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1981 LOTUS 88—BERTRAND RUSSELL WOULD HAVE LOVED IT!

IT’S IMMODEST TO quote oneself. But what the hey, my 1981 commentary on the Lotus 88 Formula 1 car is still spot-on for today’s topic here at SimanaitisSays. 

Background: Racing around corners has always involved a balance of the aerodynamic and the mechanical. You want to optimize grip and yet permit the race car and its pilot to survive the experience. 

By the 1960s, Formula 1 race car designers worked on aerodynamic optimization of body shapes. This reached a high point, literally as well as technically, with downforce-generating wings perched high on struts attached directly to suspensions. 

Jackie Stewart in his Matra Cosworth MS10 at the Kyalami circuit, 1969 South African GP. Image from thejudge13.oom.

Their fragility, however, proved deadly: A damaged wing resulted in a huge loss of grip—instantaneously. In 1969, the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile banned the idea.

Designers in the 1970s responded with movable skirts that kept aerodynamic downforce from “spilling out.”

A Lotus 79’s side skirts in action, 1978.  Image from formula1-dictionary.net.

Same problem, though: a torn or otherwise malfunctioning skirt proved just as dangerous as a bent wing.

In “High-Tech F1,” R&T, July 1981, I wrote, “To make a huge controversy seem considerably simpler than it evidently was, skirts were banned this season and, just to make sure a designer didn’t simply lower the chassis to achieve a skirted effect, FISA also imposed a ground clearance minimum of 6 cm (about 2.4 in.). It’s too early to say whether these regulations will have their desired effect of lowering speeds in the long term, but the smart money bet is they will not.”

The Lotus Response. “If you’re seeking the ultimate in this year’s series of innovations,” I said, “construction of the Lotus 88 is every bit as revolutionary as its controversial dual suspension. The cockpit, powertrain, and conventional suspension all attach to a monocoque of carbon fiber/Kevlar/Nomex honeycomb…. For future reference, let’s call this monocoque and its assembled bits and pieces the mechanical chassis of the car.” 

The Lotus 88’s dual chassis. Image from R&T July 1981.

“The enveloping coachwork,” I continued, “is also of carbon fibre/Kevlar/Nomex and it rides on a separately suspended structure with carbon/epoxy slab sides into which plates are laminated for attachment to steel crossmembers. Let’s call this assemblage the aerodynamic chassis. 

Russellesque Rulebending. Colin Chapman and his team have performed “a virtual reducio ad sublimum,” said “our author” (I have some modesty, after all). “Currently, there are two clauses in the regulations that pertain to such an idea. Anything affecting a car’s aerodynamic performance ‘must be rigidly attached directly to the entirely sprung part of the car’ (thus ruling out wings attached directly to the unsprung wheel uprights) and ‘must remain immobile in relation to the vehicle’ (thus eliminating movable aerodynamic devices…).” 

The Lotus 88. At YouTube, Clive Chapman (Colin’s son) of Classic Team Lotus explains the car’s innovative features.

The Lotus 88 and Set Theory. “So what about the Lotus 88?” our author wrote rhetorically. “From my vantage point, it appears to meet the regulations in a flourish of almost Bertrand Russellesque logic (as exemplified by his mathematical work with sets and classes)” Indeed, see “Russell’s Paradox.”

“True,” our author reasoned, “the aerodynamic chassis moves with respect to the car’s mechanical chassis (whether downward as I’ve suggested or otherwise is quite beside the point). The crux of the matter is how this movement fits into the rules’ ‘entirely sprung part of the vehicle.’ The aerodynamic portion is indeed a chassis on its own right and thus entirely sprung. Ergo, as required by the regulations, it is both rigidly secured and immobile—in relation to itself!”

“I’m confident,” our author concluded, “that Bertrand Russell would have agreed with Colin Chapman and me, but, of course, it’s up to FISA.”

The Lotus 88 at the 1981 Long Beach GP.

The Lotus 88 was subsequently banned. Our author wins some; he loses some. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021  

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