Chapman's last big thing

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The Lotus founder was famed for his drive to innovate; even his final racing car boasted one principle that would change the face of F1
By Andrew Frankel

Even at the height of summer, Snetterton can be a bleak and chilly place, so imagine how it must have been for members of Team Lotus on December 17, 1982 as they prepared to run their new Grand Prix car, this car, for the very first time. “It was the day after we lost Dad,” recalls Clive Chapman. Peter Wright was there too and remembers: “We had expected Colin to come. Instead Peter Warr arrived to give us the news.”

There must have been those who wondered if Lotus could even exist without Colin Chapman. His genius and maverick approach didn’t just influence everything Lotus: it defined it.

Still there was work to be done, for this was no normal Grand Prix car.

You might scratch your head at the mention of the Lotus 92. Doesn’t quite spring to mind like a 25, 49, 72 or 79 might, does it? And there’s good reason for that. It only raced for half a season and never once came close to the podium, despite the undoubted talents of Nigel Mansell at its small, suede-bound wheel.

So why is it here? Well, alongside its Renault-powered 93T sister, it was Chapman’s last racing car, the final offering from probably the finest, most creative brain this country has ever brought to the field of automotive engineering. It was also the very last Lotus to be powered by a Cosworth Double Four Valve engine. Seeing as it was Chapman who had gone to Walter Hayes at Ford to provide the funding for Cosworth to develop the DFV, and that it had won first time out in 1967 fitted to the back of a Lotus 49, and that it was fitted to every other piston-powered Lotus F1 for the following 16 seasons, its final departure from the fold is worth noting.

But like all important Lotuses – and believe me, this is a really important Lotus – its real significance has nothing to do with the past. Like Enzo Ferrari, Chapman only focused in one direction: dead ahead. And the real reason that almost 30 years later it’s now being unloaded again just up the road from Snetterton at Lotus’s Hethel HQ is that it pioneered a suspension system that changed the face and direction of Formula 1. It was an innovation as important and influential as ground effect, turbo engines or even the mighty DFV. It was called ‘active’ and this was the first F1 car to have it.

Today active suspension is thought of as a child of the early 1990s with cars such as the Williams FW14B scaling hitherto unimaginable technological heights, but it is here, with this, the only surviving Lotus 92, that it all started.

“It was incredibly ahead of its time; you could do almost anything with it,” says Tim Densham, the recently retired Renault F1 chief designer, then an engineer at Team Lotus in his late 20s. “It wasn’t just a device for controlling ride height, but was a fully active system. Its principal benefit was not to aerodynamics, but mechanical grip.”

The idea of active was not new and it was not Lotus’s. Since 1976 Lotus had been working with the Cranfield College of Aeronautics. The collaboration occurred when Peter Wright asked Cranfield’s Dave Williams to provide a system that would allow a car to be fully instrumented at tests, allowing an unprecedented level of data analysis. As the battle to understand, harness, control and exploit what became known as ground effect wore on, the ability to record objective data from a car in action became ever more important.

They worked together for three years until one day, during a 1979 test with the latest Lotus 80, the car started to porpoise violently. The 80 sought to use its entire body as an aerodynamic surface rather than just wings, but this had made the car hideously pitch-sensitive, an issue exacerbated by the colossal spring rates and minimal wheel travel mandated by the need to make the most of ground effect.

“A mathematical model of the vehicle with coupled aerodynamics demonstrated that it was an aeroelastic problem, but did not reveal a solution,” says Williams. “At the time I was developing an artificial feel control system, one that would respond to applied loads, but not to inertial loads resulting from aircraft manoeuvres. That led me fairly naturally to suggest that the Lotus 80 required a suspension that would respond to road inputs, but not to changes in aerodynamic forces, and that it should be possible to achieve that separation with hydraulic actuators replacing the normal dampers.” In a word, active.

But Lotus already had its own ideas about how to solve the problem. They appeared the next year in the twin-chassis Lotus 86 “technology demonstrator”, but when the Lotus 88 racing car it begat got banned, Peter Wright returned to Cranfield and asked Williams to get to work.

