Black Pearl?

The new Lotus Esprit GT1 V8 retired on its racing debut at Paul Ricard, but the team behind it harbours genuine long-term ambitions. Michael Cotton investigates

Seasoned onlookers at Snetterton had difficulty believing their senses. What they saw was a Lotus Esprit GT being driven very rapidly by Jan Lammers, but what they heard was a crisp, exciting V8 sound that went by extremely quickly, clack-clacking on the overrun for all the world like the Ford DFVs in the Lotus 49s of Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill, almost 30 years ago . . .

Confirmation was still a couple of weeks away. The Paul Ricard circuit, for anyone lucky enough to be there on March 3, was the official debut for the Lotus Esprit GT1 driven in the BPR Global Endurance GT Cup series by Lammers and Alex Portman. The car showed promise, running briefly as high as fourth before an exhaust problem forced its retirement after 73 laps.

Two days later the road-going Lotus Esprit V8 was unveiled at the Geneva Show, at last fulfilling Colin Chapman’s dream of joining the big league with an adult GT, something that could stand proudly alongside a Ferrari.

The 3.5-litre V8 engine is an entirely new in-house design, the product of a small team of engineers led by John Owen, under the direction of Hugh Kemp. It is unusual, and sounds unusual, in having a flat-plane crankshaft. “We thought that Lotus should demonstrate the racing heritage,” says Kemp, “and it gives us the best opportunity for tuning.”

Owen, the senior project engineer, recalls that the V8 design was given the go-ahead on November 1 1993, so clearly it has no relationship at all with the 25-year-old LV origin four-cylinder, nor even with Tony Rudd’s Z1 engine produced for Chevrolet.

“We have a few lessons from Tony Rudd,” says Owen with a smile. “Certain things stick . . . low weight, simplicity, no compromise.” Within two years of conception the Lotus V8 sailed through European certification procedures for exhaust emissions meeting the demanding 1999 standards, and it should pass the US emission standards with ease.

All this, mind, with a 32-valve engine developing 350 bhp with the help of dual turbochargers, that is exactly 100 bhp per litre, or upwards of 520 bhp in racing trim with a single Garrett turbocharger.

Groundwork for the 1996 Lotus works GT team was completed last year with the Esprit S300 four-cylinder car at Donington, Silverstone and Zhuhai. The results were encouraging, as the car driven by Alessandro Zanardi and Alex Portman ran fourth at Donington until the transmission failed shortly before the end, and finished a proud fourth at Silverstone.

The racing V8, prepared in-house by Alan Nobbs, was ready for its first dyno run when the team returned from Zhuhai, and work then began in earnest on the definitive type 114 GT racer, a car so specialised that it weighs in easily below the 900 kg minimum and needs ballasting.

Martin Ogilvie is responsible for the design of the 114, significant because he also designed the last truly successful Lotus Grand Prix car, the Honda-powered 99T.

The principal quest was to save weight. Lammers will start the BPR races at least 100 kg lighter than the McLarens and Ferraris, although with a similar power-to-weight ratio.

His advantages will be in nimble, formula-type handling, low fuel consumption, low brake and tyre wear, and will build up in the course of an endurance event.

Lotus has not won a major international motor race since 1987, when Ayrton Senna won the Monaco and Detroit Grands Prix in the Team Lotus 99T active suspension Formula 1 car. The lack of recent success greatly concerns two engineers who served Team Lotus to the end, and now head the fledgling Lotus Racing Team based at Ketteringham Hall, Wymondham.

Winning, say, the BPR Global Endurance Four-Hour GT race at Silverstone or Brands Hatch wouldn’t be in quite the same league as Senna winning the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time, but it will do very nicely for engineers Ian Foley and George Howard-Chappell.

They carry the responsibility for turning the new Esprit GT1 into a race winner, and ultimately into a Le Mans winner. This is the first Lotus ‘works’ car since the Formula 1 team was disbanded, and the first sports car since the 47-based type 62 GT car was entered by Team Lotus in the 1969 season.

Colin Chapman always gave the impression, right or wrong, that motor racing was his priority and that the production cars were his means of funding the business.

