely interested to see how they get on; they have set themselves an incredible challenge. Mike Gascoyne seems to be the kind of guy that gets the job done and he has an excellent CV, so I have no doubts that they will be on the grid. Like everyone involved with Lotus, we will of course be cheering them on.

What do you think your father would think of the team?
Not really sure about dad, but my mother has said if they start winning she'll support them. We met Tony Fernandes [Lotus F1's team principal] at Goodwood when he was our guest; I was really impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm for the history. He has a great respect for my father's achievements. I can't really ask for any more than that.

If you had to pick one car as your favourite, which one would it be?
The Lotus Type 72 was a great car. It came out in 1970 when I was eight. Everyone I knew had the Dinky toy model which was great. I also really like the Lotus Type 79 which was Mario Andretti's championship-winning car in 1978.

The Lotus 79 which dominated the 1978 season © Sutton Images

What was so special for you about the Lotus Type 79
It completely dominated F1 in 1978; we were about two seconds quicker per lap than the opposition. The drivers had to slow down in qualifying so it didn't look as embarrassing . Mario and Ronnie [Peterson] had a fantastic relationship as team-mates, which just doesn't exist with drivers these days. We won so many races that season and, of course, the world championship … and it looked wonderful too. Its nickname was Black Beauty and it has topped many polls as the most beautiful F1 car ever.

Why was it so successful?
It was the first car that really exploited ground effect successfully. The Type 78 (the previous year's car) was the first attempt, but this was much more sophisticated. The under-floor aerodynamics used the flow of air under the car to create downforce.

Why was it known as the Type 79 when it ran in 1978?
We actually did that to confuse people. The Type 79 did run in 1979 as well - the sponsor had changed then so it ran in green. Back then we didn't have a totally new car every year. Lotus type numbers were sequential from the Mk1 in 1948 and around 1978 type numbers and years crossed. Now we are ahead again the new car is the Type 124.

Do you ever drive the cars yourself?
The only car I have driven is the Type 79 - I drove it on the test track at Hethel when we were recording sound for a video game. I had to do six standing starts and I didn't stall it once - I was really disappointed that none of the mechanics said anything about it. However, I recently saw the testing and practice log that we keep each time a car is run. Eddie Dennis, who was Mario's chief mechanic and who now works for us, had just written at the bottom 'driver shows some promise'.

I did race a Caterham for three years but my thing was always boats. Dad steered me away from the cars and towards them and I was junior national champion in power boats. I would love to drive some of these cars one day, but we tend to invite our customers to drive them when they are entered in events like Goodwood.