Andrew Frankel: After the disappointing Europa, Lotus is back to doing what it does best with the road-legal 2-Eleven trackday special. All you need is a trailer to cart it to Spa or the Nürburgring
The first time I drove on Lotus’s famous test track outside the factory in Hethel I was in an Esprit. Big deal, you may think. But, to me, it was massively significant. For a start I was driving on a track I’d been reading about for many years, one made more mythical by the fact that it had never been raced on. It was shrouded in secrecy, where black and gold grand prix machines would roll factory-fresh on to the circuit. Their DFVs would then split the air asunder for a few mesmerising minutes before being shut down and the cars spirited back into the ‘skunk works’ of the world’s most interesting, innovative racing team.
This was no normal Esprit, but the Esprit GT2 raced by one Alessandro Zanardi. You may remember the car; you may even remember its moment of fame where, in the wet at Donington, it ran seconds quicker than anything else on the track, including every GT1 car in the race. The secret of its speed had nothing to do with the ageing 2.2-litre twin-cam four. But it did go around corners beautifully, particularly when fitted with an unusually effective aero package. The team was run by George Howard-Chappell (who masterminded Aston’s fabulous class victory at Le Mans) and I can remember after a few exploratory laps George leaning in, pressing a button and explaining that I had just qualified for proper turbo boost pressure.
All of which made Windsock rather interesting. Windsock is the greatest corner no one has ever heard of, a terrifying right-hand flick leading on to the runway at Hethel, hence the name. In an underpowered GT2 car with a great chassis, vast slicks and no little downforce, the corner was not quite flat. I can remember the noise of the splitter smashing into the appalling bumps as I turned in, the thump of my heart as I willed myself to take it flat and the lift of my foot as, every lap, both spirit and flesh chickened out.
Hethel has changed a lot since then – it’s now a much more useful test facility with a considerably greater variety of corners than the old boomerang-shaped track. But Windsock remains in all its terrifying glory, and recently I was back at its entry, yet again failing to take it flat.
The car was the Lotus 2-Eleven and, like the GT2 Esprit, it is a heavily evolved version of a Lotus road car, designed for use on the track. Unlike the GT2, however, it is not a racing car: it’s road legal, costs £39,995 and is the most thrilling car ever to emerge from Hethel wearing a number plate.
In concept at least, it is exactly the type of car Lotus should be making. It’s light in weight, simple in construction and no less than outstanding to drive. In fact if there’s any road car that blends raw point-to-point speed, fluency on the limit and mercy beyond it into a more impressive brew, I need to drive it.
Underneath that mad, doorless, window- and screen-less shape, lies the flesh and bone of the Exige S. But its supercharged, 1.8-litre motor has been boosted to give 252bhp and its weight pared to 740kg. Others will be quicker – a Caterham Seven CSR260 and supercharged Ariel Atom both enjoy significantly superior power to weight ratios and could be expected to post quicker lap times, but Lotus says the only reason for that is that the 2-Eleven is based on a structure whose strength and safety are derived from a car that’s been through the full type approval process. It also points out that it’s a Lotus and, to anyone with a sense of heritage, the initials on the nose will count for a lot.
I reckon they’re right. The fact that this is an interesting and exciting new car is good news no doubt, but the fact that it is one of too few truly great Lotuses of recent years is cause for celebration. I’ve driven a 1950s Seven and a 1960s Elan and both have the same spirit found inside this mad little racetrack refugee.
But as a road car it could, and should, be better. The lack of a windscreen dramatically compromises its ability to do distances. I drove it between two junctions on the A11 and, bluntly, that was enough. Setting off for a long weekend at Spa or the Nürburgring – surely the sort of adventure for which the 2-Eleven was designed – is not something that I would contemplate. Lotus can’t fit a taller wind deflector because then it would be classified as a windscreen by the authorities which would then necessitate wiper blades and an extra level of weight, complexity and hassle Lotus does not need at present. But without such a screen, you’ll be better off towing it, at which point you might as well spend the same on the pure track version which has even more downforce, 40kg less weight and even more exceptional track manners.
What Lotus should do is produce an aftermarket screen and sell it to 2-Eleven owners, making it clear it’s intended strictly for track purposes only. If those owners then decide to flout Lotus’ advice, and indeed type approval regulations, by using those screens to make their lives a little less uncivilised between tracks, Lotus could hardly be blamed for that.
However owners configure their 2-Elevens, to me it’s simply a relief to be reporting back from Hethel with a happy story. Last time I wrote about Lotus on this page I had just driven the misguided Europa, which turned out to be the most disappointing Lotus I’d sampled in the last decade. The 2-Eleven, by stark contrast, is the most exciting and one of the very best. It is small, light, simple and quick cars such as this upon which Lotus built its reputation. And it is cars like this upon which that reputation will be maintained and the company’s future secured. And, yes, with a Lotus chassis engineer at the helm, Windsock is indeed flat. More, please.