Roid Rage - 1997 Lotus Elise GT1
In 1997, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile ratified the first FIA GT World Championship. The new series was the culmination of the relatively slow but steady revival of international GT racing starting in 1994. The 1980s had seen sports prototypes force GT out of top level endurance racing entirely, as the Group C regulations increased interest in the discipline to record levels.
By the end of the 1992 season however, the wildly popular World Sportscar Championship had been run into the ground following a misguided switch to Formula One engines, the banishment of the privateer-oriented C2 category, a lack of promotion and a global economical recession. The power vacuum left by the cancellation of the WSC was then quickly filled by three opportunistic entrepreneurs, Jurgen Barth, Patrick Peter and Stephane Ratel.
A the time, the three men were responsible for national one make cup series. Barth governed the Porsche Carrera Cup, and Peter and Ratel were part of the Venturi championship. Seeing a gap in the market, the trio joined forces and created the BPR Global GT Championship.
With BPR, they aimed to create a championship for mildly modified road going sportscars, recapturing the spirit of classic GT racing. Initially the field was limited to the pre-existing Cup cars from Venturi and Porsche, with a few random cars prepared by small teams. However, the series quickly gained momentum, sparking interest from manufacturers like Jaguar, Toyota Ferrari, McLaren, Nissan, Morgan, Honda, Porsche, and Lotus.
Just before the start of the BPR Global GT Championship. Lotus Cars had been taken over by A.C.B.N. Holdings S.A, a firm set up by then Bugatti owner Romano Artioli. This once again made Lotus an independent manufacturer, as it had spent seven years under the ownership of American automotive giant General Motors.
Artioli had big plans for his new acquisition. One of the more ambitious was bringing back the brand to racing. The Team Lotus Formula One team was a separate entity entirely, and was on the verge of bankruptcy. If it hadn't been for the GT-program, the Lotus name would have disappeared entirely after the F1 effort folded in 1994.
Under his direction, Lotus entered the burgeoning European GT racing scene. Their weapon of choice was the 2.2L, turbocharged Esprit Sport 300, a road legal version of Lotus' American X180R SCCA racers, which was then entered in the second tier GT2 class. In 1996, Lotus jumped to the to GT1, replacing the Sport 300 with the 3.5L twin turbo V8-powered Esprit GT1.
However, Lotus' timing was rather unfortunate. Just as the Esprit GT1 took to the track, Porsche unleashed the otherworldly 911 GT1. Instead of being based on a road car and then being modified for racing, the 911 GT1 had reversed the recipe. Porsche had taken just the center section of their popular sportscar, and attached new front and rear subframes incorporating a whole host of proven parts borrowed from cars like the tremendously successful 962C.
Though the big Porker came very late in the '96 season, it immediately impressed with a dominant debut win at Brands Hatch, followed by further victories at Spa Francorchamps and Zhuhai. In its short stint in the series, the 911 GT1's crushing pace created such a stir it caused everyone else to completely rethink the concept of a GT-machine.
With Mercedes-Benz announcing plans for a very similar car for 1997, and Porsche set do give their GT1 a major update, Lotus was one of the teams forced to either adapt or die. The Esprit model was starting to show its age, and the new car would essentially be a clean slate design anyway.
With this in mind, Lotus decided to promote the recently released Elise by converting it into a fire breathing GT1 monster. However, Lotus lacked the funds to build the 25 road legal cars necessary to homologate the racer. Luckily, the FIA takeover of BPR Global GT in 1997 relaxed the rule book substantially, allowing them to save a heap of time and money by only building a single road car.
Dedicated motorsport division Lotus GT1 Engineering was given the task of modifying the Elise. The group was made up out of a large selection of former Team Lotus Formula One employees, as the team had folded some two years before.
Lotus GT1 Engineering proceeded to take some pages out of Porsche's book with the Elise, as they too retained only the central part of its chassis. Subframes were added fore and aft, clad in entirely new carbon fiber bodywork. The GT1 was 765 mm (30 in) longer, 369 mm (14 in) wider and 101 mm (3 in) lower than the standard model.
