Lotus 81

Colin Chapman had always been a leader in innovative ideas and designs. Chapman had experienced it all: championships, victories, incredible driving talent. However, it takes a lot to continue to come up with innovative ideas year-after-year. It becomes even more difficult to come up with those innovative ideas once having experienced multiple championships, victories, famous drivers, and especially deaths.

Chapman had had more than his fair share of incredible talents behind the wheel of his cars. He also had experienced more than his fair share of deaths. Over the course of his career in racing Chapman had witnessed the deaths of many drivers and spectators. He had witnessed more deaths than most people do throughout the course of their lifetime. This wears at the desire.

By the very early 1980s it was obvious Chapman was losing interest in Formula One. Of course, he wouldn't even live that much longer. His heart wasn't in it as it was at the beginning. Ironically, it was a heart attack that would end up taking his life.

But prior to his death, Chapman continued to design Formula One race cars. The ideas weren't coming as easily as they once did and it would be evidenced by Colin's concept for the first season of the 1980s decade, the Lotus 81.

It wasn't like Chapman was out of ideas. They were just being held up. He needed to make due until his greater, more innovative ideas could be brought online for competition in Formula One.

While brand-new, the Lotus 81 was more of a stop-gap measure. Because the innovative ideas were coming in a later chassis design, the 81 was not as innovative or radical as some of the other chassis for which Chapman had come to be known. It was a relatively straight-forward concept. The intention, and hope, was that there was still just some more life in some older, proven technology. Unfortunately, this was Formula One. It was a big risk to hold onto such a belief.

The 81 had a hard act to follow. It was widely held that Lotus' model 79 chassis had ushered Formula One into the age of aerodynamics. Of course, its sliding skirts and ground-effects chassis gave the car phenomenal grip and performance. The overall styling of the car was also closer to a modern jet than many of its competitors. Therefore, it was hard to create another truly revolutionary idea each and every year, especially when one worked as well as the 79.

Chapman was consistently ahead of his time, even when his desire wasn't there one hundred percent. After the 79, Lotus had intended to use the 80, which was to be an evolution of the 79. By the time the 80 had been introduced, Lotus had already begun to move on to its next innovative idea. This took a majority of the company's focus. When the 80 flopped, Lotus was forced to go back to the 79 throughout the end of the 1979 season. However, because the 79 was very successful, aerodynamically and statistically, there was little reason for Chapman and his team to venture too far away. It was true that by the time the 81 had been designed Lotus had already moved on to its next innovative idea. Therefore, the 81 was merely meant to fill the gap before Lotus could unveil the revolutionary idea in the Formula One world.

Lotus knew that it could not merely leave the design stagnant throughout the course of the 1980 season. Therefore, the car would go through a number of small evolutions, but there would mainly be two iterations used for 1980. One did not feature a wing at the nose. The other did.

The nose of the Lotus 81, like many other designs of the time, was wide and low. Because of the ground-effects chassis, designers could revert back to fifteen or more years and forgo the front wing. This helped to reduce drag and increase top-speed.

The nose structure and bodywork swept upward at a rather steep angle as it travelled aft. The driver, who sat tall in the car, was wrapped by high bodywork all around. The line of the nose and cockpit seemed to rise out of the rest of the car's bodywork.

Since Lotus revolutionized Formula One concerning aerodynamics, it is of little surprise to see the nose bodywork to incorporate shrouds that extend out to either side of the nose to cover the hinge portion of the upper wishbone. This bodywork was designed in such a way that it led right into forming the top of the car's bodywork line along the radiator sidepod and the rear of the car. What was interesting about the car's double-wishbone suspension was that the wishbones featured quite different angles. The angle between the wishbone arms on the upper element was actually very little. The angle of the lower wishbone was quite large. The narrower arrangement on the upper arm allowed for the aerodynamic shroud to actually be incorporated into the car's design, instead of merely being a bolt-on covering.

The later iteration of the 81 featured a single-plane front wing. The placement of the front wing was such that it too appeared like a stop-gap measure. Instead of being incorporated into the nose's design, the large wing was merely attached to the very front edge of the nose.

In-board of the front wheels, small, vertically narrow, air ducts were designed into the hub of the wheel to help with the all-important cooling of the front brakes. Temperatures of the brakes, though capable of high-temperatures, need to remain relatively cooled and controlled to ensure they would work as they should over the course of a race.

The crash structure and 'tub' of the Lotus 81 was made of a composite aluminum-honeycomb structure. This composite aluminum-honeycomb crash structure housed many of the car's major components. The coiled suspension for the front wheels stood vertically and would be compressed by the hinging action of the suspension control arms.

The composite honeycomb bodywork would cover the tub crash structure, but also, the rather open cockpit. With the exception of strong framing along the side of the cockpit, the only structure around the driver was the car's bodywork.

To either side of the driver were the radiators. Within any given design, the radiators will be positioned differently. In the case of the 81, they were practically laid down. This meant there was a rather small opening for the radiator for the air to flow into. Lotus was more concerned about the amount of air flowing under the car to help the ground-effects chassis work as optimal as possible.

To help with the cooling operations of the car, the top bodywork became of great importance. The top of the car's bodywork featured a couple of large vents. These vents exposed the radiators, but it helped with greater cooling. Air flowing over the top of the radiator sidepods created a lower pressure. The higher-pressure air that had passed through the radiators would then push out or, in essence, would be sucked out by the air passing over the top. This helped to pull the hotter air out of the radiators and actually drew more cool air in through the front opening. This meant the opening could remain rather small, but would still get the job done.

