Classic track test


Ian Flux

Is that Nelson Piquet?

Ian Flux casts his mind back to when he used to dream of F1, and drives a car once handled by someone who tried to thump him while he was doing his best to get there

In over 20 years of racing I have only once come to blows with another driver. In 1977 I had a no quarter asked or given battle for third place in a Formula Three heat at the British Grand Prix. I was a little mean spirited in those days, and they do say that my rival’s Ralt RT1 finished with heaps of grass and muck clogging its radiator. I can’t say I noticed.

Elio de Angelis had. He was fuming. He was 19 and on a giddy ascent of the racing ladder that would see him in F1 with Shadow by the time he was 20. He certainly wasn’t keen that the likes of I should block his path. I had caused him one trip over the grass too many and he marched across the paddock and began swinging. It was handbags at three paces. His compatriot Beppe Gabbiani thought it hilarious, for the young Roman was not atop his Christmas card list either.

And now l was driving his car. But a gap of 12 years between stints in a Formula One machine (an ex-Keke Rosberg Fittipaldi back in ’83) ensured that guilt was a dispensable emotion on this occasion.

Apparently, de Angelis was usually charm personified (it must have been me), but people have since told me that when he did lose his temper, he did so with a certain Latin panache. When his commitment was questioned by a highly respected journalist, Elio stuck one on him! And during the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone his Lotus was black-flagged for overtaking under yellows. Upset by what he considered to be unnecessary red tape when he was out there risking life and limb, he abandoned it in the middle of the pit lane and stalked off before he could be waved back out.

And this was that very car: Lotus 87/3, updated to B specification for the first race of the ’82 season. So there was no guilt as I wriggled down into its functional cockpit. but there was a tang of regret. Had my career taken a less tortuous route, this was the sort of machine I might have got my hands on. I’ve driven a wide variety of cars in those 20 years, but it’s only possible to get rheumy about Formula One. I know I was supposed to be assessing the car for an informative track test, but as I waited at the end of the pit lane, with the gorgeous bark of that unsilenced DFV tucked in behind me, I have to admit that I lapsed into ‘what might have been’ mode.

Is that Nelson Piquet? A Brabham BT49 is up ahead. A slight lift in top through the Craners. A light brush of the brakes and down to fourth for the Old Hairpin. Flat in fifth through the next left-hander, which still left plenty of room time to select third (probably fourth if you’re doing it correctly) for McLeans Briefly back into fourth on the uphill run to Coppice. Into third for its first apex, taking fourth at the second apex and fifth as you run wide onto the straight. . . Donington Park is not my number one UK circuit, but this flowing section of track proved to me what a real racing should feel like. To be able to place a car to within an inch, for it to go exactly where you want it to, came as a shock after several seasons in saloons and TVR Tuscans. This truly is an extension of oneself.

Yet in its day the 87 could only be generously described as being the ‘best of the rest’, the leader of a rather distant challenge to the early turbo machinery and the Williams and Brabham.

The latter pair must feel out of this world because this was fantastic. Absolutely pin sharp. The Hewland five-speed unit (there was a six-ratio version available but Lotus plumped for the ‘five’ in the interests of reliability) was beautiful to use, and was almost as quick as the sequential shifts used in touring cars even though I was using the clutch to save on wear and tear.

And that noise! I was limited to 10,250 rpm for the occasion, and I must admit that after the thrill of the first acceleration, the DFV did not provide me with the same push in the back I get with the Tuscan and the McLaren Fl GTR I tested recently — it didn’t have the torque for that. What it did give me was 3,000 usable, urgent revs (from 8,000 rpm on) and a silky smooth delivery. I’ve heard a lot about this engine’s dreaded numbing vibration, but this was a Rolls-Royce as far as I’m concerned, perfectly matched to the dynamics of the car.

The steering was fingertip light. As I approached Redgate for the first time I was expecting to have to wrestle it round bearing in mind the size of the tyres. Not so. I have a theory that this is tied in with using crossplies (Avon) which require much less negative camber than a radial to work — half a degree instead of four. This made placing the car an absolute doddle. Unfortunately, the day was cold and track had been soaked with oil for its entire length moments before I ventured out, yet it was only when I provoked it severely exiting the chicane that I managed to get the tail to wag — it stuck like glue otherwise.

