That was more than two decades ago and the Lotus Elise is still with us, and remains a track day favourite for good reason. Colin Chapman's original mantra of light weight above all else also lived on in the company's DNA and the Elise will circulate all day and still be perfectly safe and legal to drive home on the public roads at the close of play. That is, as long as you haven't unintentionally modified it in the meantime... The Elise's handling is defined almost entirely by the location of its power unit and there was a tendency amongst my colleagues to describe the Elise as mid-engined, but given that the engine (and gearbox) is hung right across the back of the car, it's not, any more than the 911 is. And it is exactly that lump of mass right at the back which endows both with their distinctive handling balance. I read somewhere that the Elise possessed, "handling by God..." Well, we'll see about that, but rather than have a theological discussion, let's start instead with the plastic one, in its original Mk1 form, at Silverstone's Stowe corner which lies at the end of the Hangar straight.
Suitably smacked on the wrist by the track day organisers, not to mention my passenger, and lucky because the Elise pirouetted mainly within its own length - and of course because I remembered to get on the brakes once it was properly lost - I resolve to be a bit more careful as I turn in. This time, brake earlier and take a split second to let the car settle before I turn, the slightest of pauses which the passenger can't see and only the driver will feel as weight lifts from the front wheels. Then, ease the car towards the apex. The chassis settles, the steering settles, then writhes gently in response as we float through the corner, weight shuttling across the car and feeding back through unassisted steering. It's better this time. I feel more in charge of the process. Accelerate smoothly through the turn, enjoying the information coming via the wheel's rim and the gentle bobbing about which says the engine is behind rather than in front. Meanwhile, the slightest touch of reassuring understeer allows me to keep the foot buried hard all the way from apex to exit where the kerb comes sweeping smoothly to meet the nearside wheels.
Then as we approach the apex, I can feel the back beginning to roll into gentle oversteer. I can get away with it surely, adding a touch of corrective lock which checks the slide but that makes the line wide. The Elise seems to be using up more road, edging ever wider... I've held the slide but I don't want it to get any bigger and yet we're running out of grey stuff. I read somewhere that you shouldn't lift off in one of these, not when you're going this quick. What the hell do you do then? Confused by the messages the car is sending, I feel like I've run out of options. Now there really is nothing for it but to cut the power.
In an instant, the back is slinging wide. Frantically I pile on the opposite lock, but again it seems to make no difference. The back end is on castors and it's on its way... Fortunately, there's still plenty of run-off area and I make my way back the pits, slightly bewildered because I thought I'd learnt my lesson. Didn't think I exactly asked for this particular incident. In the absence of any further inspiration I resolve simply to reduce the commitment again, especially now it's starting to rain... Down we go towards Stowe, adding a good few car lengths to the previous braking point. Squeeze the pedal gently... and... the fronts lock solid. No ABS here then! The steering freezes. By the time I have the wheels unlocked and rolling again, I'm past the turn in and I have no option but to get into Stowe completely off the power. Round comes the tail. Dammit, this is less than satisfying.
The answer is, not very much. Elises, particularly early ones, could be extremely tricky on the limit, and in some cases almost undriveable with any kind of commitment when the surface beneath was slippery. The practical consequence is that the car is ever willing to suck you into a situation from which it is very difficult to recover - a fact which Lotus themselves acknowledged by the introduction of the wider and stiffer Mk2, which featured smaller front tyres in an effort to avoid setting off the back end. The Exige goes another way by shifting the characteristics beyond the point where they will trouble most people thanks to stiffer suspension and a degree of aerodynamic assist from the body and wing, and most important the extra grip from bigger wheels and sticky tyres.
But before anybody writes in, there's no doubt that the Elise family is extremely entertaining and any of them makes a fine track day car. The tricky bits are exactly what you need to hone your skills and the car has stamina which comes from the aforementioned light weight, and that allows you to do it for as long as you want, or at least until you hit something. Or the organisers decide you are a liability to front engined track users. The technique to be practised is to try and avoid provoking the thing. Keep it in balance as much as possible and try and avoid any situation where you will have to change your mind or do anything sudden.
There are a great many specialists who have modified Elises over the years - not to mention Lotus themselves - and most have been successful in shifting the car's balance to suit a particular role, usually at the expense of tyre life. Hey, they're cheaper than mending the bodywork... It's also worth noting that the Rovers and MGs from which the Elise's motive parts were borrowed possessed a completely different handling balance. Obvious yes, but it does rather underline the point.
Read more from Mark Hales on his website.