Blackballed at the Brickyard

When the CART establishment discovered that Team Lotus was building another Indycar, the reaction was far from positive. Gordon Cruickshank describes the car that became an outlaw

It’s tough being a new kid on the block, especially if you come from somewhere far away. That’s what Lotus found when Colin Chapman decided to tackle Indianapolis. He was doing things a different way, and that didn’t suit the locals. It happened in 1963 — the near miss — and ’64 — the tyre disaster — before the Indy boys had to watch Jim Clark carry off ‘their’ trophy in ’65. And it happened once again in the 1980s — but this time the Lotus contender never even got out of Norfolk.

After the massive blow of Chapman’s death in 1982, Team Lotus was knocked into neutral and coasting. But after Gérard Ducarouge took up the design reins things changed: his first complete car, 95T, proved highly competitive during the 1984 Formula One season — even if it couldn’t stop the red-and-white McLaren steamroller. So with the East Anglian outfit in resurgence, the buzz was positive when a new opportunity plopped into the Ketteringham Hall in-tray. Businessman Roy Winkelmann wanted Lotus to attack the US again.

The Winkelmann name had a good racing pedigree. In the early 1960s Roy set up a team with Alan Rees as driver. Starting with Formula Junior and sportscars, by 1964 the outfit was running in Formula Two, and when Jochen Rindt joined the following year the squad’s profile soared. The Austrian was an absolute sensation, dominating the series with nine victories. Winkelmann’s outfit also tasted grands prix, entering F2 cars in the German round on three occasions (for Rees, Hans Herrmann and Rolf Stommelen) and earning itself a reputation for immaculate preparation. Latterly Winkelmann ran the Lotus F2 operation (Chapman had a habit of contracting out for the lesser series), so the two parties were already well acquainted.

The Winkelmann team dissolved in 1969 and Roy abandoned racing to concentrate on his business interests in the security sector. It was not until 1984 that he felt the urge to re-enter motorsport, and this time it was in a very different arena. CART Indycar racing was not only the premier American formula, majoring on the legendary Indianapolis 500-miler, but was by now making a mark internationally, with big sponsorship potential.

Most runners bought March or Lola chassis and fitted a Cosworth DFX turbo engine. Winkelmann wanted to be different, and suggested to Lotus that if it built a car, he would run a three-year programme under the banner Winkelmann Team Lotus. Directors of the new outfit were to be Winkelmann himself, Peter Warr, director of Team Lotus International, and Ekrem Sami, a long-time associate of McLaren’s Ron Dennis. A US base would be set up in time for the 1985 CART season.

Being acquainted with Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth from his F2 days, Roy was able to secure the promise of Cosworth preparation for DFX engines, instead of the privateer US firms, and he planned to have major sponsorship in place for 1985. He also hoped to have no less a driver than Al Unser Jnr aboard.

With one eye on its Indy past (this would be 20 years after Clark upset Indy’s applecart), Lotus agreed to build the car. To familiarise himself with CART racing Ducarouge travelled to the USA to watch a race at Meadowlands, and returned with a copy of the rule book. Actual design, though, he passed to Martin Ogilvie and Gene Varnier.

That was a bit of a con,” remembers Martin. “Gene and I wanted a payrise, and Peter Warr agreed, if we were prepared to do outside projects as well. We said yes, thinking there wasn’t likely to be an outside F1 project. Then Gerard dumped this lndycar on us!”

According to Ogilvie, ‘Duca’ gave them some specifications on a single sheet of paper and left them to get on with it, “It was a bit of a pain having to do this mid season he says Varnier agrees: “We’d spend a week or two on the 96, then a week or two on the 97. It was a hell of a lot of work for a tiny design team. The worst thing was that it was deadly secret for the first couple of months — we were trying to investigate components without giving ourselves away.”

Things got easier when Autosport finally broke the story in June 1984. “Lotus to run two cars for whole CART season — including Indianapolis” was the banner headline, before speculating whether the team might use Renault turbo F1 engines, or even a Toyota V6 turbo which Lotus was rumoured to be investigating for F1. Warr hinted that Lotus had been considering Indy for a while, but “until now the chemistry was not right”.

This was not going to be a cheap project; Vernier remembers that the plan was for Winkelmann to pay up front. “It looked very expensive, but then he was getting a finished car, where the other teams got a chassis and had to do engine installation and final build.”

What emerged had a broad-shouldered beauty about it; and if it looked like a big 95T that wasn’t surprising. The monocoque was similar, but built much tougher because of the potential impact speed of concrete-walled oval racing. Where the F1 car used Nomex paper foil between its carbon/Kevlar skins, the Indy car substituted an aluminium foil honeycomb, which is slightly stronger though harder to assemble. It also used a different, more fire-resistant phenolic resin.

