There was lightning in the air in 1986.

Usain Bolt was born. Mike Tyson took just two rounds to become the youngest ever Heavyweight World Champion and the F1 Turbo era reached its peak. The ’86 cars remain the most powerful ever to race. Horsepower was unlimited, you could run as much as you could wring out of 1.5 litres. With special qualifying engines and gearboxes that could only last 3-4 minutes at full boost, this was drag racing with corners.


At 5.5bar boost, the BMW Turbo was rumoured to produce in excess of 1350bhp in qualifying and said to race at somewhere north of 1000bhp. There were no exact figures because the dyno equipment of the day couldn’t measure that high. If that wasn’t exciting enough, turbo lag was apparently horrendous. It’s one thing having 1000bhp delivered evenly across the rev range, quite another when it comes in with one almighty… the drivers had to anticipate the oncoming gale of boost… whoosh…. and floor the throttle anything up to 2 seconds earlier than they would with a normally aspirated engine… bang!

In a TV interview some years later, Gerhard Berger said with a mischievous smile and slightly crazed glint in his eye: “Forget everything after. The 1986 Turbo cars really was rockets. And to handle them, I think, you had to be a man.”

The 98T represents the coming together of two F1 icons, the alignment of two passing stars in the racing firmament – Aytron Senna and the JPS Lotus. Senna’s star was in rapid ascent at this point and Team Lotus were at the tail-end of their glory days – still genuine contenders but struggling to fill the almighty void left by Chapman’s sudden death in December 1982. It was a void only Grand Prix wins could begin to fill.

Two seasons passed by with a solitary 2nd place being the best Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis could manage. It was always going to take something special to get Lotus winning again. There was definitely something special about that helmet with that livery, the two seemed made for each other. As far as Team Lotus boss Peter Warr was concerned, they were. He was convinced, very early on, that Senna was the missing piece of the puzzle. Warr offered Senna $50,000 for the ’84 season and the chance to start his F1 career with Team Lotus. However, John Player blocked the move as they felt it was important to have a British driver in the team.

Warr reluctantly agreed to retain Mansell and the story of Senna in Formula 1 began at Toleman. Even with uncompetitive machinery, Senna wasted no time in dazzling everyone in the paddock with his raw speed and commitment. He arrived in F1 fully formed, the complete package from day one. He was unlucky, some say robbed, not to have won his first ever Monaco GP – in a Toleman TG184, something equivalent to a modern Sauber, at best. His talent was now impossible to ignore, even for Imperial Tobacco. Team Lotus signed Senna for the 1985 season for $585,000 – over ten times the original offer. It didn’t take long for Senna to repay Warr’s faith and John Player’s cash. He put the 97T on pole an incredible seven times, delivered six podiums and two extraordinary wins.

Over the previous three seasons Mansell and de Angelis managed 3 poles between them. In Portugal 1985, in only Senna’s second race for Team Lotus, he put the 97T on pole, got the fastest lap and won in torrential conditions, lapping everyone up to (and including) 3rd place Patrick Tambay. It was Senna’s first of 41 Grand Prix wins and the first win for Team Lotus since Chapman’s passing – massive milestones both.

So the stage was set for ’86. After only two seasons in F1, the pressure was now on Lotus and Renault to give Senna a car that would allow him fight for the championship. It gave him a very strong position within the team – something he was very aware of and took full advantage of. All of the 26 year-old’s demands were met – including his veto of the highly rated Derek Warwick as his team-mate. It can now be seen as a compliment to Warwick that Senna considered him a threat, but at the time Warwick was bitterly disappointed. He would never drive a front-running F1 car again.

Senna even had the impudence to send him a New Year card, wishing him all the best for ‘86! Senna’s first choice of team-mate was close Brazilian friend Mauricio Gugelmin but, again, John Player favoured a British driver, so Johnny Dumfries was given a shot instead. However, the fate that awaited him meant that Senna might have inadvertently done Warwick a favour. Senna was given unequivocal number one driver status with a contract that never really gave Dumfries a fighting chance. Whether it was being the test mule for new components like the woeful 6-speed gearbox or handing over the spare car at short notice, Johnny Dumfries was left under no illusions that his primary role was to help Senna win.

Senna’s engineer Steve Hallam: “The message coming out of the ’85 season was that we needed to raise our game significantly and support Ayrton, otherwise we weren’t going to get the best out of him. Peter and Gerard realised that, the Chapmans realised that and Renault realised that as well. They stopped racing their works team and instead became our engine supplier. We had very good support from them but Honda was rising.”

As ever with F1, the 98T was a product of that year’s regulations. 1986 presented a mighty engineering challenge. Horsepower was unlimited but at the same time, the FIA introduced a reduction in the fuel allowance from 220 litres to 195. While nearly twice today’s fuel allowance, it presented a serious headache for the teams. Senna’s 97T ran out of fuel during the 1985 San Marino GP, just four laps from victory, so the team went to great lengths to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. The new Renault EF15B was more fuel-efficient and Lotus developed an on-board fuel computer, telling the drivers how many laps they could complete at their current pace.

