Retro F1 - The Lotus 56B gas turbine car

Retro F1 - The Lotus 56B gas turbine car
By: René Fagnan
Dec 3, 2018, 1:47 PM

Back in the 1960s and the 70s, it seems like any innovative technical solution, crazy or not, was allowed to be implemented in motorsports, especially in Formula 1.

Lotus 56B 1971 detailed front view
Peter Warr, Lotus Team Manager, Reine Wisell and Emerson Fittipaldi
The Pratt & Whitney gas turbine engine in the back of the Lotus 56B
The Pratt & Whitney gas turbine engine in the back of the Lotus 56B
Dave Walker, Lotus 56B Pratt & Whitney
Emerson Fittipaldi, Lotus 56
Emerson Fittipaldi, Lotus 56B Pratt & Whitney
Emerson Fittipaldi and Colin Chapman

If the current technical Formula 1 rules are extremely restrictive, it was a totally different story some 50 years ago.

Here’s one interesting example as the famed Team Lotus built and raced an F1 car powered by a gas turbine.

The idea had its roots at the Indianapolis Brickyard, home of the Indianapolis 500. Since the race cars run at almost constant speed on that long, 2.5-mile oval, the plan of powering a car with a gas turbine struck Colin Chapman of Lotus.

Thanks to his partnership with STP, Chapman commissioned his designer Maurice Philippe to fit a gas turbine in an open-wheel racer that would become the Lotus 56

A combustion turbine compresses the ambient air, mixes it with the fuel and detonates it, causing a compressor to rotate and activate a primary shaft that turns the wheels.

The Lotus 56 was fitted with a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 gas turbine and a four-wheel drive transmission. Driven by Joe Leonard, the 56 almost won the 1968 Indy 500 as the fuel pump decided to let go with just nine laps remaining in the race.

Chapman and Philippe then got into this not-so-crazy idea to modify the 56 into a 56B to have it race in Formula 1. Not-so-crazy, because of several reasons.

Firstly, the modified PT6 gas turbine was able to produce 600 horsepower, massively more than the Ford Cosworth V8 DFV engine that was limited to just 425. The turbine was also half the weight of the DFV and comprised much less components that were susceptible to break. Finally, the use of a turbine eliminated the need of a gearbox, a clutch and radiators. On paper, it was better than sliced cheese.

However, there were drawbacks. The 56B needed to be fitted with an all wheel drive system, which was complicated to fit inside the car and heavy. Since the turbine produced no engine braking, the cars needed to rely on extra big and powerful disc brakes. One other thing: the turbine was a gas-guzzler.

The 56B had several tanks that could carry 270 litres of kerosene (close to 62 gallons). One final concern about the 56B was that it was not a reactive car. It responded slowly to the driver’s inputs and that required them to take very different lines through the corners.

Fast... but fragile

Emerson Fittipaldi inherited the 56B at the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in the UK, March 21st, 1971. The 56B was the fastest car during the practice sessions held in pouring rain. The track was dry for the 50-lap race. Fittipaldi started seventh and was forced to retire on Lap 34 when the rear suspension broke.

The “whooooosh” car [because of the sound of the turbine spinning at high revs] returned into action weeks later at the International Trophy at Silverstone. The race was held over two heats of 36 laps each. The rear suspension of the 56B collapsed again on Lap 3 of the first heat, but Fittipaldi finished a rewarding third in the second one.

Australian racer Dave Walker gave the Lotus 56B its first official outing in Grand Prix racing in Zandvoort, Netherlands. The track was damp when the flag dropped, and Walker blasted away from 22nd on the grid. He managed to pass 12 cars during the opening five laps of the race. The 56B was flying. Chapman knew that his latest creation was very much at ease on the slippery tarmac. However, Walker lost control of the Lotus on Lap 6 and crashed it.

At the British Grand Prix, Sweden’s Reine Wisell qualified the 56B in 19th place, but only covered 56 of the 68 laps of the race, and was not classified.

Fittipaldi took the wheel of the turbine car at the Italian Grand Prix held on the very fast Autodromo di Monza. The car was painted black and gold and entered under the World Wide Racing banner as Chapman didn’t want the Italian justice seize the car or throw him in jail as the investigation on the death of Jochen Rindt was not finished. Rindt got killed when his Lotus 72 left the road and smashed into the guardrails at Monza the year before.

From the editor, also read:

Fittipaldi qualified the Lotus 18th and drove superbly to cross the line in eighth place, one lap behind the winner, Peter Gethin.

Chapman and the rest of his crew realised that a turbine car would never be at ease on a road course, and decided to park it for good. It never reappeared in Grand Prix racing.

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About this article

Series Formula 1
Drivers Emerson Fittipaldi , Reine Wisell
Teams Team Lotus Shop Now
Author René Fagnan