Lotus 88, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Lotus 88: the F1 car that was banned

Goodwood Festival of Speed

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The new restrictions on hot-blown diffusers has caused much debate in recent weeks. But what if the sport’s regulators chose to ban an entire car?

It’s happened before. Colin Chapman’s Lotus 88 was his final attempt one of his trademarks quantum leaps in F1 design – but it fell foul of the FIA.

79 to 86: Going backwards

Ground effect aerodynamics was the political cause celebre of 1981.

Jean-Maria Balestre, president of FISA (the fore-runner of the FIA), was keen to prevent teams using ‘skirts’ along the side of their cars to generate enormous downforce and, along with it, massive cornering speeds.

Lotus’s Colin Chapman had pioneered the technology a few years earlier and dominated the 1978 championship with his Lotus 79.

But the following year he tried an even more aggressive development of the ground effect concept on the Lotus 80. His plan was to use underbody aerodynamics to generate all the car’s downforce, doing away with front and rear wings to reduce drag.

The Lotus 88 in the paddock at Goodwood

Wind tunnels testing showed the car generated twice the downforce of its predecessor. But on the track the immense power of the ground effect couldn’t be controlled. The car would ‘porpoise’ – sucking itself down at the front, then bouncing back up.

The team only raced the 80 three times and relied on the old 79 for much of the year.

While the more conventional 81 was produced for 1980, Chapman persisted with the concept behind the 80. Using an 81 monocoque as a base, he created a new test car, the 86, where he pursued the thinking that would lead to the doomed 88.

The design of the 86 drew on an idea of Lotus’s Peter Wright: the external structure of the car was mounted, via springs, directly onto the wheel uprights. The portion of the chassis which contained the engine, the fuel tanks, the driver and the rest, was independent of the downforce-producing wings and skirts.

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Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis tested the car in late 1980. From these tests, Chapman conceived the final design of the 88.


Lotus referred to the 88 as having a “twin-chassis”. The core of the car was, in effect, a complete racing car. The second layer was its skin, linked from side-to-side by three cross-members made from titanium.

After various legal battles the Lotus 88 never raced

The sides of the car, including its skirts, were straight – Chapman doing away with the curved shape which had proved problematic on the 80 and 86.

While the car was in development, Balestre announced details of the FIA’s latest attempt to ban ground effects, by banning skirts and requiring cars to have 6cm of ground clearance. Lotus developed a system to lower the car while it was on the track and raise it at slower speeds when it came into the pits to get around the rule.

But the row over the legality of the 88 began as soon as the teams arrived in Long Beach for the first race of the year (the preceding South African Grand Prix having been reduced to non-championship status following another political row).

Scrutineers passed the car to compete and de Angelis drove it in Friday practice. But that evening, following a protest from rival teams, the stewards declared the car illegal.

Frank Williams made his objection to the car clear. But he also hinted at the political opposition from some of the teams who did not want to have to copy another of Chapman’s breakthroughs:

“From our understanding of the regulations, the Lotus 88 is not legal by the letter of the law, let alone the spirit. 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 appealed that decision and was initially told the car could continue to compete pending the outcome. But the following day the car was black-flagged during morning practice.

A furious Chapman prepared himself for the now inevitable showdown with the FIA by hiring Robert Hinerfeld, previously a defence lawyer for Richard Nixon.

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His ire only increased when Brabham turned up at the Argentinian Grand Prix with their own system designed to get around the ban on skirts. They passed scrutineering and dominated the race.

“We want Lotus 88”

Despite losing an FIA appeal court hearing against the banning of the car, Chapman made another attempt to get the 88 into a race by bringing a mildly revised “B”-version to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Another Chapman brainwave or a development dead-end?

Some fans brought banners reading “We want Lotus 88”. The Royal Automobile Club obliged by declaring the car was legal.

Balestre hit back, threatening to strip the race of its world championship status if the car was allowed to race, and the RAC backed down.

While the row dragged on, de Angelis and Mansell logged the only recorded laps for the car in a timed session. Mansell’s 1’15.992 was the quicker of the two, but 3.8 seconds slower than Rene Arnoux’s Renault.

Whether the 88 would have proved to be another of Chapman’s designs that changed the face of the sport, or another step down a technological cul-de-sac, is a debate we can only speculate on.

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The Cosworth engine and Hewland gearbox were conventional, the rest was anything but

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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51 comments on “Lotus 88: the F1 car that was banned”

  1. Fascinating read that, thank you. I can only imagine how unstable the cars would be without wings. It would be great to have ground-effect back, and no doubt it would be safer these days, but it does seem very unstable and unpredictable.

    1. I can only imagine how unstable the cars would be without wings.

      If the concept had worked, the cars would not be unstable at all. Ground effects suck the cars downwards. Like the article says, skirts could generate twice the downforce of the more conventional wings. They wouldn’t need wings at all. In fact, the inclusion of wings would have changed the way the air flowed over and around the car, which would only make the necessary ground effects more complex.

