Lotus 88: the F1 car that was banned

Goodwood Festival of Speed

The new restrictions on hot-blown diffusers has caused much debate in recent weeks. But what if the sport’s regulators chose to ban an entire car?

It’s happened before. Colin Chapman’s Lotus 88 was his final attempt one of his trademarks quantum leaps in F1 design – but it fell foul of the FIA.

79 to 86: Going backwards

Lotus-Cosowth 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Lotus-Cosowth 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Ground effect aerodynamics was the political cause celebre of 1981.

Jean-Maria Balestre, president of FISA (the fore-runner of the FIA), was keen to prevent teams using ‘skirts’ along the side of their cars to generate enormous downforce and, along with it, massive cornering speeds.

Lotus’s Colin Chapman had pioneered the technology a few years earlier and dominated the 1978 championship with his Lotus 79.

But the following year he tried an even more aggressive development of the ground effect concept on the Lotus 80. His plan was to use underbody aerodynamics to generate all the car’s downforce, doing away with front and rear wings to reduce drag.

Wind tunnels testing showed the car generated twice the downforce of its predecessor. But on the track the immense power of the ground effect couldn’t be controlled. The car would ‘porpoise’ – sucking itself down at the front, then bouncing back up.

The team only raced the 80 three times and relied on the old 79 for much of the year.

While the more conventional 81 was produced for 1980, Chapman persisted with the concept behind the 80. Using an 81 monocoque as a base, he created a new test car, the 86, where he pursued the thinking that would lead to the doomed 88.

The design of the 86 drew on an idea of Lotus’s Peter Wright: the external structure of the car was mounted, via springs, directly onto the wheel uprights. The portion of the chassis which contained the engine, the fuel tanks, the driver and the rest, was independent of the downforce-producing wings and skirts.

Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis tested the car in late 1980. From these tests, Chapman conceived the final design of the 88.

Twin-chassis

Lotus-Cosowth 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Lotus-Cosowth 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Lotus referred to the 88 as having a “twin-chassis”. The core of the car was, in effect, a complete racing car. The second layer was its skin, linked from side-to-side by three cross-members made from titanium.

The sides of the car, including its skirts, were straight – Chapman doing away with the curved shape which had proved problematic on the 80 and 86.

While the car was in development, Balestre announced details of the FIA’s latest attempt to ban ground effects, by banning skirts and requiring cars to have 6cm of ground clearance. Lotus developed a system to lower the car while it was on the track and raise it at slower speeds when it came into the pits to get around the rule.

But the row over the legality of the 88 began as soon as the teams arrived in Long Beach for the first race of the year (the preceding South African Grand Prix having been reduced to non-championship status following another political row).

Scrutineers passed the car to compete and de Angelis drove it in Friday practice. But that evening, following a protest from rival teams, the stewards declared the car illegal.

Frank Williams made his objection to the car clear. But he also hinted at the political opposition from some of the teams who did not want to have to copy another of Chapman’s breakthroughs:

“From our understanding of the regulations, the Lotus 88 is not legal by the letter of the law, let alone the spirit. If it is accepted as legal finally, then we shall all have to build similar cars to remain competitive, and the costs will be enormous.”

Chapman appealed that decision and was initially told the car could continue to compete pending the outcome. But the following day the car was black-flagged during morning practice.

A furious Chapman prepared himself for the now inevitable showdown with the FIA by hiring Robert Hinerfeld, previously a defence lawyer for Richard Nixon.

His ire only increased when Brabham turned up at the Argentinian Grand Prix with their own system designed to get around the ban on skirts. They passed scrutineering and dominated the race.

“We want Lotus 88″

Lotus-Cosowth 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Lotus-Cosowth 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Despite losing an FIA appeal court hearing against the banning of the car, Chapman made another attempt to get the 88 into a race by bringing a mildly revised “B”-version to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Some fans brought banners reading “We want Lotus 88″. The Royal Automobile Club obliged by declaring the car was legal.

Balestre hit back, threatening to strip the race of its world championship status if the car was allowed to race, and the RAC backed down.

While the row dragged on, de Angelis and Mansell logged the only recorded laps for the car in a timed session. Mansell’s 1’15.992 was the quicker of the two, but 3.8 seconds slower than Rene Arnoux’s Renault.

Whether the 88 would have proved to be another of Chapman’s designs that changed the face of the sport, or another step down a technological cul-de-sac, is a debate we can only speculate on.

Lotus 88 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed

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