Chapman wanted Williams to work directly on a racing car, but he was persuaded to provide an Esprit test bed to establish “basic principles”. Soon enough the Esprit was running with computer-controlled hydraulic rams in place of its springs and dampers.

Development duties were entrusted to Team drivers Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis and a lot was learned. Despite the extra weight and the power sapped from the engine to drive the hydraulic pump, it was just as quick as a passive Esprit and much admired by its drivers. It was awesome over bumps and could be programmed to provide pretty much any handling condition. Today Wright maintains that “it was Elio’s demonstration of that car to Colin at Snetterton that convinced him to build the 92”.

The 92, (or at least this 92) started life as a Lotus 87 back in 1981 and was raced as such by both drivers. It was converted to 87B spec for 1982, then sat out most of the season as de Angelis’s T-car before becoming the focus for the 92 project.

At the time Lotus’s chief designer was Martin Ogilvie, and while most of his efforts were concentrated on the Renault-powered 93T turbo car he does recall that “the proposed benefits of the active suspension were a lower and more constant ride height, and immediately adjustable handling parameters”. Indeed so: within reason, the 92 could have any spring and damping rate it wanted at any wheel of the car. And it could have it in an instant. At the time Wright explained it thus: “The car works in the same way as a skier’s leg would on the slopes. As his leg reacts to the different bumps, so his brain receives the message, instantly changing the posture of the leg. Our suspension will receive its commands from our brain on board and immediately obey!”

In a 1983 interview with Car magazine Mansell pronounced himself “amazed” by the first time he drove the racing car. “The car had no pitch whatsoever. It kept a constant ride height. And when you turned into a bend there was no roll whatsoever. I had the feeling the car was even more competitive than we thought… it had potential for much greater things.”

But potential is one thing and realising it another. The system was heavy, sapped power and was at first unreliable. For instance, it was controlled by an aerospace-quality master switch that was fine in the Esprit but, according to Wright “had its insides scrambled by the DFV’s vibrations under full acceleration, turning the suspension on and off. Poor Elio took me aside and told me that, while he was not afraid to drive the car, he was not sure he could keep it out of the wall. We finally found the problem when he remembered that the engine misfired while he fought for control! Lovely guy.”

Mansell made the car’s race debut in Rio in March 1983, while de Angelis was given the one and only turbo Lotus 93T, which was passively sprung on account of Renault not permitting the active system to be driven off one of their camshafts. “I don’t think Nigel was wild about that,” says Wright before recalling that Mansell used to try out the system at the back of the circuit where the team couldn’t see him before committing to a quick lap. Nigel qualified 22nd out of 26 but fought through to finish 12th. Elio’s 93T retired with a blown turbo on the parade lap. At Long Beach Mansell was 12th again but in both races the system had reacted inconsistently leaving Nigel to rely even more heavily on his immense car control to keep it on the track. With Renault turbos due mid-season for both drivers, the active was removed and the 92 raced on as far as Detroit in June, where it came home sixth, scoring the only point of its career.

The project was scuppered by many things, not least its weight, complexity and the power required to operate the system. As Mansell put it at the time, “We lost five or six horsepower to power the system and in this business the first 450bhp just gets you around the circuit. It’s the last 50bhp that decides how fast you’re going to go. Out of 50bhp, five or six is a lot to give away.” Add to that the clearly finite shelf-life determined by Renault’s refusal to let its engine climb into bed with active and it’s perhaps surprising it saw the light of day at all.

The project, however, had not been in vain. While other F1 teams, most notably Williams, took note and put their own spin on the technology to finally realise its true potential, it was Lotus that would claim the first ‘active’ win when Ayrton Senna triumphed at Monaco and Detroit in 1987. But perhaps more significantly for Lotus was General Motors’ interest in developments. GM had been toying with active for road cars at a theoretical level for a decade and sent two senior engineers to Rio to film the 92 in action. “Some little time later, GM signed the first active suspension development contract with Lotus,” says Wright. “It was the start of a relationship that resulted in GM buying Lotus.”

