Sidelined Samurai - 1991 Lotus 102C Isuzu
In 1989, the world of Formula One had seen the biggest regulation change since 1967. The turbocharged monsters that had taken the sport by storm in the 1980’s had been banned, and a new 3.5L naturally aspirated engine formula was introduced. This change facilitated the construction of simpler and more cost effective engines, at the cost of some 350 horsepower.
Nevertheless the more conventional units opened the door for countless manufacturers who wouldn’t dare to try and build a complicated and fragile turbo engine. As a result the category saw new entries from Judd, Yamaha, Lamborghini and even Subaru. Smaller teams benefited the most from the drastic changes, as they could now field a reasonably competitive car with a modest budget.
One such outfit was Team Lotus. The famous British team had experienced a rapid decline since the switch to naturally aspirated engines. After losing a vital engine deal with Honda in 1988, Lotus found it difficult to cope with the new era. Initially the team switched to a customer Judd CV V8 for the 1989 season, but saw little success. With just 610 horsepower on tap, the unit had an 80 horsepower deficit on the front-running Honda RA109-E V10.
Under the strength of three time World Champion Nelson Piquet (BRA) the 101 model recorded three fourth place finishes, but retired an appalling 13 times. Team mate Satoru Nakajima (JAP) could do little to compensate for the car’s shortcomings with several failures to qualify, leading to the team finishing 6th in the Constructor’s Championship.
For 1990 Team Lotus designer Frank Dernie evolved the 101 chassis into the Lamborghini LE3512-powered 102. The V12 screamed out 40 more horsepower than the old Judd V8, but it too had a questionable reliability record. On top of that, the engine was physically much larger, heavier and a damn side thirstier. Every single part on the new car had to be reinforced to cope with strain of incorporating the Italian heavyweight, and chassis had to be stretched to its limits to allow for much larger fuel tanks.
In the end the promising Lamborghini engine proved to be a farce. Countless engine and gearbox failures lead to a devastating 17 retirements divided between Derek Warwick (GB), Martin Donnelly (GB) and his replacement Johnny Herbert (GB). As a result the team dropped to 8th place in the standings with a record low of three points. This was the lowest Lotus had scored since 1958.
At the end of the horrible 1990 season, the struggling Team Lotus was suddenly bought by a consortium of investors headed by former employees Peter Collins and Peter Wright in December 1990. Unfortunately the deal came too little too late for the new owners, as they missed their chance at attaining sufficient sponsorship for 1991.
Undeterred, the revitalized team pressed on with a conservative evolution of the 102. This 102B had reverted to Judd power with the use of the narrow-angle EV V8. Rated at 630 horsepower, the Judd softened the blow of losing the savage Lamborghini, and presented a much lighter and more compact package. The Judd was only ever intended as a stopgap though, as Collins and Wright realized the team needed the backing of a major engine manufacturer to ensure long-term survival.
The new Judd finally provided the team with much-needed reliability, but the car was still painfully slow. Star driver and F1-rookie Mika Häkkinen drove his heart out to try and drag the underwhelming car into a points-scoring position. He managed to achieve his goal with a stellar 5th place at the San Marino Grand Prix, but was otherwise completely outgunned by the opposition.
As funds were running low at an unrelenting pace, Lotus desperately sought out a good pay driver. Former Tyrrell driver Julian Bailey (GB) was weighed and found wanting after failing to qualify for three races, leading to him being replaced by rising star Johnny Herbert, who performed slightly better. Despite this Herbert in turn had to give up the wheel to Michael Bartels (GER), who failed to qualify four times before giving his car back to the faster Englishman.
As the 1991 season dragged on, Lotus tried to entice Honda to come back to the team for 1992. Unfortunately the Japanese firm had already established an amazingly fruitful relationship with rival team McLaren, a full-scale commitment which demanded absolute focus. Honda expressed no desire to supply engines to the struggling outfit, which sent them back to square one.
