Back In Black

This Elise Sport is not just another one-make racer; Lotus has taken a great road car and turned it into a simple, swift and superb racing car. Andrew Frankel samples the weapon with which Lotus is returning to motor racing

Was there ever a exciting time for fans of British sportscars? Jaguar may have decided its return to racing will be on the Formula One grid, but for Bentley and Aston Martin, some 70 and 40 years since their last successful works outings, the future is all sportscars. Neither is prepared to go on the record but if both marques have not returned to Le Mans by 2003 I, for one, will eat my crash hat. Then there is Lister, fresh from its first ever FIA sportscar win and the promise of the TVR Speed 12 heading the Blackpool marque’s long overdue return to the Sarthe.

Compared to such plans, Lotus’ official return to motorsport might seen rather low-key — a one make series for its established Elise run on the support card for this year’s BTCC touring car championship. The car looks like an Elise with a roof and, like such cars, comes powered by a 1.8-litre Rover engine running through a conventional five-speed gearbox. Big deal.

Actually, it is. Encapsulated in this tiny 700kg racing car is all you need to know about how good is life at Lotus and how well the company now understands the values that once make it great. Over 40 years ago, Lotus defined the art of the simple, lightweight, technologically advanced car, be it for road use, sportscar racing or F1. It built its reputation on this platform and seemed surprised when, having spent too long building coupes and supercars, it built another one, called it Elise and watched the punters queue outside the factory to get their hands on one. They’re still queuing.

And Lotus does not seem likely to forget again any time soon. The 340R is a 21st century Seven, lighter and more simple even than the Elise, while the M250, its new £40,000 sportscar, packs a 250bhp punch in a car weighing less than a tonne.

This Elise Sport however, is pure racing car. It may share its tub and the external appearance of its engine and gearbox with a road Elise but that’s as far as it goes. The last thing Lotus wanted was to bolt a race seat and roll-cage into an Elise, stiffen the springs and call it a racing car; for it to be taken seriously and for drivers to part with £55,000 for the pleasure of a year’s racing after which Lotus takes the car back, it needed no ordinary one-make racer.

The changes are legion. First, they enclosed the bodywork and installed a scoop in the roof to help cool the engine. Then the body was accentuated and reprofiled front and back for extra downforce, the pursuit of which was then helped along by the addition of a front splitter and a large adjustable rear wing. The driving position was made central, partly for marketing reasons, partly to protect the driver but also for better weight distribution. The wishbone suspension gains race geometry, adjustable dampers, front roll bar and race springs, while Yokohama supply the slick and wet tyres. Braking comes from 295mm ventilated discs clamped by four-piston AP Racing calipers and Mintex competition pads.

The brief for the mechanicals was to keep it simple and strong; Minister did the engine and returned the 1.8-litre K-series Rover engine with over 200bhp and a longevity which should mean 3000 race miles between rebuilds. Quaife supplied the straight cut, short ratio internals for the five-speed gearbox.

The series is a ten-round programme which, as you read this, has kicked off already at Brands Hatch and includes night races and trips to circuits like Spa, the Nürburgring and Magny-Cours when it is not supporting the BTCC. So far 21 drivers have signed up and over 40 cars have been built, the extras needed to satisfy the international demand for a Lotus GT racer for club events the world over. If you just want to buy one, the price is £40,000.

For UK competitors the £55,000 price means Lotus looks after all costs from your overalls upwards, save insurance. Lotus finds a sponsor for each car and runs them all by itself. You turn up and drive. Engines are sealed, gear ratios fixed and cars ballasted to ensure absolute equality on the grid. All drivers can do is basic set-up work: finding the right damper, roll bar and wing settings.

Sitting on the tarmac next to the factory’s superb 2.25 mile test track and dressed in black, this Elise looks remarkably purposeful considering its diminutive size and the rather more cute appearance of its tame road-going sibling. It is a deal more difficult and even less dignified to climb aboard than the only other road-derived sportcar to boast a central driving position, the McLaren F1 GTR, but at least once ensconced, the Elise Sport is comfortable. Ahead is an analogue Stack tachometer reading from 4-9000rpm while other functions from basics such as oil pressure and temperature to full data-logging are within an LCD display below.

It starts as easily as a road Elise — you just turn the key — but that is absolutely the last time in a day with the car that it occurred to me that it occupied any common ground at all with that, or any other road car.

Minister have done a fine job with an engine that’s never in its many more humble forms been short of praise. Its undersquare dimensions make it flexible below 5000rpm but it’s only at this point that it starts to sound interested, its rude blare becoming a sharp bark as it spins round to peak power at about 7750rpm. By race car standards it’s not super quick in a straight line — a road car like a Ferrari 360 Modena would stay with it to 100mph and go past beyond that but that is hardly the point with this Elise.

Like all the best Lotuses, it is when you require more than mere acceleration that it suddenly and spectacularly comes into its own. With a biting wind, an air temperature barely above freezing and hard compound Yokohamas it was almost impossible to make the tyres work properly, but this did not stop the Elise displaying a level of grip likely to stagger those used to less highly developed forms of one make racing.

There is real downforce here and you can feel it through all of Hethel’s myriad fast corners, just as you can detect its absence in its two slow corners. At speed it is precise and reassuring, the car refusing to be deflected by bumps that jolt the wheel in your hand as you tackle a fast curve at three-figure velocity; in the hairpins there is just understeer that, today, not even second gear and a bootful of throttle can eliminate.

Best is its ability to flick instantly from left to right at vast speed. Lotus built this circuit not for racing but the rather more exacting discipline of making sure its cars remain the best handling in the world. There is one section where you come screaming into a lefthand kink just as the camber falls away from as you; and while you cope with this, there is the knowledge that the late apex also provides the turn in point for an equally challenging right. More demanding tests of composure are rare, and the Elise proved extraordinarily secure and capable, not to mention great fun.

That said, all this stability is not without its price, and running with the wing on its steepest setting meant acceleration dried up much above 120mph and I doubt its top speed while so configured is significantly greater than a standard 118bhp road Elise. Still, this does mean the Quaife internal gear ratios can be stacked extremely close and thereby obviating the need for the six-speed box that might be thought essential for a racing car with such power from so small an engine.

As I write this, no one yet knows how fast the Elise Sport really is relative to other one-make racers. The only track where it has been run in anger at other than Hethel is Snetterton, a power circuit which does little to play to the Elise’s formidable strengths. That said, it will still lap the tack only around six seconds a lap slower than that doyen of one-make racers, the TVR Tuscan. And given that the Lotus has considerably less than half the power of the TVR, that is some achievement.

What will be most interesting, however, is how its lap times compare with those of the BTCC cars the Elise Sport series supports. With highly developed aerodynamic and suspension packages and at least 100 extra horsepower, you’d expect the Touring Cars to be in a different league, even if you take into account the 200-300kg weight disadvantage they carry. But we shall see. The Elise Sport may at its heart only be a converted road car powered by a 1.8-litre engine but never doubt the talent of those who made it or the lengths to which they have gone to make sure it does justice to Lotus’ illustrious racing history. Unlike so many others and perhaps contrary to appearances, this Elise is a racing car from stem to stem. And you only need one quick lap on board to know it.