I’m not a fan of racing’s raw statistics without context, but while bored in that quiet gap between Christmas and New Year, I was checking out F1’s updated records and a couple of figures caught my eye. I was gratified to note that Jimmy Clark’s remarkable tally of 33 pole positions in 72 grands prix – accumulated over just seven years, and at a time when there were only around 10 GPs per season – keeps him fifth among the all-time polesitters, a place he jointly holds with Alain Prost.

The other stat that astonished me is to do with the team that Clark drove to its first F1 titles. Despite being defunct for well over 20 years, Team Lotus – the original – remains fourth in terms of all-time wins. Yup, despite the skull-drilling fun of the last three years of Mercedes-Benz dominance, Colin Chapman’s marque (with five wins contributed by Rob Walker’s privateer squad) remains 15 victories clear of today’s silver overlords. Admittedly, that’s fewer than a season’s worth of wins, at M-B’s current rate…

Ayrton Senna in Portugal in 1987

Still, it’s sobering to realize that this year will mark 30 years since Ayrton Senna’s Lotus 99T-Honda, complete with the active suspension system, crossed the line first at both Monaco and Detroit to score Team Lotus’s final grand prix victories. It’s always struck me as tragic that Chapman didn’t live to see his team running the fastest driver of his era in the most complex F1 car of the period. We can be certain he’d have approved.

By 1987, Senna had already completed two seasons at Lotus, his second and third in F1, and he had made the marque truly prominent for the first time since the Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson days. The Brazilian star’s 15 pole positions had led to just four wins (each of them outstanding in different ways) and two fourth places in the championship, but the fact that success arrived in only modest quantities was rarely because of his flaws nor those of the Lotus 97 and 98, which were eminently tunable chassis-wise. The team’s weak link was the relative unreliability and fuel inefficiency of the Renault engines compared with McLaren’s TAG-Porsche units in ’85 and the Williams team’s Hondas in ’86.

That problem cured itself when financially struggling Renault, under the direction of George Besses, pulled its homegrown team out of F1 at the end of 1985 and informed Lotus, Ligier and Tyrrell that their engine supplies would cease at the end of the ’86 season. Lotus therefore signed a deal with Honda for ’87, agreeing to run underqualified 34-year-old Japanese rookie Satoru Nakajima as Senna’s teammate, and conceding also that the team would be one engine spec behind Williams. That second point was not so bad; Honda’s RA166E had powered Williams to the 1986 constructors’ championship and near misses for Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet in the drivers’ title race. .

The retaliatory weapon in the Lotus arsenal would be active suspension, designed to keep the car at optimal ride-height for aerodynamic flow by eliminating pitch and roll – basically, counteracting the forces of physics – and therefore providing increased cornering speeds by ensuring the tires’ contact patches with the asphalt were as large as possible. Would cornering prowess and one of the most outrageously gifted drivers of all time be enough to defeat the reigning champion team with its formidable driver lineup and Honda’s cutting-edge RA167E?

Martin Ogilvie, whose first Lotus was the rough-but-rapidly-improved 77 of 1976, tells Motorsport.com that he and the late Gerard Ducarouge had little problem in developing the 98T into the 99T, despite the different engines. The more challenging adaptation from 1986 to ’87 was the switch in manufacturer methodologies.

He recalls: “Honda arrived with these big charts and pictures which they put all around the walls of the office we gave them, and half a dozen of the guys would be working away in there. When we needed something, they’d contact their base in Japan, before saying to us, ‘Yes, we can have 20 of these parts in three months’ time.’ Renault had worked more off-the-cuff, like us as a race team, designing things as we went along. They would redesign a problematic part in a week and produce just one… but then the following week we’d need a different one again!”

When the 99T emerged, its most striking characteristic was its mustard yellow livery, as the Lotus team’s John Player Special sponsorship had been replaced by Camel. The second obvious visual was that the car, while retaining Ducarouge/Ogilvie family characteristics, appeared bulkier than both its predecessor and the Williams FW11 which had carried the same engine the previous year. Whereas Patrick Head and Frank Dernie had actually stretched the FW11’s wheelbase from 110 to 112 inches for the ’87 B model, Lotus had retained the 98T’s 107-inch wheelbase despite needing also to fit in the active suspension’s ancillary equipment. To put it simplistically, was too much being squeezed into too short a space?

“Well the wheelbase difference was because we were always looking to make the smallest car,” says Ogilvie. “Chapman was always keen on a low polar moment of inertia, and the longer a car is, the lazier its responses. Long wheelbases are for wimps!

