The most iconic race cars of all time
Karun Chandhok is a former Formula 1 driver and now an expert analyst and pundit for Sky Sports F1 and DriveTribe.
From Formula 1 to rallying, here's my take on the most influential and iconic racing cars of all time.
The Lotus 49 is probably the most revolutionary race car of all time. In its various guises, the car raced across four seasons in Formula 1, contributing to two World Championships for Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt in 1968 and 1970 respectively. These are the highlights, but they barely tell the full story.
Lotus boss and design genius Colin Chapman was coming off the back of a difficult 1966 and started the concept of the Lotus 49 from a clean slate. It was the first rear-engined car to use the engine as a stress member, as an integral part of the infrastructure, something that every race car in the world has done ever since. The Ford Cosworth DFV that started life in 1967 went on to become one of the most successful engines of all time.
The Lotus 49 was also the first car that had wings introduced to it for aerodynamic grip, once again something that seems so normal not only in today’s race cars but even high performance road cars. Beyond the technical side, the Lotus 49 was also the first car to feature commercial sponsorship, something which has become the backbone of the sport since then. A truly revolutionary and iconic car.
Think of the turbo era of F1 and you instantly think of the flame throwing Brabham BMW. The BT52 was a car that was drawn up and made in a hasty three-month period by design guru Gordon Murray and the team, after downforce-producing skirts were banned ahead of the 1983 season. Murray worked hard to remove the side pods and shift the weight rearward as much as possible to optimise traction.
This created a car that was extremely balanced and confidence-inspiring for the drivers. The BMW turbo engine was hugely powerful and by this stage had sorted the previous reliability issues. Murray had pioneered mid-race refuelling in 1982 and further optimised the 1983 car by building it around a much smaller fuel tank. He also introduced a tyre-warming tent to ensure that the tyres were up to temperature as soon as they went onto the car in the pitstop, something totally normal today.
Nelson Piquet was already World Champion in 1981 and started off the season in the best way possible with a win at home in Rio. He faced a tough challenge from Alain Prost and Rene Arnoux but a late run of victories, combined with some bad luck for Prost, rewarded him with the World Championship once again.
If you speak to anyone born in the 1980s and ask them what an F1 car looks like, the first thing that comes to mind will likely be the red and white Marlboro McLaren Honda. The low line McLaren MP4/4 is the most successful F1 car of all time in terms of a races-started to races-won ratio.
With the two best drivers of the generation in Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna behind the wheel, design genius from Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray and a potent combination of the V6 Honda turbo and Shell, the car was utterly dominant.
The biggest example was at the San Marino Grand Prix. The two McLarens qualified on the front row with Nelson Piquet’s Lotus in third place a massive 3.3 seconds away from pole position! If you consider that they had the same engine, it just tells you how good the chassis was. Winning 15 out of the 16 races was an unprecedented record for a team in F1 and over time has become the benchmark that all designers try to achieve for dominance.
The 1992 championship-winning Williams FW14B, which propelled Nigel Mansell to the title, was an incredibly technologically advanced racing car. Active suspension was a concept that had been used before but it wasn’t until the combined brilliance of Adrian Newey, Paddy Lowe and Patrick Head got together with Renault that the concept really maximised its potential in this gem of a car.
The FW14B needed a physically strong driver to extract the peak performance. Enter Nigel Mansell. The Englishman grabbed the car by the scruff of its neck and dominated the championship, at times qualifying two seconds faster than the whole field, including his team mate Riccardo Patrese.
Winning the opening five races set the tone for the rest of the year and in total Nigel won nine races that season. By the Hungarian Grand Prix in August, Mansell was already World Champion. A lot of people say that he only won that title because of the car, which I think does Nigel a huge disservice. He was an unbelievably fast, strong and brave driver who deserved that elusive World Championship after coming close in 1986, 1987 and 1991.
It’s impossible to have a list of iconic race cars without one from the most dominant era in Formula 1 history. Through the late 1990s, Ferrari was gathering steam. They came excruciatingly close to the drivers’ championship in 1997, 1998 and 1999 and finally broke a 21-year losing streak when Michael Schumacher clinched his third title in 2000.
The 2001 championship was a bit more straightforward but in 2002, the dream team of Rory Byrne, Ross Brawn and Paolo Martinelli came up with an absolute jewel. They went for a revolutionary titanium gearbox that transformed the rear end of the car, making it lighter and more compact in terms of packaging, which allowed for much better aerodynamic gains. Bridgestone designed bespoke tyres and worked intrinsically with Ferrari like nobody had ever done before.
There were some delays to the project, which meant that the team actually waited for the third race of the year in Brazil to introduce the F2002. Schumacher promptly won on the car’s debut and for the rest of the year, he was never off the podium. The F2002 carried through until the fourth race of 2003, winning a staggering 15 times out of 19 appearances.
