This infamous one-of-two Lotus 88 is one of racing’s great “what-ifs”


The Lotus 88 could have been one of Colin Chapman’s great quantum leaps in racing car design. It also could have been a big flop. We’ll never know, because it never raced and it never finished development. The 88’s potentially revolutionary two-chassis layout drew swift and harsh protests from rivals, and it was never allowed to compete in a Grand Prix, relegating it to Formula 1 history’s long list of unrealized dreams. 

Lotus built just two Type 88s, and one of them is up for grabs at the Best Heritage auction in Tokyo on January 11-12. Even though a handful of practice sessions was as close as the 88 ever got to the grid, this could potentially be one of the most expensive Lotuses ever sold.

The pace of change in the design of Grand Prix cars in the late 1970s and early 1980s was dizzying. When it came to engines, the 1.5-liter turbos from Renault were starting to chip away at the dominance of the 3.0-liter Cosworth DFV. Meanwhile, designers were understanding downforce to optimize cornering speed. The cars’ shapes, both in terms of bodywork and the undertrays beneath, were rapidly evolving.

Central to the hunt for downforce in the late 1970s was something called ground effect, and Lotus was at the forefront of this endeavor. Team Lotus had already turned the racing world on its ear several times with groundbreaking Grand Prix cars like the Types 25, 49 and 72, and introducing ground effect to Formula 1 was Colin Chapman’s and Lotus’s last great triumph in the sport. Pioneered on the Type 78 and perfected with the Type 79 that won the 1978 World Championship, a ground effect or “wing” car features inverted aerofoils underneath with flexible skirts on the sides of the body between the wheels that bridge the gap between the car and the track surface. This seal creates a low pressure area underneath the car and effectively sucks it to the ground, maximizing downforce for better traction without the drag produced by a conventional wing. Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2J “sucker car” and Gordon Murray’s Brabham BT46B “fan car” both used rear-mounted fans to create the vacuum that pushed the car to the ground, but both were banned on grounds of the fans being “movable aerodynamic devices,” which were forbidden by the FIA.

1981 Lotus 88B
BH Auction

Lotus dominated the 1978 season, taking the Manufacturers’ title and the top two spots in the Drivers’ Championship, but the rest of the field quickly caught up. Now aware of Lotus’ aerodynamic trickery of the future, the other top teams responded with ground effect cars of their own. 

Chapman’s next ground effect car, the Type 80, was a swing and a miss. Lotus didn’t win a single Grand Prix in 1979 or 1980. Meanwhile, cornering speeds were getting faster and faster—dangerously so. For the 1981 season the rules banned sliding skirts and mandated a six-centimeter ground clearance in order to slow the cars down a bit. To achieve as much ground effect as possible without the skirts, the teams used incredibly stiff suspension to keep the ground clearance low. It was hell on the drivers.

That’s where the Lotus Type 88 came in, designed by Peter Wright, Tony Rudd, Martin Ogilvie and Colin Chapman. While it was conceived before the ban on sliding skirts, its design addressed the two issues of maintaining as low of a ride height as possible while keeping the suspension from being overly harsh. 

Central to the 88’s layout (and the controversy surrounding it) are its two chassis, one aerodynamic and one mechanical. The bodywork and side pods joined by three titanium cross members make up the aerodynamic one, which is directly attached to the uprights but also featured soft springs. Once the car picks up speed and produces enough downforce, the springs will compress to lower the undertray and maintain an even seal with the track. That chassis takes most of the stresses and pressures of producing ground effect. It also allowed the car to follow the six-cm ground clearance rule, at least at tech inspection, and then squat lower at speed. (Try following an F1 car onto the track with a tape measure.) The other chassis, meanwhile, is a conventional monocoque housing a Cosworth DFV, the cockpit, and relatively soft suspension. The main inner chassis utilizes a compound of carbon fiber and Kevlar, making it among the first F1 cars, along with the McLaren MP4/1, to use carbon fiber in significant quantities. 

The first round of the 1981 World Championship was the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach. The 88 initially passed scrutineering and put in some laps in practice, but was black flagged and disqualified after protests by rival teams on the grounds that the 88’s second chassis was a “movable aerodynamic device.” The rules state that any part of the car influencing its aerodynamics need to be “rigidly secured to the entire sprung part of the car and must remain immobile in relation to the vehicle.” Nevertheless, “entirely sprung part of the car” is not clearly defined in the rules. Neither is the word ‘chassis,’ for that matter, and there’s also the fact that chassis is spelled the same in both singular and plural.

1981 Lotus 88B
BH Auction
1981 Lotus 88B
BH Auction

1981 Lotus 88B
BH Auction

Team Lotus persisted at the next race in Brazil, but again the 88 was disqualified after only a few practice laps. The car didn’t even pass scrutineering at the next round in Argentina and an outraged Colin Chapman boycotted the next race at Imola in San Marino, which was the first Grand Prix in many years that didn’t feature a Lotus on the grid. 

“Meanwhile everyone is happily cheating on the footnote to Article 274/3 which says, ‘Under no circumstances shall any suspended part of the car be less than 6 cms. From the ground,’” says a 1981 article in Motorsport magazine. “At Imola official observers on the fast parts of the circuit said that ‘everyone, but everyone, had the sides of the coachwork touching the ground.’ If everyone cheats then it is all right.”

Chapman hired ex-Nixon lawyer Robert Hinerfeld to appeal the FIA’s decision but lost the case. He tried one more time with a revised 88B at the British Grand Prix, but the car was banned there as well and Lotus reverted to a single-chassis 87 for the rest of the season.

Even though the 88’s few timed practice laps had been well off the pace, it was a step too far from a team that had redefined F1 design just three years before. Frank Williams complained that “if it is accepted as legal finally, then we shall all have to build similar cars to remain competitive, and the costs will be enormous.”

Chapman died in late 1982 and Team Lotus never returned to its winning ways, aside from some bright spots in 1985-87 when Ayrton Senna drove for the team. Whether the 88 actually would have been any good or not is still something of a mystery since “the other teams, scared that Chapman had moved the goalpost once again, connived in its downfall,” according to a 2005 Motorsport article on the car.

1981 Lotus 88B
BH Auction

One of the two 88s that Lotus ever completed is up for grabs at auction in Tokyo on January 11-12 and, confusingly, the car has two chassis numbers—88B/2 and 87/2. It may have never turned a wheel in anger when it was new, but today it is eligible for historic racing and even won the Historic Monaco Grand Prix.

It has a presale estimate of ¥80,000,000 – ¥120,000,000, or roughly $735,000 – $1,102,000. The high end of that range puts it in contention to be the most expensive Lotus sold at auction, which is surprising given that the 88 never raced, not to mention all the other groundbreaking, successful racing cars from Lotus’ past. Two bidders are going to have to really want the 88 for it to take top spot, though, since an ex-Graham Hill 1968 49B Grand Prix car sold in Goodwood in 2014 for £673,500 ($1,147,135 at the time) and a 1964 34 Indy car sold for $1,150,000 at Quail Lodge in 2017. 

All that said, we’d love to see this wonky Lotus experience redemption when the hammer drops in Tokyo.

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