The Type 101 emerged from the fallout over the unsuccessful 1988 season where Team Lotus failed to win a race for the first time since 1984. The much hoped pairing of the dominant Honda RA168E engine with reigning World Champion Nelsen Piquet in the form of the Type 100T, never came close to achieving its potential. At the end of the season following subtle lobbying from Piquet, Team Lotus’s Chief Designer GérardDucarouge had left along with Honda, who had elected to exclusively supply McLaren for the forthcoming post-turbo era.
This left Team Lotus in the unenviable position of having no engine, designer or indeed car, for the 1989 season. However, it had retained the services of Nelson Piquet. He would be instrumental in persuading the Williams aerodynamicist Frank Dernie who, in collaboration with Patrick Head, had helped design his championship-winning FW11B Williams, to join him at Ketteringham Hall as Technical Director in November 1988. Despite having thirteen years of Formula 1 experience, Frank had never overseen the design an entire car, let alone one that needed to be ready in a matter of weeks. To assist him in this endeavour would be Team Lotus’s Mike Coughlan, who was able to undertake all the detailed design work such as developing 100T’s chassis for its new engine.
With the departure of Honda, Lotus found themselves with limited engine options. All manufacturers were already contractually bound to supply other teams, meaning that Lotus would have to be a paying customer of an engine, eventually opting to use Judd. Whilst this decision was partially budget driven, teams equipped with Judd had raced competitively throughout the previous season, regularly outpacing those with Cosworth’s DFR and DFZ units and proving themselves to be the fastest non-aspirated engine. However for 1989 Judd would only supply Team Lotus with the season-old 3.5 litre CV V8 engine whilst it provided the March and Brabham teams with the latest EV version. Unperturbed Team Principal Peter Warr tasked Tickford to develop a bespoke forty-valve head in a vain attempt to recoup some of the 125bhp deficit in power that the engine had against the, soon to be, all-conquering Hondas.
Nevertheless, despite all of the challenges, the new Lotus Type 101 was ready for preseason testing ahead of the Brazillian Grand Prix in March. In appearance, it was apparent that Dernie’s pathological devotion to the laws of aerodynamics had produced an elegant, inconceivably narrow, Formula One challenger. Indeed the Type 101 was so slim that Momo had been commissioned to produce a bespoke steering wheel to prevent the drivers from fowling their hands inside the cockpit. In addition the right-hand bodywork featured a prominent blister to accommodate the driver’s gear-changing. Peter Warr commented at the time:
“You have to be impressed by the size of this car. Its so small we don’t even have to walk around it any more, we can just step over it even when the driver is on board”.
Looks would ultimately be deceiving. A consequence the car’s significantly curtailed development meant that by the time it arrived for preseason testing there was virtually no time to fine-tune the chassis for its Goodyear tyres.
It would take nearly half the season before the Type 101 scored its first points, with Piquet taking forth in Canada. This was followed with the debut of Tickford’s innovative forty-vavle cylinder head for a test session at Silverstone. The team were encouraged enough to bring it to the next race in France but its lacklustre performance in qualifying would see abandoned for the season. Lotus had squandered scarce resourced in pursuing an engineering dead-end, a fact not ignored by their principal sponsor RJ Reynolds.
Before the British Grand Prix Tony Rudd (a non-executive director of Team Lotus) received an unexpected invite for dinner from RJ Reynolds. They were understandably concerned with how the season was unravelling and demanded a better return for their investment. Furthermore, they had identified, partly through pressure from Piquet, that Peter Warr (Colin Chapman’s former right-hand man) as the principal reason for the team’s underwhelming performance and requested Rudd to remove him. Once Warr had gone, RJ Reynolds committed to continuing the use of its distinctive Camel branding, committing $8.5 million to the team’s budget. Part of this windfall was earmarked to help revive the team’s research and development department, which had been in almost terminal decline since Colin Chapman’s death.
By the time of the next round of the World Championships at Hockenheim, Team Lotus were being run by an executive committee consisting of Tony Rudd, Rupert Manwaring, Frank Dernie and other key engineering personnel. Respectable points finishes in Germany and Hungary were to be followed by the team’s worst result in 406 Grand Prix meetings when, at Spa, both cars would fail to qualify for a Grand Prix for the first time since 1958. The team were subsequently able to regroup ahead of the final races of the season, with Piquet taking fourth in Japan before Nakajima took his first points of the season in Adelaide, and gave Team Lotus their last ever fastest lap.
The season had taken a huge toll on Lotus seeing the departure of Peter Warr, who had been so instrumental in steadying the team following Chapman’s death, along with both drivers and finally the Judd engine. Sadly, the midseason measures put in place to rectifying the decline in performance would play a supporting role in the eventual demise of Team Lotus.
Lotus 101 artwork