Because of the generous steroid injection, the car also outweighed its little sister by 360 kg (793 lbs). Besides the increased size, the main reason for this was found behind the seats. Whereas the stock Elise sported a 120 horsepower, transversely mounted 1.8L Rover K-series straight four, GT1 was fitted with the Type 918 3.5L twin turbo V8 from the Esprit.
In the street legal GT1, the engine produced 355 horsepower and 400 Nm (295 lb ft) of torque, and was mounted to a 6-speed manual transmission. The finished car weighed in at 1050 kg (2314 lbs). As its only purpose was to qualify the racer for competition, it was never offered for sale to the general public.
In race trim however, the engine was good for 550 horsepower at 5400 rpm, and 576 Nm (424 lb ft) of torque at 3600 rpm. Power was then transferred to the rear wheels through a Hewland TGT-600 6-speed sequential transmission.
Stripped of its road car amenities, the racing GT1 weighed 950 kg (2094 lbs). This was a clean 100 kg (220 lbs) lighter than the street machine, but worryingly 50 kg (110 lbs) heavier than the older Esprit GT1.
Ironically, Lotus chose to abandon their own engine after several tests. With the Esprit, the team had encountered numerous gearbox and engine failures, casting doubt about the package's viability in the increasingly competitive GT-racing scene.
Luckily, Lotus had a trick up their sleeve. In the late 1980s, when the firm was still part of GM, it had designed the Chevrolet LT5 engine, an all-aluminium, DOHC, 32-valve version of the classic 5.7L smallblock V8. With 375 horsepower on tap, it made the 1990 Corvette ZR-1 the fastest American-built car.
Though the LT5 was a great engine, it needed a major overhaul to be able to propel the GT1 at vaguely competitive speeds. To this end, Lotus' engineers took the engine up to 6.0L and fitted a flatplane crankshaft to enable it to rev much higher.
The end result was a healthy 608 horsepower at 7200 rpm, and a colossal 726 Nm (535 lb ft) of torque, 58 horsepower and 151 Nm(111 lb ft) of torque more than the turbo engine.
Interestingly, Lotus only fitted the LT5 to their own works racers, while offering the 3.5L turbo package to private buyers. Three GT1 Lotus Engineering factory cars were readied for the inaugural round of the FIA GT Championship, while private outfit GBF UK took delivery of two 3.5L chassis.
The factory GT1 Lotus Racing trio was staffed by a band of experienced single seater and endurance racers. In the ominously numbered #13, former F1-driver Jean-Denis Deletraz (SUI) was joined by former DTM and McLaren GT1 pilot Fabien Giroix (FRA), while #14 was given to former F1-driver and 1988 Le Mans winner Jan Lammers (NED) and GT racer Mike Hezemans (NED).
Finally, the seats of #15 were filled by WSC-racer Jerome Policand (FRA) and ex-Porsche and Mazda factory Group C driver Maurizio Sandro Sala (BRA). GBF UK on the other hand selected former F1-driver Luca Badoer (ITA), his former colleague Domenico "Mimmo" Schiattarella (ITA) and 1992 Japanese Formula 3000 Champion Mauro Martini (ITA) for their single entry.
In qualifying the Loti were completely outclassed by the rest of the field. The new Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR proved blisteringly fast right out of the box, and the updated McLaren F1 GTR Longtail and Porsche 911 GT1 Evo were also far beyond the Elise's grasp.
The Lammers/Hezemans car was the fastest of the four on P11, some 3.91 seconds behind the pole-sitting CLK GTR of former F1-driver Bernd Schneider (GER) and Alexander Wurz (AUT). Following the Dutchmen were Deletraz/Giroix in 15th, and Policand/Sandro Sala in 21st. GBF UK managed to split the latter two car with a time good enough for 17th.
Unfortunately the race didn't last very long for any of the Lotus crews, as one after another the cars succumbed to a faulty alternator. Deletraz/Giroix lasted the longest, parking the car at half distance on lap 48.
At Silverstone, the works squad went back to a two-car effort as the #15 car now ran under First Racing Project following a sponsorship deal with new driver Ratanakul Prutirat of Thailand. Partnering him was Maurizio Sandro Sala. GBF UK Meanwhile entered a second GT1 for Mauro Martini and 1996 Italian Formula Three Champion Andrea Boldrini.
