Lotus Elise Trophy & Single-make series

Equal machinery is key to championships that boast loyal followers and full grids

In 1971 the Ford Motor Company launched the Ford Escort Mexico Challenge, a single-make race series which consisted of near-standard 1.6-litre cars. Apart from the cars being moving billboards for the latest Escort, the series also set many racers on the path to greater things. The likes of Andy Rouse, Barry Williams, Gerry Marshall, Jack Brabham and even a certain Simon Taylor all competed.

There had of course been single-make championships before, such as the French DB Panhard single-seater series of the ’50s and the Renault 8 Gordini series of the ’60s. However, it was the Mexico Challenge that properly launched the idea of the single-make series. Nowadays, this type of racing boasts some of the largest grids in the UK, with the likes of the Graduates Club with Caterham, Mini Challenge, Clio Cup and the Ma5da MX5 Championship.

The majority of drivers in these series view them as a stepping stone to more important championships and drives. However, some single-make series are staunchly against being seen as ‘a leg-up’. The Lotus Elise Trophy is one of these. It was launched four years ago and has boasted oversubscribed grids for almost every round ever since. When you consider that it includes 17 meetings this year with two races at each round, and has grids of up to 45 cars, that is astonishing. Yes, the racing is reasonably cheap, but not that cheap, so why is it so popular? I went to the World Touring Car Championship round at Brands Hatch to race one of the cars and find out.

Series co-ordinator Paul Golding started running Lotus track days in early 2000. “It wasn’t long before we got a couple of hundred people doing it,” he says. “We then went on to sprinting the cars and really wanted to go racing. At the time Elises were quite expensive, so we ended up racing E30 BMWs.

“Eventually the Elises came down in value, so in the summer of 2005 we started putting the race series together. By this time we had 2000 people doing the track days (Lotus on Track currently boasts 2700 members and runs 95 track days a year), so we got people from there and the BMW series.

“We had a good relationship with [circuit owner] MotorSport Vision because of the track days so they didn’t need much convincing to make us their second series alongside Formula Palmer Audi. We started at Brands Hatch in 2006 by headlining the ‘Lotus Festival’ and we had a full grid of 32 cars. Quite a few thousand people turned up and we also had TV coverage that has carried on up to the present day. It was a good meeting!

“The series grew and grew thanks to press coverage and the size of the grids. Also, when I stopped racing I was good friends with Martin Donnelly (see Lunch With…, p76) so I gave the car to him to race.” Donnelly still races in the series when he can, which did nothing to boost my confidence when I found out, especially as he’s not even always the fastest driver…

The popularity of the Elise Trophy is understandable when you consider how many people race in one-make series. The idea that your driving skills are being pitted against the next man’s, rather than the size of his wallet, is a very big draw. But Golding is keen to point out that the Lotus name is really what fills the grid. “There are 10,000 Elise owners in the UK,” he says, “and in the Elise Trophy eight out of 10 people already have the cars before turning them into racers [something that can be done for less than £5000].

“We toyed with becoming a championship next year, but we’ve decided against it. The view is that if we did become a championship it would attract the wrong sort of people who’d want to win at all costs and would have minimal interest in the Lotus side of things. We have full grids, so we have no reason to accept them. It would be easy to become a stepping-stone when you consider we race at events with the DTM and WTCC.”

The Elise Trophy is not run for profit, and when I ask Golding how he manages to get so many volunteers he explains: “We only pay one person because if something goes wrong and I throw the toys out of the pram, it’s very hard to shout at a volunteer. Apart from that, though, everyone is a volunteer and they come along because they are Lotus people and know us well. The accountant is an Elise owner who races with us, the timekeeper raced with us last year, one scrutineer was on our first grid, the other owns an Elise…”

The atmosphere in the paddock is extremely friendly and when I arrived for practice everyone was interested in what I was doing in Paul’s car (the same car that Andy Green has competed in and Jake Humphrey crashed so spectacularly last year for the BBC).

By the time we get to qualifying I am still off the pace and languishing down the bottom of the grid. I’m finding it very hard to follow Paul’s advice knowing it isn’t my car: “If you want to be quick, you’ve got to drive it like you don’t give a sh*t about the car…”

In race one I manage to overtake a few people, but annoyingly everyone I pass decides to either break down or crash, meaning that I am classified last of the finishers. In the second race, however, I fare better and manage to finish 23rd out of 36 cars. As with all single-make series the standard of driving in the Elise Trophy is extremely high, so it would have been naïve of me to think that I would be anywhere but the back of the grid in a car that hasn’t had lots of money spent on it. I had just calmed myself down when I was told that Gavin Kershaw, the Lotus test driver, started from the back of the 46-car grid in the same Lotus at the same event last year, and finished fifth after 20 minutes of racing. It turns out that I have a lot of practice to do before I can be competitive in such a fiercely-fought series…

The Elise Trophy will continue to be popular and not just because it’s a one-make series. Everyone concerned is clearly a fan of Lotus and, although you won’t be shown any favours on track, there is absolutely nothing off it to suggest that the 40-odd drivers and their families aren’t anything but good friends. It’s encouraging to know that there is still a one-make series where the drivers are there purely for the sake of having fun. Too often amateur racing drivers seem to forget that that’s what they’re supposed to be doing.

Many thanks to Paul Golding and Essex Autosport for their help with this feature, and for gracefully accepting that their car would be nowhere near the top 10 very early on in the weekend!

Our thanks to the following for their help with this feature