The Lotus 88 was conceived in the autumn of 1980 following a wind tunnel session evaluating a new Lotus road car. It was during this session that Peter Wright identified the value of separating the aerodynamic loads from the road handling chassis requirements. It offered the potential to feed the aerodynamic loads directly into the uprights and to minimise the pitch sensitivity of the platform, which in turn offered even greater downforce potential.
The original concept included sliding skirts as allowed by the regulations at that time. The banning of sliding skirts and introduction of a minimum ride height were not even on the horizon.
With the twin chassis concept and carbon fibre monocoque planned for the Type 88, Lotus had created a fundamentally good car; the structure of the monocque, suspension and geometries were all a big improvement over the 81, but the unknown part of the package was the aerodynamics. Lotus had put all of their focus into building the Lotus 88 because this was the car that Chapman was excited by and wanted to run, but they knew it was also necessary to have a fall back position. Knowing the Lotus 88 was so radical, Chapman had anticipated there would be controversy and that the opposition would try to have it banned.
Throughout the winter of 1980/1981 no mention was made of the concept or the next car other than the Type number – 88. While publicly declaring commitment to the 88, a secret project had also been initiated as a back-up and Lotus had simultaneously designed and built the Type 87 bodywork, locking it away with the whole Team sworn to secrecy. The type 87 was to use the principal (inner) chassis of the 88 but with traditional bodywork mounting directly to the chassis. So as far as the rest of the world were concerned Lotus had gone from running the Lotus 81 (the 86 prototype test car that had two chassis and sliding skirts ran in testing in Jarama but was never publicly released) to the Lotus 88, which was announced prior to the 1981 season.
At the start of the 1981 season in early April, Lotus tested the 88 with Elio de Angelis at Paul Ricard in late March, where it ran quite well on its first outing. The Team did their best to keep the 88 under wraps, but when it ran at Ricard, the Alfa Romeo team immediately sent their car on track to check out the competition. The 88 was far quicker, despite some teething problems such as the ‘body’ springs and mounting struts not being man enough for the job. From there it was back to the UK for hurried up-dates and shipment to the first Grand Prix of the ’81 Season in the US.
The start of the 1981 season was challenging with three races in quick succession without a return to Europe.
On arrival in the US before the first Grand Prix at Long Beach, the 88 was trailered from Los Angeles up to Laguna Seca for a shake down, where it ran well. This additional testing was done using a small trailer with only my father, Peter Wright, mechanics Nigel Stepney, Geoff Hardacre, Graham Fuller and Ian Martin plus the essential equipment to run the car; nowhere near the army that would be in action today.
With quiet confidence at Long Beach following the test, the Team were quickly disappointed when, despite initially passing scrutineering and running in free practice on Friday, pressure from the other teams on the FISA (the then sporting arm of the FIA) meant Lotus were black flagged during the second Free Practice on Saturday morning, being determined illegal and banned from running the Type 88 in the remainder of the event.
Despite the aggravation and exclusion at Long Beach, Chapman was convinced of the cars potential and was confident of overcoming the political problems, so before being shipped to Brazil, the 88 tested again in California at the Riverside track where Elio again covered a lot of laps and was encouraged by the car’s performance.
While the Team were testing in California, Chapman was busy with his legal team and the 88 was cleared by an ACCUS (Automobile Competition Committee US) in Atlanta ahead of the next race in Brazil. However the FISA made it clear that the court’s decisions were only applicable on American soil and the judgment would not be respected by the FISA. The Brazilian event was almost a repeat of Long Beach, this time the black flag being presented during Friday afternoon’s practice, the officials declaring that the bodywork touched the ground, which was not the case.
At the following race in Argentina the 88 failed to even pass scrutineering, but without a reason or justification being supplied.
Furious with the lack of reasoning behind the 88’s exclusion from the first three Grand Prix, Chapman wrote an open letter to Jean-Marie Balestre, issued to the press, stating his disappointment and disbelief, signing off; “…When you read this, I shall be on my way to watch the progress of the US Space Shuttle, an achievement of human mankind which will refresh my mind from what I have been subjected to in the last four weeks.”
In the absence of Chapman my father, being Team Manager, was called to Balestre’s office (a small caravan in the paddock) who notified him that the Team would be fined $100,000. (The fine was later withdrawn). It was a huge amount at the time and was an enormous shock! It was clear from the look on Balestre’s face that my father had angered him further with his reaction of disbelief.
