Peter Wright

As the 1983 Grand Prix season begins, we talk to Team Lotus’s Director of Research and Development about life with Colin Chapman and prospects for the future without him

The late Colin Chapman originally set up a research and engineering base in Ketteringham Hall, a tastefully converted former boys’ school close to the Lotus Cars factory at Hethel, back in 1976. The dynamic, forward-thinking Lotus chief had been convinced for some time that most established, conventional areas of racing car design had been exploited to their maximum by the middle of the 1970s and, in typical style, he was determined to be the first constructor to make yet another quantum leap forward. Under the direction of Tony Rudd, formerly BRM’s chief engineer and designer, Chapman directed his people to undertake a thorough re-examination of structural methods and aerodynamics, looking, in effect, about ten years ahead. It was this lively, imaginative “think tank” which was eventually to give rise to ground effect technology and the sensational, Championship-winning Lotus 79 which totally dominated the 1978 Grand Prix season and re-established Team Lotus at the very top of the Formula 1 tree. It was into this fertile breeding ground for new ideas that Peter Wright was introduced to Team Lotus, first working alongside Rudd and later in close partnership with Chapman himself, helping to interpret ideas and hone new concepts relating to Lotus F1 cars of the future. Rudd eventually moved back to Lotus Cars as Engineering Director, leaving Wright and Martin Ogilvie collaborating with Chapman. Then, suddenly on the night of December 15th / 16th, 1982, Colin Chapman was gone: the main spring of the Lotus organisation had been snatched away, and now 37-year-old Wright faces the future as the man who, perhaps more than anybody, will shape the technical side of Lotus’s F1 fortunes. In the pleasantly furnished boardroom at Ketteringham Hall, now feeling somehow strangely empty without Chapman’s dynamic presence, Team Lotus’s Director of Research and Development recently talked to us about the joys of the last few years and his ambitions for the future.

Peter Wright graduated from Cambridge with an engineering degree, specialising in thermodynamics and aerodynamics, in time to join BRM towards the end of 1966. “It was just when they were developing the H16 engine,” he grins, “and I think I was under the impression that I would be God’s gift to the engine department. BRM at that time was toying with a very crude concept for a wing car, but Tony Rudd didn’t really like the idea of wings on a racing car in the conventional sense, and although we evolved that prototype design, nothing came of it.” Wright stayed with BRM for two years, but it quickly became clear to the young engineer that too many cooks were spoiling the broth and there was no real future within this rather cumbersome organisation: he left just before the Surtees era started in 1969 and went off to work for Specialised Mouldings, the Huntingdon-based plastic moulding specialists. There he designed a purpose-built wind tunnel (which was later sold to the Williams F1 team!) “as well as the side pods for the original March 701 — which I’m not proud of — and a lot of work for Johnson-Evinrude on ground effect power boats. I learned a great deal about glass fibre and aerodynamics and was eventually approached to work for Technocraft, a company within Group Lotus which was experimenting in injection moulding techniques. When Tony Rudd moved in here, I was called in on the aerodynamic side and eventually moved in full-time.”

Under-car aerodynamics have played a large part in Wright’s professional life for the past seven years, but he’s quick to point out that Lotus didn’t “discover” the principles, as such, but came soon to appreciate how they could be harnessed to best effect. In that connection, he also emphasises that such apparently major technical breakthroughs “don’t come about as a result of a blinding flash of inspiration. Professor Stollery, at Imperial College, had been working on aspects of ground effect for some time and it’s fair to say that a lot of racing car designers touched on it during the 1960s without ever reaching a full awareness of its potential. That’s what made Ketteringham Hall such an exciting place to be when Colin began his programme in 1976: he could see that there were new areas to he explored, so he set up the department in this splendidly quiet environment, away from the racing team, and let us get on with it.”

The necessity for a Formula 1 car to use its tyres to maximum effect was one important factor behind Lotus’s detailed study of structures: flexing of suspension components, or of the chassis itself, would clearly prevent the car using its tyres efficiently. Further, since the impending aerodynamic developments were likely to impose increased loads on the chassis structure, the two projects necessarily went hand-in-hand. Wright remembers that “quite a lot of input from Ketteringham Hall went across to be incorporated in the Lotus 77’s racing programme during the 1976 season,” although he confirms Colin Chapman’s somewhat ironic assertion that the only reason Mario Andretti won the Japanese Grand Prix that year was because the 77 didn’t use its tyres efficiently. Thus, on a drying track, the car’s soft compound rain tyres survived long enough to enable Mario to reach the chequered flag first!

