The Lotus 49-R8, a legend of Formula One

For the first time in over a decade, a 1968 Lotus 49, with its Formula One game-changing design, is coming to public auction. Simon de Burton reports

The Lotus R8 is due to be auctioned by Bonhams in June
The Lotus R8 is due to be auctioned by Bonhams in June

On Tuesday, May 13, 1969, Richard Attwood was quietly going about his business, when the telephone rang. On the end of the line was Team Lotus boss Colin Chapman, who was calling to enquire whether or not Attwood might be available to slip across to Monaco the following day with a view to racing a Lotus 49 in that weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

“I wasn’t doing anything in particular, so I said yes and made my way down there. It’s a scenario that would never take place these days, but before the era of tying contracts and strict regulations we jumped in and out of all sorts of cars as and when required,” recalls 74-year-old Attwood, who remains gainfully employed behind the wheel today as, among other things, an instructor on Porsche’s Silverstone-based performance-driving course.

Back in 1969, Attwood was already a highly respected racer across a range of categories, with a particular skill for negotiating the tricky Monaco circuit where he had achieved second place in a BRM V12 the previous year. Chapman’s urgent need for a driver had come about, meanwhile, as a result of regular team member Jochen Rindt having been injured, and Attwood acquitted himself with aplomb, qualifying 10th and crossing the line fourth in the race proper.

Richard Attwood in the Lotus 49-R8 during a practice run for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1969
Richard Attwood in the Lotus 49-R8 during a practice run for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1969 | Image: Rainer Schlegelmilch

The car he drove was the Lotus 49, chassis number R8. It had been built in October 1968 and was originally shipped to the Antipodes, where it became the drive of the then reigning Formula One World Champion Graham Hill in the Tasman Series races being staged in Australia and New Zealand during the first two months of 1969.

At the time, the 49 was at the cutting edge of single‑seater racing-car technology. Conceived by Chapman and brought to reality by Lotus designer Maurice Phillippe, it featured a monocoque with the all‑new Cosworth Ford DFV engine bolted to the back and acting as the rear-chassis member. It carried the gearbox and suspension, and therefore kept weight to a minimum – a setup so advanced that it completely rewrote the rule book of F1 car design.

“Although I had never even sat in a Lotus 49 before, I don’t remember it being especially difficult to drive,” recalls Attwood. “There was an awkward moment after the 20th lap of the race when the gear knob fell off. I was worried about it getting jammed under one of the pedals, but I managed to retrieve it by fumbling about on the floor when it rolled back under hard acceleration.

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“Compared with the BRM V12 that I drove in Monaco the previous year, the Lotus was akin to getting on a thoroughbred racehorse after riding an old nag. That Cosworth DFV engine made it go like lightning.”

After Attwood’s Monaco outing with chassis R8, the car was returned to the Lotus works for minor modifications before being raced again by Graham Hill in the British Grand Prix, in which he finished seventh. It ended up in South Africa, where it was used by privateer Dave Charlton to clinch two South African F1 championship titles, prior to being campaigned by fellow countrymen Piet de Klerk and Meyer Botha until the end of 1972.

It was at this stage that the R8 was acquired by the Honourable John Dawson-Damer, an Eton-educated, Australia-based Brit who harboured such a fascination for Lotus racing cars that he built up a collection of no fewer than eight of them, including the R4 chassis in which Jim Clark won the 1963 Formula One World Championship. Dawson-Damer bought the R8 in a damaged condition, painstakingly restored it and ran it regularly at events in Australia. In 2000, however, he died at the Goodwood Festival of Speed after suffering a suspected heart attack as he approached the end of the celebrated hill-climb course driving his 1969 Lotus 63.

The car was driven by Formula One champion Graham Hill, among others
The car was driven by Formula One champion Graham Hill, among others

In 2008, Bonhams sold six of the Dawson-Damer Lotus racers at an auction in Sydney, but the R8 was retained by his family and has since rarely been seen in public. Now, however, it is set to fetch up to £1m when it comes under the hammer, again with Bonhams, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed auction next month.

According to leading motoring historian Doug Nye, the car is expected to be fiercely contested by the world’s top collectors of classic open wheelers, both because of the iconic status of the Lotus 49 and the fact that this is the first time one has been made available for public auction for more than a decade.

“It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Lotus 49 in the development of Formula One,” says Nye. “It completely raised the bar, both in terms of the very elegant engineering by which the engine bolts to the back of the monocoque and forms part of the chassis, and the fact that the Cosworth DFV engine was specifically developed for it – because the DFV went on to become the most successful Formula One power plant of all time, responsible for powering 155 winning cars in 262 races between 1967 and 1985. Furthermore, out of only 12 Lotus 49s that were built, a mere handful survive. Having had one side of its monocoque reskinned, this is certainly not the best example in existence – but that doesn’t significantly diminish its value. It is incredibly rare for a 49 to appear for sale and whoever buys this one is certainly going to have the promoters of historic motoring events queueing at their door with requests for it to be used in both live and static displays. In auction terms, you could fairly describe it as the racing-car world’s equivalent of a Leonardo da Vinci.”

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And if the new owner needs someone to show them how to drive it? Well, they could call Richard Attwood.

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