It has been a very long time since a Lotus was expected in the winner’s circle. Not since the heyday of the 79, the Andretti/Peterson and Colin Chapman regime has the marque made any impact on the championship. It is true that there was the odd success with Elio de Angelis, but the expected renaissance with the arrival of Ayrton Senna and Honda engines never materialised, opportunities were thrown away and the team nosedived in a severe decline of competitiveness and morale.
Having proved uncompetitive even with the Renault and Honda engine, the introduction of the 3 1/2-litre formula saw the team leave the top table, onto which it had been holding by its fingertips, and join the rest of the makeweights in the Grand Prix field. By this time, one didn’t even bother to look for a Lotus to finish in the top six and their progress in a race was pretty insignificant.
Things had to change. There was no point in this proud team continuing if it was going to make up the numbers in the way that the AGSs, EuroBruns and Osellas do. The result was a new ‘package’ which comprised, amongst other things, the arrival of the V12 Lamborghini engine and the replacement of Nelson Piquet and Satoru Nakajima by two British drivers. Derek Warwick and Martin Donnelly.
For the evergreen Warwick, it was a chance to join the team he could, and should, have joined four years previously. Unfortunately it was under the spell of Senna at that time whose veto was just the brick wall Warwick was not expecting to run into. The result was that the popular Englishman spent four comparatively wasted years in the wilderness.
For Martin Donnelly, though, it is the first step into Formula One, a drive he gained on account of his stirring drives in Formula 3000 last season as team-mate to Jean Alesi driving for the Camel sponsored Eddie Jordan team. Ten years and 100 Grands Prix may separate Warwick and the fledgling Ulsterman, but at this stage of their careers, the respect is mutual.
“He’s what I would call ‘unspoilt’,” says Derek, “Someone who is approachable and hasn’t become the superstar that so many young drivers change into overnight. He also keeps me on my toes.” A phrase also used by Donnelly to describe his team-mate. While joining the team was a logical and positive step for Donnelly, although the number two drive in the team has been notorious in its waste of good drivers, it was not so for Warwick.
Although he was in the second division Arrows team, at least he was able to lead a Grand Prix, albeit very briefly in Canada last year, whereas the Lotus prospects looked in a state of terminal decline.
“To join Team Lotus this year was for me the right time and the right opportunity. They had had it so bad for so long, I felt it was a great opportunity for me to try and drag them back into becoming a top three or four team. That, however, is not easy because our package is not particularly strong. As a team, though, it is probably the finest I have driven for,” he adds tactfully.
“We do not manufacture enough for a top team, and that is a weak area, but we do have one of the best designers in Formula One and undoubtedly we do have the best race team which is down to Rupert Mainwearing, Steve Hallam and Richard Taylor, the chief mechanic. I have often heard them being called ‘the Rum Bunch’, and they are. They take the mickey out of you mercilessly and there’s no airs and graces.”
After the disaster of the first two races, were there second thoughts? “Not really. The car came very late. We had a few problems with the engine, a few problems with Bosch and we made a few problems ourselves. It wasn’t any one thing, it was a catalogue of bits and pieces which gave us a bad time.”
Donnelly, though, ascribes the poor start to “a large part of that was the fact that we never put any testing miles on the clock. There was also slight panic at the thought of a big old thirsty V12 lump propelling the car with the result that the monocoque was compromised to reduce weight. Since then, though, we have become more competitive and as the season goes on, we should do even better.
“At the beginning of the year, my initial aim was to keep pace with Derek and try and bag a few points on the way which I think will become more difficult as the Ferraris and Renaults become more reliable.
Derek has revised his opinion of the engine as the season has progressed, “I wasn’t too impressed with the Lamborghini engine at the start because everything was going wrong, but we are now starting to get a raceable engine; it is fundamentally very good and very sound.
“As far as driving is concerned, it is very easy because the power band is very flat and wide, ideal for somewhere like Monaco, but there is still work to be done on it for I think we are probably 30-40 bhp down on the Honda which needs to be rectified. The trouble is that we are lacking finance. We are well below the budgets of Ferrari and Renault. What we really need is commitment from Chrysler. I think it’s time they realised that we’ve got something which is pretty good and ripe for further development.”
“At the start of this year, I seriously thought we could run in the top six and get lucky and maybe get on the rostrum. I think that with luck we can still do that now. We are just tagging up behind the Benettons and that is our next challenge. The Renault, the Honda and the Ferrari are a little bit in front of us, and so we are relying on breakdowns to get the points.”
It is the power circuits, though, that Donnelly is looking forward to, “At tracks like Silverstone and Hockenheim we should start to see the advantages of the V12 because it is at the top end that it really comes to life. I would like to think that I should be guaranteed some points at Silverstone this year.” “Silverstone has been a circuit which has been very lucky for me,” asserts Warwick, “But it’s a circuit I have not often looked forward to as being a power circuit I have never been in a situation to have that power. With the Lamborghini, though, that has now changed and I’m now in a division one car and should run competitively at Silverstone. The only problem with a circuit like that is that the driver makes very little contribution to the overall speed whereas somewhere like Canada the driver can make up certain deficiencies of the car.”
Warwick has now gone almost 120 Grands Prix without a win, “119 Grands Prix and no wins is not a record I’m particularly proud of. The way things are at the moment, they are not going to change much this year, but we are all working on plans to have a more competitive package in 1991. Pressure is what you put on yourself. If you are in a Lotus and wish you were driving a McLaren, then you put yourself under unnecessary pressure. We do have, however, one of the biggest sponsors in Formula One looking for some light at the end of the tunnel and there is a racing team which has umpteen Grands Prix, World Championships and a lot of history and tradition behind it which bring their own pressure, but at the end of the day, history is history, the future’s ahead.”