Wright remembers with pleasure the amount of energy and enthusiasm that Colin applied to research and development work, the two men obviously working well together, for Peter not only had the Lotus chief’s confidence but admired “the way in which Colin had this amazing knack for ‘feeling’ that an idea was right, even if he had to weed it out from a whole host of other ideas which were not worth trying. Once he’d decided that you were following the right line, he would give you all the support he could muster. With our initial work on ground effect he was convinced that he could get something for nothing in terms of car performance, in other words tremendous downforce without the penalty being exacted in reduced straight line speed. So he pursued the whole business with enormous vigour.”

It was whilst working with models of the yet-to-be-announced Lotus 78 in Imperial College’s wind tunnel that Peter Wright ahnost stumbled across the most significant discovery of all, one which would, as it turned out, have enormous long-term ramifications on the shaping of Formula 1 racing as a whole. “We’d evolved the 78 with aerofoil-shaped side pods into which we’d packaged the small radiators and two fuel tanks and the whole design was shaping up to be really nice. Then I started getting non-repeatable results with the wind tunnel model. On close inspection I noticed that the side pods on the model were sagging — and as the pods went down, so the downforce increased. We decided to explore this further and quickly made up some side panels out of card which extended right down to the ground . . . and the downforce immediately doubled. It was at that point that we appreciated just how crucial the incorporation of skirts should be into the design. We were very concerned that skirts might be deemed not within the regulations, so we considered the whole matter very carefully and, you’ll recall, the 78 originally appeared with brushes running down from the underside of the pods. Of course, the moment Colin saw the 78’s potential, he made very effort and bullied everybody connected with the team to fully realise that potential.”

Development of a first-class skirt system took Peter Wright and his team she best part of the 1977 season, during which Andretti and Nilsson achieved excellent results with the steadily evolving type 78. “It was a long, hard slog throughout that development programme,” recalls Wright, “but precisely because it was a struggle to make ground effect work I have very affectionate memories of that period. The big problem with the 78 was that most of the ground effect was being produced towards the front of the car, thus producing a lot of oversteer. Therefore we had to run a big wing to compensate, and that meant that the car was short on straight line speed. We were learning all the time and I reckon it took us the entire 1977 season to get ourselves to the point where we thought that the Lotus 78 was ready to win the following year’s Championship. We spent so much time on skirts systems, you just wouldn’t imagine! Our chief mechanic, Eddie Dennis, used to go out in the team’s Renault 4 van with a big frame sticking out behind on which we mounted our experimental skirts. He’d drive out onto the road, go up to Hethel and do a few laps, and then come back, clattering in amidst a shower of sparks before we checked out how the skirls had lasted!”

What came next, in Wright’s view, was absolutely typical of the Chapman character. One might have been forgiven for thinking that, having developed the 78 to a winning pitch, Team Lotus could have sat back and cruised to the 1978 title. But Chapman wasn’t like that: he knew full well that all his rivals would be working on ground effect cars, so Lotus had to come up with something better. “He came bounding back from his holiday home in Ibizia,” smiles Wright, “and said ‘right, now we’ve got to do it properly’. That brand new car was the type 79 and I suppose it’s fair to say that it represented the definitive Grand Prix design which has lasted up until this rule change at the end of 1982 . . . slim monocoque, central tank, inboard suspension all round. Everything about that car was subjugated to aerodynamics and the resultant enclosed bodywork contributed to it being a bit marginal on cooling and braking. But Colin was proved completely right in his decision to build a totally new car.”

To the outside observer there seemed little reason to suppose that the type 79 wouldn’t continue winning well into the 1979 season. But things just didn’t work out that way. Although Wright admits he was rather surprised use how long it took the rival teams to cotton on to the ground effect principles, Chapman forged on with yet another brand new car. This was the Lotus 80 which, on paper, with its full length skirts and small aerofoils, should have been another winner. -But by that time we were moving into an area of fresh problems,” explains Wright, “because we found we had too much downforce and we iust didn’t know how to handle it. But although it didn’t bring us the success we were hoping for, I think that period underlined one of Colin’s great strengths. Irrespective of its track performance, Colin was able to assess it accurately in true engineering terms; he could quickly determine whether we’d just made a straightforward cock-up or were in fact working in an area where we should be.” Chapman’s answer to the problem of excessive downforce posed by the type 80 wasn’t destined to manifest itself for another two years and, when the twin sprung structure type 88 appeared, it rocked the racing world and ended up by being banned.

