Thursday, 4 July 2013

Senna and the Lotus 97T

Words - Will Carter, Photos - various (public domain)

On 21st March 1960 in São Paulo, Brazil, one of the finest drivers ever to set foot into a racing car was born. Ayrton Senna da Silva would go on to captivate the world throughout the eighties and early nineties, gracing Formula 1 with the kind of natural born talent that has rarely been seen before or since. At his best, he almost seemed like he was a part of the car; fast and at times ruthless, he was the ultimate racing driver who would stop at nothing to win. Just competing was never a consolation for Senna, in his own words ‘being second is just being the first to lose’. It was a case of all or nothing.



This year was the 19th anniversary of the death of the great man, and there have probably been more words written about him than any other racing driver who has ever lived. Fascinating and enigmatic, it is fair to say that the world will never forget Ayrton Senna, but what about the cars that helped make him a star? While he will always be remembered for being behind the wheel of a McLaren, it was actually in a Lotus that Senna truly announced his arrival on the world stage. So with that in mind, we take a look at the car that gifted him his first taste of F1 victory, the incredible Lotus 97T.

Senna arrived at Lotus in time for the 1985 season after he had showed great promise the previous year in the unfancied Toleman car. 1984 had been his first season in Formula 1 and, despite driving a relatively weak car, he had produced some impressive results and ended the season 9th in the championship, appearing on the podium three times. Lotus had also had an encouraging season - despite being one of the best known names in the sport the team had suffered a turbulent few years, first with the outright ban of their Lotus 88 car in 1981, followed by trying to compete in a series of unsuccessful designs in the seasons that followed. It had been something of a fall from grace for a team that had been one of the dominant forces on track towards the end of the seventies. However, all of this would pale into insignificance in 1982 when on the 16th December, team founder and owner Colin Chapman died suddenly of a heart attack.



Being the driving force behind Team Lotus, Chapman’s death left a huge void in the team, but with the future of the team undoubtedly in question, former Competitions Manager Peter Warr stepped up and took over the role of Team Manager. He set about rebuilding the Lotus name in Formula 1, and midway through the 1983 season he commissioned French designer Gérard Ducarouge to come up with an all new car for them. In just five weeks Ducarouge would do just that, designing and building the Renault powered 94T, and almost immediately it proved itself to be far more competitive than the unreliable 93T, finishing fourth in its début at the British Grand Prix.

After a number of top six finishes and a podium for future World Champion Nigel Mansell, the 94T was deemed worthy of development and for the 1984 season Lotus wheeled out the tweaked version, known as the 95T. Senna was actually being lined up to replace Mansell for the 1984 season, but sponsors Imperial Tobacco were determined to have a British driver and so Senna could only be offered terms as a test driver. With a professional seat waiting for him at Toleman, Senna chose to go there with Peter Warr keeping a close eye on the young driver's progress.

The 95T would go on to put in a number of notable performances throughout 1984 with many commenting that the design was as good as the McLaren MP4/2, which many consider to be the finest Formula 1 car of its era. However, it was let down somewhat by its new Goodyear tyres, as well as the Lotus designed gearbox which time and time again was shown to be fragile and unreliable, leading to quite a few retirements. The Renault engine was strong and powerful though, putting out 800bhp in race tune and the 95T would actually outpace the works Renault outfit on many occasions, giving credit to what others were saying about Ducarouge’s chassis design. The only thing that let it down was its fuel efficiency which was nowhere near as good as the TAG-Porsche powered McLarens, which could stay on the pace for longer, requiring less fuel stops.

Despite this, the 95T showed promise throughout 1984 was consistently competitive with the top cars. Italian driver Elio de Angelis regularly battled it out with the front runners and by the time the Italian Grand Prix came around at Monza, he was outside contender for the championship, needing to finish first in the final three races of the season and for the unlikely result of both Niki Lauda and Alain Prost failing to score points. However, unsurprisingly gearbox issues came back to bite and de Angelis failed to finish, with the chequered flag going to eventual championship winner Niki Lauda.



Nigel Mansell also had some moderate success in the 95T at times, regularly being an outside challenger to the leaders. A pole position at the Dallas Grand Prix was the highlight for Mansell; however he fell short of any podium finishes, usually due to mechanical failure, and ended the season coincidentally on equal points with Senna. Mansell’s relationship with Warr was difficult at best, with the Team Manager not rating the Englishman as a driver. Numerous arguments between the two led to Mansell leaving for Williams at the end of the season, leaving his seat open for Senna’s arrival.

The 95T had proved it could be a front-running car when not plagued with reliability issues, as work began on improving the car for the 1985 season. Ducarouge took to improving the already well-regarded chassis, adapting some of the aero that had been designed for the abandoned 96T Indy Car project he had been working on in America. The chassis was also strengthened, and an early form of the now common bargeboard was innovated to aid cooling and getting clean air to the engine, while a new rear wing was developed to conform with new rules. The power was upped too, taking the Renault unit up from 800bhp to 900bhp and possibly as high as 1200bhp in qualifying tune.

