Team Lotus went out of business in the early 90s. Before they did so, though, they had the potential to be world champions for a final time. This is when the Norfolk-based team had its final bang of potential success.
Earlier we looked at how Lotus played a game of revolving door with Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet in the late 80s. It was the triangle between the team, its title sponsor and the star drivers trying to make a difference. Now we are going to see Honda, Lamborghini and Opel playing a part in Lotus’s attempts of success.
Team Lotus entered into agreement with Honda in July 1986, even before with RJ Reynolds.
Golden Honda badge on black background? Sounds more than great.
Honda - at the time - were stepping away from Williams before they went to McLaren. For 1987 and 1988, the sides confirmed the deployment of the RA167-E and RA168-E engines. These were the final years of the turbo era in F1, before a large increase in prices was due. For each year, Lotus agreed to pay Honda one million American dollars for the engines.
Honda’s requirements in the contract are intriguing, though. This might explain some of their current problems with McLaren in 2015.
For one, they determine that the engines they supply to Lotus are the same as in the Williams and McLaren cars.
This isn’t much of a surprise by itself, but they keep the use of the engines on a tight leash.
Honda also requires that the drivers be made available on several occasions for promotion. More than likely they had the same deal with Williams and McLaren as well. This might have made them look like manufacturers rather than engine suppliers. They make exclusive use of all team members’ portraits and signatures as well. Given that Senna and Piquet were racing for Lotus at the time, it represents the order of preference well. Drivers first, Lotus second. This further enforces the image that Honda tried to make themselves look like manufacturers.
While Lotus paid the price for transporting the cars, Honda virtually owned them. So much so that it was almost Honda leasing the car to Lotus for racing purposes.
The most crucial part of the contract is revolving around IP. All development on the chassis is the property of Honda if it’s the result of their work. Whoever came up with it, Honda owns it if they executed it.
The agreement is exclusive on Lotus’s part but not on Honda’s. Lotus couldn’t talk to other engine suppliers while Honda could talk to other teams. Yet Honda provides all mechanical and engineering background for free. Also, Lotus could keep all their awards, Honda might have loaned a few of those.
Section 19.4 is most interesting in the perspective of the McLaren situation of 2015.
With a possible engine formula change soon, this sentence might be a warning light.
Honda had a stellar run with McLaren in 1988, but they still had Lotus on board. If they broke up with the latter, Lotus would have been compensated fairly.
Of course, Honda left Lotus at the end of 1988. When they entered into agreement, Imperial Tobacco was still title sponsor. With RJ Reynolds stepping in through the Camel brand, everything changed. They signed the two Brazilian superstarts and had big plans for 1990 after they, too, left.
First of all, RJ Reynolds felt Formula One was the best means of advertisement for their Camel brand. They spend a page describing Formula One as a James Bond movie minus the gunfights.
In 1990, they were also optimistic about the future role of the tobacco industry in F1.
They would be laughing now reading this.
RJ Reynolds also believes they managed to make Joe Camel the new Marlboro Man through Formula One.
They also convince themselves Lotus is their best option, not the least for their ties to GM. General Motors owned Lotus Cars at the time. Lotus Cars owned 20% of Team Lotus and Lotus Engineering was also in the picture. This meant active suspension, a wind tunnel and a testing facility.
Throwing a curve ball, RJ Reynolds also relishes in the fact Lotus were using Lamborghini engines.
However, they are more excited about the Italian firm being a subsidiary to Chrysler.
High hopes for Derek Warwick and Martin Donnelly.
Here is something super-interesting. Lotus wanted to make the Formula One-equivalent of the Lotus Omega/Carlton.
Just to make it clear: Chrysler funds an F1 engine, calls it Lamborghini. General Motors funds an F1 engine, calls it... Opel? They also had Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Buick in Indy racing. F1 ran in Europe for the most part and Opel is the biggest GM brand there. Still, Opel hasn’t cut it in racing big time, other than DTM a few years later.
The price for all? Let the tobacco money flow in.
The Lamborghini powerplant proved to be unreliable. Despite RJ Reynolds’ initial optimism, they stopped sponsoring Lotus at the end of 1990. They switched to Judd and Ford in later years. In their final year in 1994, they raced with Mugen-Hondas.
General Motors never made it to Formula One full-time.
Contract screengrabs are from the vault of the Industry Documents Library.