In terms of a feel-good story in motorsport, not much will top the Melbourne Grand Prix of 2009. At the end of the previous season, Honda pulled the plug on its F1 team at short notice and all of a sudden there was a huge team of people, with a car designed but with no way of running it. A hugely stressful winter followed for Ross Brawn, Nick Fry and the rest of the former Honda management team, who had to find a way to keep the team alive.
Mercedes came to the rescue with an engine supply deal at the eleventh hour and the car just about made it to the final pre-season winter test session. To the absolute shock of everyone else in the pitlane, the Brawn BGP001 topped the times straight out of the box. With plenty of question marks about fast times being set purely for the headlines, the sceptics held off their approval till the team went on to lock out the front row of the grid at the opening race in Melbourne and drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello took a fairytale double podium.
Ross Brawn and his designers exploited a loophole in the rules that meant they had a very powerful double diffuser at the back of the car, and before everyone else caught up by the end of the year, the team and Button built up enough of a lead to become World Champions. Never before has a team achieved that on debut and it’s unlikely to ever happen again.
Porsche 956/962 twins
The Porsche 956 Le Mans car and its evolution, the 962, were perhaps the most iconic sportscars ever made. The 956 debuted in 1982 for the then-new Group C category of top-rung sports car racing. The car was designed to be big on power and low on drag and down the mighty Mulsanne straight the 956 often peaked at over 375kph (233mph).
The twin turbo engine was utterly brilliant, with both power and reliability making it very strong. To underline their dominance, Porsche filled the top eight places at Le Mans in 1983.
What was also special about that era of Porsche Group C cars was that the German giant decided to produce and sell a lot of cars to customer teams. Bearing in mind that the “production racing car” business wasn’t as evolved as it is today, it was mightily impressive that the customer teams were able to all compete on a level playing field with the factory supported cars.
The 962 was basically a safer and updated version of the iconic 956 so it seems only right to club them together. With six Le Mans victories in a row from 1982 until 1987, this was a truly dominant era of sportscar racing.
I often say to people that if you have to name the top five race teams in Motorsport history, Penske should be right up there. ‘Captain Roger’ Penske, the team owner, has steered a remarkable outfit for decades now but his best Indy 500 came in 1994 with the Nigel Bennet-designed PC23.
A key element of the car was the hugely expensive Ilmor 500I engine, which was commissioned by Penske and Mercedes-Benz as a one-off special for the Indy 500. Citing a loophole in the regulations for push rod engines, Mario Illien and his team produced one of the most controversial and iconic bespoke engines of all time, with over 1000hp.
Emerson Fitipaldi, Paul Tracy and Al Unser Jr were the men entrusted with this revolutionary car, and sure enough they obliterated the opposition. The team led 193 out of 200 laps between them, to take victory with Unser Jr after perhaps the most dominant showing by a single team in the history of the race.
It must be said though that the 11 other wins for the drivers, and the overall CART Indycar championship win for Unser Jr, showed that it wasn’t just the 500I engine and in fact the ‘standard package’ was very special as well.
Think of Le Mans in recent times and you struggle to think beyond the Joest Audi team. Between 2000 and 2014, Audi won an extraordinary thirteen out of fifteen Le Mans 24-hour races.
After the first five of those wins, Audi decided to set itself a new challenge and produce the first diesel engine car that could win Le Mans. Keeping the racing side connected with the road car operations was something that Audi does very well. Around this time, the company started to push its diesel range of cars in the market and needed a strong marketing message. The massive 5.5-litre V12 had a twin turbo in it and despite being heavier than the later generation engines, the car proved to be an instant success, winning at Sebring straight out of the box.
Emanuele Pirro, Marco Werner and Frank Biela won at Le Mans, cementing diesel’s return to the great race and in the following decade, Audi carried on developing more and more diesel engines for their sportscar programs. Leaving aside the VW diesel controversy, this icon perhaps inspired more cars we see on the public roads than anything else in motorsport.
Audi Quattro S1 E2 Group B
A decade before Colin McRae and Subaru formed an iconic partnership in the 1990s, the fearsome Audi Quattro Group B rally car leapt into the forefront of people’s minds as the ultimate balance between crazy and controlled sport.
The governing body of the World Rally Championship introduced the Group B regulations in 1982, giving designers and engineers a free reign to come up with a beast that would deliver unprecedented performance on gravel roads around the world. Audi came up with several iterations of their Quattro but the iconic one that stands out will be the final yellow and white S1E2 version, introduced in 1984.
Stig Blomquist took the title with Audi winning the constructors’ crown that year, but from there on the Peugeot 205 started to take over. Audi took the car to the mighty Pikes Peak Hillclimb at the end of the Group B rally era and added further success to the Quattro’s CV. Despite winning fewer rally championships than Peugeot or Lancia, looking back today, there’s no question that the Quattro was the most iconic car of that era.