“Regarding the active suspension system, in those days F1 cars weren’t as tightly packaged as they are now, so we were more intent on getting a very clean teardrop shape. The bulky look, as you put it, was a result of our chassis which was folded up out of sheet carbon-fibre, which meant we were limited to a convex shape rather than convex and concave, so the chassis was bigger than ideal. It was only when we went to the 100T in ’88 that we gained some special tooling to make the chassis smaller.”

There was not, however, much that could be done about the weight of the active suspension system, rumored at the time to be around 50lbs.

“I’d be surprised if it was that much,” says Ogilvie, “but it was substantial, because we had to include a lot of fluid and tanks and servos, things that weren’t really designed for Formula 1. Remember, at that time a race team couldn’t create electro-mechanical and electro-hydraulic systems in-house; you had to take what was available off the shelf, even if it was from the aircraft industry.”

The active system supposedly drained five percent of engine power, too. Ogilvie says, “That was probably true at times, when the system was working hard, but it wasn’t a generic figure.”

Despite these apparent drawbacks, Senna was fully behind Lotus adopting active suspension, after trying active and passive cars in back-to-back tests. And Ogilvie, like all at Lotus, was prepared to believe Senna’s judgment on technical matters.

“Ayrton was amazing!” he says. “I was usually back in the drawing office and I went to the circuits for only one year while I was at Lotus. But I distinctly remember being in a driver debrief at Silverstone when Senna spent 15 minutes talking about just one corner on one particular lap! That impressed me so much. He was able to analyze exactly what the car was doing at entry, apex, exit, and also what it wasn’t doing that he needed it to do.

“So when he said, and the stopwatch showed, that the active car was faster over a race distance, we were all optimistic. But looking back, the amount of variables that active suspension offered – something like 60, as I recall – was almost too much. It wasn’t like pulling into the pits and asking for a stiffer anti-roll bar or a bit more toe-in. And I remember endless debates over whether we wanted the rear or the front to be stiffer.”

If an active Lotus was faster than a passive Lotus, it was still not as fast as a passive Williams. Nowhere near, in fact. Mansell was superfast and never off the front row in 1987, until his season-ending shunt at Suzuka, but even his most rabid fans would agree he should not have been outqualifying Senna by over 2sec in Brazil, Hungary or Austria. Nor should Mansell and Piquet have been able to lap Senna at Paul Ricard, Silverstone and the Osterreichring.

It would be easy to sit here 30 years on and conclude that Senna made a huge error of judgement over the active-suspension 99T’s potential. Did he assume that the car’s relative gentle treatment of tires would enable him to run races non-stop at similar pace to his rivals’ pitstop-interrupted races? Did he think the FIA’s 4-bar turbo boost restrictions for ’87 would negate the advantage of Honda’s RA167E delivered exclusively to Williams? Did he assume Nakajima would be more of a help in developing the system? (Satoru was four seconds slower than Ayrton in some qualifying sessions that year) Was he merely intrigued at being on the cutting edge of a new technology that might eventually become de rigeur in F1?

Whatever the reasons, and whatever the Lotus 99T’s drawbacks, I do believe they brought out the best in one of the best drivers of all time. Several fans point to Senna’s 1993 underdog role in the HB V8 Ford-powered McLaren MP4/8 as his greatest season. Others say his triumphs over Alain Prost’s better-handling but less-powerful Ferrari (1990), or Mansell’s faster but less reliable Williams (’91 and ’92), saw Senna at his zenith. But I honestly believe Ayrton’s performance over the course of 1987, despite just two wins and one pole, ranks alongside any of his other seasons. Think Clark in ’66, Gilles Villeneuve in ’81, Michael Schumacher in ’96 or Fernando Alonso in 2012. With the deck stacked against him, Senna produced displays of brilliance which meant he was there to take opportunistic victories.

At Monaco that year, Senna benefited from Mansell’s dominant Williams suffering a broken exhaust while leading, but three weeks later the Detroit victory – Lotus’s last – was utterly legit. Senna did just enough to vaguely stay in touch with leader Mansell while also nursing his brakes. Then, by not stopping for tires – because the active suspension was helping keep his original set intact – Senna found himself at the front and easily able to deal with his opposition.

Elsewhere, similar no-pitstop policies didn’t quite pay off. He made a misjudgment while lapping a backmarker under braking for Parabolica at the Italian GP, running wide and allowing Piquet back into the lead. Then at Jerez, while holding down a distant second place behind Mansell and holding up a chain of faster cars, he was outfumbled by Piquet and sank to fifth by the checkered flag.

But in each case, he was on worn tires on tracks where active suspension conferred little advantage, and running non-stop was his only chance of a win. Six top-three finishes (in addition to his two wins) resulted in third in the championship. A seventh podium, for finishing second in the season finale, was deleted after Lotus was found to be running outsized brake ducts. Had the result been allowed to stand, Senna would have beaten the injured and absent Mansell to second in the points standings.