I tweeted a picture of the 92 the day I drove it and asked if anyone could name it. No one managed, though one guessed it was a 93T and you’d need an unusually thick anorak to spot the difference. It’s not been ‘active’ since Long Beach ’83 but it’s still fascinating to pore over the last race car designed in Colin Chapman’s lifetime and think that it was with this actual chassis, number 92/5, that Lotus’s relationship with the Cosworth DFV finally came to an end. Having spent most of the intervening years in the Donington Collection, it is now owned and raced by Kiwi enthusiast Roger Wills and kept battle-fit by Clive Chapman and his staff at Classic Team Lotus.

It is a truly beautiful racing car. Not perhaps the most beautiful Lotus ever produced, but it is beautifully proportioned and so exquisitely finished it seems like it was actually styled. As it turns out, this may well have been the case. “I’m not sure it went in a wind tunnel,” says Densham, “but it did look nice for the sponsors.”

There was some speculation as to whether I’d even squeeze into the 92. Mansell was one of the larger men to drive F1 cars in the 1980s, but he’s still of racing snake proportions compared to me. There is enough room for my backside on the floor and my legs in the pedal box (just) but the top of the cockpit is so narrow I have to hunch my shoulders forward just to get in.

It’s amazing how slowly the environment of a Grand Prix car evolved through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. There’s a central rev-counter flanked by two small analogue Smiths dials, one displaying water temperature and fuel pressure, the other the temperature and pressure of the oil. The stubby lever operating the five-speed transmission sprouts just perfectly where my right hand naturally lies. Architecturally the 92 cockpit is no great advance on a Lotus 24 of 20 years earlier.

In construction, however, this car could hardly be more different. Instead of a flimsy aluminium spaceframe, here you find a carbon fibre and Kevlar sandwich monocoque clothed in carbon-fibre body panels. In period the 92 only raced on Pirelli rubber but today, as with all other historic F1 cars of the era, stout Avon slicks are the order of the day.

The DFV barks into rumbustious life. I’ve driven a fair few cars that use this engine but I always get a frisson of nervousness and excitement whenever I know the external battery has been plugged in and I’m given the sign to fire it up. This is a gruff and brutal engine, no manners at all, and all the better for it.

But this is the first time I’ve driven a DFV built in the modern era of rev limits and a degree of cost consciousness. A few years back you could either have a DFV that revved flexibly from 6000rpm to 10,500rpm, produced 475bhp, lasted most of the season and got you nowhere, or one that only worked properly between 8000rpm and 11,200rpm, made 520bhp and needed regular rebuilding.

Now it seems you can have the best of both worlds. As I rolled out onto the new FIA-specification test track at Hethel I was completely dazzled by the way this engine worked. You can drop it down to 4000rpm and it’ll still pull, it’s working hard at 6000rpm and whips round to 10,500rpm with a vengeance. Yet it makes better than 520bhp. With little more than half a tonne to propel, it makes even the very fastest super cars seem utterly impotent.

It consumes gears relentlessly right up until fifth when, at around 150mph, it just seems to stop accelerating – maybe it really hasn’t ever been in a wind tunnel. But the gearbox is a delight and the handling on warm to cool slicks offers exactly the right blend of mild understeer and huge traction you’d hope for on first introduction to such a car. It would have been fascinating to try it with active, but it is hard to see how that might now ever be possible.

Most unsuccessful racing cars become that way because their designers underestimate the challenge involved. However, some can lay claim to more noble reasons for their lack of competitiveness, and emphatically the Lotus 92 is one. The idea was spot on; what tripped it up was the fact that realising its full potential required knowledge that simply did not exist.

Clearly Colin Chapman would have preferred to close his account with a winner, but instead he went out with a car whose only fault was to be just a little too far ahead of its time. For any F1 constructor there would be no shame in that. For a man like Colin Chapman who lived on and over the creative edge, you might even call it a fitting finale.

Thanks to Roger Wills, Joe Twyman, Clive Chapman, Chris Dinnage, Lotus Cars and everyone at Classic Team Lotus

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