Push understeer was easier to induce at places like Redgate if you went in a little too fast. But if you were positive with the car, it was positive right back. My initial impression upon sitting in it was that there was acres of machinery behind me — it felt as though my knees were level with the front axle line — yet this feeling quickly dissipated on the move.

This was all the more impressive when you consider that the car now runs in a form for which it was never intended. The early ’80s was the heyday of ground-effects and super sticky one-lap qualifying tyres. Yikes! Sideskirts ensured that the cars were always in contact with the ground, which formed a seal and above a certain speed sucked them onto the road. Suspension travel became an irrelevance and spring rates went through the roof. However, the rules of the FIA Thoroughbred GP series, in which this car is a winner in Sean Walker’s hands, dictates that all cars should run with 40 mm of ground clearance. Consequently, spring Poundage is a third of what it used to be. At Kyalami in ’82 the car ran with no front wing whatsoever, but now it sports the one-piece, high-mounted appendage that was in vogue the season before. So Classic Team Lotus has done a brilliant job of setting the car up to run in this format with a minimum of testing — indeed it feels as though it’s always run this way.

There was nothing the team could do to make me feel comfortable with the braking distances, however. The 87B pre-dates the era of the carbonfibre disc, yet its stopping Power was still sensational. I was running on the short — and much better — circuit at Donington and so was touching 155 mph at the end of the straight (that’s about the same as the Tuscan, so we had better make that

160 mph!), and I was leaving my braking until after the 100-metre board for the second-gear chicane. Yet this was still far too early. People with little racing experience tell me that a trip in a touring car is not mindboggling until its driver stamps on the anchors. And the Lotus was doing the same for me after God knows how many races. It’s no wonder there’s so little overtaking in F1 these days. I’m surprised there’s any.

But then has the sport’s premier category ever been exciting to watch? As a young spectator in the ’60s, the highlight for me was always when Jim Clark and Graham Hill climbed aboard their respective saloon car or sports racer, not the F1s. Yet there is an undeniable pull. The sound of an F1 is the only thing that can drag this ‘raced there, driven that’ cynic out of the paddock and into the spectator areas. Especially when the purveyor of that sound is decked out in the best advertising colour scheme yet devised, the black and gold of John Player Special.

This is as much about soul as it is nuts and bolts and statistics; in my heart of hearts it was always Ferrari, but failing that it was Lotus. The red Ferrari against the black Lotus — it was so much simpler back then.

The historic Formula One championships give the opportunity to relive those days, but I have some misgivings. This 87 was a credit to its team: it was abundantly clear that the guys running it knew the car inside out — indeed Chris Dinnage and Eddie Dennis mechanicked the 87 in its heyday. However, a brief walk down the pit lane convinced me that this wasn’t the case for all of the cars. These are still seriously quick machines, and it did cross my mind as to how many of them have been shunted and bodged 10 or so years ago.

The situation is probably even worse with the carbonfibre cars. We know how long aluminium can survive and when it needs replacing before fatigue sets in, but what about the bonding in the carbonfibre cars?

No matter how badly driven, regular bursts of over 150 mph are common, as well as braking distances that a road car driver could not comprehend. And yet some of the lines I witnessed that day I wouldn’t have expected to see at a racing school. It does worry me that somebody with very little experience (albeit with an international licence) can purchase such a car and go racing.

Mind you, had Mr de Angelis still been with us, it would have worried him that I was still racing!

And no, it wasn’t Piquet, it was Simon Hadfield!

The owner

In a long racing career Sean Walker has successfully competed in a wide variety of machinery. Armed with an 87B, he won three times in the six-round 1995 FIA Thorougbred GP series.

“The simple reason why I bought the 87B was that I’d heard that Clive Chapman was setting up Classic Team Lotus. I had a look around and there was the 87B and a 91 for sale. The 91 was the car de Angelis used to win the 1982 Austrian GP at the Österreichring, and Clive wasn’t really sure if he wanted to sell that for it was the last Lotus to win a GP while Colin Chapman was alive. The 91 was basically an 87B with different bodywork; the 87B was the configuration that Lotus had chosen for that season . . .

“It’s a fantastic car. We struggled last year with high-speed roll oversteer. We went to Dijon and it hated the track with its sweeps and plunges. But now we’ve got rid of all that and its ever so neutral and very responsive. We’ve fiddled with it very little. We have done just one day of testing this season — once you’ve got your set-up you leave it well alone. And we’re lucky because it has no real vices.

