By the time Williams’ hard-won suspension
advantage was thrown out with the
driver-aid bathwater at the end of 1993,
Team Lotus, the trailblazer for the
technology, was fighting a losing battle to
save itself. Yet, had Lotus maintained
funding and faith in its in-house program,
the story might have been different.
Charged in 1980 by inspirational boss
Colin Chapman with regaining control of
the underbody downforce genie lost by the
radical, wing-less Lotus 80, Peter Wright
had taken an aeronautical approach.
Actually, Wright’s was Plan B. Plan A
had been mechanical: the theoretically-brilliant, twin-chassis 88 of 1981. But it
was banned before it could even race.
Wright met with Professor David Williams
at Cranfield Institute of Technology, who
likened the Lotus 80’s problem – severe
pitch resonance that caused it to “porpoise”
on increasingly stiff suspension – to airplane
wing flutter. Wiliams suggested adapting the
rapid and adaptive synthetic springs,
actuated by a hydraulic ram controlled by
computer, that he was developing for
variable artificial-feel control in airplanes.
JUST WHEN IT WAS GETTING GOOD...
Chief Designer Gérard Ducarouge.
“We won two GPs [at Monaco and
Detroit],” says Wright. “But at the end of the
year Engineering wanted Team Lotus to take
it forward – and pay for it. [Team Manager]
Peter Warr again said, ‘No, thanks.’
“We had learned a phenomenal amount
[with the road cars],” says Wright. “By
concentrating on ride and a bit on handling,
we had got down to the nitty-gritty.
“Control of the aerodynamics is the
easy bit , yet it’s a very large part of the
performance gain that you get from active.
What we had started to see was control of
the contact patch, something that F1
teams today are spending an enormous
amount of effort trying to understand.
“99T was very easy on its tires in race
conditions. Senna won [at Detroit] when he
persuaded Mansell [in a passive FW11B]
to root his tires. But even Ayrton couldn’t
switch the tires on quickly enough in
qualifying. What we had was the most
important bit. What we lacked was the
ability to get to the front of the grid.
Had we solved that it would have been
like discovering the elixir of life.”
Lotus, not Williams, was the first team to win with active suspension, but canned the project at the end of 1987.
Act Two of active suspension at Team Lotus
saw Ayrton Senna win in Monaco and Detroit
(MAIN) in 1987 with the 99T. Five seasons
earlier, in ’ 83, the Lotus 92 (ABOVE) gave
a brief glimpse of the system’s potential.
The resultant active, spring-less Lotus 92
made its debut in the 1983 Brazilian GP and
finished 12th in Nigel Mansell’s hands. It was
12th at Long Beach, too (ABOVE).
Praiseworthy results in the circumstances,
they were insufficient to save it from the chop.
High-risk Lotus was in transition: not
only had Chapman died suddenly in Dec.
1982, but the team was having to get to
grips with turbo power (from Renault),
a new tire supplier (Pirelli) and the late
introduction of flat-bottomed cars.
Relocated to Lotus Engineering, Wright
spent the next four years applying the
system to various road cars – only to return
with it to F1 in 1987 at the insistence of