McBennett Motorsport Blog- The Evolution of a Lotus
Some people like to chop and change their cars, going through various models and owning a variety of different machinery. I am not one of those people.
I was lucky enough in that my first taste of driving a car around a racetrack was in a Lotus Elise at a Mondello trackday back in 2004.The bug bit hard and I have been doing the same thing ever since.I still love driving fast around racetracks and I am still in a Lotus Elise.Not the same one mind, I have had loads of Elises/Exiges over the years but the one I have owned the longest, and hopefully will always own, is the one I am writing about today.
I graduated from trackdays to racing in 2008 by simply bolting the mandatory safety equipment to an otherwise standard Toyota engined Elise 111R and going out for my first race! As the year wore on I played around with the car a bit, learned loads and improved my driving. By the end of the year, I was winning races and even ended up with the lap record for the Mondello Saloon Libre class at 60.3 seconds. It became clear to me though that this particular car was best suited, and at its most valuable, being left as a standard production class car for the Elise Trophy in the UK which is where I intended racing the following year. But I wanted a car that I could develop myself over time and also while I was heading into my late thirties at that stage I still had very little race experience. Hence I needed something that I could get plenty of mileage in at home between UK races to get as much practice in as possible. So reliability was essential.
The early S1 Elises were the lightest of all the variants and being the oldest were also the cheapest donor cars. So one of those was the best starting point but the problem with them is their very light but troublesome Rover engines. The obvious solution to this is to fit a better engine and there are few better four cylinder engines than the Honda K20. So basically, you get a crashed EP3 Civic, take the engine and gearbox out of the front of that, and drop them straight into the back of an Elise.You now have a car that has gotten a bit heavier allright, but has nearly twice the power and about 10 times the reliability it had before…..simple.
Well it is not quite that simple, as in Ireland in 2008 Elises were still commanding big money. Doing the Honda conversion to a standard that will stand up to hard track use is not cheap either. I have done a few and its amazing what all the parts needed adds up to. So with the Euro almost at parity with sterling at the time the cheapest and easiest way by far to get into one was to buy one in the UK with the Honda conversion already done- so thats what I did!
The car I ended up with had the added bonus of having already done a few Elise Trophy races so was proven to be fundamentally sound. It only had a half cage which wasn’t as good as what I had in the 111R, but it was MSA approved so was enough to be going along with. The rest of the car was nice enough with nothing too fancy but all the important basic stuff present and correct. It was a 1997 car which had done 75000 miles with 9 previous owners in its 10 years on the road, so well used. There were plenty of scuffs underneath from dings and accidents but it was going to spend the rest of its life being hacked around a racetrack, so there was no point wasting money starting with a mint example. It did look smart from a distance though thanks to it being recently resprayed metallic blue from its original yellow. It was also bang on the Elise Trophy power to weight regulations with the mandatory printout from the series official dyno.
So I had very little to do to get the car ready for the the start of the season and this allowed me to get a good few testdays in to try and have the driver somewhat ready also. Early tests had the car doing 1.02s in Kirkistown and 59s in Mondello, so not too bad at all.
The 2009 Elise Trophy season kicked off in Silverstone before going to Brands Hatch GP in support of what to turned out to be the very last A1GP race (where Adam Carroll and Ireland won the championship – remember that?).Then on to Angelsey, Snetterton, Oulton Park, Donington, Spa-Francorchamps, Silverstone again and finally Brands Hatch Indy. We were surprisingly close to the pace considering I had never driven any of the tracks previously apart from Oulton and qualified 5th for almost every race. We had a biggish crash at Brands GP and had mysterious intermittent electrical gremlins at Silverstone National, Angelsey and Snetterton. This problem was finally traced to the wiring for the Honda conversion and once that was replaced the car ran perfectly and we started picking up podium finishes. We missed the Donington round due to work commitments and the budget was well and truely gone after the long trip over to Spa so we also missed the last round at Brands. But we did all the rest and had an absolute ball. With so much time commited to that we didnt get to do many races at home that year but did get out for the Phoenix Park which was certainly a unique experience.
For 2010 the Elise Trophy switched to production class only so I did a few races in that in the 111R before selling it to a team over there. That freed up a budget to start developing the Honda engined car further. No longer having to conform to the Elise Trophy regs which required the cars to be road legal, I was able to lower the ride height and raise the rear wing along with remaking the floors and rear diffuser .The car no longer had to meet a minimum weight either so it went on a diet losing the easy to do things like the glass side windows etc. This brought it down to its lowest ever weight – not much more than 700kgs. We did our first ever race in the Kirkistown Saloon/GTs which that day was a combined grid with the ITCCs first visit there.We got pole and the win and I also remember doing a 1 hour race in Mondello towards the end of the year which had a strange handicapping system but was a lot of fun too.
