Autocourse back in time: the Lotus 79

Thanks to Autocourse, the world's leading Grand Prix annual, we're going back in time with this exclusive story Alan Henry wrote about Lotus, Colin Chapman and the teams creation and development of the Lotus 79.

"Many racing cars don't have a balanced set of performance parameters," explains Colin Chapman thoughtfully. "The Lotus 79 hasn't pushed up the overall level of performance all that much. Some cars are quick on straights, quick on slow corners or quick on fast corners. We score simply because we are quick everywhere."

Fifty-years-old this season, Colin Chapman has a knack of making the most complicated problems seem crystal clear. 1978 was the year in which Lotus completed their three-year 'rise from the ashes,' winning the Constructors' World Championship. Their No. 1 driver, Mario Andretti, also won the drivers' title. "If anybody else, with the possible exception of Ferrari, had achieved that, everybody might have said fantastic, (or) amazing..."

The fact that Chapman managed to haul his team back to the top was really no more than one expected from motor racing's most innovative and original thinker.

Wing Cars

The Lotus 79, which won six of that year's 16 Grands Prix, seven if you include Monza, where Andretti won convincingly on the road only to be penalised punitively for a jumped start (that made no difference to the event's outcome), is the car that Chapman was working towards ever since he produced a concept document on ground-effect machines back in the summer of 1975.

On the way, he designed the Lotus 78 ... The first real 'wing car' in the game. The 78 won two more of the year's 16 races, so Lotus' complete tally is eight Grand Prix race triumphs, This compares to Ferrari's five, Brabharn's two (both under questionable circumstances) and one for Tyrrell.

Going back to 1975, one has to appreciate how things were developing at Team Lotus. They had won the World Championship with the Lotus 72 three years earlier and they were still using that same car; the Ralph Bellamy-designed Lotus 76. Intended to be a much lighter version of the 72, not only proved to be uncompetitive, but too heavy and fragile. It was shelved midway through 1974 and Lotus soldiered on with the 72. It is a measure of the standards which the team sets itself that they look back on 1974 as a highly disappointing year, never mind the fact that Ronnie Peterson won three Grand Prix for them.

The previous year, they had won seven events (with Fittipaldi and Peterson on the driving strength) and Ronnie's trio of 1974 victories were down to his instant driving bravado rather than the car's fundamental capability.

No more competitiveness for the 72

In 1975 things were getting worse. Changes in tyre construction from Goodyear had rendered the 72 almost useless and neither Peterson nor his team-mate Jacky Ickx seemed to be able to do anything with it. In addition, they both went their separate ways when it came to setting up the cars—and neither proved terribly effective in this task.

We toyed with taking it to Monza, but I thought everybody would build a wing car the moment they saw it.

Colin Champman

Midway through the year, desperate that he should find somebody to set up the 72 for Peterson, Chapman released lckx from his obligation to Team Lotus. It was a mutually gratifying split, but the succession of British drivers who tried the car were not able to help. Brian Henton and Jim Crawford were too inexperienced and John Watson simply drove it at Nurburgring, offered little feed-back, politely said "very nice" and then went back to pursuing his career with Surtees.

No longer was it possible to develop a totally new design concept with a stroke of the pen that would make your Grand Prix car a couple of seconds a lap faster than its rivals from the outset. Although Chapman had built such cars in the Lotus 25, 49 and 72, now the technological climate was different. An enormous amount of thought and effort was required to achieve a very small increase in performance.

"Something for nothing"

Thus, from the enormous concept document which Chapman produced in 1975, came the roots of the idea which led to his generation of ground-effect cars: the "something for nothing" machines as he described them later on.

Meanwhile, the variable track, variable wheel-base Lotus 77 was being completed. In reality, this machine was outdated in Chapman's mind almost from the point at which it began racing, but it did provide a useful test-bed for bits and pieces from the new Research and Development department that had been established under Tony Rudd's guidance.

After a shaky start to the 1976 season, which involved Peterson being "swapped" for Gunnar Nilsson at March and Mario Andretti rejoining on a full-time basis, the 77 made gradual progress throughout the season. One major change was the adoption of a revised front suspension arrangement, rocker arms and outboard brakes replacing the ungainly calipers out in the airstream.

Thus equipped, Gunnar Nilsson drove the 77 to a storming sixth place in the non-championship International Trophy meeting at Silverstone, winging past Mario in Frank Williams's machine as he did so.

Andretti later recounted this was the moment he realised that it would be a good idea to return to Lotus and sign for the upcoming season.

The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

The gradual progress paid off in the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji, an event more famous for the fact that James Hunt just grasped his World Championship title rather than the Lotus victory, which was almost unnoticed by comparison. Ironically, given that one of the main functions of a Formula 1 chassis today is to make the very best use of its tyres, one of the prime reasons that the 77 won at Fuji was that it didn't do just that.