“It’s quick, too. I use 10,500 rpm. John Watson has told me that’s more than they used in their day — they were using about 10,250 rpm in qualifying — but the internals of today’s rebuilt DFVs are more reliable than they were. This car actually has the same engine (DFV 281) as it had back in 1981. Normally the cars and engines get split up, but this car was wheeled into the museum complete and that’s the way it stayed. It’s arguably one of the most original car in the series.

“This was half the excitement: it was going to be rebuilt and run by the guys who designed it and ran it in the first place — this gave me a comfort zone because 1 was sure that they knew what they were doing. It was very well-prepared and I was happy with its and the personnel’s pedigree — Chris Dinnage has been with Lotus from the Lotus 80 to the final days, he was de Angelis’ mechanic on this car, and the other mechanic is Eddie Dennis who worked with Jochen Rindt.

“We have to run 40 mm of ground clearance. In the day they ran them on the floor to ensure that there was a seal for the ground-effect. So our car’s set up is a huge compromise; it’s a very good set-up but it’s not how the car was intended to run. I think the raised front wing actually helps us when we are forced to run so high.

“Also in its day, they used sticky Goodyears; we have to use a control tyre, the Avon A11 or A26. These have been around donkey’s years and the mechanics reckon that a decent of Goodyears would bring us two seconds a lap. We use a set of Avons every two meetings and this probably costs us five-tenths a lap to the guys who bolt on a new set for each.

“As the series has become more popular so people are starting to take it more seriously. We work it out at £14 per mile, so it’s not cheap but the cost is not out of control. You have to run the car exactly how it was in its day. If you make a change and somebody queries it, you have to provide photographic evidence that whatever was used in its day. It’s a testament to Classic Team Lotus that the only problem we’ve had with the car was in its first race when for some reason it spat out a spark plug.

“It’s a fantastic series (open to any pre’ 84 turboless, rear-engined Fl car). For the last race at Donington we had 28 cars, and of those the top 10 were driven very hard and very well. At at the end of the day it gives the spectators a chance to see a F1 car close up and in action. In the ’60s there used to be five or six opportunities in this country to see an F1 car in action. Now there’s only one and you have to pay a fortune to watch the British GP these days.”

The car is up for sale as increasing business commitments will force Sean into retirement for the foreseeable future. Motor Sport would like to thank him for the loan of his precious motor car.

Lotus 87B/3

Think of Lotus and the genius of Colin Chapman and you think of the 25 (the first monocoque F1 car), the 49 (the DFV’s standard bearer), the 72 (aerodynamically advanced and gorgeous) and the 79 (instigator of the ground-effect era). In comparison, the 87 was a stop-gap.

In 1981 Chapman mooted what he considered to be F1 ‘s next step, the twin-chassis 88. Each chassis had its own springing system. The primary chassis consisted of the bodywork, sidepods, aerofoils and radiators. The secondary chassis ran independently and was composed of the monocoque, fuel tank, engine, gearbox and rear suspension assembly. The intention was for the primary chassis to asborb aerodynamic loads while remaining unaffected by braking and cornering forces which were to be handled by the secondary, inner chassis.

It was declared illegal, and Chapman spent the whole year with a bee in his famous corduroy cap in a fruitless attempt to persuade the governing body otherwise.

And so the team, under the design auspices of Martin Ogilvie, drew up the more conventional 87 on the same tub and running gear. Nigel Mansell gave it a very encouraging debut in the Monaco GP, but a mid-season switch from Michelin to Goodyear, plus a tendency to porpoise along the straights, kept the Brit and de Angelis off the podium.

The Italian gave the chassis tested here its debut at Silverstone that year. He took it to seventh place in Germany and Austria, which he then followed with three points scoring drives — fifth, fourth and sixth in Holland, Italy and Canada.

It was also tested by Mansell, Roberto Moreno, Dave Scott (a rising F3 star of the time) and Michele Alboreto, who drove it for just eight miles at Silverstone.

For the following year, two of the five 87s were updated to B specification. This involved using a long wheelbase (2794 mm instead of 2718 mm) thanks to a spacer between engine and gearbox. It also featured wider sidepods, a slightly narrower front track (1750 mm instead of 1778 mm) and wider rear track (1620 mm instead of 1600 mm).

These cars were replaced by the 91 basically a tidied up 87B with different bodywork after the opening race at Kyalami where de Angelis was eighth.