The new regulations also widened the gulf between the cars in race and qualifying trim. The 98T qualified with special tyres, turbos, a different gearbox and an extreme version of the EF15B featuring water injection. Power was up by around 300bhp to an estimated total somewhere in excess of 1200bhp. Even with only 540kg to push, the components could only contain full boost for a maximum of two flying laps.

Steve Hallam gave this very evocative description: “That season, ’86, we used to change the turbochargers after every qualifying run, because the turbos would get so stressed that they were finished after just one lap. The mechanics needed half an hour to change them, so the qualifying laps had to be a minimum of half-an-hour apart. The turbos would be glowing red, and the mechanics had these massively thick asbestos gloves to handle them and undo the bolts. And they’d be clicking and pinging as they cooled off. When you took the body off, the air around them was literally sparking as they were so hot. The boys would be sweating and you’d hear the sizzle as the moisture dripped onto the turbo.”

If some of the races were marred by fuel saving, qualifying was always spectacular. To witness the ultimate potential of the first turbo era cars, you really had to watch them qualify.

If you have time for an in-depth look at qualifying 1986-style, take a look at this terrific video from the Adelaide round. There’s a particularly interesting peek inside the Lotus pits from 7.02-9.16 and the transformation in the car when Senna ‘pulls the pin’ is something to behold at 56.15 onwards. It’s a record of the turbo cars at their absolute peak for the very last time. Steve Hallam: “we had one engine for one set of tyres, and another engine for the second set. The boys really wanted to do it because this was the ultimate in the indulgence of horsepower, the last qualifying lap for turbo engines of unlimited boost – one engine per lap. There was never going to be any more power in F1 than we had for that final qualifying in Adelaide 1986. We were at the end of a magnificent era.”

Renault developed a pneumatic valvetrain for the EF15B which allowed the engine to be lighter, smaller and rev higher than its predecessor – up from 11,000rpm to 12,500rpm. It used compressed air to mechanically operate the valves in place of conventional valve springs, offering both greater performance and reliability. Despite the high cost and complexity, it was soon adopted by the other engine builders in F1, proving it to be a major advance in engine design. The same technology didn’t reach Moto GP until 2002 and wasn’t extensively used until 2005. The EF15B also featured a more sophisticated ignition system with coils in each of the six spark plug wells, all managed by the car’s ECU.

The driver’s fuel read-out was updated every lap from the pits by radio signal. If the number of laps of fuel remaining on the display was greater than the number on the pit board, it was time to go racing. If it was less, the driver was fuel saving – something Senna, as you might imagine, loathed. The smaller fuel tanks did have some benefits however. Gerard Ducarouge was able to give the 98T a smaller, stronger carbon fibre and aluminium honeycomb chassis. For the construction he chose an integral moulding approach as used by Ferrari, Williams and McLaren, as opposed to the 97T’s more traditional Lotus flat-sheet system. The bulkheads were still machined from solid aluminium and aluminium foil was used to fill the sandwich between the composite skins. The height of the tub was reduced behind the driver and the space created by the smaller fuel tank made an ideal location for the new on-board ‘black box’.

Bearing in mind this was right at the start of data telemetry, the Scicon on-board unit was highly advanced. It accumulated data based on 3D co-ordinates of the chassis which was downloaded into the Triple-X computer in the pits and later stored and analysed back at Ketteringham Hall. Let’s not forget that the more racy home computers of the mid-’80s were still 8-bit and boasted 48kb of RAM on a good day! Despite all the upgrades the Renault EF15B was neither the most powerful nor the most fuel-efficient of the V6 turbos. All season long, Senna was tormented by the advantage evident in the Williams Hondas.

More fuel at the end of the race meant more boost when you needed it most. So, as early as April 1986, Senna began negotiating for a switch to Honda power for 1987. Here he showed that his ruthless will to win extended to dealings outside of the cockpit too. He arranged a meeting between Peter Warr and Honda’s Kawamoto-san and even proposed Satoru Nakajima as his team-mate to sweeten the deal – surely a move ‘Le Professeur’ himself would have been proud of? Having only just secured the works engine from Renault, it put Peter Warr in a very difficult position, not that it was any great concern of Senna’s. He simply stated: “They too are racers, and they will understand”.

Senna and the 98T, in only their second race together, recorded Team Lotus’s 100th pole in Jerez. The laptime was so quick it sent the F1 rumour mill into overdrive with accusations of ground effect, flexing side pods, you name it. Some years later Peter Warr revealed the secret component – it was Senna’s relentless pursuit of perfection. With a time of 1m22.6 set on the Friday, Senna spent much of Saturday in the pits watching the others failing to match it. Piquet came closest, 0.6 seconds adrift.