The top bodywork was a large undertaking. This was not a small piece. This top piece of bodywork was a single piece of molded G.R.P. and Kevlar and covered the nose, cockpit, sidepods and rear of the chassis.

While the top of the bodywork was important for cooling and aerodynamics, the underneath of the car was, perhaps, of greater importance to the overall performance of the car. Ground effects chassis continued to exist within Formula One. Lotus had retained its sliding skirt design, which was basically two, thin pieces of metal attached to the lower portions of the radiator sidepods. The space between the wood plank that ran down the middle of the chassis, and the skirt along the side, created a venturi-effect for the airflow. This venturi-effect meant the air sped up as it passed underneath the radiator sidepods. Faster air has a lower pressure. Trapped by the sliding skirts, this faster air is more than capable of creating incredible force, in the downward direction—downforce. This ground-effect enabled the cars of the period, like the 81, to create amazing levels of grip, without the amount of drag caused by large wings. The radiator sidepods were designed as they were for almost no other purpose than for grounds-effects.

The cockpit of the car, because of the bodywork, was rectangular. Though tight around the driver's shoulders, the angle of the bodywork was such that the area in front of the driver was open and not covered by bodywork. The inside of the cockpit had everything positioned in front of the driver as well, mostly due to the fact the bodywork formed the only structure to either side of the driver. The instrument panel and steering wheel featured a couple of buttons, but mostly only analog gauges and switches. To the right of the steering wheel was the manual gearshift for the Hewland 5-speed gearbox.

Right behind the head of the driver ran the single tubular roll-hoop and its supporting tubular frame structure. For aerodynamic purposes, the top bodywork would cover a good portion of the roll-hoop structure.

The top bodywork was designed to neatly fit around the 3.0-liter Ford Cosworth DFV V8 engine. The engine was normally-aspirated and capable of turning up to 10,800 rpm. The engine's induction pipes, or 'trumpets' as they were also known, sat exposed out of the top of the rear top bodywork. The Cosworth was capable of producing around 480 bhp. Combined with the ground-effects chassis, the Lotus 81 could still achieve some impressive performance, but it would not be enough to challenge the dominance of Williams and their Ford Cosworth.

The engine's exhaust pipes fed out of the side of the Cosworth engine into the practically barren sidepods. The pipes then bent and blended together until they exited just behind the engine's intake trumpets. The exhaust pipes exited the bodywork via a narrow opening in the very back of the bodywork that wrapped around the Cosworth V8 engine.

The rear of the car was a neatly package item. In between the gearbox and the engine rested the rear suspension coils. They stood vertically in a tight box. The upper wishbone featured an arm longer than the other that would reach inside the car and attach to the top of the coil. The other portion of the upper-wishbone attached to a hinge incorporated into a portion of the car's rear structure. The driveshaft ran between the two wishbones. The lower wishbone attached to a central hinge that ran through the centerline of the rear of the car.

Rear braking for the car was accomplished the same as with the front. Ventilated disc brakes provided the stopping power. In order to cool the rear brakes, ducts needed to be used. However, these ducts needed to be efficient in an area of the car that was rather inefficient. Therefore, the design on the duct was such that it was flat on the side that ran along the inside edge of the wheel, and curved on the portion that ran along the middle of the car. The straight, vertical line, lined up directly with the line of the rear wing endplate. This design captured air travelling back toward the rear wing and directed in toward the brake housing.

The rear wing of the car was supported by a twin-support structure. These twin-supports were spaced out rather wide from each other, but still toward the middle of the car. The rear wing, itself, was made up of two main planes and featured endplates to help with the efficiency of the rear wing. Though having good depth, from front to back, the rear wing was shallow in its height.

During the middle-part of the 1979 season, John Player Special had left Lotus as its main sponsor. Therefore, fort the later-part of '79, and then, into 1980, Lotus' main sponsor was Essex Petroleum Corporation. The car's livery was finished in an overall blue paint scheme with red and white as accent colors.

In 1980, Lotus' two main drivers were Mario Andretti and Elio de Angelis. The season started out terrible as both drivers would retire from the Argentinean Grand prix. But then, at Brazil, the car, driven by Elio, would go on to score a 2nd place finish. It seemed the car still had the ability to compete. Unfortunately, the 2nd would be the best result the team would experience throughout the remainder of the season. Andretti and de Angelis would compete in every single round of the World Championship with the 81. However, at Austria, toward the later-part of the season, Lotus would enter a third 81. This car would provide future World Champion Nigel Mansell his first ride in Formula One. Unfortunately, he would not have any success his first year.

Williams-Ford would absolutely dominate the season. Alan Jones would win the championship by 13 points over Nelson Piquet and his Parmalat Brabham-Ford. Williams-Ford would also end up the constructor champion. The performance was incredible. Williams-Ford would earn 120 points. Ligier-Ford would be 2nd having earned only 66 points. Lotus-Ford would end up 5th in the constructor's championship having scored only 14 points.

Compared to the dominance of the Lotus 79 of the years prior, the 81 was anything but a continuation of that performance. The period of Lotus' history when it raced in the brilliant-blue, red and white Essex paint-scheme would be one of its least-productive. Neither one of the evolutions of the 81 proved to be any where near as capable as its Lotus predecessors. But it was only ever intended to serve as an interim measure before Lotus could introduce its revolutionary 88.

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By Jeremy McMullen