Lotus 88 - Was Chapman's masterpiece a victim of politics?


November 15, 2016
Featured, Spotlight
Alexander S


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  • Colin Chapman Lotus

The Lotus 88, designed by Colin Chapman and his team, had to be another successful project of the British team but unfortunately, it never made its appearance in the Formula 1 championship.

Downforce was the key of success

Lotus dominated Formula with its Lotus 79 car and many teams tried with less or more success to emulate with their cars. The secret of the Lotus’ triumph was an innovative approach to ground effect which allowed cars to have an unbelievable downforce. The cars could get into the turns with high speeds but the drivers were exposed to the extreme g-forces.

Lotus 88 cars ground racing 1981 new banned season suspension aerodynamic speed 2017

Twin chassis design was a radical approach

The FIA was in a panic after another radical design made by Lotus and simply decided to ban moveable skirts fitted to the bottom of the side pods that were vital for achieving the consistent ground effect. The world’s motorsports governing body regulated a mandatory ground clearance of 6 cm, with an explanation that is in the interest of driver safety and most teams adopted that more or less successfuly.

Radical twin chassis approach and the first carbon-fibre monocoque

When the Lotus 88 was launched, with twin chassis and carbon composite monocoque, the Formula 1 world was wondering how they did it. The Lotus 88, built in 1981, basically was developed 86 model but with one ingenious innovation – it was the first and only twin-chassis Formula 1 car. The key feature of the car was the primary chassis which carried out the bodywork and aerodynamics elements, while the secondary chassis, in fact, was inside the primary chassis which, when the car leaves the pit, was basically sucked by the downforce and sealed with the track.

Colin Chapman Lotus cars ground racing 1981 new banned season suspension aerodynamic speed

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Colin Chapman with Lotus 88

The secondary chassis of type 88 was the monocoque, engine, and the gearbox. The most important thing with a monocoque was that it was the first carbon-fibre monocoque in Formula 1. It provided a massive increase in strength, particularly with ground effect cars, and also provided a big step forward in the terms of safety.

The FIA gives green light and swiftly overturns its decision

The Cosworth engine powered Lotus 88 passed scrutineering test and was ready for the racing debut. Elio de Angelis drove the car during Friday practice. The FIA officials were delighted with a new car which got all thumbs-up but overnight a total overturn had happened. In the following day, after the protests from rival teams, the FIA has announced that the car is illegal and banned it saying that revolutionary solution went contrary to the rules against side skirts.

Lotus 88 Formula cars suspension racing new season chassis aerodynamic

Lotus 88 at Goodwood Festival of Speed

Colin Chapman was furious and was prepared for the inevitable showdown with the FIA by hiring Robert Hinerfeld, previously a defense lawyer for Richard Nixon. His anger increased, even more, when Brabham team 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.

Another try with Lotus 88B

Chapman lost appeal but was resolute to push Lotus 88 into a race and for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone prepared a slightly revised 88B. Nigel Mansell and de Angelis drove it in the free practice but were significantly slower than Renault. However, the FIA and Royal Automobile Club stated that the car was illegal and wasn’t allowed to race, so Lotus was left without entries for the British Grand Prix.

Lotus 88B cars suspension racing new season chassis aerodynamic

Lotus 88B was disqualified from the 1981 British Grand Prix

This extraordinary car was probably the most innovative car unbelt by Lotus by never had the opportunity to compete, so its final capabilities remained unknown. Lotus 88 is still standing as a topic of debate for the passionate Formula 1 fans. This car definitely was a victim of political tensions between FIA and Chapman who died of heart attack in December 1982.

Video – Lotus 88

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