The Best That Never Ran: Part 1 – Lotus 96T

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The demise of CART was preceded by a series of serious mistakes in the 1990s and 2000s, but none of them should be considered its greatest lament.

Forget its decision to boycott Indy Racing League events, including the Indianapolis 500, and establish its own competing race. Forget the financial mismanagement that came from its public IPO that led to bankruptcy. Forget, even, the failure to regulate its cars at Texas in a way that would prevent drivers from blacking out during the high-banked, high-speed turns.

CART’s biggest missed opportunities came in the 1980s. Their names were Lotus and Ferrari, respectively.

Lotus may be in the sport now, having joined KV Racing Technology as a sponsor in 2010 and stepping up as an engine manufacturer this year, but long before then, they built a CART racer, the 96T, in 1984. Ferrari, meanwhile, unveiled its own competitor, the 637, in 1986, with drivers Bobby Rahal and Michele Alboreto among those connected to the project in some way.

Unfortunately, neither car ever made it to the track on a race weekend. The promise that both manufacturers offered, and the fact that American open-wheel racing was considered a worthy endeavor for two of the most storied and competitive teams in Formula 1, both went for naught.

When Lotus set out to establish a CART team, they hadn’t run a works team at Indianapolis since Colin Chapman took Jim Clark and others to the Speedway from 1963 to 1969. They took the win in 1965 with a rear-engined car that helped revolutionize the sport. With their pedigree, any re-entry into open-wheel racing in the States would inspire great expectations in fans and rivals alike.

Former Formula 2 owner Roy Winkelmann saw the establishment of CART in 1979 as a way to break back into racing after a decade spent cultivating a business empire. Winkelmann decided that the best way to conquer the new series would be to secure “works” engines from Cosworth, as the 2.65-liter DFX V8 powering most CART entries featured little input from the manufacturer. He was confident that he could secure the sponsorship, drivers, and car to conquer the sport within three years.

Winkelmann then went to Lotus, enlisting French designer Gerard Ducarouge, who had been consistently rebuilding Lotus’ F1 team with a series of innovative designs in the early 1980s. Ducarouge and a young Mike Coughlan designed the new car with the Lotus 95T, their 1984 F1 challenger, in mind, but with alterations made to compensate for the possibility of hitting a wall at much higher speeds.

The 96T had a serious shot at dominating the series, given the strong pedigree of those behind it, but it wasn’t meant to be. CART, a series formed by the activism of team owners, wasn’t particularly excited at the prospect of a “works” team with any sort of factory support. The apprehension makes sense, given the possibility of an upstart team with better chassis, newer engines, and deeper pockets dominating the people who actually established the series. In response, sponsorship failed to materialize, and drivers weren’t willing to risk their careers to join the new team.

Instead, the car never ran, and some of the design cues from the 96T were applied to Lotus’ next Formula 1 car, the 97T; in particular, subsequent Lotus F1 cars used aluminum foil honeycomb rather than nomex between Kevlar their parts. After a few years of poor results in the wake of Chapman’s death, the 95T had brought Lotus back to competitive form in 1984, but its inability to win chased off driver Nigel Mansell to the Williams team. The team replaced Mansell with a young driver named Ayrton Senna (perhaps you’ve heard of him), and he took his first two career F1 wins in the 97T. Senna and  teammate Elio de Angelis would rank fourth and fifth in points, respectively, in the 1985 F1 season.

– Chris Leone


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