Luckily for Lotus, another Japanese auto maker was covertly developing a Formula One engine. Isuzu was mainly known around the world for manufacturing great quality commercial vehicles and diesel engines, but a small group of racing fanatics had wildly different ambitions. A team of just four dedicated engineers decided to spend their free time designing a wonderful 3.5L V12 to F1-spec, without having a clear plan to race it. In total secrecy, the tiny team managed to develop the 637 horsepower P799WE.
Midway through the 1991 season, Peter Collins came into contact with Isuzu and convinced the company to allow Lotus to test the promising new engine. The test was a huge opportunity for the ailing Team Lotus. The outfit hoped to persuade Isuzu in officially entering F1, and provide essential financial backing to keep them in business.
Team Lotus received a single P799WE in July of that year, and proceeded to adapt a disused 102 chassis to fit the new unit. Fortunately the Japanese jewel was substantially lighter than the maligned Lamborghini engine, but it still necessitated the fitting of larger radiators and a different engine cover. The diligent Isuzu team had meanwhile been hard at work updating the fledgling V12, which saw power rise to a Honda-rivaling 755 horsepower.
Initial runs quickly unearthed a problem however. The hastily fitted engine displayed a massive thirst for electricity, and the alternator was not fit to fulfill its demand. Unable to effectively solve the issue, Lotus’ engineers shut down several auxiliary systems and opted to run the car without an alternator altogether.
In an effort to enable the car to run for more than a couple of kilometers, Lotus simply fitted an extra set of batteries. This gung-ho decision made the new 102C a hefty 80 kg (176 lbs) overweight at 615 kg (1355 lbs). The power was transferred to the rear wheels by an in-house developed six-speed sequential transmission.
With everything sorted out enough to ensure the engine would be able to get a good shakedown run, the team traveled to Silverstone for the traditional summer test on the 2nd of August, 1991. Johnny Herbert was given the honor of taking the car out for its first spin on a genuine Grand Prix track.
The engine sounded amazing and seemed to running perfectly. Herbert was able to clock a sizable amount of laps in the car, and recorded a best time of 1:30. The time was a monumental six seconds slower than the 1:24 Ayrton Senna had managed in the vastly superior McLaren MP4/6, and wouldn’t have been enough to make the grid for the British Grand Prix.
Even though the lap times were far off the pace, the 102C was still rather competitive considering its botched nature. Team Lotus had been unable to run the V12 on a bespoke race fuel which limited its output, which coupled to the weight penalty of the extra batteries and a harder tire compound explained the car’s lackluster pace.
Even so the Isuzu engine promised incredible potential. The numerous issues encountered at the test could easily be fixed with the construction of a dedicated chassis designed to properly accommodate the V12. All Lotus needed was the approval of Isuzu’s top level management.
Sadly Isuzu’s big wigs refused to give the project their blessing. The company was just starting the process of abandoning the road car market and putting more focus on the more lucrative commercial vehicles sector. The marketing case for an F1-team backed by a truck manufacturer simply wasn’t there.
Additionally, Japan had slowly been sliding into a disastrous economic collapse. A gigantic stock market crash and the dissolution of four major banks devastated the country to such an extent it would later be referred to as the start of The Lost Decade. With Japan’s economy in a state of emergency, Isuzu could not afford to spend money on frivolous projects, even if it had wanted to. As a result the P799WE V12 would never get the chance to show its fully realized potential.
The Lotus 102C was a desperate attempt from a formerly glorious team to find its way back to the front. New owners Peter Collins and Peter Wright desperately tried to make the failing team viable by seeking out a partnership with a major manufacturer, and found it in Isuzu’s secret engine project. Despite a hastily carried out engine swap and little preparation, the lovely V12 performed admirably.
Unfortunately the internal politics at Isuzu and an apocalyptic economic crisis in Japan caused the P799WE engine to be pulled from the project. Isuzu was unwillingand unable to commit to Formula One in such desperate times, and left Team Lotus hanging by a thread. It would prove to be both the last and the first time Isuzu ever associated itself with the pinnacle of motorsport. The sole surviving Isuzu V12 resides at the headquarters of legendary model kit company Tamiya, where it remains as a silent witness of wasted potential.