Lotus Motorsport boss Rupert Manwaring has experienced pretty much everything during his lengthy career, including a stint managing Senna and Piquet at Lotus F1 in the late 1980s. But there’d been nothing quite like the motorsport programme he inherited on his return to Lotus in December 2011.
‘It wasn’t sustainable, and we had to prove to the new owners [DRB-Hicom] that motorsport wasn’t a basketcase… which it was,’ reveals Manwaring. Part of the problem, he says, was that ex-CEO Dany Bahar focused on ‘marketing motorsport’, getting Lotus into multiple top-level championships when F1 publicity would have sufficed.
What Lotus needed was affordable, customer-friendly racing projects that could generate cash. The Exige Cup R has been key to that plan; it’s yours from £62,495 plus VAT.
The V6 Cup R starts with the guts of the excellent Exige S road car, including its punchy 3.5-litre supercharged V6. To that Lotus adds a 70-litre fuel cell, competition-spec adjustable suspension, plumbed-in fire extinguisher, baffled sump, plus variable traction control, track-focused Avon tyres and uprated brakes. A six-speed manual gearbox comes as standard, but a six-speed sequential ’box is optional – and is fitted to our test car.
Weight is down by around 140kg, while power and torque edge up slightly to 361bhp and 305lb ft. It all combines to lop a massive seven seconds from the roadgoing Exige S’s laptime on Lotus’s 2.2-mile circuit.
If externally it looks pretty similar to its Exige S roadgoing counterpart, the Cup R is worlds apart inside with its carbonfibre driver’s seat and FIA-approved rollcage. In fact, I can only just squeeze my helmeted head under the cage’s latticework – it’s a tight fit if you’re 6ft-plus, but not claustrophobic once you’re up and running.
I head towards the test track in mixed conditions and immediately fluff it by stalling in the pitlane – as is typical with these racers, you still need a clutch pedal to get going despite the paddleshift transmission, and it’s clunky and vicious and nearly impossible to get moving with any sort of dignity. Master that as well as you’re able, though, and it’s easy to click with the Cup R.
Its 361bhp might sound modest these days, but the featherweight Cup R is still an indecently quick car, its slug of supercharged torque punching you forward in vast long lunges while the closely stacked gears snap home with a thunking physicality; every gearshift throws you straight back in the power zone to give a feeling of constant, fearsome thrust.
Right away you know you need to be on top of your game to get the most out of this car. Happily, though, it’s incredibly benign: the brakes squash speed remorselessly and have a light, easy to modulate pedal, the unassisted steering keeps you constantly updated on what the tyres are up to, and the suspension easily soaks up kerbs, giving you the confidence to attack hard.
The Cup R also feels incredibly nimble through the faster stuff: the rear end aggressively points the nose down the next straight when you flatten the throttle on corner-exit; brake hard into a fast corner for just a fraction too long and the back end will rapidly swing round. It’s adjustable and pointy and incredibly responsive.
Through slower corners the main problem is learning how patient you need to be on the throttle because, like all Lotuses, there’s a lot of low-speed understeer to manage.
But it doesn’t take long to adjust, and all the while you’ve got the dual safety nets of ABS and race-derived, adjustable traction control. Lotus recommended I kept it on ‘the sixth click’, and it worked perfectly, only cutting excess power that would generate wheelspin, rather than causing the Exige to bog down. It’s the sort of software that’d never frustrate an expert, but genuinely helps the keen amateur by encouraging them to push.
The Lotus Exige Cup R is eligible for the Lotus Cup, which operates with packed grids in the UK, US, Asia and Europe. It’s tight, competitive, thrilling racing. Go to lotuscars.com and click ‘Racing’ to find out more.