Lotus Esprit GT1
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The early 1990s were particularly difficult for Group Lotus. The repercussions of global recession were severe for sports car manufacturers. During 1992 the Lotus dealer franchise network contracted from 29 to 19 outlets as production of the long running Excel and recently relaunched Elan M100 ended. Furthermore by August 1993 General Motors had disposed of the company.
In addition although Team Lotus had remained independent from Group Lotus since 1954 its fortunes in Formula One would mirror those of the production side. With its bankruptcy in 1994 Lotus were left without any motorsport programme and production exclusively concentrated with the Esprit. It was apparent that single model production could not be sustained indefinitely.
Coinciding with the decline in Lotus’s fortunes were the performances of the Type 105 and 106 (X180R) cars in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Escort World Challenge between 1991 and 1992. These performances were an invaluable tool for Lotus’s North American Marketing. The kudos of owning a proven race winner was important in securing increased sales against the established race brands of Porsche and Ferrari. Also Lotus’s reputation of being a manufacturer of fragile unreliable cars had been improved through being successful in endurance racing.
The exploits of the works team was replicated in the hands of privateers in both America and Europe. Doc Bundy won the 1992 Bridgestone Supercar Championship drivers title with the Esprit X180R whilst Tom Langeberg won the Koni Production Car Series in the Netherlands. Although it was never conceived as such, the Lotus Esprit (now in the twilight of its career) was proving itself to be a credible racing car.
Appreciating the value of motorsport success, Lotus decided to capitalise on the racing potential of the Esprit and enter its first official works team in a sportscar category in twenty six years. The Lotus Esprit GT Team were to participate in the 1995 Endurance GT series with the Type 114. Lotus’s expertise and investment helped modify the 2.2 litre Esprit Sport 300 engine (TYPE) to produce 370 bhp. This power was transmitted through a five-speed Hewland DG300 gearbox to a body weighing just over 900 kg. Accompanying the factory support was the involvement of elements of the now defunct Team Lotus. For example The Lotus Esprit GT team were based at the former headquarters of Team Lotus (Ketteringham Hall) and included Alex Zanardi in the driver line-up. Also the Type 114 was to benefit from Formula One technology including improved aerodynamics and data-acquisition systems.
The Type 114 debuted at the BPR Karcher Global Endurance GT series four hour race at Donington. Despite competing in the GT2 category it was able to out-qualify all of its class rivals and compete equally with the more powerful GT1 racers which included the McLaren F1 and the Porsche 911 GT1. The race finished 8 minutes before the 4 hours as the gearbox failed. Nevertheless the Type 114 would earn a class victory (and 4th overall) at its second attempt during the Norwich Union Empire Trophy in September.
The success of the Type 114 in the GT2 category gave Lotus the confidence to compete in the prestigious GT1 series the following season. However, in order for it to do so the 114 underwent several changes. Aesthetically the production model had been refreshed by new head of design Julian Thompson, and relaunched as the S4 in 1993. These design alternations were incorporated as part of a wider package of aerodynamic improvements that included a carbon fibre splitter, diffuser and revised floor. Lotus also took the opportunity to include its new 3,506cc V8 engine which combined with twin Allied Signal intercooled turbochargers was able to produce 550bhp. These improvements allowed the Type 114 to compete in the prestigious GT1 category. The new car debuted for the 1996 GT Series at the Circuit Paul Ricard, however, its retirement with a fractured exhaust highlighted the fragility that would persist throughout the season. Unfortunately it soon became apparent that to be successful in the GT1 category required similar budgets and development schedule of the Porsche, McLaren and Mercedes teams.
The improvements to the 114 did not match its stunning debut season, although its presence at international sportscar races helped to sell over 250 V8 Esprit’s in 1996. There were a number of reasons that account for the second generation Type 114’s relative failure in sportscar racing. Firstly the Esprit had been in production for 21 years, and despite the design being continually refreshed it still retained some fundamental drawbacks. For example its wide flat screen rendered it aerodynamically inferior to the McLaren F1’s and Porsche 911’s that it was competing against. Also the previous season’s Lotus type 900 derived engine had been in production and progressively improved over twenty three years. Reliability was therefore, never an issue. The inclusion of the new V8 required development work by Lotus Racing and Lotus Engineering, arguably making the type 114 a test bed for the Type 115 that was to replace it. Ironically the Type 115 would abandon this engine in preference for the Chevrolet LT5-based engine that Lotus had originally designed.
Ultimately it would be Lotus’s characteristic literal rule interpretation that would end the works involvement on the Esprit’s racing career. During 1996 the FIA GT rules concerning homologation requirements were changed in an attempt to alter the emphasis of the series from sports to racing cars. Indeed only a single production car needed to be manufactured. Therefore as manufacturers such as McLaren produced their F1 GTR 97, Lotus took the opportunity to showcase the recently launched Elise and concentrate efforts on running the Type 115 (GT1) model in the 1997 season.