Reviving Team Lotus
DECEMBER 1, 1991
BY JOE SAWARD
Team Lotus has more relaunces in recent years than it has had Grand Prix victories, but the once-great team which looked like going to the wall a year ago is on the up again. In December 1990 Peter Collins and Peter Wright (both former Lotus men from the days of the late great Colin Chapman) announced to the world that they were going to run Team Lotus, with the help of German Horst Schubel. When Collins and Wright took over they found a demoralised team, with no engine, no sponsorship, no drivers and a design - the 103 - way behind schedule for the 1991 season.
'The stage of design and manufacture was such that if we were to get to the first race there was no option but to go with a 102B,' says Collins. 'Having built the 102B, there was no way we could produce the 103 for financial reasons. We knew quite a lot about the 102B: its structural problems, flexibility and weaknesses. We also had a pretty good idea of the sensivity of the aerodynamics. They were the two areas we attacked to make the car drivable and consistent.
'We suffered in not being able to reduce the weight of the car. That was a big penalty. It was the result of having two days to define a car, being sure that it would be safe, strong and reliable. The car ended up overweight and that was probably costing us as much as a second a lap.'
The engine was also a problem and the two Peters had to make do with with old, but reliable, Judd V8s.
For drivers they took a risk.
'We felt that we had to look to the future,' explains Collins. 'I had watched Mika Hakkinen fairly closely through 1989 and 1990, initially because I had a personal relationship with his manager Keke (Rosberg) from when we worked together at Williams. As a result I felt Mika possessed a lot of natural ability. I felt it was better to go with somebody who we genuinely believed had a bit of extra-special ability - who may turn into somebody competitive - than to go with a driver who had had a few shots and not achieved anything. I felt Mika had the ability to make that step and he proved he did. He was also a fundamental part of us going ahead as he bought some financial backing. That was a very valuable thing in the early stages.
'My opinioin of Johnny hasn't changed. Ideally he was the driver we would have liked to have in the car. We felt he was exceptional. The people at Lotus who had worked with him in the last two races of 1990 were of the same opinion. But we needed some financial assistance. Julian Bailey was able to get a budget together so reluctantly - inasmuch as Johnny was our first choice - we decided to go with Julian. When he had the opportunity, and was in the frame of mind, he did a very good job - as he proved at Imola (where he finished sixth), but I think the pressure of having to bring the sponsorship, some of which did not materialise, was difficult to handle. That's why he only had one very good race.
'After Monaco we were under a lot of pressure from the sponsors we had in Japan to have two cars qualifying regularly. The sponsors were unsettled - and Julian's funds had evaporated. It was important, despite the financial burden, to put someone in the car who would deliver. Getting the car in the race was seen as more beneficial than not getting in the race. That proved to be correct with Johnny and he also gave new direction to the team in terms of feedback. He provided new standards and motivated Mika a lot more.
'Considering the funds which were available to us and the credibility which existed at the time we started, we achieved as much as we hoped to - and probably more than most people expected. In overall terms we are quite happy with what we achieved.'
But three points in the world championship was hardly earth-shattering. Behind the scenes Collins and Wright were building for a bigger and better future.
'Last year gave us the chance to assess the operating capability of the team,' says Collins. 'We felt that there needed to be a much stronger technical base at Lotus. That the whole philosophy of our return. It was something that Peter (Wright) and I discussed long before we set foot in the place.
'There was no doubt that the facility that existed was capable of producing an F1 car, but it needed strengthening in terms of the capability of personnel, the standards and equipment.
'As a result of not having funds we laid down a programme of what we wanted to put in place which we felt would give the greatest return: things like the windtunnel, the autoclave and bringing in Chris Murphy (as chief designer) and establishing a new technical structure.
'Any F1 team is very much a product of the leadership. The team takes the personality of the leader. When Colin Chapman was alive he was very much the leader. He was adventurous and following his death there was a little bit of a loss of direction and the conviction of being prepared to follow an adventurous path evaporated. That's perfectly understandable. There was a board of directors which was not specifically involved in the business and a team principal who was. Having a situation like that you end up with something of a committee where it is not always possible to go in the direction you want. I think what you really need in a racing team is something of a dictatorship.
'We are in control of our destiny. There is a structure which is very clear. I dictate general team policy, Chris dictates car design and Peter Wright dictates future direction. There is no discord in the direction we should be going. We have a positive and like-minded management - dictatorships in different areas. An overall policy, I guess, will come from myself. Having worked with Chapman for three years - they were the most exciting years I had in F1 - I think his willingness to take on unusual challenges or to take a different route did rub off on me a little bit. I think many of my critics would say maybe I have been too adventurous, but I am more than prepared to look at alternatives and do things a different way.
'I am great believer in the philosophy that if you follow you will never lead. For that reason it is essential to get Team Lotus back on a technical footing where it is trying to lead and not trying to match.'
'There is no doubt that Chapman is a great act to follow and a very difficult one, but it's not a burden. I see it as a spur. I don't think you could ever emulate Chapman, but the Lotus history is something we want to add to.'