Ogilvie adds further perspective to Senna’s gutsy performances that season. Much of Ayrton’s skill was rooted in interpretation of, and reaction to, a racecar’s “messages” when on the ragged edge. In the Lotus 99T, he had a car that was numb, forcing him to operate largely from visual cues and instinct.

“Although the active suspension was amazing at what it could do, one of its severe side-effects was that it took away a lot of driver ‘feel’,” says Ogilvie. “In fast corners, drivers rely on what they feel through their backsides and their hands. So when a car behaves in a way they’re not used to and is not necessarily logical [lack of dive under braking, for instance], it’s very difficult for them to get that last one or two percent and feel the limit of adhesion at either end of the car.

“[The 99T] didn’t pitch, didn’t roll and the steering wasn’t sensitive. So although the 99’s cornering limits were actually higher than in a conventional car, Ayrton wouldn’t feel a progressive build-up to the limit.

“To me, that loss of driver feel was the real downside to active suspension – more than power loss or extra weight.”

At Monza, it was revealed to the world that Senna would be leaving Lotus to join McLaren, who would also gain Honda engines at the Williams team’s expense. (Apparently 18 wins and three championships in two seasons had not been enough to convince Honda to fulfill the last year of its contract with Frank Williams’ squad.) Lotus would, however, retain the Japanese units and soon-to-be three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet would replace Senna.

It wasn’t the same… and it certainly wasn’t enough. For ’88, Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols came up with the astounding McLaren MP4/4, Honda produced the supremely efficient RA168E unit for the latest 2.5-bar turbo boost regs, while Senna and Alain Prost were motivated enough to truly go for each other’s throat (only in racing terms, for now). Piquet, meanwhile, had the same spec engines as the McLaren drivers, but in the back of the pretty but pretty ordinary 100T, and seemed motivated only to the extent of outperforming Nakajima. The champion had championed Williams’ active suspension system in 1987 and had won on its race debut at Monza. Now he didn’t even have that to spark his interest, because Lotus had elected to revert to conventional suspension….

Recalls Ogilvie: “It was a time when [Lotus team manager] Peter Warr, the race team and the engineering team didn’t see eye-to-eye, and the cost and difficulty in progressing active suspension development was considered too much. Switching from John Player Special to Camel had seen our budgets get smaller anyway, and by 1988, Ducarouge and myself felt that decisions weren’t being made for engineering reasons but rather for financial reasons. And so we both left – as I recall, soon after we completed the 100T.

“Although it wasn’t a successful car – and I still didn’t like the color! – as an engineering exercise I was very proud of the packaging on the 100. It was a lot smaller than the 99, which is what we’d aimed for. But neither Ducarouge nor I were convinced Piquet was the right way to go, driver-wise. Warr and Honda wanted the World Champion, a big name, but Gerard and I felt Nelson was in it for his pension money and didn’t put enough effort in.”

Lotus’ winning era was at an end, and the three third place finishes Piquet scored in ’88 would prove to be the final podium results for a team that had first entered Formula 1 30 years earlier, and which had amassed drivers’ and constructors’ World Championships with legendary names such as Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ronnie Peterson and Mario Andretti. The Hethel, Norfolk-based squad would struggle on, despite losing Honda at the end of that season, and Camel two years later. Mika Hakkinen, Johnny Herbert and Alex Zanardi gave the team some positive vibes, as did the neat Gustav Brunner-influenced/Chris Murphy-designed cars of the 1990s, but there was never enough money left to test and develop once the team had paid for some fairly ordinary engines. Over the winter of 1994/95, the team was shut down.

It would be wrong to say that active suspension had been a blind alley: Mansell in ’92 and Prost in ’93 would win titles in Williams cars with active suspension. But I do believe that for Lotus in 1987 it was a misstep that may have had far-reaching consequences.

Honda engines, even one step behind those supplied to Williams, were always going to be a major step forward from the powerful but fuel-thirsty and fractious Renaults of previous years. So imagine if Ogilvie and Ducarouge had been able to develop the 99T from the superquick 98T without having to package the active suspension systems, but merely install a different engine. Imagine if Senna had been given a car that was effectively just a more reliable and vastly more efficient version of what he’d had in ’86. We can safely assume he’d have given Mansell and Piquet a far harder time at all but the most power-dependent tracks, would probably have racked up five or six wins and at least taken the ’87 title fight down to the wire… That might have convinced him that staying at Lotus was his best option. And had he remained, so surely would have Ogilvie, Ducarouge and Honda, beyond 1988…

OK, maybe McLaren’s Ron Dennis would still have wooed Honda, and maybe Senna would have found that combination, and the chance to directly compare himself with the acknowledged best driver, Prost, irresistible.

But only maybe.