The Lotus experience: A motorsport journey back in time


A rainy December afternoon, Steph gets an incoming Skype call from Alexandros; "Dude, I've got just the thing for us to do! The Lotus Driving Academy experience! Race driving training for a day!" he said with the excitement of a ten-year-old.

[Steph G.] Ah, race driving with Lotuses! ....Loti! ...erm.. Lotusi? What the hell is the plural form anyway?!?

[Alexandros S.] Bro, its in whole lotta fun!!!

Almost 5 months later, we met at London's Liverpool Street train station, where the journey was to begin...

The Lotus Driving Academy is based at the Lotus Cars headquarters in Hethel, Norfolk, a few miles south of Norwich, itself a comfortable two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Liverpool Street station, London.

[SG] Two and a half hours with almost no mobile phone coverage, I thought as I chuckled to myself...

[AS] It literally felt like a trip back in time. Lotus itself is based in an ex WWII military airfield. Colin Chapman (the well known genius engineer and Lotus Cars founder) bought the Hethel site where Lotus manufacturing started operating in 1966. The old runways were developed into a 2.5 mile test track to be used for testing and prototyping. The old observation tower remains on the current site and houses the Lotus Driving Academy! 

[SG] Enough with the history, mate. The view traveling through Norfolk was gorgeous and a proper petrolhead chat was in order.

[AS] A true Lotus enthusiast since I test drove the Elise 111S in London back in 2003, visiting Lotus Cars HQ had been a dream come true. This is the place where automotive history has been written. Famous F1 cars were developed at the Hethel site and tested on the particular track by some of the world's most famous drivers such as Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill, and last but not least, Ayrton Senna.

Later that afternoon, we arrived at the "Old Thorn Barn", a cozy B&B, just a 10 minute walk from Lotus Cars, and full of Lotus pictures. "Time for a beer or three" said Alexandros. We then followed our host's suggestion to visit the local pub, the "Bird in Hand".

[SG] In my mind the epitome of an English countryside inn, less than a mile walk from the plant itself. Great food and ale, extremely friendly staff, and of course f-u-l-l of Lotus memorabilia. A must-visit or even stay if you're doing theLotus experience.


[AS] It seemed all the guests at the pub were fellow petrolheads since all you could hear were stories about road trips, track days, driving techniques and general car/motorcycle talk. Even the waiter had a motorsport related side-business, organizing track days. The place itself added a lot to the overall experience.

The following morning, having enjoyed our full English breakfast at the barn, we walked towards the entrance of Lotus Cars. The guard asked us to sit in the waiting area and a few minutes later he returned: "Please walk towards that building over there, they are waiting for you. Photos are forbidden, you will be walking through an R&D area."

[AS] Chills. Excitement. Impatience.


A lovely middle-aged man waited for us outside the driving academy. "Hi, I'm Dave" he said smiling, extending his arm for a handshake". We entered the building and walked up the stairs to the "Clubhouse lounge", a comfortable room full of couches and armchairs, overlooking the track. "Welcome guys, I'm Tony" said their second host. "Would you like some tea?". How British.

The smile and the excitement of both our hosts was overwhelming. Tony, the older of the two had already retired but kept on coming back to support the team of driving instructors. Being with Lotus for quite a few decades, he had personally met Colin Chapman and lived through some of the Lotus F1 glory days. Dave on the other hand was taciturn and humble. "Do you recognise him?", Tony asked us referring to Dave. "No we don't" we replied. "Good, cause he doesn't like publicity" he commented, teasing his colleague.

"You know we normally don't do this anymore, it just so happens that all instructors are attending an event in the US so we were asked to take you around instead" said Tony. Driver training, factory tour, high speed passenger ride, even a visit to the Lotus motorsport (racing) division were all part of the experience. We were lucky enough to be the only attendants of the particular session, as the others had to cancel. Yeah, bummer. Which meant we had both instructors and the track to ourselves!!


Steph was the first to squeeze into the ardent red Exige S. 20 mins of track time, under the supervision and guidance of Dave. The 3.5lt V6 supercharged monster, producing 345bhp and 41kgm of torque while weighing less than 1200kg is a charm to drive. Alexandros went next.

[AS] Steering precision, MR setup, powerful engine, torque from low revs, amazing brakes, all in such a light package is a recipe for pure driving pleasure (what Lotus does best). Only downside of the particular car was the semi-automatic paddle shifting gearbox which is not suited to the car's character, especially on an empty race track!

Time for a break, or even better, an extended factory tour. The instructors took us to the main factory building where all cars are hand-assembled, one by one, by skilled engineers. There is the Elise, Exige and Evora production lines, each lying in parallel inside the rectangle shaped building where everything comes into place. Dave was more than happy to explain even the slightest part of the process, and in incredible detail. The guy knew his stuff to an insane extent.

[AS] Having studied the story behind the design of the original Elise, I asked about things like "why do you generally avoid using a limited slip differential in your cars?" or "why don't you use four pot calipers on all models?". Theanswers were clear and direct. Dave knew what he was talking about...


Next stop, the Lotus motorsport division, a workshop preparing pure racing cars. Among others, there was an old racing Esprit and a couple of 3-Eleven's under development. "Strictly no photos in here", said Tony, and we respected it.

Full of petrolhead-porn images and feelings of amazement, it was time for the second track session, this time increasing the pace gradually, to reach cornering speeds unheard of in a road-going vehicle. This time, we felt like kings of the track. Or not. Dave got in the driver's seat next and showed us how its done in what what was an amazingly sobering experience.

[AS] Dave pushed the car to its limits, entering corners -at what felt like- at least 20% faster than I did, making it look simple. There was a mesmerizing harmony in his moves that made me feel completely safe, even at a racing pace.

Following the necessary photo shoot, the instructors signed and handed us our certificates, before saying goodbye. Tony gave us a piece of paper on which he wrote: "Dave Minter. Google him." A few minutes later, in the taxi on our way to Norwich train station we did just that. Quote from Minter developed the original Elise, then left to engineer the cars of Ascari and Caterham. He recently rejoined Lotus to develop Elise derivatives.

We just spent the day with Dave Minter. DAVE F***** MINTER!!!


From beginning to end the trip was full of pleasant surprises, from the dinner at the "Bird in hand", to having the Lotus experience to ourselves, to meeting Mr Elise himself and being utterly oblivious about it. Come to think about it, quite an unconventional experience. And that's the way we sure like it.

Alexandros S. & Steph G.