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Bottoming Out: Team Lotus hits rock bottom


The 1989 season was not exactly what one might call an easy year for Camel Team Lotus. It will not be remembered fondly by anyone associated with the team, or indeed by the many fans who have followed Lotus since the days when Colin Chapman ran the show, when Lotus was THE team.

The 1989 season was not exactly what one might call an easy year for Camel Team Lotus. It will not be remembered fondly by anyone associated with the team, or indeed by the many fans who have followed Lotus since the days when Colin Chapman ran the show, when Lotus was THE team.

Was this really the same team which had collected 107 pole positions and 79 Grand Prix victories; the team with seven Constructors' and six Drivers' World Championships behind it?

How was it then that at Spa-Francorchamps -- the scene of five Lotus World Championship race wins -- that the team failed to qualify both its cars.

That had never happened before in the 31 year history of the team and it was hard to comprehend that such a thing might happen to Lotus. The only thing that lessened the blow was as the season unfolded the unthinkable had begun to cross the minds of even the most ardent Lotus fans.

Similar disasters have befallen other top teams. All good teams go through their ups and downs, but somehow Lotus always seemed to be different. Like Ferrari it has acquired a certain mystique over the years -- an aura of achievement, backed up by statistics and heroic tales.

It was depressing to discover that Lotus was a racing team after all, rather than a phenomenon.

During the bad patches, the best teams restructure, get the correct combination for success and then they fight back. That has always been the way, yet Lotus has not won the World Championship since way back in the glory days of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson in 1978.

There has not been a race win since Ayrton Senna was with the team early in 1987 -- and even more damning, there has not even seemed the likelihood of such a thing occurring.

Things have not been going at all well: Senna departed at the end of that year -- taking his startling talents to McLaren, for which he won the 1988 World Championship. In his time with the team, Ayrton had become the hub around which the Lotus wheel rotated. When he left the team slowly collapsed from the inside. Honda pulled out at the end of 1988; Technical Director Gerard Ducarouge departed for the Larrousse team; even the Camel sponsorship seemed to be in danger.

Nelson Piquet, one sensed, was not driving with quite the same vigour that gave him three World Championship victories. Satoru Nakajima was something of a leftover from the days of Honda, yet he could run quicker than Piquet on occasion -- which, to the critics, did not reflect well on Satoru, merely badly on Nelson.

Team morale had gone through rock-bottom.

And then, within a matter of days, Lotus Chairman Fred Bushell was arrested on charges related to the Delorean scandal, and Peter Warr, the Team Director, decided that there were other ways to make a living and, after a lengthy career based around Lotus, left the team for a second time.

Yet the ultimate humiliation was still to come when Piquet and Nakajima failed to qualify for the Belgian GP on a dreadful soggy day in the Ardennes. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

"See you tomorrow," people said to Lotus folk on that miserable Saturday night.

"Yes," replied the team personnel. "We will have plenty of time to talk. There isn't much else to do."

And yet, seemingly at the nadir of the team's fortunes, there was a strange, almost macabre, sense of humour.

The team knew it had already turned the corner.

It was beginning to fight back, rather than rolling before the punches as it had in the early part of the season.

While the Jonahs declared after Spa that the end of the world was in sight for the once-mighty Lotus team, the new management shrugged.

Spa had been 'one of those things'. The double non-qualification had been unlucky -- a case of being caught out at the wrong time by circumstances. It happens. McLaren discovered that at Monaco in 1983.

In fact, Lotus watchers had noted a change of atmosphere at the German GP.

In the Hockenheim pits the mechanics had put up a sign to ward off enquiries about the management changes in the week before the race: 'Don't mention the Warr' it said.

There, instead of Warr, was Tony Rudd, an avuncular -- almost cuddly -- figure. The great British eccentric brought in to sort everything out.

"I hope the reshuffle has happened now," he said merrily at Hockenheim. "My instructions are to win races. The latent talent is here. It is part of my job to find the good people and encourage them."

It all sounded like good home-spun logic, but the man who looked like shark-bait in the deep waters of F1 was no idle swimmer. He knew the rules of the game and how to play it.

The bubbly atmosphere in the Lotus pit at Hockenheim was evidence that everyone felt that a new chapter was beginning in the history of Lotus and the disaster in belgium would not dent that belief.

Frank Dernie, the voluble and ambitious Technical Director, had formed what seemed like a strong bond with his assorted boffins. The car began to improve with leaps and bounds. Piquet's interest seemed to rekindle.

The new Lotus management settled itself under Rudd's weathered eye: Rupert Manwaring, the team manager since the start of the season, emerged from the shadow cast by Warr's presence; Noel Stanbury, looking after promotions and sponsor liaison, put on his hard-talking hat and went after the sponsors.

Everything began to tick again.

As happened when Gerard Ducarouge arrived and galvanised the team to action in the summer of 1983 -- building the Lotus-Renault 94T in a matter of weeks -- a great motivator was at work.

Less than six weeks after he took over -- a fortnight after the supposed debacle at Spa -- Rudd was able to unveil the future plans of Lotus.

Piquet and Nakajima would leave Lotus at the end of the year. Derek Warwick would finally join the team -- after several borted attempts -- and would be backed-up by Formula 3000 graduate and Lotus test driver Martin Donnelly.

Camel was staying on. Given the dramas in the weeks and months before the decision was taken, it was almost a surprise that the cigarette company should stay with the team.

Lastly, Lotus would have a multi-cylinder engine for the 1990 season. A V12 from Lamborghini!

If the investigative press had not dug up the story in advance it would have been a stunning revelation.

"The driving team is organised," said Tony Rudd proudly, "the money is organised. What we intend to do now is to have a movement of effort sideways. We will have more emphasis on reserach and development -- on innovation."

Rudd's words must have gladdened the hearts of Lotus fans everywhere, for this was policy was turning the clock back to the original Lotus principles; back to the most successful approach in motor racing -- finding the unfair advantage.

It was this principle which gave the Lotus team such success in its history; which had resulted in such breakthroughs as the invention of the monocoque chassis and the discovery of ground-effect.

It all made a lot of sense. The combination might take some time to overrun the tried and tested McLaren-Honda combination and the mighty -- and resurgent Ferrari -- but it was a step on the path back to competitiveness.

The driver line-up was a neat mixture of youth and experience; the Lamborghini engine was powerful and gaining reliability -- and there were longer-term aims at which the team would only hint.

"This is the ideal opportunity for me to join Lotus," explained a genuinely delighted Derek Warwick. "There are two divisions in Formula 1 at the moment: Ferrari, Honda and Renault are out in front. With this package there is the opportunity to challenge Division 1."

The most striking thing about Lotus in the summer of 1989 was not the collapse of the team, nor even the grandiose talk of future plans. What stands out was the change that took place in the space of a few days between the British and German Grands Prix.

Perhaps, also, there is a moral tale in all this: winning drivers may need to be in total control of a team to achieve the level of support they require to sustain their challenge.

In the end, the drivers always move on.

A body does not function without a heart.