Article featured image courtesy of The Cahier Archive (f1-photo.com)
One car that caught everyone’s eye at Goodwood was Ayrton Senna’s iconic black-and-gold Lotus from 1985. We spoke to Clive Chapman, son of legendary Team Lotus founder Colin Chapman, who explained how they keep it running and who gets to drive it.
Rob Watts: Clive, you’ve brought Ayrton Senna’s Lotus 97T to Goodwood this weekend; tell me a little bit about how it’s looked after and what sort of festivals and events you take it to these days.
Clive Chapman: It’s owned by Classic Team Lotus, part of the works collection of cars, which is about 25 Team Lotus cars from the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s exactly as it was when Ayrton won at Estoril in ’85 – the original Renault engine with the original period management on it – and as such, that makes it not particularly user-friendly. It’s not eligible for racing, but we wouldn’t race it anyway.
Our business is very much about running cars that are owned by other people that want to go racing, so it’s really only events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed that bring it out, because if Lord March hadn’t invited us to be here it would still be sitting in the storage building at Hethel. It’s nice that there are events like this, it comes out pretty rarely – in fact, the last time it was here was last year. It has been out for a couple of shows and exhibitions just statically.
We have to turn the engine every three weeks, and we try to run it at least once every six months, maybe every three months if we get the chance. Fortunately some people, the mechanics in particular and Chris Dinnage who was Ayrton’s mechanic at Estoril that day, know the car better than anybody, so when things do need to be done to it he’s the man.
RW: It’s great that Chris is still actively involved with the car given that it’s now over thirty years old. What are the challenges you face in keeping a car like this running?
CC: It does very little mileage and it doesn’t race, so actually, mechanically we have to do very little. Tyres are readily available – the big issue is the engine, particularly as it’s got period management on it so we don’t have modern data logging. It’s a Renault Sport ECU which can only be read by the original EPSON laptop which has a reel to reel tape on it – they’ve only got one unit still working so if we want anything done to the engine the car has to go to Paris, or Renault has to come to us. That’s really the issue, but it’s running very well.
We occasionally run it at Hethel. Before it came down here the team manager did some laps around Hethel just to make sure it was working well. We’ve invited one of our customers to drive the car as a thank you to him because his business enables us to look after the cars in the collection. He’s got a sister car in Japan so he knows how to drive it, he’s a nice guy as well – Katsu Kubota from Tokyo, he’s a regular historic competitor, one of the leading guys. He did the honours and did it really well.
RW: I’m interested to know who gets to drive the cars at these events. I read that Bruno actually drove this car a few years back?
CC: Yes, that was fantastic. It was here about five years ago, it was a real goosebump moment. We take real pride in having this car in our collection. Whenever it comes into the workshop we think of Ayrton and whenever we fire it up it’s always a special moment. We try to avoid anyone sitting in it unless they’re driving it, and if people do ask to sit in it, we say no.
RW: Which cars from the collection tend to attract the most attention?
CC: The black-and-gold cars, especially for people in their thirties and forties. It really is the iconic car of the era, plus it ran for so long in the John Player Special colours. I suppose the most popular is the Type 72, the first black and gold car that ran for six years. Emerson Fittipaldi is a very famous name and he’s often here and has driven that car here.
When you get the original drivers of the cars that obviously attracts a lot of attention. We also have one Jim Clark car in the collection – arguably the greatest Team Lotus driver – so it’s really nice to remember those drivers whenever we run the cars.
RW: Do you still own and exhibit any other cars from that particular era, or are they all privately owned now?
CC: Yes, we’ve got Graham Hill’s Lotus49 for instance, the actual chassis in which he won at Monaco in ’68 and ’69. I think it’s the only twice Monaco-winning chassis there is. We’ve restored plenty of cars from that era, in particular, Jimmy’s winning car from the ’65 Indy 500. We restored that for the Ford museum six years ago. We run a couple of 25’s – the only two racing Type 25’s, so pretty much any Lotus.
In fact, any racing car really, because cars of a similar era tend to be fairly similar to each other, so if one of our customers has a few Lotuses and a March, for example, we can look after that as well.
RW: With the 97T you’ve said there is a laptop in existence that can boot it up, but with a car like the 49 you must face a different set of challenges in keeping that car running. Tell me more about that.
CC: In particular with the Type 43, it’s the BRM H16 engine which is an extraordinary piece of engineering, and I think there are only two running engines in the whole world and there only ever will be. Andy Middlehurst – the owner – has done a fantastic job to restore the car, and most importantly, get that engine working.
I must admit there were plenty of us who thought he had bitten off more than he could chew. Another one of our mechanics, Bob Dance, has been with the team since 1960 so he remembers this car in-period and he’s given Andy quite a bit of help. We have all the original design drawings and there have been some parts he’s needed that we’ve helped with, but it’s very much his effort that’s got it running.
RW: In the sixties, Lotus achieved success over the pond by winning the Indy 500. Do you still get a lot of interest from the States these days?
CC: Yes, we have a number of American customers. European historic racing is seen somewhat as the pinnacle, so a lot of them like to come over – particularly to Goodwood and Monaco – so they’ll have their cars freighted over and we’ll look after them, and then they get to race around Monaco and Spa. They really like the classic Grand Prix circuits.
RW: Finally, you mentioned Monaco. Do you have any Lotus cars taking part in events such as the Monaco Historic?
CC: Yes, we took nine customer cars to Monaco this year. We’re a small company so running nine Formula One cars in one weekend was a bit of a tester! Eight of them finished, and there were two firsts, and a third amongst that, but finishing is key – that’s what they all want – but to get a result was just a bonus.