      1. It wouldn’t have been unstable while it was working. And on today’s laser-flat F1 tracks, it might work well.

        But as soon as the air gets under the car – by a bump, a crest, a driver taking a kerb on a fast corner or a puncture – the sudden loss of downforce is terminal and the car flies into the air…

    2. Several teams had winning cars without front wings in the last couple seasons of the full skirt era. They didn’t seem like too much of a handful, apart from the ‘porpoise effect’ at high speed on some of the rougher tracks.

      1. Looks like a car that could follow or be followed through a corner, without losing grip.

      2. What is a ‘porpoise effect’?

        1. An up-down effect, the way dolphins swim

          1. And porpoises I assume..!!

  2. It just goes to show that using the rule book to beat your opponents of the track is a time-honoured tradition within Formula 1.

    1. Like all competitions.

    2. Red Bull’s flexi-wings, Ferrari’s Spain-wing, and more to come.

      1. Not to mention the DDD. Yes, the fine art of F1 competative thingking!

  3. Appears to have a fairly sturdy main roll hoop, but hardly any protection at all for the driver’s lower legs and feet (like many other cars from those years).

    Very nice pictures!

    1. Thanks, I’ve posted some more quick snaps from Goodwood on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/f1fanatic_co_uk), lots more high-res galleries coming up here later.

    2. It wasn’t until a while later that single seaters were required to have the pedals behind the front axle line. Before that it was so easy for a driver to break his ankles in a head on crash.

      1. I believe that was Stefan Belof’s fatal crash that instigated that, the Porsche 956 he was in had the pedals in front of the axle, whereas the later 962 did not.

  4. Rubbish Dave
    1st July 2011, 14:09

    The sad thing from my perspective is how good the cars looked without wings. (And not rose glasses as I was only born that year)

    If wings were banned, id be happy, but also somewhat alone in that, I imagine.

    Not least as it’s hard to copy what you can’t see.

    1. It looks rather scary to me. Although they are probably not, the driver looks so close to the front of the car, as though if they went into a tyre barrier they would not have much protection..

    2. I’d be very happy with wing banning.

      1. second!

    3. For some timme I’ve been suggesting that a simple rule to implement would be ‘no holes in bodywork’ – with an exception of a mandated-sized air intake at the front, and a mandated-sized exhaust exit at the back (or top). It’d totally get rid of the ‘box’ rear wings, and massively simplify front wings (though with the sort of cascades they have now, perhaps there would be some mileage in a ‘minimum size of hole’ – say you must be able to touch all planes of the wing with a 25mm rod.

      1. Tupperware racing?

      2. I think another interesting experiment would be to have the teams build a modern car to regulations from an old season, say a 80’s ground effect year or a 60’s season pre-wings. Of course they would need to comply with modern safety standards, but I think the end result would be fascinating. Seeing how the drivers cope with designs based off of older philosophies would be fantastic.

    4. They would look fugly as well to me. Much better to just mandate simple wings

  5. Such a great article, thanks Keith!

  6. Accidental Mick
    1st July 2011, 14:53

    The still unresolved problem with ground effect designs is that, if the chassis is raised above its design height (by running over a kerb for example) the car instantly loses all downforced and the driver loses all contol

    1. Good incentive to stay on the track.

  7. Nicely done summary. It’s also a good case study for the cans or worms the sport may open in bringing back ground effect, not to mention the awesome performance potential. Imagine if Chapman had CFD and a proper wind tunnel to refine his design. It would have been sucking the tar out of the asphalt.

  8. Interestingly the wording of the rules that aerodynamic bodywork must be rigidly attached to the ‘fully sprung structure’ of the car is still the same today as it was then. The 88 according to Chapman had two sprung structures, and the bodywork one, as it had more suspension movement was ‘The fully sprung structure’. Despite the 88 being banned there is still no definition in the rules of a fully sprung structure or any rule saying the car can only have one fully sprung structure…… so if anyone was brave enough there is nothing to stop a similar concept of car even now!

    1. Any Engineers out there? Just looking at the new regs I’ve noticed this: ‘Any system or device the design of which is capable of transferring or diverting torque from a slower to a faster rotating wheel is not permitted.’

      Isn’t that what a differential does as standard? Doesn’t that make all F1 cars illegal? … very confused.

      1. That particular regulation was to to stop the likes of McLaren’s two pedal dual braking system from being used. Not to mention traction control. The differential can also be tightened up or loosened by a control on the drivers steering wheel, but it does not divert torque to prevent a wheel from spinning.