Once again, Lammers/Hezemans outshone their Lotus colleagues by qualifying a strong 9th, far ahead of the second factory car driven by Jean-Denis Deletraz and Fabien Giroix, who were a distant 23rd. The re-branded Thai-sponsored car came in 20th, just behind the Badoer/Schiattarella turbo car in 19th. Finally, the second GBF car placed 25th.
The race turned out to be another disaster for the Lotus contingent, as all but one car retired before half distance. However, this time around the alternators held up, with the gearboxes self-destructing instead.
The only car to make it over the line was the Martini/Boldrini GBF turbo car, which was classified 35th and dead last, 24 laps behind Peter Kox (NED) and Roberto Ravaglia in the winning BMW Schnitzer Motorsport McLaren F1 GTR Longtail.
Following the dismal showing at Silverstone, GT1 Lotus Racing only took the #15 First Racing Project car to the third round of the season held on the streets of Helsinki, Finland. Prutirat was joined by Giroix and Deletraz for the event, but the trio found themselves way down the order. The Chevrolet-powered machine settled into 16th on the 24 car grid, having to concede to the two GBF UK turbo cars in 8th (#23) and 10th (#24).
Though half the Elise's present once again failed miserably, GBF UK managed to clinch a surprisingly positive result. The sister car of Luca Badoer and Mimmo Schiattarella was taken out early due to a crash, but Mauro Martini and Andrea Boldrini took an amazing fifth place finish.
Despite getting into the top five, the car was still four laps behind the winning F1 GTR Longtail driven by former F1-driver JJ Lehto (FIN) and touring car ace Steve Soper (GB). Meanwhile, the lone factory car trundled home in an embarrassing 17th, 16 laps behind the leader.
At the non-championship 24 Hours of Le Mans, GT1 Lotus racing entered just a single car over legitimate reliability concerns. Jan Lammers and Mike Hezemans were partnered by ex-ITC driver Alexander Grau (GER) for the event, and qualified a distant 26th.
Their time was some 5.03 seconds slower than the fastest GT1 car, the 911 GT1 Evo of Le Mans veteran Bob Wollek (FRA), double Le Mans winner Hans-Joachim Stuck (GER) and ex-F1 driver Thierry Boutsen (BEL). On race day the Elise confirmed the team's suspicions, as an oil leak took the car out on lap 121.
GBF UK chased by the '96-spec JB Racing 911 GT1 of Jurgen von Gartzen (GER) and Emmanuel Collard (FRA), Nurburgring 1997.
After Le Mans, Lotus went back for the fourth round of the championship at the Nurburgring GP-Strecke with a three car effort, and were immediately on the pace. Lammers/Hezemans and Deletraz/Giroix qualified 7th and 8th, followed at some distance by the Thai-car in a low 23rd, which had seen a driver change with the addition of ex-DTM driver Alexander Grau (GER).
The turbo cars fared far worse, as Badoer/Schiattarella were stuck on P21, and their teammates Andrea Boldrini and new addition Martin Stretton (GB) clocked in at 25th place. Predictably the cars began dropping like flies on race day.
The #15 only lasted three laps until its engine went nuclear, the #23 GBF UK machine crashed out on lap 22, and the #13 also suffered a bad accident on lap 74. Of the two finishers, #14 Lammers/Hezemans were the fastest, netting an 11th place. The surviving turbo car finished 15th. Even the fastest car was five laps down on the winning CLK GTR of Bernd Schneider (GER) and Klaus Ludwig (GER).
GBF UK Ltd and First Racing Project were absent for the 4 Hours of Spa Francorchamps, but German team Martin Veyhle Racing picked up another chassis for ex-DTM ace Kurt Thiim (DEN) and Alexander Grau. Jan Lammers and Mike Hezemans once again lead the dance in qualifying with a 17th best time. Jean-Denis Deletraz and Fabien Giroix were held up in 19th, and the MVR car placed 22nd.
Just one car would finish the race however, as Lammers/Hezemans crashed out on lap 20, and Thiim/Grau suffered an engine failure on lap 22. Deletraz/Giroix on the other hand would go on to a decent 8th place finish, five laps behind the victorious Lehto/Soper McLaren.