While the mechanics were changing the turbos, Warr advised Senna that he needn’t risk the car by going out again. Senna stayed in the car with his eyes shut, thinking his way around the lap before declaring that he could do a 1m21.6 – a full second faster. He went out again. Team Lotus’s 100th pole was 1m21.605. Senna went on to take the win, his third, by less than 0.014 of a second – the closest F1 finish since 1971. Johnny Dumfries suffered another of his many failures with the ruinous 6-speed gearbox, but continued to do his best to support Senna and the team. Too well it turned out. Rather cruelly, Senna began to argue that Dumfries was so much slower, he was failing to provide a meaningful performance yardstick for the team.

From then on, and for the rest of his career, the wonders never really ceased whenever Senna climbed into a Formula One car. He put the 98T on pole an astonishing eight times in 1986. No other driver topped the time sheets more than twice that year and most had more powerful engines at their disposal. There would be another win in Detroit and 8 podiums in total for the 98T. With second places in Brazil, Belgium, Germany and Hungary, Senna finished fourth in the championship. Were it not for 6 retirements, he could well have won it. But spare a thought for Johnny Dumfries who endured a miserable nine retirements in fifteen races. His best result was 5th place in Hungary. He would never race in F1 again. Mind you, if you could choose to race a season in F1 from any era, in any car – 1986 in a JPS Lotus would have to be right up there.

Peter Warr was proven right about Senna. He was the missing piece at Team Lotus. He re-energized the whole team and delivered what they needed most. He brought home two GP wins for every season he raced at Team Lotus. Perhaps just as significant, the team never won again after he left to join McLaren in 1988.

Peter Warr: “It is difficult to explain the effect a driver like this has on a team. Everything they do suddenly seems worthwhile. No effort is too great to undertake in order to achieve an extra target or to gain an extra edge. Staff members become light-hearted and the race crew literally walk with a spring and an added purpose in their step. Suppliers suddenly become that little bit more keen to deliver on time. Sponsor negotiations are easier. Even the bank manager seems more approachable and amenable. Pride goes up by leaps and bounds and everything that seems difficult and tiresome about Formula 1 somehow becomes easier to tolerate.”

It’s surely beyond debate now that Senna was the greatest of a fearless and talented generation. To some extent, Nigel Mansell relied more heavily on his tremendous natural talent and had an arguably more healthy range of interests beyond F1. Senna was obsessive in the preparation of both his car and himself. A tireless student, scavenging relentlessly for anything that would give him the tiniest advantage. Supremely physically fit with a keen intellect, he really set the template for the complete F1 driver. All the drivers are ultra-fit, disciplined and analytical now but I still don’t think we have anyone in F1 today who could quite match Senna’s intensity.

Watching at the time as a Mansell fan, Senna seemed a bit too ruthless to me and was cast to some extent by the UK media as the villain of the Mansell-mania era. It’s clear that he had no time for sentiment or platitudes, nor saw any value in moral victories. I guess I see this now as him being better attuned to the brutal Darwinian environment that he sought to dominate. If nice guys finished first, I have no doubt that Senna would have been the nicest guy on the grid. Over the passage of time I have come to appreciate Senna more and more – along with it, the immense size of his tragic loss. From all that I have read about them both, I am convinced that Colin Chapman would have found a kindred spirit in Ayrton, admired him greatly and would have loved working – and especially winning – with him. Had he lived to see the 1986 season, I like to think he would have enjoyed it.

In 1975 Chapman wrote:

“ A racing car has only ONE objective: to WIN motor races. If it does not do this it is nothing but a waste of time, money, and effort.

This may sound obvious but remember it does not matter how clever it is, or how inexpensive, or how easy to maintain, or even how safe, if it does not consistently win it is NOTHING!”

I can’t think of a driver that would have agreed more wholeheartedly or understood it more profoundly than Ayrton Senna.

So the 98T turned out to be more than just a beautiful and wickedly fast racing car. It was built for one man and shared his singular purpose – to win the World Championship. The stories of the man and the car are tightly bound. The 98T will forever be an important chapter in one of the greatest racing stories ever told.

There was lightning in the air in 1986. The car, blacker than the darkest thundercloud. From its centre, the flash of yellow. Brilliant. Untouchable. Uncatchable, Electrifying.

Lotus 98T stats :

8 pole positions: Jacarepagua, Jerez, Imola, Detroit, Paul Ricard, Hungaroring, Estoril, Hermanos Rodriguez.

2 wins: Spanish Grand Prix 13th April, Detroit Grand Prix 22nd June.

4 second places: Brazilian Grand Prix 23rd March, Belgian Grand Prix 25th May, German Grand Prix 27th July, Hungarian Grand Prix 10th August.

2 third places: Monaco Grand Prix 11th May. Mexican Grand Prix 12th October.

58 World Championship points.

15 retirements from 31 starts.