I was getting sick of making poor starts at this stage so I swapped out the open diff EP3 Civic gearbox for one from a DC5 Integra. These come as standard with a helical LSD and also some shorter gear ratios. This made a big difference to getting off the line cleanly along with improving acceleration. The car also gained its distinctive yellow over blue livery and we won a few more races in Kirkistown and lowered our laptime there into the 60s. The Lotus Cup UK started in 2011 so I decided we would have a crack at that and we did a one hour race at the Lotus Festival in Snetterton. We were going to comfortably finish 2nd behind the factory entered Evora GT4 driven by Gavan Kershaw and Martin Donnelly until we lost a load of time during the mandatory pitstop so finished 4th overall but crucially won the Open class. This was a fantastic achievement considering the standard of the opposition but it showed just how difficult it would be to stay at the sharp end consistently in that championship without a much bigger budget and team. So unfortunately that was me and the Elises last trip across the water to compete.
I played around with a few more modifications to the car after that but nothing drastic as we were only doing whatever events came up in Mondello, be that Time Attack,races and trackdays. We also did a couple of rallysprints, taking the overall win each time. When the Mondello GTs started again for 2013, I decided we would do that and the car got a little wider with a bigger front splitter.I also moved the bulkhead forward to allow a bit more working room in the engine bay( the Honda engine just barely fits into a space meant for the less substantial Rover engine). I picked up a rebuilt engine with higher compression pistons and an RBC intake manifold to try out. It didnt really make any more power than the other engine but did the 2013 season before blowing to smithereens at the first trackday out in 2014! So the old reliable engine that came with the car was pressed back into service and finished out the 2014 season – so five seasons done without being touched and still running perfectly. I also got around to finally fitting a full rollcage, which is probably just as well as I had quite a few crashes that year!
We had gotten our Mondello laptime down to mid 57s at this stage but still struggled to match the pace of the Ginetta G50s on some sections of the International loop. So I splashed out on some fancy AP Racing front brakes and a big rear wing to allow me carry more speed through the corner leading onto the back straight and then brake later down into turn 7a. I stripped out a bit more weight to try and counteract the extra weight of upgrades done over the previous year or two and this all combined to allow us to win most of the 2014 GT races on the national track. It also allowed us to bring our international track laptime into the 1.47s and beat the Ginettas there too. I didn’t even need to buy any new tyres that year, such was the consistent pace of the car and people still don’t believe me when I tell them what my running costs were. My entire seasons budget wouldn’t have run a Ginetta G50 for a single weekend, and we were the ones that won the championship! Thanks to a lot of luck and not making any mistakes, but mostly down to having a great little car.
At any time up to this point I probably could have sold the car in the UK for what it stood me but I decided I had gotten quite attached to it so was never likely to do that. So for fun I thought maybe I should go a little mad and see what happens.The power was the same 240 odd bhp since I got the car so why not try it with some more? I picked up another 2nd hand standard engine as they are fairly expendable and bolted on a rotrex supercharger. My sensible head kicked back in then and I put in an air restrictor to limit power to around 300bhp to try and ease myself and the car into it. This all worked perfectly for the first race of 2015 and we now comfortably had the legs on the Ginetta G50 despite still being on old tyres with very little grip.We even managed to get our Mondello laptime down into the 56s.
It was clear that the GT championship had died off though, so I took a trip up to Kirkistown for the first time in a few years to see what was going on up there. We were lapping comfortably in the 59s on old tyres in testing so I reckoned we could maybe have a crack at the GT lap record during the race but unfortunately the supercharger broke and that was that. We continued on doing Time Attack and trackdays for the rest of the year without the supercharger and the pace was still good despite being 100bhp down. Even the whole back of the car getting burnt after the exhaust set fire to the rear bodywork at a trackday didnt stop the little Elise (see clip below!) and she continued on till the end of the year, looking a little worse for wear but still motoring.
She is currently stripped down in the garage but will hopefully be back out in the next month or two sporting new Motorsport bodywork and a supercharged Honda engine once more, maybe even with a bit more power just to keep things exciting. Eight years in now and I still don’t think I would swap this car for any other. It’s been fantastic fun to work on and to drive so hopefully we have another few years left in us still.