On his return to Europe from Argentina, Chapman stepped back to revise the legal position and technical conformity, and correct some of the minor problems exposed in the short amount of running it had done so far. At the fourth round of the Championship in Belgium the Team reverted to the type 81 which had been raced at the first three Grand Prix. After six weeks of intense drama at the opening races, Nigel Mansell scored his first podium with third place at Zolder despite being in the outdated 81. While regrouping and strategising his 88 approach, Chapman was adamant that in the interim they needed a more competitive car than the 81, so the 87 was prepared and revealed completed for the next event, making its first appearance at the Monaco Grand Prix. The team’s appearance at Monaco with a “new” car that few people knew existed surprised the paddock. Debuting the Lotus 87 Nigel and Elio qualified 3rd and 6th respectively, adding to the surprise. Unfortunately during the race Nigel clipped a barrier while running in the top three and Elio was up to third before he had gear box problems resulting in his retirement three laps from the end of the race. Nonetheless it was an impressive recovery after the political storm of the opening races.
While the teams probably thought they had seen the last of the 88, Chapman prepared for one final throw of the dice with his imaginative design, both politically and technically, at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Following one of his core principals of “territorial imperative” he felt that Silverstone would be his best chance as he thought the RAC race Scrutineers would be unbiased and the fast open circuit would suit the car.
Sadly he was to be bitterly disappointed, for although the revised 88 was passed by the RAC Scrutineers as complying with the regulations, and despite the 88 running throughout Friday Practice, the RAC approval was subsequently over-ruled by the president of the FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre. Balestre was again under pressure and dealing with protests from other teams, who declared the 88 was illegal. The volatile Frenchmen instructed the RAC that the car must not be allowed to race and overturned their ruling, despite some fierce defense of the legality by the British national sporting authority.
Additionally the 88’s perceived performance advantage had been undermined since the first race in Long Beach by the improved performance of the other teams running ‘illegal cars’ (adjustable ride height control and flexible skirts), all these cars being deemed legal by weight of numbers and unanimous tacit adoption of the fudged ride height and skirt systems deviously introduced by Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team.
The 88 had provided the perfect ‘fear factor’ that focused the majority of team’s minds on the 88, while Brabham used the distraction to slip past the rules and dodged through to acceptance. In simple terms the twin chassis solution would have been impossible for teams to adopt during the season, whereas the Brabham approach was quite easily copied by all.
A quote from Peter Wright at the time summed up the situation quite well; “you can do what you can get away with, and what you can get away with seems to depend on who you are…”
The inconsistency of the FIA’s sporting arm, the FISA, at that time allowed manipulation and influence to severely affect the legal perspective of the 88.
In hindsight, without the distraction of the Type 88, the 87 would have been introduced much earlier, developed further and been a very competitive proposition. As it turned out, by the time the Team began to focus on the 87, they had lost six months of development on ride height control and skirts systems, which was too much to make up in the middle of the season.
The 88 was a classic Chapman inspiration which was ideal for the rules as written, but the political machinations of the worried opposition teams prevailed against it. Their resistance was borne out of the painful experience of being beaten by Chapman’s brilliant engineering innovations many times before, most recently with the Type 79’s dominance during 1978 .
Whilst the 88 conformed with the regulations as written, Chapman and his innovative design were not able to overcome the politics generated by the fear of its potential. Prior to the Lotus 88 saga there had been more scope to try things and experiment in Formula One and because of that people had been more adventurous in their designs.
Although the outcome of the 88 adventure had been disappointing it had nonetheless been a challenging and exciting time at Lotus and a tremendous learning curve on what could be achieved in the face of adversity.
It seems fitting that the last word on the subject of the 88 saga should come from Chapman himself, written after the car was excluded from competing in Long Beach without explanation.
“We are suffering from a lack of information,” he said. “we are still convinced that the car complies with the regulations and we would like to see a written statement as to why it s breaking the rules. The stewards spent nine hours and upheld the protests without consulting the Scrutineer who passed the car in the first place. These days I don’t think people are very receptive to innovative ideas but I’d be interested to know precisely on which grounds these protesting teams object to my car. The fact that they haven’t specified their objections suggests to me that they’re not really sure why they think it’s illegal.”
nb: Lotus Type numbers for both road and Formula One cars were issued by Group Lotus, even after Team Lotus became an independent operation. This was the case up until the end of 1994. The last Lotus to race in Formula One with a Group Lotus issued Type number being the Lotus Type 109.