Video: Onboard the Terrifying Lotus 98T Turbo F1!

1986 was a good year for Formula One. No boost restrictions, cars outputting 1,100+ horsepower, qualifying tires that were incredibly sticky for all of one lap and then — poof — thousands of dollars of Goodyears up in smoke. Additionally, these were the years of manual gearboxes and conventional clutch pedals which had to be depressed between every gear.

No power steering and certainly no traction control were also hallmarks of the era. Wheelspin in fifth gear wasn’t unheard of, and qualifying engines melting on their way into the pits as a result of 5 bar boost was almost commonplace that year. There was a good reason these special qualifying engines were called “grenades,” and the wheel-to-wheel dicing back then was just as explosive.

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The menacing, black paint scheme made the Lotus 98T one of the most iconic F1 cars ever.

Onboard with Senna’s teammate, Johnny Dumfries, shows exactly how intense the competition is on the unforgiving, slippery streets of Adelaide, Australia. Dumfries, better known as John Crichton-Stuart, 7th Marquess of Bute, made his way into Formula One the old fashioned way — with aristocratic wealth. Though never a front-runner, his one year tenure with Lotus was not wasted. In fact, in this very race, the young Scotsman finished sixth behind the likes of Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. Dumfries was no joker, but the fierce level of competition in those days made most men wilt.

It’s not hard to see why either. Even with massive slick tires, the brutal power delivery of the 1.5-liter, twin turbo V6 spins the rears all the way until the first braking zone. Amidst popping of the wastegates and barking engines, the pack weave to and fro to evade cars that have bogged or stalled off the line. With little torque low in the rev range, the turbocharged cars were notoriously difficult to launch.

With all the wheel banging and shoving going on, it’s surprising Dumfries wasn’t caught in a huge collision before the first corner. With some catlike reflexes and a deft right hand keeping the ferocious powerplant within its narrow rev range, he escapes unscathed, only to be passed by a Benetton B186.

The green and white car sponsored by the Italian clothing line may have had two cylinders fewer than the Renault V6 powering Dumfries’ Lotus, but it still stands as the most powerful F1 car of all time. Making the little BMW four-cylinder work well on a narrow street track isn’t easy, but seeing how it walks away from the powerful Lotus on the Brabham straight, it’s not hard to believe the claims of over 1,300 horsepower.

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The Renault EF15 powering Dumfries’ Lotus made 900 horsepower at 11,000 rpm in race trim.

Dumfries puts up a gallant fight, keeping the flame-spitting Benetton within his sights and closing the gap under braking from well over 200 mph. Somehow, between jumping over the curbs and catching slides whenever the power is applied, he avoids a huge spin. Would drivers of today have difficult adjusting to these ferocious machines?

The lack of downforce and emphasis on mechanical grip made the cars of the eighties much more visibly demanding, though the level of grip was overall lower. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that wrangling these recalcitrant beasts took a deft touch and a certain degree of mechanical sympathy. Dumfries is guilty of overdriving slightly, but seeing as these cars are the mechanical equivalent of a bucking bronco, it’s hard to fault him.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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