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.”