End of an Era
Lotus' Last Season
Lap forty-nine, Australian Grand Prix, 1994. Mika Salo's Mugen-Honda powered car gives up and comes to a halt at the side of the track. Nine laps earlier, teammate Alex Zanardi retired with throttle problems. It was the last time a Lotus entered car would compete in a Grand Prix.
Things had gone steadily downhill for Lotus after the death of Colin Chapman in 1982. Before then, the team had secured thirteen world championships. After that, they only managed to win eight races, six of them with the ultra-skilled Senna at the wheel, and the other two by Elio de Angelis.
It was strange. Lotus still had some good people working for them, and money was no problem to begin with. De Angelis, Mansell, Senna and Piquet all drove for the British team in the years after Chapman's death, but it appeared that nothing could stop the rot. By 1994, Lotus was a back of the grid no-hoper battling with Simtek, Larrousse, Pacific and Minardi for the occasional top ten finishes.
1993 actually hadn't been too bad in comparison with what was to come. Johnny Herbert picked up elevan points on his way to ninth place in the championship, while his team mate, Alex Zanardi, also scored a point. Herbert's best race was at Silverstone. After lining up on the fourth row alongside Derek Warwick's Footwork, the Englishmen finished an impressive fourth place. Zanardi consistently put in solid effort, but the Italian crashed heavily in Belgium, and was replaced by Pedro Lamy.
For the next season, the driver lineup remained unchanged from the end of '93 - Johnny Herbert and Pedro Lamy. Castrol withdrew as major sponsor, so instead Hitachi and Loctite provided the majoritiy of the funding. The Chris Murphy designed 107C was a neat little car with a powerful Mugen-Honda motor replacing the Fords that were used the previous season. The season got off to a reasonable start at Brazil's Interlagos circuit. After qualifying twenty-first and twenty-fifth, Herbert and Lamy both made it to the chequered flag. Herbert was one place out of the points, in seventh. Lamy was three places behind. At the Pacific Grand Prix in Japan, Herbert and Lamy again made in into the top ten, finishing seventh and eight respectively. But it was the attrition rate of opponents, rather than car speed that got the team to where it did.
The San Marino Grand Prix was a disaster. In a tragic race, which saw Ayrton Senna die, Lotus had a shocker. After qualifying a well down the field, Pedro Lamy was taken out of the race in after he ploughed into the back of JJ Lehto's stalled Benetton. Wreckage from the accident flew into the crowd, injuring several spectators. Later in the race, a wheel from Michele Alboreto's Minardi hit Lotus mechanic Neil Baldry while the Italian was making a pitstop. Herbert went on to finish tenth in a race vastly overshadowed by the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger over the weekend.
At the next round, at Monaco, Herbert qualified sixteenth, and Pedro Lamy nineteenth. It was the team's best qualifying performance up until that point. In the race, Herbert had to retire with gearbox troubles, the team's first mechanical retirement of the season. Lamy continued until the end, finishing eleventh. Lamy did not make it to the next round at Barcelona. He was severely injured in a high speed testing crash during Silverstone testing. The Portuguese driver was driving at 240km/h in wet conditions, when his Lotus left the track, and smacked the wall. He suffered two broken legs and was left unconscious after the crash.
Alex Zanardi was called up to replace Lamy. Some difficult races followed, but Herbert almost got a point at Magny Cours. From nineteenth on the grid, he finished seventh, just one place out of the points. Alex Zanardi was doing a fine job in the second Lotus, his level of performance equally as high as that of Lamy's. The team was now a tail ender, and was only able to scrap for the odd top ten finish. At his home Grand Prix, Herbert was eleventh, while Zanardi retired with problems with the Mugen-Honda motor. The following race at Hockenheim was even worse with both drivers retiring from collisions. Hungary was a similar story, only this time Zanardi actually made it to the finish line.
By the Belgian Grand Prix, the financial situation was looking pretty grim, and Philippe Adams was given a race seat in return for some much needed cash. Zanardi was temporarily left without a drive. Adams was a rookie, and it certainly showed. After spinning numerous times in practice, he qualified twenty-sixth. His lack of experience was clear for all to see when he lined up on the wrong grid slot for the start of the race! He trailed around at the back of the pack, generally not doing anything until he spun and retired while being lapped by Rubens Barrichello. Johnny Herbert finished twelfth.
