the rise and fall of ground effect
rotating front wheels: wings, rather than a
broad blunt nose. Finalizing their height
was next: the lower, the better. Bellamy
then drew a very slim monocoque, and
Wright suggested putting its fuel tanks and
radiators within aerofoil-section sidepods.
“We played around with them for a little
while and the lift they were generating
began to vary, not by an enormous
amount, but enough to prevent us taking
a measurement and to ask, ‘What’s going
on?’ Answer: the sidepods were sagging
and narrowing the air gaps. So we closed
them with card and tape to within 1mm
[0.04in]. Bang! The result was huge.”
Skirts had been used in F1 previously –
Brabham designer Gordon Murray, for
example, placed a transverse, vee-shaped
dam beneath his BT44 of 1974 to create a
low pressure behind it – but they’d skirted
the issue. Now, for only a small increase in
drag, downforce doubled in an instant.
Chapman was initially cautious of this
“something for nothing” car, but seven
pole positions and four wins for Andretti
in the Lotus 78 during 1977 convinced
him that more, much more, would be
crowned world champion. Lotus, in turn,
earned its seventh constructors’ title.
It would be its last.
Wright: “Chapman had determined that
if you moved the center of aerodynamic
pressure forward under braking that you
would increase front-axle performance,
i.e., less understeer on turn-in, and that it
wouldn’t dominate when you accelerated.
“We configured a vital wind tunnel test
that calibrated a car’s motion in terms of
ride height and pitch sensitivity. The 78
had significantly more than the 72 [of
1970-’ 75]. The 79 had significantly
more again. But 80 had too much.”
By extending its tunnels underneath the
driveshafts and running skirts from tip to
tail, Lotus hoped that 1979’s Type 80
would consign conventional wings to
history. Sadly, it sucked in a bad way. Its
skirts would often jam where they curved
inside the rear wheels. The resultant
aerodynamic stall freed them. And repeat.
Ad nauseam. The increased forces could
not be controlled and also served to
emphasize that the limit of the aluminum
monocoque was being reached.
much better. He returned from his
annual break in Ibiza with a slew of
drawings that became the Lotus 79.
“That was his brilliance,” says Wright.
“He’d spot something significant, even if
he didn’t know all the answers, and put
all the resources he could behind it. We
were knuckling down for another season
with an updated 78 when he said that it
was a load of rubbish. It hadn’t been
designed as a ground-effect car and so
its underneath was ‘dirty.’ Plus, its center
of pressure was too far forward and we
had to run a lot of rear wing to balance
it, which made it slow on the straights.
“With 79, we cleaned up the suspension
and engine ancillaries to increase the size
of its venturis, and extended their throats
rearward to improve attached flow.
“Chapman’s other side was evident in
its compromised braking and cooling. Too
narrow, it was weak in torsion, too. It was
not a nice car perse. But that didn’t matter
because of its significant advantages.”
Having opened his 1978 account with
victory in a 78 in Argentina, Andretti
won five times with the 79 and was
(FAR RIGHT) Mario
Andretti takes the
Lotus 78 to its first
win, the 1977 Long
Beach GP. (RIGHT)
By 1979, teams such
as Williams were
doing ground effect
better than Lotus.
prone to eruptions,
was FISA president
between 1978-’ 91
and the nemesis
of the FOCA teams
in the 1980-’ 82
Lotus boss Colin
Chapman and driver
watch the ’ 78
German GP unfold.
Peterson had retired
with gearbox issues,
but teammate Mario
cruise to another
win in the Lotus 79.
1978 ’ 79 RAMPAGE