It was in 1968 that man first orbited the moon in the Apollo 8 spacecraft and it was also 1968 that saw the first wings fastened onto Formula One cars. The first took men higher into space than they had ever been before, but the function of the second was to keep them more planted to the ground.
Graham Hill arrived at Monaco in May 1968 with modest front wings and a very subtle rear spoiler on his Lotus 49B. This was the start of ‘aero’ in Formula 1. Up to this time, the cars had only used the mechanical grip that was generated by the tyres and suspension system.
Wings had been seen previously on Jim Hall’s Can-Am sports cars. In 1963, the Chaparral 2 was fitted with front mounted wings to prevent the front wheels from lifting off the ground. Then in 1965, the Chaparral 2C was equipped with a rear wing mounted on pivots and in 1966, a dramatically high wing on the Chaparral 2E.
The use of soft rubber and broader tyres showed that good road adhesion which in turn produced better cornering ability was just as necessary as a powerful engine for generating fast lap times. This desire to further increase the tyre adhesion led to a significant revolution in racing car design, the introduction of inverted wings which then produce negative lift or “down-force”. In addition to enhancing the cornering ability, aerodynamic down-force allowed the tyres to transmit a higher thrust force without wheel spin and this resulted in increased acceleration.
Even without wings which Colin Chapman so famously introduced the Lotus 49 was a revolutionary car. It won its first Grand Prix at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort with Jim Clark at the wheel. It was the third Grand Prix of the season, and the engine had been fitted to the car only a few days before. Jim Clark had not even seen the new car, and Graham Hill had just had a few hours behind the wheel. Graham Hill retired from the lead on lap 11 with a broken tooth in the timing gear.
Clark had been sitting in fourth, but after Hill retired he worked his way up to the lead, overtaking Jack Brabham on the sixteenth lap. Clark went on to win the race by 23 seconds with Brabham in second. The car had performed better than anyone had dreamed and Lotus and Ford were ecstatic. Not since Fangio had won in a Mercedes in 1954 had a Formula One car performed so well on its first outing.
South African GP 1968
The 1968 season had started well for Lotus with Jim Clarke winning the first race of the season at Kyalami. He had taken the lead on the second lap and kept it until the end with Graham Hill finishing second 25 seconds behind. It was Clark’s third consecutive GP win in a row; however, it was to be his last. The tragic event of his death shook the world of Formula One.
Spanish GP 1968
Before the next race in Spain, Jim Clark had died at Hockenheimring. With Colin Chapman not even showing up at the track, it was now up to Graham Hill to pull his grieving team together. It had been over two years since Hill’s last victory, and he could only manage sixth in qualifying. However, there was less than one second between the top seven drivers. Team Lotus was also arguing with the authorities in Spain about their new livery and Gold Leaf sponsorship.
Slowly the cars in front of Hill were forced to retire because of mechanical failures or accidents. Eventually, Hill ended up in the lead after Chris Amon’s fuel pump failed. He was being pursued by Denny Hulme, but Hulme lost his second gear and Hill ended up with the win 16 seconds ahead of Hulme. Graham Hill told reporters, “We badly needed this win just now. It’s been a long time coming and it could not have happened at a better time. I reckon I completed 1350 gear changes during the race today. It was real hard work.”
Monaco GP 1968
It was at the next race in Monaco that the Lotus 49 appeared with the first hint of aerodynamic wings. Despite the team still coming to terms with the death of Jim Clark they unveiled their new Lotus 49B and the press were immediately impressed. It had revised wedge-shaped bodywork and a small front wing.
In November 1967, Jim Clark had raced an American Indy Car called a Vollstedt at Riverside, California. The Vollstedt had small front and rear wings and impressed Clark with its grip and stability. Clark is quoted as saying that the Vollstedt “had driven faster than was thought capable by a mortal man.”
During the lead up to the 1968 Teretonga-Tasman race in New Zealand, Clark persuaded his mechanics to build him a rear wing from a helicopter rotor. There appear to be no photos of this and the rear wing wasn’t used in practice, qualifying or the race but the pieces were starting to come together for an innovative way to get more speed in Formula One. An eagle-eyed Ferrari engineer took note of it, and the result of what he brought back to the Ferrari factory would be seen at the Belgium GP.
Lorenzo Bandini had been killed the year before at Monaco, and Ferrari didn’t attend the 1968 race amid reports that the team was not happy with the safety standards at the circuit. There was also a lot of political unrest in France at the time, and threats of a power cut meant the organisers borrowed generators to ensure that the tunnel was not plunged into darkness during the race.
Graham Hill was on pole, 0.6 seconds ahead of the next fastest car. Johnny Sevox-Gavin was the first off the start, but Hill took the lead early after Servoz-Gavin suffered a drive-shaft failure on lap three and crashed his Matra. Hill then held on to the lead until the end. Richard Atwood in his BRM gave Hill a fight for the win, setting a lap record on the last lap on the race and finishing only 2.2 seconds behind Hill. They were the only two drivers on the lead lap, and just five drivers finished the race due to multiple accidents and mechanical failures.
The rear spoiler and front wings that were introduced by Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus at the Monaco GP, on the revolutionary Lotus 49B, were quickly adopted by the other teams. F1 would never again be without the down-force generating wings, changing the series forever.