The 4 Hours of Zeltweg on the newly rebuilt A1-Ring saw another dramatic failure for the Lotus teams. For the third time that season, none of the cars would see the finish. Accidents, a fire and disintegrating gearboxes and engines put paid to the races of both GT1 Lotus Racing cars, the single GBF entry and the MVR machine.
After Zeltweg it was time for the longest race of the 1997 FIA GT calendar, the 1000 KM of Suzuka. With literally all of the cars needing major repairs, only a single chassis was sent over to Japan to compete.
In a large 36 car field supplemented by local machinery like the SARD MC8-R and Honda NSX, the Policand/Prutirat/Giroix First Racing Project car did relatively well do qualify 16th. Unfortunately the race again ended in tears, as the car crashed out on lap 15 out of 171.
Back at Donington, the team's misery continued. 1995 24 Hours of Daytona winner Marco Werner (GER) was the first to record a DNF in the MVR turbo car he shared with Alexander Grau, as the engine failed on lap 23.
GBF UK had an entirely new driving team, with touring car driver Ralf Kalaschek (AUT), GT-driver Max Angelleli (ITA) and touring car driver Jason Yeomans (GB) joining the fray. However, their similar turbo car followed the MVR entry very closely with an identical engine issue on lap 26.
The Chevy-powered Deletraz/Giroix car managed to last until lap 82 before its engine conked out. As had become tradition, a single car struggled towards the finish line, with Lammers/Hezemans coming in dead last, 58 laps behind the winning Mercedes.
The final European round of the season at Mugello, Italy saw the Lotus GT1 horror story continue. Just like Donington, none of the 3.5L twin turbo cars managed to reach the end. Engine failures and loosed bodywork swiftly ruined the races of both MVR and GBF, while the single GT1 Lotus Racing machine managed to finish a lucky 11th. The race saw Lammers/Hezemans the closest to the lead they'd ever been, as they were only 4 laps behind.
The FIA GT Championship went overseas once again for the final two rounds of the season, beginning with a three hour race at the grueling airfield course of Sebring, Florida. As the smaller GBF and MVR teams lacked the budget to travel across the Atlantic, GT1 Lotus Racing were the only Lotus crew present.
A two-car team was entered for the race. Number 13 was piloted by Fabien Giroix and Jean-Denis Deletraz, and Lammers and Hezemans were joined by Max Angelelli in the #14 car. During the race, Giroix/Deletraz were forced to park their car with accident damage, while Lammers/Hezemans/Angelelli managed to keep it on the black stuff to finish 13th, four laps behind the winners.
The two cars were reluctantly dragged out for the final round of the season at the beautiful Laguna Seca track near Monterey, California. The massive difference between the two driving squads was underlined once more by Lammers/Hezemans qualifying 11th to Deletraz/Giroix's 20th.
The race proper saw split fortunes for GT1 Lotus Racing, with the #13 car dropping out due to another exploded LT5 engine. The other machine was able to continue however, and managed to snatch another top 10 result with a hard-fought 9th place.
With the dreadful season finally over, Lotus was forced to re-evaluate their priorities. Despite the relative success of the normal Elise, the company was still less than profitable. With that in mind, Romano Artioli had sold off a majority share to Malaysian auto maker Proton in late 1996, relinquishing his control over the firm.
Considering the irredeemable failure of the Elise GT1 on a technical level, the immense gap to its savagely quick and constantly developing competitors, and an acute lack of budget in the light of ever-increasing costs, it was decided to end the GT1 project after just one season. Because of this, Lotus GT1 Engineering was unceremoniously disbanded.
At the end of the day, the car was simply too slow and unreliable to survive in the cutthroat world of GT1. Seven chassis were made in the end, but no privateer was brave enough to keep the cars on the track without the support of the factory.
However, one intrepid soul decided to purchase two chassis and fit them with updated bodywork and Chrysler V10 engines. That man was Toine Hezemans, legendary racer and father of Mike. Together, the father and son duo would open up and entirely new world of mechanical misery with 1998's Bitter GT1.