1987 Formula 1 Season, Ayrton Senna, Colin Chapman, Gerard Ducourage, Lotus 99T, Lotus Active 92, Peter Wright
“All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
~D. H. Lawrence~
Porpoising…alternating between upwards and downwards movements…is great for…unsurprisingly…porpoises! Their decreased drag while flying through the air results in them being able to swim faster and further with less energy expenditure. Porpoising is not so desirable for Formula One cars that are fastest when they remain stuck firmly on the ground. I suspect that if a Formula One designer discovered the holy grail that enabled their car to fly through the air it would swiftly and speedily be declared against the spirit if not the letter of the law. Surely, along with the current requirement for the car to have only four wheels is the condition that those four wheels must at all times remain on terra firma. The pre-wings spectacle of a Formula One car “flying” is no longer one that designers desire to achieve.
Lotus aerodynamicist Peter Wright had been struggling to combine car control and driveability with the immense amount of ground effects currently at his disposal. Over a brief two year period the ability to harness downforce had proliferated by a factor of four. Since its conception ground effects had been analysed, investigated and scrutinized so as to glean every sliver of advantage from the burgeoning technology. Surely if a little of something was good then more of it was even better…or maybe not!
The Lotus 80 was designed to generate downforce from its nose all the way through to its tail. In fact, there was so much downforce that its front wings were relegated to the rubbish bin as they only got in the way of the cars superbly perfect aerodynamics. Sometimes this this worked brilliantly…the car sticking to the road like glue. But then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the much desired downforce would evaporate and the car would start to “porpoise”, its nose lifting and then dropping quickly. The only way to regain to control was to brake, negating the whole purpose of ground effects which was to enable the car to go faster.
Stiffening the suspension in an attempt to improve the handling only caused the car to bounce about more while porpoising, inducing unpleasant, sailor-like sea sickness in the pilot. Initially a cure had been attempted by purely mechanical means with a twin-chassis. The Lotus 88 had an inner chassis with a separate suspension to protect the driver from being pummelled about by his car. As is normal in Formula one, every very other team protested because they hadn’t thought of it first and it was banned as it was said to be a movable aerodynamic device. Aerodynamic? Not a very creative (or logical) argument! Chapman, forced down a divergent track, had to think out of the box to try to find a solution to his dilemma. Little did his objectors realize what they had started…
Collin Chapman sought out the advice of Professor David Williams who had been researching the use of hydraulics in airplanes. Unexpectedly flying does have a connection with the birth of active suspension. Aircraft had problems with “wing flutter” which occurred when the wings started to oscillate, and Williams was researching the use of hydraulics to control the amount of wing movement. When Formula One wings started to “flutter” they usually ended up flying off the car with disastrous results. Williams suggested computer controlled hydraulics to vary the ride height of the car, optimizing ground force as well as vastly improving the comfort of the ride for the driver. As Peter Wright explained, “The cars suspension works in much the same way as would a skier’s legs on the slopes. As his legs react to different bumps and contours so his brain receives the message and instantly changes the posture of his legs. Our suspension receives its commands from the on-board computer and instantly obeys.”
Colin Chapman was always one to push the boundaries of innovation in Formula One and he jumped at the idea. Never one to put off until tomorrow what he could do today he wanted to see the concept in action post-haste. After-all, the quicker you get something done, the greater the chance you’ll race any of your competitors who may have had the same idea. Very considerately he told Wright he had six months to demonstrate his hypothesis in a road car. With Wright designing the suspension and Williams programming the computer they set to work. Actually, Williams not only had to program the in-car computer…he had to build it first. It was the early 1980’s when computers often needed to be bigger than your car to do relatively simple work…this computer needed to fit in the car!
The suspension and computer were installed into a sporty Lotus Esprit. Chapman took the car for a spin around Snetterton and Williams, sitting in the passenger seat controlling the cars suspension dynamics with a laptop, persuaded the car to “unexpectedly” pirouette. Chapman was immediately sold on the concept and generously gave Williams and Wright a “long” six months to perfect the system in a Formula One car. On December 16, 1982 Colin Chapman witnessed the inaugural run of the Lotus Active Type 92. Later that night he unexpectedly and tragically died of a heart attack at the young age of 54, and active suspension lost the impetus behind it. The Active 92 only got on the track twice during the 1983 season, was hated vehemently by Nigel Mansell, and consequently became prematurely relegated to the rubbish heap. Active suspension was off the agenda and Wright went off to ply his trade at Lotus Engineering, where active suspension continued to be developed for road car use.
Fast forward five years and Lotus designer Gerard Ducourage envisaged that active suspension could be the long sought after answer to his design problems, and stated in no uncertain terms that it was time to have another look at it. The disadvantages of increasing the weight of the car by 25 kg and needing to siphon off five percent of their already outdated Honda engine to power the hydraulics would hopefully be outweighed by the cars ability to maintain a stable ride height through the bumps and ridges of the average track. Into the Lotus 99T went active suspension for the 1987 season.
Unlike five years before however they would now have competition. The Williams had put “reactive” suspension into their FW11B. It lacked the high-tech computer control and merely had the ability for the suspension on all four corners of the vehicle to respond separately to the variabilities of the circuit. Unfortunately for Lotus the Williams car was far superior from an aerodynamic point of view and they went on to take the top two places in the Driver’s Championship and in doing so take the Constructor’s Championship as well.
The Lotus 99T did win two races, Ayrton Senna taking the top step of the podium at the twisty and bumpy street circuits of Monaco and Detroit where the car and its newfangled suspension came into its own. His win at Detroit was his sixth career win and would be the last victory for a Lotus car. Lotus Engineering had covered the costs of the innovative suspension that year, sending two engineers to every race to deal with any possible teething problems. For 1988 they thought that they should now get remunerated for what was an obvious success. Lotus Racing wasn’t convinced and decided it wasn’t worth the money.
In 1988 the Williams FW12 had a major design fault and, coupled with losing their Honda power, they struggled to be competitive all season…but the Lotus without their active suspension got a scant three points more than Williams. They had squandered their golden opportunity. Maybe if the powers that be holding the checkbook had had a bit of foresight and vision there might have been more wins for Lotus yet to grab, as they did have the current World Champion Nelson Piquet piloting their car. Ayrton Senna had left Lotus for McLaren and persuaded Honda to join them. They won 14 out of 16 races and Senna obtained his first World Championship title.
By 1993 every team had some form of active suspension but the FIA were becoming concerned that the progressive increase in cornering speed was jeopardizing driver safety. Charlie Whiting even announced that all cars with active suspension were in breach of the current regulations as the hydraulics caused the whole car to be a movable aerodynamic device and that it should be outlawed immediately. The halcyon days of ground effects and active suspension were rapidly coming to an end. Active suspension was banned for the 1994 season. Colin Chapman might well have said, “I knew they would!”