the rise and fall of ground effect
otus 79 hit the ground sticking. The
skirted, black and gold beauty caught the
rest with their pants down at the 1978
Belgian Grand Prix. Comfortably fastest in
every practice session, Mario Andretti led
all 70 laps of Zolder to win by 10sec from
teammate Ronnie Peterson (aboard the
older 78). If, as “Super Mario” so quotably
suggested, Type 78 was “painted to the
road,” then 79 added the varnish.
The “wing car” had taken off. Ground
effect had come home to roost.
This uplifting natural phenomenon was
a gift to the “garagisti,” as Enzo Ferrari
disdainfully called the small, independent
(and mostly British) teams that provided
the bulk of the Formula 1 grid and the bulk
of its ingenuity. It used sidepods shaped like
an upside down aerofoil, set close to the
ground and sealed at their sides, which
produced vast amounts of downforce for a
minimal increase of drag. It wasn’t quite
speed for free, but it was pretty close.
Meanwhile, the “grandees,” Ferrari,
Renault and their ilk, were betting their
future competitiveness on power – raw,
unsubtle, expensive turbocharged power.
Formula 1 was on a collision course, as
ground effect’s unprecedented levels of
G-force – up from 2 to 5G in the faster
turns – and turbocharging’s horsepower
frenzy threatened to tear the sport apart.
Yet this is the same basic recipe that
today’s turbulent F1, fretting about its
potency and attractiveness, is considering
for 2017. Taking a cue from single-chassis
junior formula GP2’s underbody tunnels –
not seen in F1 since their summary banning,
ostensibly on safety grounds, in 1983 – the
premier category is considering slashing lap
times by 5-6sec with lighter cars, wider tires,
ground-effect tunnels, and simpler front
and rear wings that allow them to follow
each other more closely in a cleaner wake.
Aerodynamicist Peter Wright is
unconvinced by this Back to The Future
vision: “It’s beyond me why they’d go to
all that effort. There’s a conflict between
increased speed and overtaking. They’ll end
up with a faster car, more expense – it’s a
whole new area of research – but be lucky
if they have the same amount of passing
as now. And already they’re arguing.”
Colin Chapman and Lotus revolutionized Formula 1 with the ground-effect Type 79. Suddenly, the little teams had a massive performance
advantage – and F1’s grandee manufacturers didn’t like that one bit.
The Lotus 79 took six
wins and 10 poles from
the 11 grands prix it
contended in 1978.
and Mario Andretti
qualifying 1-2 for
Lotus’s home race, the
British GP at Brands
Hatch (LEFT), it would
be the revolutionary
only double retirement
of the season.
Words Paul Fearnley ILLUs TrATIoN ricardo santos