October ’88. The ‘old’ Silverstone Club circuit, a cold drying track, few cars and no spectators. A novice racer carefully exits the pit lane in a sleek and potent machine. It is this young racer’s first taste of slicks and wings and most of all, of power! In just ten brief laps the driver dispenses with his novice tag, the last and tenth lap stops the clock, half a second adrift of the regular pilots’ time. This is Formula Vauxhall Lotus and when I drove in this formula in 1988 it considerably widened my perspective.
On that occasion my mentor was Eugene O’Brian, a driver I respect in mainstream single-seater racing. My experience of Vauxhall Lotus in 1990 was somewhat different. Equally positive but viewed from the vantage point of considerably more experience. In 1988 the machine had seemed like perfection compared to my regular mount, a Formula First. In 1990 the concept’s unique character showed through, shortcomings and all.
Launched in 1988, Vauxhall Lotus has firmly established itself in International racing. What is it. . . . and why is it? A prestigious and senior one-make single-seater formula, monocoque construction, aerodynamic wings, Bridgestone slick tyres, Hewland gearbox and best of all, GM’s delicious 160 bhp 16-valve 2-litre power unit from the Astra GTE that has an almost unheard of (in racing car terms) durability. The engines are sealed, there is no choice of suspension and there are just two gauges of springs, but all this equates to economy and places the emphasis right back to where it should be — on driver ability.
Silverstone once again was the choice for my second acquaintance with the Formula. The car I sampled was Victor Lopez’s GM Euroseries Repsol version as prepared by the front running John Village Equipe. The team’s attention to detail was first class. My drive was preceded by an obligatory seat fitting, quite a luxury for a journalist! My mechanic for the day, Richard Greenleaf explained that the car was still on Jerez gearing and also sported carbonfibre brake pads in deference to Lopez’ extremely heavy braking style.
John Village (himself a former race driver of some repute) fully briefed me on the Formula. I would guess his wealth of experience makes him an excellent team manager and coach to his young charges (Scott Lakin and Niky Hart). Scott then ran me through the gears and projected handling of the car. Soon it was time to get down to business.
The controls and driving position of the Vauxhall Lotus are nothing short of excellent. Rarely have I felt so immediately at home in a race car. The engine is already warm as I exit the pit lane. Ooops! the engine may be warm but the rubber isn’t! Lopez’ car kicks into a hard oversteer as I floor it coming off the Copse apron. Very embarrassing, I must concentrate! Two laps later I start to get into it. The car feels quite fast, the engine runs strongly to 6800 rpm in all the gears (aided by the incorrect ‘Jerez’ ratios). What impresses most is the engine’s flexibility, generous torque and its willingness to rev. It really is a superb unit. Such a shame that the car’s brakes are relatively indifferent. The pedal lacks feel and is uninspiring. Late braking is something of a hit and miss affair, more and more pressure, not actually stopping the car quickly until the lock up point. Braking into corners is difficult to judge accurately, overshooting the turn point to Becketts hairpin on several occasions. Perhaps the carbon pads are to blame, but I doubt it.
As I settle in I begin to explore the handling characteristics of the Lotus designed, Reynard built chassis. It is too soft in ultimate terms, the spring and damper combination limit the machine’s cornering potential, particularly apparent at turn-in, where the chassis feels slow and ponderous. Once the car is turned in (to a fast corner) understeer is prevalent. Too early with the power at Copse succeeds in pushing the car right up the exit kerbing. Attempts to unsettle the chassis into a ‘neutral’ state tend to prove unsuccessful, but once the midpoint is reached, the balance quickly switches to oversteer, a limiting factor for the slow turns. Becketts in particular requires the car to be consciously straightened before full power is applied. A combination of bodyroll induced wheelspin and excessive torque (for the available traction) could easily produce a Dukes of Hazard style power slide, an excellent way for an aspiring racing driver to learn the discipline required to control more powerful racing cars.
JVA’s car feels very well set up, inspiring considerable confidence. I turn 30 laps in Lopez’s car finally getting down to 1 min 11.2, a second slower than Lakin’s best time. I actually feel that it is possible to go even quicker still without risking the car, but after the second session we unfortunately decide to switch the carbonfibre pads for a regular set.This turns out to be a bad move as we inadvertently fit a set of ex-Lopez race pads that Victor had thoughtfully roasted to perfection. Stopping becomes a major problem, so any chances of a better time are squandered.
My enduring impression of the formula has to be positive. These cars are huge fun to drive in a Formula Ford sort of way. The promotion of the championship is excellent and one cannot fault the concept either. Vauxhall Lotus provides graduating drivers with a real alternative to Formula 3 but at half the budget. The cars can also compete in the prestigious GM Euroseries, a sponsor’s delight supporting many Grands Prix in Europe and introducing young chargers to the circuits they will encounter as they progress into the higher formulae.
The only major complaint I encountered from both drivers and teams centred around certain individuals’ apparent ability to find some form of technical advantage, an occurance which should not be possible in such a strict control formula.
My sincere thanks to all at John Village Automotive, Julian Berrisford (PR), Silverstone Circuits (and Paul Stewart Racing with whom I tried to do this earlier). The acid test of course is would I as an aspiring driver compete in the Vauxhall Lotus Challenge this year? Damn right I would! — SD