Lotus is a worldwide icon and, outside of its native England, nowhere more than here in the USA. Cooper was the first racecar manufacturer to turn Indy cars around and stick the engine in the rear, but it was Lotus that proved to the Indy car establishment that sending the engine backward was the way forward. Jimmy Clark finished second in the 1963 Indy 500, but a week later scored the first rear-engined Indy car victory at Milwaukee. Two years later, A.J. Foyt, Clark and Dan Gurney gave Lotus a sweep of the front row at Indy and the modest Scot led 190 of the 200 laps on his way to victory.
In 1968, the Lotus 56 turbine car (BELOW, being tested by Graham Hill) was the fastest machine in the field, and polesitter Joe Leonard seemed destined to win for Lotus founder Colin Chapman and STP's Andy Granatelli until the engine failed with just nine laps to go.
That was the last time the Lotus name was seen in IndyCar until 2010 when Lotus Cars signed up to sponsor the KV Racing team. But for a brand built on engineering and innovation, being a mere sponsor with its name plastered over an ancient Dallara with an aging Honda engine came across as a little hokey.
Enough of the history lesson. The 2012 technical regulations that end IndyCar's spec-car era is a chance to show what Lotus is all about with new V6 2.2-liter turbo engines for this year, and bodykits over the Dallara chassis in 2013.
Lotus wants to promote not only its current road cars – the Elise, Exige and Evora – but also its forthcoming models which are intended to push the brand upward into the Ferrari and Porsche markets. That being the case, you'd think the American Le Mans Series, where it could take on those brands head to head, might be more logical than the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“Well, GT is a link with the product, but IndyCar is a link with the image and history of Lotus,” explains Claudio Berro, Lotus motorsports director. “Formula 1 offers image and history, too, but in America there is not a strong enough market for F1. For me, “F1” in America is IndyCar, and the new rules opened the door for manufacturers to show their engine technology and, in future, their aero technology, but in a way that keeps costs down. I think IndyCar has made a good compromise between racing at a high level without spending money in the way that F1 teams do.”
But it will still demand an eight-figure sum, and there are rumors that Lotus will be going head to head with Honda and Chevrolet on a budget barely a third their size.
“I don't know the budgets of our rivals,” says Berro. “I just know my budget. I realize GM and Honda are big companies in the USA and worldwide, but I think we have what we need and, although we know the challengers are strong, we will try to use our capacity in the best way. The financial capacity is important, sure, but also human capacity is so important.”
And that's where engine-builder John Judd comes in. Scratch the surface of those car manufacturer logos, and we find IndyCar's new engine war will be fought between Honda Performance Development in California, Ilmor of Brixworth, UK and Plymouth, Mich. (Chevrolet), and Judd's Engine Developments, based in Rugby, UK (Lotus). Judd has made its reputation in recent years building endurance sports car engines, but has attacked the IndyCar engine program with enthusiasm, despite Lotus committing to the program far later than its rivals.
“I'm enjoying the technical challenge quite a lot,” says Judd. “Compared with the sports car engines, this is a lot more complicated and there are a lot more things to play with. We're not Honda and Chevy but we work in a very different way. We did a lot better at the first test than most people expected. HPD and Ilmor are bigger organizations and have more resources, but we'll keep our heads down, produce the best engine we can, and not worry about what others are doing.”
Knowing that Lotus didn't have the same amount of dollars to spend as its rivals didn't put off the owners of Lotus' so-called anchor teams, HVM Racing, Bryan Herta Autosport and Lotus DRR (formerly Dreyer & Reinbold Racing). These three shared the duty of testing the first Lotus-powered Dallaras, and each was impressed that, straight out of the box, Simona de Silvestro (ABOVE) was able to put 900 miles on the engine over the course of four days of testing. Keith Wiggins, HVM team owner, says that was vindication of his faith in Lotus-Judd.
“We started talking to Lotus last summer and I was very much attracted to the option,” says Wiggins (left, with technical director Tom Brown, BELOW). “Because it's a smaller car company, some people treat it with skepticism, but I was in no doubt that it would be a good unit and, as an anchor team, we'd be at the top of the heap with Lotus. I didn't want us to be in a situation where we were just supplied engines, second or third in line behind big teams. We're trying to improve ourselves so therefore we wanted a true partnership.