The improvements had worked: the car was blisteringly quick, and with their new star driver behind the wheel looked as though it could be a serious title contender. In the first race in Brazil, Lotus came in at third and fourth respectively, with de Angelis taking third and Senna fourth. It was one of Lotus' best results in years and signalled their return to being a serious force in Formula 1; they finally had a car that could compete and a pair of drivers that Peter Warr was happy to work with. The season looked set to be one to remember for a team on the rise.

In the second round of the season the team travelled to a rain soaked Portugal. Conditions were difficult and by the end of the race only nine of the twenty-six cars that qualified remained. However, it was a certain young Brazilian who stole the limelight - Senna not only won the race, lapping all but one driver, but also qualified first and had the fastest lap of the day too. It was a truly memorable day for Lotus, not only had their new star decimated the competition but de Angelis had also come home in fourth place too, taking Lotus up to first in the constructors championship.

Senna’s first victory had announced his arrival onto the biggest stage. Now no longer just a driver with potential, he was beginning to be seen as a serious championship contender, and in a car that looked as though it could be good enough to take him there. All eyes were on Lotus. At the San Marino Grand Prix they didn’t disappoint either; Senna qualified in first place ahead of Keke Rosberg by nearly half a second, with de Angelis coming in at third place. As race day ended it was the 97T which was once again victorious, after Alain Prost’s McLaren was found to be underweight at the post-race scrutineering allowing de Angelis to pick up the victory. Senna had run out of fuel earlier in the race along with most of the other drivers as the cars struggled against the strict fuel allowances. When the race ended only six cars had completed, with Mansell commenting that the whole event ‘wasn’t really racing.’

In the next three races the 97T proved itself to be one of the fastest cars on track, qualifying on pole in each race; however, race results weren’t as great as their early performances promised and de Angelis would pick up their only podium place in Monaco when he crossed the line in third. Although the pole positions dried up, both de Angelis and Senna were putting in consistently good results, usually finding themselves in and around the podium places. By the time the Belgian Grand Prix came around, de Angelis was third in the championship with Senna following close in fourth.



It would be at Spa that Senna would once again show just what he and the 97T were capable of. Qualifying in second just behind Prost, it would set up an early battle between the two future rivals and team-mates. However on the day, with the conditions damp, it was Senna who took a fairly easy win, pretty much leading for the entire race. It was an assured performance from the youngster, but with de Angelis having turbo failure it was a missed opportunity for Lotus to gain some places in the constructors championship. The win had put Senna up to third in the championship, a long way behind the dominant Prost but with second place firmly within his grasp. With just three races left in the season, the chase was on.

The next Grand Prix was to be the European round held at Brands Hatch. Lotus were on familiar soil and looking to put a good performance in front of their home crowd. In qualifying they didn’t disappoint, with Senna putting in another conquering performance to put the 97T on pole. On the day it was local boy Nigel Mansell that grabbed the win, with Alain Prost taking his McLaren to fourth place and clinching the title in the process. Despite not winning it was still a good weekend for the 97T with Senna coming in second and de Angelis in fifth, both bringing home crucial points for Lotus who by this point were only six points behind second place Ferrari in the constructors championship.

It was all to play for now for Lotus, who had gone from also-rans to serious contenders in the space of a couple of seasons. Ferrari were in their grasp and if they were to carry their momentum into the next season, they needed the best results possible. Unfortunately these notions rarely go to plan, and in South Africa despite both Senna and de Angelis qualifying well, Lotus's mechanical gremlins would strike again. Neither cars would finish the race, both succumbing to engine failure. With Stefan Johansson bringing his Ferrari over the line in fourth place, Lotus found themselves losing ground on the Italian team once more. It was a massive blow for the team who had been working hard to cure the reliability issues that had hampered progress in the previous seasons, and it was now crucial for Lotus to bring in one final good performance before the season was out.

It wasn’t to be. Early signs were good, Senna qualified in pole for the seventh time, more times than anyone else had managed that season, while de Angelis was down in tenth. In the end it was another weekend to forget for Lotus; de Angelis was disqualified for regaining his grid place after being delayed on the parade lap while Senna’s car succumbed to engine failure once again. With Keke Rosberg picking up some good results late in the year, it meant that he ended the season third in the championship, dropping Senna to fourth and de Angelis to fifth, not a bad result but not as good as either would have hoped mid-season.

Despite the disappointing end to the season, Lotus still managed to finish a very respectable third in the constructors championship, and the 97T had proved time and again that it was one of the fastest cars in the championship. The 97T had been the first car Lotus had entered in many seasons that seemed truly capable of making a championship raid, and with talented drivers like Senna and de Angelis behind the wheel it was a real weapon. However, like the seasons prior it was the car's reliability that caused its downfall, and at crucial points in the season mechanical failure put paid to any chance of Lotus mounting a serious attack on either the drivers or constructors titles.

Nowadays the 97T will always be remembered as one of the best Formula 1 cars that Lotus built - blisteringly quick, it was arguably the fastest car that year and deserved more than it ended the 1985 season with. It will go down in the history books not only as the car that brought Ayrton Senna to the big stage, but also as one of the finest racing cars of its time. A true legend of the turbo era.

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