This would have been identical to Enzo Ferrari’s philosophy, although the Italian enjoyed rather better fame and fortune in his lifetime. In later years Chapman was eager to get on and produce a V8 engine, but financial constraints always kept it pending. Only in 1993, 11 years after Chapman’s death and within six weeks of Romano Atoll assuming control of Group Lotus, did the V8 project finally get the go-ahead, releasing the bubbling energy of pent-up minds in the Engineering division.

The V8 engine, the £5 million Project 618, went from drawing board to production in the space of 27 months, an incredibly brief timespan. It’s so advanced that it already meets the European standards set for 1999, when the gases coming out of the exhaust have to be almost as clean as the air going into the engine, and US certification now in hand should be little more than a formality.

It weighs just 210 kg, about 15 kg more than the four-cylinder LV engine in turbocharged form, fully dressed with power steering and air conditioning pumps, alternator and everything else that a road car carries.

Hewland supplies the transverse, six-speed TGT200 sequential gearbox which was first used in the Honda NSX Gil at Le Mans, and subsequently on the Lister Storm. The Lotus GT1 has a right-hand gearchange.

The racing programme may not be a necessity, but it will be crucially important in sending out the right message. The Lotus Esprit, a four-cylinder car since its inception in 1975, comes of age with its eight-cylinder engine (the ‘four’ disappears) raising the already impressive level of performance.

Ogilvie’s brief was to keep the overall car weight down at all cost, and there’s not one item of superfluous equipment inside the GT1. The steel backbone chassis and GRP (glass reinforced polyester) central bodywork have been retained, as the BPR’s regulations stipulate, and if anything the weight has risen here.

Substantial stiffening of the chassis, which carries the engine and rear suspension, adds weight as does the installation of a substantial steel roll cage which extends back into the engine bay and makes a further contribution to torsional stiffness.

The floor and all the bolt-ons are made of carbon fibre, these including the doors, sills, wheel arch extensions, roof, bumpers, front lid and engine cover, twin element rear wing, splitter and underbody diffuser.

The 14 in carbon brake discs save 5 kg per corner, served by AP six-piston calipers front and rear, and Dymag 18 in diameter magnesium centre-lock wheels are in the super light category. The Lotus Esprit GT1’s suspension is standard in design with upper and lower wishbones and fabricated uprights at the front, and trailing arms at the rear with lateral links, again with fabricated uprights.

Foley, though, is a veteran of the Lotus Active Ride programme and is considered to be an expert on suspension. The GT1 starts out with Penske three-way adjustable dampers, but there is a new line of development on the way with a different manufacturer of shock absorbers.

“We predict,” says Foley, “that around Silverstone a saving of 50 kilos is worth about a second a lap. McLaren is claiming 1000 kg and 600 horsepower, so we are about level on power to weight.

“With our lower weight, though, we have the advantage in tyre wear, brake wear and fuel consumption. Michelin is making available a choice of five or six compounds so we have a very wide choice to make on the day, going for a harder compound to save wheel changing or a softer compound for faster lap times.

“We have a very good package here, and we’ll have to get the best out of it.”

Says Howard-Chappell: “We slowed down the build of the first GT1 when the first race in Brazil was postponed, to make sure we got everything right. There are about 14 of us involved in this car design, build, development and running, so that’s not a great number.

“Our team is hand picked from the best of Team Lotus and they’ve done a super job. Everything is done to Formula 1 standard and I’m very pleased with the build of the car.”

Assuming the levels of reliability established by Porsche and McLaren, the future looks very rosy for the Lotus Esprit GT1 V8 in endurance racing. The Esprit can easily complete a four-hour race with a lap or two to spare over the squadron of Porsche 911 GT2s, but how will it fare in company with the front-runners?

It should easily outbrake the heavier rivals, out-corner them too, especially in the slower turns, so the Lotus Racing Team is looking forward eagerly to Brands Hatch, for instance.

Black it may be, but the Lotus Esprit GT1 brings fresh colour to the flourishing Grand Touring category.