“Lotus' budget wasn't a worry because, like with teams, when you go through a period of financial constraint, you learn things can be done more cost-effectively. Yeah, fewer resources can show in the technical support you get from a manufacturer and it's critical for a smaller company to get things right the first time rather than waste money going down cul-de-sacs, but that comes back to our confidence in Judd: a smaller budget means a bigger challenge, but sometimes with challenge comes opportunity.”
Bryan Herta, whose team has just two IndyCar starts under its belt, is similarly positive. “Our focus is on building our team and being the best Lotus team we can be. If Lotus makes the best engine, then that means we'll have a great season, but if it's not as good as the other two, then we'll adjust our expectations. But that's not waving the white flag. Does having fewer resources doom Lotus to failure? No. It's actually motivating everyone to prove quite the opposite. I should point out that there were teams that spent four or five times as much as us our team at last year's Indy 500, and…”
Fair point! But it's also fair to turn it around. While Honda has a four-car Chip Ganassi Racing operation in its corner and Chevrolet is partnered with Team Penske and a resurgent Andretti Autosport, Lotus is anchored by teams with eight Indy car race wins between them. Isn't Lotus at a disadvantage not of its own making?
“The teams we have are at our level at the moment,” says Berro. “We realize how good Ganassi and Penske are, and we knew big teams would automatically go with the big two manufacturers. But some teams waited a little to work with us. Currently, we have a three-teams-in-one-team setup, and HVM, Bryan Herta Autosport and Lotus DRR work together very well in this development stage. This 100 percent team spirit is 100 percent our spirit, too. Together we'll aim to be at the same level as the best teams in IndyCar.”
For Lotus it's a relief that bodykits were delayed until 2013, but Berro admits that before deciding that Lotus would supply IndyCar engines in 2012, it was the chance to show off the company's aero expertise that held the most appeal for its return to IndyCar. Naturally, he's eager to start that program as soon as possible.
“Soon, we will be discussing with IndyCar the rules so we can design a good aero kit,” he says, “but IndyCar must be careful to keep down the cost, so we don't have to sell kits to the teams for a high price. We don't have rules for the kits yet but it will involve the front wing, rear wing, engine cover and sidepods. We need to have a car with a Dallara bodykit to put in the wind tunnel and learn it better. When we understand that and have rules, we can start to produce the aero kit. I tell you, if IndyCar told us the rules tomorrow, then tomorrow Lotus would start work on it!”
But first of all, there's the scramble to fulfill engine obligations in time for the first race of 2012. At time of writing, HVM, Lotus DRR and BHA have just one entry apiece, although the first two are striving to add second cars. Jay Penske's Dragon Racing – two cars, for Sebastien Bourdais and Katherine Legge – will also be Lotus powered. At press time, there was much speculation regarding which manufacturer would power entries from Michael Shank Racing, Conquest Racing, Sarah Fisher Hartmann Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing – but it's unlikely to be Lotus-Judd.
Lotus' late decision to enter the series had a knock-on effect, and Engine Developments was thus the last to get its engine in a car and on track. The Borg-Warner turbos are spec (like Chevy, but unlike Honda, Lotus has gone the twin-turbo route), as is the McLaren ECU so there are a couple areas of potential complication out of the way. But still, it's a heck of a push for Engine Developments to not only have its engine finalized by the Feb. 25 cut-off point for homologation, but also then have sufficient engines to supply five to seven cars in time for testing before the first round of the season in late March.
Says Judd: “It takes time to design and make the parts, but it's also difficult to decide to make parts for say, 40 engines, before you've had a chance to do development work, because if there's something that needs altering, you then end up making the parts twice over.
“Ultimately, we're going to supply three units per car. We won't have three per car at the start of the season, but as soon as possible we'll have each entry on a routine of one engine in the car, one spare and one being rebuilt back in the UK.”
And so the pressure is on for Judd to uphold Lotus honor. Special though the marque's IndyCar heritage is, it needs another chapter; slaying – or at least, hurting – the Goliaths of Chevy and Honda would provide that. For the sake of the Lotus brand, some faithful, hard-trying team owners and the IZOD IndyCar Series itself, it's vital that Judd's crew confound the constraints of circumstance, budget and time and produce a winning engine.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the March 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.