In 1967 Colin Chapman of Lotus had watched the innovative gas turbine powered STP-Paxton Turbocar almost win at the Indianapolis 500. Chapman was ever the innovator himself, constantly seeking out new and unusual ways to make his cars even faster. Realizing turbine powered cars were more powerful and faster than regular piston engined cars, he sought out STP CEO Andy Granatelli to strike a deal.
Chapman wanted to buy the exotic drivetrain used by Granatelli’s car and build a chassis of his own design around it. He and Granatelli managed to work out a transaction, and work started on the Lotus 56 Indycar. The Lotus was a very different design to the STP-machine.
It used a mid-engine layout and a central seating position as opposed to the Turbocar’s side-by-side arrangement, which placed the Pratt & Whitney ST6 turbine next to the driver on the left side.
Another great departure was the car’s aerodynamic long, low and sleek wedge shape, which provided substantially more downforce than the round cigar-bodied Turbocar. The only similarities still in place were the 600 horsepower gas turbine and the four wheel drive direct drive transmission, as the turbine engine had no need for a conventional gearbox.
As his Indycar campaign was taking shape, Colin Chapman had an epiphany. Instead of building a separate car for both Indycar and Formula 1, he could just design the 56 to compete in both. In 1970 he set out modifying the oval-focused 56 into a competitive road course machine after securing a gas turbine which would comply with F1-regulations.
Meanwhile the aerodynamics lessons learned from the Indycar version were being implemented on Lotus’ new conventional Formula 1 car, the 1970 72, which added wings to the wedge shape. The 72 promptly won the World Championship, which lead to the implementation of similar wings on the 56B.
The Pratt & Whitney gas turbine as fitted to the 56B. The big vent on the right is the exhaust or "chimney".
Getting the 56B ready to compete in F1 was no small feat. In addition to the obvious suspension adjustments, the car would need to run very large fuel tanks. Refuelling had not made its introduction into Formula 1 yet, and the thirsty turbine needed a boatload of fuel to complete a full Grand Prix distance. This meant the sidepods had to be bulged out considerably to store a total of 280 liters of kerosene. As a result the car was severely overweight compared to its piston-powered competitors.
Another issue was the re-education of its drivers. Because a gas turbine engine does not rely on compression in the way a piston engine does, it completely lacks engine braking. This meant the drivers would be surprised to find the car barreling along at the same speed whenever they released the throttle. As a compromise larger brakes were fitted. The drivers had to employ left foot braking to minimize the effects of the lack of engine braking. The absence of a clutch pedal provided them all the room in the world to do so.
Future World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi (BRA) got the honor to drive the car in its first ever race outing at the non-championship Race Of Champions held at Brands Hatch. The practice session for the event was run in very wet conditions, which squarely gave the advantage to the four wheel drive 56B.
During that session no other car could hope to match its pace, promising an easy victory for the extraordinary machine. Unfortunately the track dried out for the race proper, which resulted in the car dropping back to midfield before broken rear suspension took it out of the event.
The 56B’s second non-championship outing proved to be even shorter when a similar suspension failure sidelined Fittipaldi after just three full laps. Despite these early setbacks, Colin Chapman soldiered on with the ambitious project, and moved the car into its first World Championship event.
This event was the fourth round of the 1971 calendar, at the beautiful swooping circuit in the Dutch dunes, Zandvoort. There the 56B got a new handler in the form of rookie Dave Walker (AUS). In inexperienced hands and on a very dry track, the car managed no more than 22nd on the 24 car grid.
Luckily for Dave and indeed Lotus, the horrible Dutch weather turned to their favor. The race was marred with torrential rain, which heavily slowed down the rest of the field. Taking advantage of his car’s four wheel drive system, Walker shot from 22nd up to 10th after just 5 laps.
Colin Chapman eagerly followed Walker’s progress as he lapped faster and faster than the lead cars of Jacky Ickx (BEL) and Pedro Rodriguez (MEX). His hopes were crushed when Walker let his inexperience get the better of him. The young Australian spun off the track into the thick gravel and had to retire.
After Swede Rene Wisell failed to qualify the car for the British Grand Prix, Emerson Fittipaldi was brought back into the car for its second World Championship round at the fastest track on the 1971 schedule, Monza, Italy. The car was now painted in a stunning black and gold livery. These colors which would come to mean much more to Lotus in the future.
Monza’s defining chicanes had not yet been introduced on the famous track, which meant speeds were off the scales at over 155 mph (249 kph). Because of its Indycar origins the Lotus 56B looked to be in a good position. The lack of technical sections meant the overweight car could finally try to utilize its significant power advantage. To make the most of its power the front and rear wings were removed to decrease drag.
The modifications did little to improve the 56B’s pace. Fittipaldi was stuck in 18th on the 23 car grid. However as the race progressed the car burned through its kerosene, quickly getting lighter and lighter. Helped by a massive amount of retirements, the car steadily climbed up the order.
By race end Fittipaldi was 8th out of 10 finishers, 1 lap down on winner Peter Gethin (GB) and his BRM. The Italian Grand Prix would be the 56B’s second and final World Championship outing. After another lackluster performance, Colin Chapman had had enough. Instead focusing his efforts on evolving the hugely successful V8-powered 72 design.
The Lotus 56B was one of the strangest anomalies in Formula 1 history. It was a combination of a helicopter engine and a direct drive transmission designed to dominate the brickyard at Indianapolis, but through a mad suggestion wound up between Europe’s finest road course racers. As with most designs meant for America, unfortunately it was overweight and a bit thirsty, which meant it never stood a chance against the featherweight piston powered cars in dry conditions. It was in the wet that its four wheel drive system truly made it shine, but a lack of reliability of both technical and human components meant it never took its promised win.