Suspension at both ends was a wider version of the 95’s pullrod/wishbone set-up, beefed up to handle banking loads, while the aerodynamic package reflected CART practice with a low tail wing, deep-chord front aerofoils and the 95’s forward-slanting upper winglets.

According to Varnier, the aero tests used some clever technology. CART still allowed ground effects at this point, so the 96T had venturis in the sidepods. For wind tunnel testing, aerodynamics supremo John Davis built a large-scale model with a flexible venturi controlled by a series of stepper motors. This meant he could alter the profile remotely from the control booth, to home in on the best compromise between road and oval set-ups.

A bigger problem was storing the methanol fuel which the DFX drank. CART required them to use a Goodyear rubber tank instead of the thin, flexible F1 type. “It was made of really thick rubber — quarter of an inch thick and more in places.” says Varnier. “It was so thick it affected the capacity — the chassis had to be built bigger to accommodate it.” Both designers recall what a pig it was to insert this tank into the hull behind the driver, as Gene explains: “We finally had to pull a vacuum on it to squeeze it through the chassis opening.”

In its dark green, unsponsored livery, it was a handsome thing — “much neater than the rival Lola or March chassis,” says Varnier. This was due to a tidier engine package, with the turbo sitting above the Hewland DGB gearbox and blowing forward to a plenum above the V8’s intake trunks, the air intake and wastegate outlet both elegantly recessed near the tail. Only the compulsory standard-issue pop-off valve behind the roll-hoop interrupts the line.

But the storm warnings soon began. Unser wasn’t going to drive after all, and the sponsor package wasn’t coming together. The team had to borrow DFX units to assemble the car around. Worse, Winkelmann was facing intense resistance from the CART establishment, who didn’t want to see a works team barging through its garagiste ranks.

And they had a genuine technical concern: carbonfibre composite chassis handle one impact very well, but not a second, and Indycar shunts often create a cascade of collisions. Martin Ogilvie was sure they were worrying unnecessarily: “I prepared a presentation for Peter Warr to give to the Indy authorities showing the strength of a carbonfibre monocoque, but they wouldn’t buy it. And none of the big-name drivers wanted to commit themselves to an untried chassis. Winkelmann was now talking to Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi, as well as Willy T Ribbs, but wasn’t getting the right answers.

Fearing the extra costs which composite monocoques were bound to bring, as well as the threat of works resources, CART’s controllers dug in their collective heels, concentrating objections on impact strength and fire resistance. Back in Norfolk the 96T gang were still working hard, but it was difficult to stay focused on two parallel projects knowing that someone was trying to shoot one of them down. And in-house support was lacking, too. Varnier again: “I tried once or twice to ask Gerard questions about the Indycar, but he said he wasn’t interested, he was too busy on the 97.”

Finally the killer blow fell from across the pond: CART’s 1985 rules were to be changed to forbid pure carbonfibre composite cars. Indycar chassis now had to have an external skin of aluminium. Winkelmann’s baby had deliberately been thrown out with the bathwater. The one prototype Lotus had built sat in the assembly shop looking low, wide and mean — and completely emasculated.

“Incredibly frustrating,” says Varnier. “We’d put in a hell of a lot of effort with a tiny team — only five or six of us. And it was a good package.” It certainly had very good genes — a race-proven basic chassis, but built tougher and stiffer, with higher sides, and a suspension layout which the team already knew worked, at least for road circuits; Varnier reckons it wouldn’t have taken long to fine-tune a speedway set-up. Add a motor prepared by the guys who designed it and a team manager with a race-winning record, and all you need is a top Indy driver. And a major sponsor. And the rest of the gang’s permission to let you play in their backyard…

Instead the 96T was rolled away into the gloom of the back shop. It was never even fired up. It’s hardly been seen in public since, an oddity among the Classic Team Lotus collection.

But no experience is wasted. That method of folding up aluminium honeycomb around a male pattern went into the 97 and became a Lotus tradition. While in the US, Ducarouge had seen winglets fixed to the back of sidepods and later used them on the 97T. The tougher Indy-type gearbox also went into the F1 cars. And Varnier already wanted to get into Indycars, so the project was good news for him; he later moved to Reynard to design its Indy contenders, before joining RTN and shaping the Le Mans-winning Bentley.

Winkelmann accepted defeat gracefully and went back to his surveillance business. But not before he had made an outlandish suggestion to Martin Ogilvie. However the car turned out on the track, he had a secret weapon: he reckoned he could jam the opposition’s ECUs from a spy satellite.