Then came Italy. Realising they were going nowhere but bankruptcy, Lotus pooled together all its resources to try and gain some success. The car featuring a higher spec Mugen-Honda motor was quick. Real quick. Johnny Herbert powered around the track to take an incredible fourth spot on the grid, eleven places up on the best qualifying performance up until that moment. Alex Zanardi was back, instead of Adams, and the Italian lined up thirteenth. Any hopes of a Lotus comeback were dashed at the first corner. Eddie Irvine locked up the brakes on his Jordan and crashed into Herbert taking him out. Herbert was able to take the restart, but in the much slower spare car. He failed to finish, as did Zanardi. Peter Collins, Lotus owner, was furious over Irvine's antics at the first chicane.
'Irvine's three-race suspension at the beginning of the year was far too short,' said Collins. 'His brain has obviously been removed and it is about time that his license is too. This is motor-racing and although it is totally disappointing for everybody that has worked so hard at Mugen-Honda and Team Lotus, I know that there is a great deal more in store and we are looking forward to the remaining races.' Herbert was also angry at the Ulsterman. The Englishmen commented that 'Irvine has done far too much damage this year and should be properly penalised. Formula One doesn't need drivers like this. I was going okay in the 109 with the older specification engine. I think my alternator broke and I had to retire.' Instead of it being the beginning of a Lotus revival, the Italian GP turned out to be the final nail in the coffin.
The team was in desperate need of money, and Philippe Adams was called up again to drive in Portugal. Following the Portuguese Grand Prix, Johnny Herbert left the team to go to Ligier. It was now not if, but when the team would fold. After the European Grand Prix, in which Eric Bernard and Alex Zanardi finished in eighteenth and sixteenth place, a British High Court ruled that unless Lotus drastically improved it's performance in the last two races of the season, then it would have to be sold to cover massive debts.
The required upturn in performance didn't happen. In Japan, Mika Salo, making his debut, and Alex Zanardi could only pick up tenth and thirteenth. The final race of the season was no better. Neither driver finished after mechanical troubles. After the conclusion of the race, team owner, Peter Collins commented 'It's been a tough season with a disappointing end, but there's no point in looking back. Now is the time to look forward.' Sadly, there was nothing to look forward to. David Hunt, younger brother of 1976 world champion, James, purchased the team but was unable to secure enough financial backing to compete in 1995.
'I just have to keep the show on the road until the end of February,' he said. 'I believe Lotus are special and very much worth all the effort required to save them. I felt this when I bought the team and I am determined to do all I can.' Hunt searched for a sponsor but was unable to secure one, and with no money to build the new car, the team was forced to close it's doors on January 17th, 1995, and the staff made redundant. Hunt said 'this is an extremely sad day for everybody associated with Team Lotus, the staff have been extraordinarily loyal and patient, but the non-payment of funds due meant that we had no option.' But that is not the end of the Lotus marque in Formula One.
In a bizarre move, Lotus joined forces with the equally troubled Pacific team. According to Pacific team owner, Keith Wiggins, the arrangement was 'exciting, not only for us but for F1 in general.' Strange really, because all the deal really meant was that the 1995 Pacific had a green stripe painted down the side with a Lotus logo on the nosecone. The team struggled all season, and failed to make an impression. When the money ran out at the end of the season, the team folded. This time forever. There have been countless rumours that Lotus is going to return to F1 since 1995, including one that speculated that David Hunt was to buy Prost or Arrows and rename it Lotus. This never eventuated, and it looks highly unlikely that the British marque will ever return to the F1 paddock.
If Lotus does ever return, it is likely to be with Proton, as the Malaysian Company now owns Lotus, Tengku Datuk Mahaleel, Proton President, expressed the corporation's interest in entering F1 'With Malaysia getting the GP, we are totally committed to the future of F1 and we want to make sure that Proton is a part of that. The fact that we now own Lotus is very important, and will form part of the discussion, and we cannot underestimate that. We will already be involved in F1 next year by supplying some support cars, but we will definitely be analysing if we could race.'
Whether or not Proton brings Lotus back to the paddock is irrelevant. The glory days of Rindt, Hill and Clark are long gone.
Article written by Scott Russell © 2001|
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