        As for the springy bodywork:

        3.17.5 Bodywork may deflect no more than 5mm vertically when a 2000N load is applied vertically to it at three different points which lie on the car centre line and 100mm either side of it. Each of these loads will be applied in an upward direction at a point 380mm rearward of the front wheel centreline using a 50mm diameter ram in the two outer locations and a 70mm diameter ram on the car centre line. Stays or structures between the front of the bodywork lying on the reference plane and the survival cell may be present for this test, provided they are completely rigid and have no system or mechanism which allows non-linear deflection during any part of the test.
        Furthermore, the bodywork being tested in this area may not include any component which is capable of allowing more than the permitted amount of deflection under the test load (including any linear deflection
        above the test load), such components could include, but are not limited to :
        a) Joints, bearings pivots or any other form of articulation.
        b) Dampers, hydraulics or any form of time dependent component or structure.
        c) Buckling members or any component or design which may have, or is suspected of having, any non-linear characteristics.
        d) Any parts which may systematically or routinely exhibit permanent deformation.

        I think that covers it. :)

        1. Yep, that covers the bodywork (and there is a definition for that)… BUT…. the bodywork must be ridgedly attached the fully sprung structure…. and the fully sprung structure can have joints, dampers etc… but doesn’t have to have an engine, cockpit etc… it’s probably not practical or fast, but the rules even now don’t clearly rule out an 88 type concept.

  9. They have just changed the technical regulations for 2011 again. So you may want to check on that.


    1. Also take note of the new driver penalty system in the sporting regs!

    2. Only changed today! but the words are still the same.
      ‘…any specific part of the car
      influencing its aerodynamic performance….must be rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car’

      And still no definition of ‘the entirely sprung part of the car’

      1. Does there need to be a definition for: “must remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.” ?

        I suppose that you could put springs anywhere, but these would then be subject to bodywork flexibility tests with regard to movement in relation to the reference plane.

  10. I have been fascinated by this car ever since I discovered it’s existence. It solves a very basic problem with aero loads that engineers struggle with to this day. The idea behind it is fantastically simple and pragmatic. I only wish they would bring it back today. Ground effects are unhindered by following close to another car and thus could solve the overtaking problem in F1. It’s Achilles heel though was mentioned earlier in the comments, touching a curb would equal crash. I believe that this could be mitigated though. After all, they found a way to bring blown diffusers back (they did try to run blown diffusers years ago and could not deal with the loss of downforce associated with rolling off the throttle).

    1. Very true!

      I think they could engineer a way around the touch a curb and go airborne issue if ground-effect was reintroduced.

      Or they could simply get rid of the kerbs and make the drivers stay on the track.

  11. Was Colin Chapman better than Adrian Newey?

    1. Not forgetting Gordon Murray and Rory Byrne. Some others too.

      1. Better is a relative term. Newey, Murray and Byrne were far better than Chapman at refining and developing ideas to their full potential, Chapman was poor at that. But there has never been anyone like Chapman for coming up with off the wall concepts. Murray was the only one even close. Even now the basic design of the current F1 car owes more to Chapman than any other single designer…. monocoque chassis, engine as a structural member, aerodynamics, minimum weight, low unsprung weight, etc, etc… even non trade sponsorship…. all taken for granted now but totally revolutionary at the time.

        The 88 is a perfect example, the only solution to porpoiseing that anyone else ever came up with was stronger springs… but after his drivers felt that full race distance was too physically tough on stronger springs, Chapman came up with both the 88 concept and active suspension. The 88 to be a stop gap until the active car worked. Unfortunately active suspension took an age to develop, the secret got out and everyone else caught up before it worked properly.

        When everyone hit porpoiseing a year later, they just slapped on stronger springs and told the drivers to get on with it…. and that’s been the case ever since other than the short period with active suspension.

        1. Great comment JimN!

        2. Newey answered that recently. upstart engineers these days wont get to do what he did. but neither did newey do what chapman did. we regress.

  12. I remember this car pretty well, but I don’t remember it ever posting a competitive time, in the few practice sessions it was run in. So it’s all a bit speculative, since the car never proved revolutionary, although there’s no telling what more testing would have brought. The Williams and Brabham cars were pretty decent that year,I can’t think they’d have been much troubled by it.

  13. Its said that the banning of the Lotus 88 was Bernie Ecclestones revenge on Chapman for getting his Brabham BT46b ‘Fancar’ banned a few seasons prior.

    Still, here we are 30 years later and the FIA is still here, banning every ingenious thing that the teams and their designers try to bring to the track. The faces change, but not a lot else it seems.

    1. The Brabham fan car wasn’t actually banned – Bernie decided that continuing to run such a controversial car risked a split in the FOCA teams, so he voluntarily withdrew it.

      As soon as he saw the fan car, Colin Chapman reputedly started sketching his own version – with a double fan…

  14. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HwWZ2ANI5M&feature=related
    watch this video, you see the car moving up and down the faster/slower it goes! lotus 88 was a brilliant car.

    1. LOL, seeing that first shot reminded me so much of what we saw on Vettels inboard last year with the Red Bull!

    2. That’s gotta be annoying with the rear view mirrors constantly jumping up and down. :)

      Also, it’s a good indication of how much better the current aero/downforce tech and tyres are – modern cars are taking corners flat out, where these are braking and even downshifting into and through.
      (Yeah, they have to be extra careful, but there’s still some serious speed decrease into corners current cars barely notice.)

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