The illustrious Hethel-based team had rattled a few cages with their capture towards the end of the season of Brazilian wonderkid Ayrton Senna, who would partner Elio de Angelis, now in his sixth year with the team. The new car, the 97T, featured some of Lotus’ signature innovative thinking. With additional winglets on the rear wing banned, Ducarouge simply moved them to the trailing edge of the sidepods, while additional pieces of carbon-fibre attached to the chassis between front wheel and sidepod assisted with the flow of air over the car. Early signs looked good; the 97T was quick right out of the box and set some impressive testing times with Senna at the wheel. De Angelis looked second best so far, but he had been third in the 1984 drivers’ standings largely on the basis of his consistency and if the car was reliable the combination of the two could have a very good year indeed.
It seems harsh to say that Elio, who had his best season yet in terms of position, could and should have done better in 1984. He looked lively early on, took his first pole position at Rio and could even have won but for a bit of mechanical bad luck. He was never quite as good again, apparently deciding early on that the car wasn’t good enough and simply cruising to a series of points finishes. In a different season, where fewer of his competitors had similar reliability problems, he would probably have ended up well down the order, and he took third almost by default. All that said, de Angelis did show increased maturity in 1984, and put in some gutsy drives when in previous years he might have given up. There was still a petulant streak as shown by his stupid blocking of Mansell in Montreal, but for once he genuinely outperformed his team-mate and earned his place on merit, not on the basis of his sponsorship. How he will react to Senna will be interesting to see.
The mercurial Brazilian had grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines in 1984 with a series of fine drives, most notably in Monaco of course, and he became a regular top-ten starter and simply blew his more experienced teammate Johnny Cecotto into the weeds. He came across as driven, intense, and often difficult to get on with, but in the cockpit he simply oozed quality. Raw talent doesn’t mean the finished article, of course, and Senna sometimes made mistakes, but more often than not it was the car, not him, that failed, though the physical effort sometimes seemed too much for him, having to be helped from the car on two occasions. The circumstances of his move to Lotus may not have been ideal, but it’s clear that if this man is given a decent car he can go places. He just has to hope that the 97T is that car.