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The year that everything changed – remembering the 1968 Formula 1 season

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Graham Hill, the 1968 F1 world champion. Photo by Joost Evers.

Fifty years ago, during the 1968 season, the sport of Formula 1 racing underwent a tectonic shift, and it’s no exaggeration to call the year the most significant in the history of the series, and perhaps the most significant in all of motorsports. Five decades later, the impact of a season filled with triumph, tragedy, experimentation and change is still being felt.

One often hears that 1968 is the year that advertising came to Formula 1, but this isn’t exactly true. Advertising existed in the sport for decades, but had been subtle and reserved for automakers and related companies; Juan Manual Fangio’s 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196, for example, carried the three-pointed star of its maker, and John Surtees’ 1964 Ferrari 1512, in N.A.R.T. blue-and-white livery, wore a prominent prancing horse on its flanks. In 1967, Jim Clark’s Lotus carried a Firestone logo, while sponsorship from Esso was evident on Denny Hulme’s Brabham.

For 1968, however, restrictions on sponsorship were lifted, opening the door for consumer products to advertise at motorsports highest level. Tobacco companies were first in the door, with the Gold Leaf logo of Imperial Tobacco appearing on Lotus cars at the Spanish Grand Prix, held on May 12. Overnight, it seemed, national colors gave way to liveries determined by advertisers, ending a tradition that dated back to the origins of the sport.

Jim Clark’s death in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim foreshadowed what would be a brutal year for the F1 fraternity. By the end of the season, a total of four drivers, representing nearly 10-percent of the field, would perish, though only one – France’s Jo Schlesser – would die during an F1 event. BRM driver Mike Spence was killed at Indianapolis in May, testing one of the Lotus 56 turbine cars for Andy Granatelli’s STP team, while Cooper driver Ludovico Scarfiotti would die of injuries suffered in a crash during a hillclimb event in June.

Honda RA302

Honda RA302, on display in Honda’s collection. Photo by Morio.

Schlesser’s death was particularly brutal, and some would say, pointless. Early in the season, Honda introduced a new car, the RA301, which itself was an evolution of the previous RA300. Co-developed with Lola Cars, the RA301 proved problematic, suffering retirements in its first four outings. By the French Grand Prix, Honda had an experimental design of its very own, the RA302, complete with an air-cooled V-8 engine and a magnesium-skinned body.

Honda team driver John Surtees tested the RA302, but refused to pilot the unproven car in a race, deeming it unsafe pending further development and testing. Eager to demonstrate the RA302’s potential, Honda Racing France entered it into the French Grand Prix, hiring local star Jo Schlesser as its driver. Schlesser, then 40 years old, had ample experience in Formula Two, but when tasked with driving the RA302 at the French Grand Prix, had just two F1 starts to his name. The risk of driving an experimental car, however, was outweighed by the potential of career advancement, especially at such an advanced age.

Schlesser qualified the RA302 in 16th, the second-to-last position on the grid. The race, held on the treacherous Rouen-Les-Essarts street circuit, began in wet conditions, with rain falling, and on lap three Surtees’s worst fears were realized. Approaching the track’s third corner, Virage des Six Fréres, Schlesser lost control of the Honda, running it up an embankment and flipping the car upside down. The impact split the fuel tanks, and the hot engine ignited the gasoline. The car’s magnesium bodywork caught fire next, and firefighters on scene were improperly equipped to extinguish the burning metal. Schlesser never had a chance to escape the wreckage.

The driver’s death wasn’t enough to bring driver safety to the forefront, but it almost certainly contributed to a conversation that drivers were already having. Later in the season, at the German Grand Prix, Dan Gurney unveiled a new piece of safety gear that must have seemed revolutionary at the time – the full-face helmet. Within two years, the majority of drivers on the F1 grid had adopted this as an essential bit of gear.

Lotus 49B

A high-wing Lotus 49B, wearing the 1968 Gold Leaf Team Lotus livery, runs at Goodwood in 2008. Photo by Brian Snelson.

At Monaco, the second race of the 1968 season, the Gold Leaf Team Lotus cars sported innovative rear bodywork that ended in an upswept (but vented) tail. A crude aerodynamic device that likely created minimal but measurable downforce, it foretold of what was to come later in the season. By the next race, the Belgian Grand Prix, Lotus, McLaren, Ferrari, and Brabham-Repco cars would all sport some form of rear wing, with the Lotus and Ferrari cars also gaining front winglets.

Lotus 49B

The Lotus 49B’s rear wing mounting points, atop the suspension. High-mounted wings proved to be dangerous in crashes, and were later banned. Photo by Spute.

The advantage of aero grip now obvious, efforts began in earnest to develop front and rear wings that would increase downforce and cornering speed without adding significant drag, which limited top speed on straights. By the British Grand Prix, the seventh race of a 12-race season, rear wings had grown massive, typically mounted high atop thin rods that transferred load directly to the suspension. Two races later, at the Italian Grand Prix, some teams – notably Brabham – even began to experiment with high-mounted front wings, and by the season-ending Mexican Grand Prix, front and rear wings were the norm. It would take years for these designs to be standardized and later, regulated, but today, aerodynamics is one of the most important factors in F1 car design and construction.

Fifty years ago, F1 saw the rise of consumer-based advertising, with the seemingly unlimited funding it brought to the sport; driver deaths that helped shape the future of car design and track design; and the incorporation of aero grip in addition to mechanical grip. No season before or since has seen this degree of rapid change, which makes one wonder if another such evolution is overdue.