But adding to Lotus's record of success is not easy against the big F1 teams of today.
'There are three teams which will always be stiff competition,' says Collins. 'McLaren, Williams and Ferrari. McLaren because it is very well organised, does a good job and is well funded. Williams because it has a very strong technical leadership and they are racers through and through. They are not without their faults, but they are racers. In the same way McLaren has faults but it does seem to be able to minimise its faults better than anyone else. You can never discount Ferrari because of its resources and the passion that exists in Italy for Grand Prix racing.
'Resources go a long way in making you able to achieve what you want to achieve, but all the money in the world won't buy you success if you don't know how to structure it and plan it.
'There is no way that we are going to make the leap to the top league in 1992, but I believe that when we have the 107 we will have a very strong and very competitive car. I think Johnny and Mika are going to surprise people with their performances.
'Making the step to the first league is really rather a subtle thing. It is progress in a lot of areas: in design, structure of the company, admiminstration, management, policy, technical associations, attention to detail.
'I don't have any illusions about how difficult the job is, but although McLaren will be the most difficult team to beat, it is not impossible. That may sound rather blase when you are up against Ayrton Senna in a McLaren-Honda and the resources of McLaren, Philip Morris (Marlboro) and TAG behind them, but anything is possible. You just have to believe it is possible and find a way to make it happen. You have to analyse your own performance and look for the weaknesses that are stopping you progressing.
'We have a very clear view of where we need to be and what the stages are in getting to that point. Whether you can achieve it is another thing. Only time will tell. Our plan in 1991 was to re-establish the foundations of the team, change the structure and personnel necessary to build a new future. 1992 is to be the re-establishment of the performance of the team and, I believe we will see that with the 107. By 1993 we want to be in a position to win GPs and by the end of 1995 to win a World Championship. That was our plan when we set out at the end of 1990. Stage 1 we have achieved. Stage 2, I believe, we are about to achieve. The third stage, only time will tell.'
But there has been a lot of misplaced optimism in Lotus revivals in the last few years. Is there anything different this time around?
'Yes, there have been a lot of relaunches of Lotus,' admits Collins. "Every time I have looked at it and said: "Yeah, not bad, but..."
'I guess if we didn't believe that we were doing the right things and didn't have the right people on then we would not be doing what we are. When I left Williams and went to Toleman everybody told me I was doing the wrong thing and would never make anything of it. I know what I achieved with Benetton and I know the resources which we had. That was very different to what was publicly believed. We didn't have endless resources, but I think we achieved an awful lot with a very realistic and reasonable budget. I don't see why we shouldn't achieve at least that again - although I really want to achieve more.
'I'd like to be able to generate more funding to do the job better, and really take on McLaren, Williams and Ferrari on equal stakes. Having said that it is quite possible that the decade ahead will not permit that for anyone. It could be that the international economic climate will not be able to generate the funding that it has been, and it may be necessary to operate sensibly but economically frugally.
'A big part of any budget is to have an engine supplier behind you. The major spenders in motor racing are the tobacco companie sand the motor manufacturers. I don't think you can say that they will necessarily continue to be involved in the 1990s.'
Lotus has not had manufacturer support since its split with Honda at the end of 1987, but last year a 102C chassis appeared testing a mysterious Isuzu V12 engine.
'It was a very serious attempt to run an engine and look at its capability with a view to the future,' explains Collins, 'but not necessarily in 1992. The timing between the first meetings and when we ran the engine was very short. Although the engine did show potential, it would certainly not have been the right thing to do in 1992. As to the future, it depends what the company wants to do with its engine.'
At the same time the new technology-led Lotus is looking to breakthroughs in other areas. Trying to get ahead in the technology race.
'We've done three or four tests with the active suspension system,' says Collins. 'It's working well. There are advantages, but we would like to see a bigger performance gain before we commit to using it. The technology is there but it is important not to do too much in one step. The 107 will be able to run both active and passive.
'There will be other technical developments like the head-up display from Frazer Nash. They have other projects. Obviously we are looking at the transmission both the selection and the internals. There is a lot of work going on there. Frazer Nash will be providing state-of-the-art electronics and manufacturing miniaturised computer software exclusively for us.
'Lotus now has a technical philosophy and is technically-focussed. That is the direction in which we have to go to progress. There are still areas of enormous perfromance potential in F1 and these are the things we want to get to grips with in 1992.
It all sounds fine and dandy in theory, but what about the practicalities. Where is the money coming from?
'It is difficult to say exactly what you will see on the car this year,' says Collins. 'We have established a budget to operate in a sensible manner and we are in a position where we believe we can operate to that. What you will see on the car is still being finalised.'
And when will the 107 be ready?
'We are aiming for the start of the European season with the 107. It wasn't until Chris came along on October 4 that we were able to start putting a new drawing office together to begin to draw it. It will be late so we have to modify the 102B to accept the Ford HBs for the first few races. This will be the 102D. After that we get the 107. It will be neat, tidy and attractive.'
And awaited with great interest by traditional Lotus fans...