Looking after Ayrton Senna's first F1 winner

09th February 2022
Adam Wilkins

Chris Dinnage is a Lotus lifer. He joined the team in 1982 and is now team manager at Classic Team Lotus. His only time away from Lotus grand prix cars was when he spent some time running a Sport Elise (pre-runner to the original Exige) for Group Lotus. He’s green and yellow through and through, and has driven more Lotus Formula 1 cars than anyone else. Who better to talk to about Ayrton Senna’s Estoril-winning Lotus 97T than the man who has looked after it and driven it for decades?


The car was on static display at the 78th Members’ Meeting as part of the celebration to mark 30 years since Senna’s final championship win. Chris remembers working with him when he first joined Team Lotus: “We knew we’d got someone pretty special with us, and he had a very hands-on approach to everything we were doing. He wasn’t ‘let’s get out of the car and go the swimming pool or go and do the PR stuff’. He had quite a lot of involvement with the mechanics and the team right from the start. He’d still be hanging around at 10 o’clock at night when we were finishing off, just looking and talking and asking questions.

“He only had one agenda and that was winning. Unlike perhaps some of the more modern day racing drivers who have all sorts of things going on in their lives. Ayrton wasn’t like that. He was there to race cars and be the best. He was obviously a very quick driver, but also a super intelligent human. I haven’t met anybody who has that level of intelligence, it was just astonishing. He used half of his skills to drive the car quicker than anyone else and the other half to just be aware of what was going on around him. It was definitely different to any I had worked with before or since.”


It was the 97T that helped Senna establish his name as one of the all-time greats. His win at Estoril, was one of his stand-out performances. “Senna is quoted many times saying his most difficult grand prix was in Estoril in the wet,” says Chris. “The first lap that he did at Donington when he came from fifth to first was a fantastic lap, but he had traction control so it wasn’t the same as driving with this 97 when he didn’t have any of that. It was a gearstick, three pedals and off you go.”

Chris has driven the 97T many times in its current detuned state. “[The 97T] is like two-stage,” he says. “You need to be ready at 6,000 revs with the boost when it comes in and then the last little bit fires you again. You need your hand on the gearstick almost to take the next gear. It’s super-powerful. We’re running it at about 2.8bar so it’s tuned down well below its potential but it’s still around 750PS (552kW). In race trim it would be about 3.0 or 3.2bar. In qualifying trim at the end in ’86 when there was no restriction we were running 5.0bar and we had low-compression engines with big turbos for qualifying. They did 2mpg or something ridiculous. For the race we had high-compression engines with smaller turbos, but we changed turbos and tyres in the middle of qualifying, so two sets of qualifying tyres in those days both Friday and Saturday. We capped the wastegate off completely so there was no terminal boost; whatever the turbo could produce the compressor would shove back in again. It was about 1,200PS (883kW) in qualifying.


“I definitely [get a sense of its history when driving it], and I use [Senna’s] seat as well. The car is as it was, the original belts, the original steering wheel. We’re fortunate because we have such a close relationship with Renault and they have been looking after the engine. It still runs with their electronics, so that’s how it was. What we’ve done to it over the years is put it back to Estoril spec. We made those endplates in Brazil out of two sets because everybody else’s were bigger. We thought we’ve got to have some bigger ones so we made them at the track. The front wing endplates are attached to the vortex deflectors on the side so if you’d been in Estoril in 1985 that’s what it would look like. I’ve still got his gloves from the day he won as well.”

Chris remembers the day vividly: “It was a great day. It was the last day that mechanics were out on the grid at the end of the race. He crossed the finish line and we were jumping around in the rain and we were so far out there Mansell went off the track. It was pretty dangerous, but that’s how it was then. That was the last time mechanics were allowed out on the track for a victory.”


Today, the car requires regular maintenance, even when it’s not in use. “We turn the engine over manually every three weeks as a precaution just so it doesn’t settle, and we start it up every two or three months. We take it to the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard, and if there’s a very prestigious demonstration somewhere then we’ll bring it, but we don’t use it that often. We have put a few different people in it over the years and the clutch control on it is not easy and getting the thing to spool up properly isn’t very easy, and I’ve driven it quite a few times so I’m used to it. And that kind of helps with its clutch life. It’s easy when you know what you’re doing. We’ve got so many significant cars at Lotus. The 18, the 25, the 49, the 79. There’s so many really significant cars. People say ‘Which is your favourite one.’ It is difficult to pick a favourite, but I think it’s the 97 because it’s been part of my life since ’85. If I had to pick one, that would be it.”

It seemed to be a favourite among the Members’ Meeting crowd too, the black and gold car capturing everyone’s attention among a line-up of Senna machines. What a wild car.

Photography by Pete Summers and James Lynch, F1 images by Motorsport Images.

  • Ayrton Senna

  • Members Meeting

  • 78MM

  • Formula 1

  • F1 1985

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