Motorsports are considered a high-speed laboratory where most publicly available automotive innovations are created. Where else can you push the limits of automotive technology in search of maximum performance? Traction control, active suspension, anti-lock braking systems (ABS), continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) — the theater of motorsports gave rise to all of these now-standard features.
But where some designers simply built on their race cars’ predecessors for marginal improvements, others bet the whole farm on unique and wildly unproven technologies, some of which changed motorsports forever. These are nine of the most innovative race car designs to ever circle a track.
Going against convention in a sport like Formula 1 is a massive gamble. Championships have been won and lost betting on unique innovations. The Cooper T43 blew minds left and right when it became the first Formula 1 car to win with a mid-mounted engine. The T43’s slightly modified future iterations, the T45 and T51, went on to win races and a championship in 1959; it sparked a revolution and laid the groundwork for the layout of every Formula 1 car since.
The Cooper T43 may have changed the layout of F1 cars forever, but the Lotus 49 can easily be seen as the first modern F1, using the engine as a stressed member of the chassis as well as harnessing the dark art of aerodynamics. Not to mention it was the first fully branded race car, courtesy of Gold Leaf tobacco.
Even with aerodynamics providing a new frontier for race cars, the Chapparal 2J was ahead of its time. The 2J was designed with a Lexan skirt that extended from the bottom of the bodywork to the ground, partially sealing off the bottom of the car. A separate two-stroke motor then powered two fans that would suck air from underneath the car, pulling it to the ground. This vacuum gave the 2J immense grip, and thus, performance. This innovation was banned by the SCCA from fear of it ruining the Can-Am series by way of pure domination.
After the Lotus 49 introduced aerodynamics to F1, it was a continuous quest to find as much downforce as possible. In 1977 Lotus introduced “ground effects,” a term given to the process of manipulating the air under the car to produce more “drag-free” downforce. The Lotus 78 did this by using similar side skirts to the Chapparal 2J to seal the underside of the car, while the overall shape of the car acted as a giant wing and pulled the car to the track. The car was so dominant Lotus entered the following season with an effectively unchanged car.
Brabham BT46-B “Fan Car”
The Brabham BT46-B followed the same principals as the Chapparal 2J, but the Brabham hooked up the fan directly to the transmission. And, it’s because of this that the car “could get as much downforce standing still as it could going 180 mph.” It only competed in one race, which it won, finishing 35 seconds ahead of the next fastest car, and then was immediately banned for fear that it would be too dominant in competition.
Tyrrell P34 “Six-Wheeler”
It might seem like a novelty car, but the thinking behind the Tyrrell six-wheeler is actually practical and ingenious. The shorter and narrower wheels tuck nicely behind the front wing, affording the Tyrrell designers the luxury of cleaning up the body work and minimizing drag. And while larger standard wheels always have a larger contact patch, Tyrrell’s front four wheels combined had an even larger surface area and, consequently, grip, not to mention extra braking force.
Introducing AWD to the World Rally Championship seems like a no-brainer now, but in 1980 Audi were the first pioneers — to much legendary success.
Active suspension, traction control and ABS are all fairly basic technologies that most cars have on the road today. But back in 1992, the Williams FW14B was first on the F1 grid to have them — making the FW14B nearly untouchable. It was considered the most technologically advanced Formula car of its time.
Toyota TS030 Hybrid
Toyota wasn’t the only team to harness hybrid technology in the World Endurance Championship in 2012, but the way they deployed electrical power is now the norm. Whereas other teams were simply using energy-recovery systems for temporary boosts, Toyota hooked the system up directly to the rear wheels, using electrical power to supplement their 3.4-liter V8.