While the 88 concept was being refined, Team Lotus relied on the undramatic Lotus 81 which was really a “straightforward update of the Lotus 79 concept which was really very good when it was good, but proved very sensitive to minor adjustments and changes of tyre”. It will be recalled that an enormous amount of controversy and indignant argument surrounded the launching of the Lotus 88 and Wright remembers that he’d never before seen Chapman so genuinely upset or disillusioned with the business of Formula 1.

“That 88 business infuriated him because he felt it was inhibiting his basic right to come up with genuinely different ideas,” Peter explains, “he spent an enormous amount of time and money consulting legal advisers about the legitimacy of the 88’s interpretation of the rules and he would never accept that it was illegal in his own mind. It was an affair which severely dented his morale.” 

With the new Renault-engined Lotus 93T standing as a memorial to the late Lotus boss as the final complete Grand Prix design he initiated during his lifetime, and the imaginative hydraulic “active” suspension system which will be seen on the Cosworth-engined Lotus 92 this season, there is clearly a great deal of momentum within the Team Lotus organisation which will carry it onwards for some time to come. But the burning question that is in so many enthusiasts’ minds is “what happens when the time comes for another of those famous quantum leaps forward? Who initiates that?”

Peter Wright responds with some vigour to the implication that Lotus has a restricted long-term future without Chapman’s presence. “I think suggestions that we’ll gradually dwindle away are not only inaccurate, but also unfair,” he replies, “because I don’t think they do full justice to Colin’s achievements while he was alive. What he’s established here at Ketteringham Hall is a unique set of engineering terms of reference which I’m sure we can utilise in the best Lotus tradition in years to come. It’s our aim to sustain the Lotus philosophy of coming up with truly original ideas, concepts which are fundamentally correct and ones which will stand the test of time.”

One of Wright’s greatest regrets is that Chapman didn’t live long enough to see the new active suspension system fitted to a car. This system is neatly explained by Wright drawing the analogy with a human being — “it doesn’t have any springs does it? Legs are not springs, but the brain senses variations of the ground surface and instantly adjusts the leg’s behaviour accordingly. On the Lotus 92 we’ve got a tiny computer which is fed by sensors on the suspension units and relays a message back to the hydraulic strut, telling it how to respond. It’s certainly the most exciting project I’ve ever been involved with. It was originally thought up by Colin in the wake ot the Lotus 88 trouble and, for sure, it would have provided us with a big bonus in the ground effect era. It’s a high risk venture, but I’m convinced that it’s still valid now and will produce a performance benefit when fully developed.”

Chapman died a matter of days before Wright was ready to show him the completed test car with this suspension system fitted, but, like all the other projects, it will be pursued with considerable energy and enthusiasm. 

However, the stimulus of being able to knock about ideas with the most imaginative racing car designer of all time will be denied to Peter Wright from this point onwards, that “fantastic, almost uneasy, ability to select the outstanding ideas from the simply good ideas” has gone for ever. But there is also another problem, one which can only be surmounted by those who have control of Team Lotus research and development purse strings sustaining as bold an attitude to future developments as Chapman himself was prepared to take with his ideas. 

“One of the great things with Chapman was the fact that he was involved on the business side as well as the design side,” explains Wright, “and as a result he was able to commit finance to high risk proiects which he believed passionately to be correct. My belief is that Lotus’s strength in the past has been its ability to assess what’s needed on the design side in the broadest sense. Now what we need is for whoever authorises expenditure on a given project to understand what we’re trying to do and not abandon it when we encounter the first problem. Perhaps Colin’s death will make our budgeting a more disciplined procedure, but we must not lose that commitment to new ideas, exciting and forward-thinking concepts.”

Today, at the start of the 1983 Grand Prix season, there is an air of steely confidence within the Team Lotus organisation, coupled with a stark awareness of just how much of a test life without Chapman will be. Only time will tell if Colin’s magic genius has rubbed off on those faithful disciples who have helped craft his innovative designs over the past few years, but it is unlikely they will fail simply through the want of trying. — A.H.