Formula One has always been, in my opinion, an incredibly exciting sport and delving into archives relating to the Norfolk born Team Lotus, the sister company of Lotus Cars, was equally as interesting. Setting out on what may be an impossible task, this blog aims to give readers a brief insight into the Lotus Formula One team’s history. The documents which were available to look at, (NRO, AUD 1/1/490), begin at the peak of Lotus’ success in the years where drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet were part of the team.
First, it would be worthwhile to give some context into the company’s origins. After studying structural engineering at University College in London, Lotus founder Colin Chapman built his first competition car in 1952 and soon after the Lotus engineering company was officially established, with the help of a £50 loan. In 1954, Team Lotus was founded which allowed Chapman to develop cars which would challenge the top teams of Formula One for many seasons. 
One of the first things I noticed when researching Team Lotus is that the team went through many challenges and bumps in the road to create their success. One of these challenges was the cost of hiring racing circuits to test the cars. A cutting within the collection, taken from the Eastern Daily Press on 02 July 1993, explains that Team Lotus resorted to testing new Formula One cars on the airfields of RAF Coltishall ahead of the French Grand Prix in 1993. The article explains that hiring out a circuit such as Silverstone or Snetterton would cost hundreds of pounds for the day, therefore, the team jumped at the opportunity to test their new car, the 107B, for free at the RAF base. It was hoped that this could become a regular occurrence. The article also states that the use of the airfield boosted the morale of a team which had been struggling for a while, failing to score points at the last four Grands Prix, after winning seven in previous races.
Despite many challenges, Team Lotus started rising in the ranks and began to get their previous fighting spirit back. In a document regarding Lotus’ other racing team in the GT racing series, the F1 team’s success is highlighted in a statement about producing a revolutionary car. The document states that Team Lotus’ most successful car in Formula One, driven by Ayrton Senna, was the Lotus Type 99T. The car was driven in the 1987 season and became an icon for racing fans, much of the success and legacy also coming from being associated with Senna:
“Group Lotus International Limited and GT1 Lotus Racing introduce the most innovative ultra high performance Lotus roadcar. As the new Lotus GT1 class contending racing car, it has the potential to deliver spectacular results in 1997 and become the most successful Lotus racing car since the 1987 Lotus Type 99T which was driven successfully by Ayrton Senna.”
The press release states that both cars continued the legacy of Colin Chapman, creating sophisticated and lightweight engineering for years to come.
Team Lotus also started seeing more success with the introduction of Nelson Piquet. A press release from 1988 states the world champion did not want to miss the opportunity to join the developing team. It is also evident that he was unsatisfied with his position as number two driver to Nigel Mansell at Williams.
However, the news was slightly overshadowed by the departure of Ayrton Senna, arguably one of the most iconic and talented Formula One drivers of all time. Ayrton Senna joined the team in 1985 winning his first race for Lotus at the Portuguese Grand Prix on the 21st April . The departure of Senna was a shock to the whole team as he had won three Grands Prix, two that season, and played a vital role working with Lotus on their active suspension system. The press release also states that Williams was considering King’s Lynn born Martin Brundle as Nelson Piquet’s replacement.
Despite Team Lotus seeing success in the mid-1990s, the team came full circle and started to encounter financial difficulties once again. However, Lotus continued to make road cars and cars for the GT race series, while continuing as a Norfolk based company:
“Lotus is preparing the way for future expansion by revisiting its history. The sports car builder and engineering consultancy has taken a lease on Ketteringham Hall, near Hethel, the spiritual home of Team Lotus, the private Formula One team which built and operated World Championship-winning race cars between 1997 and 1994. The hall will provide client reception facilities, office space and workshops for the new GT racing team. This will clear space for expansion at Group Lotus’ Hethel base.”
Eastern Daily Press, 29th February 1996.
If you are a fan of Formula One, or just racing cars in general, then delving into the archives of Team Lotus is a must. They are full of interesting stories, some may say scandals, which highlights the team’s success and iconic drivers which made them a world-wide name for decades and certainly years to come. It is also interesting to see how a team with so much success started with such humble backgrounds and one dream, and still continues to be the same Norfolk centred company it started off as.
Researched and compiled by Katie Sheard, NRO Research Blogger
Additional sources used:
Interesting reading, but all rather late in the day, as far as Team Lotus was concerned. Surely the peak of the Team’s success was not so much the Senna-Piquet years, but when Jim Clark won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1963 and 1965, followed by Graham Hill in 1968 and Jochen Rindt in 1970.
Emerson Fittipaldi took the title in 1972 driving the Lotus 72, which was in use for five seasons and was a far more successful car than the Type 99T.
1978 was another halcyon year for Team Lotus, with Mario Andretti becoming World Champion, though after Colin Chapman’s death in 1982 the Team never recovered the success that was almost taken for granted in the 1960s and 1970s. While Senna could have given Lotus the World Championship had the cars been sufficiently reliable, Piquet was merely treading water. It’s simply not true that ‘the team started seeing more success with the introduction of Piquet’; the glory days were over.
Though Team Lotus finally shut down in 1994, the torch is proudly borne by Clive Chapman’s Classic Team Lotus, operating out of new premises at Hethel.