In normal circumstances such behaviour would have been counter-productive, but as car after car dived into the pit lane for fresh rubber, their deeply-grooved rain tyres shredded by the drying track surface, Mario stayed out to win the race by just over a lap from his nearest challenger. It was a good consolation prize with which to finish Lotus's season of endeavour.

By this time, the Lotus 78 had already put a couple of months testing under its belt. The first 'something for nothing' car had been completed in August and there were sneak testing shots of Nilsson driving it at Snetterton 'doing the rounds' by Monza time. Chapman admits to being a little bit reluctant about taking the wraps off the 78 before the end of the season: "We toyed with taking it to Monza, but I thought everybody would build a wing car the moment they saw it." Now, two seasons and a Lotus championship title later, Chapman's rivals are pounding down his road of thought in furious pursuit.

Very basically, the Lotus 78's success stemmed from a clever combination of wing section sidepods, a slim monocoque centre-section and the way in which the water radiators were arranged in the leading edge of the side pods with the heated air being extracted over the top surface of these pods. This inverted wing section didn't simply mean that the car was "sucked down" on to the circuit; more importantly it meant that the car could make the maximum use of its tyres. Rather than having the driver swing into a corner and spend precious fractions of a second waiting for the tyres to warm up and do their job, such transition was less marked in the case of the 78. Its tyre temperatures were kept well up to scratch on the straight, by virtue of the car's inherent down-force, so when the driver swung into a turn the tyres were ready to exert their maximum grip almost from the start.

Some cars are good on fast corners, some good on straight-line speed and some good on slow corners; we're good on all of them.

Colin Chapman

The 78 had a good deal of weight "up front" built into its design after the 77's reluctance to warm up its tyres, underlining the significance of Chapman's remark: "All that really matters is how wide it is, how long it is and what tyres it has got."

Perhaps surprisingly, Chapman puts suspension geometry and layout as a secondary consideration, "You only have to look at Brabham, Ferrari, Lotus and McLaren over the last few years to see that they are all turning in practice times that are very close together. So there is a fairly wide band of acceptable suspension arrangements."

The Lotus 78 won five Grands Prix during 1977 and would doubtless have carried Mario Andretti to his championship title a year earlier if he had not been afflicted with a succession of engine failures. Mario really came into his own as a force to be reckoned with, his subtle and very sensitive approach to setting the car up paying tremendous dividends. The 78's equipment enabled Mario to "fine tune" the car, even during a race, compensating for changes in fuel load which could be drained out of either side tank first, depending on whether a circuit contained predominantly left or right hand corners by working the adjustable rear anti-roll bar.

Similarly, his smooth style and acute awareness of the problems posed by tyre stagger to a car fitted with a low percentage limited-slip differential helped to take the Lotus effort ahead once the starting signal had been given.

Need for straightline speed

There was one major problem with the 78: its lack of straight line speed. It developed more drag than Chapman had anticipated and, as a result, the Lotus boss rapidly moved on towards his next logical development while his rivals were still sharpening their pencils and wondering whether "wing cars" were really the way to go at all.

It has to be said that the first rival wing car to be produced was Tony Southgate's Arrows Alf Shadow DN9 concept, by which time the new Lotus 79 had been testing for the best part of a month.

It seemed unlikely at the time, but the 79 made the 78 look a bit on the crude side and, since Chapman reckons his new Type 80 will make the 79 look like a London bus, one can only speculate as to where Chapman's latest train of thought is leading us.

Will the next generation of Grand Prix cars have no wings, as we know them, at all? Chapman won't be drawn, but his more realistic thoughts are obviously along the lines of perfecting his own five-speed gearbox, the unit round which the Lotus 79 was originally designed.

Give me a nice 485 bhp DFV with plenty of reliability and I'll get it to move through the air as quickly as a 525 bhp flat-12.

Colin Chapman

Whereas the 78 was a "wing car," Chapman's Lotus 79 is a ground-effect car without the striking wing section side pods of its predecessor. The underside forms a gently shaped "U" profile which is sealed off by sliding side skirts which are much more crucial to the design's effectiveness than were those on the 78. One glance at the 79's general layout underlines just how important clean airflow is along the side of the car. Suspension units are tucked tightly inboard, both front and rear, while the hub carriers are flush within the wheels' offset. It is clean, simple and stikingly efficient.

The 79 has proved to have retained all the advantages and plus-points of the 78 with few of its handicaps. For example, the 79 is not hampered by shortage of straigh-tline speed. And it is not a handicap on tight circuits either, one reason why Chapman was so ecstatic about Jean-Pierre Jarier's performance in the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal.

"I really thought that if it was going to go badly at any circuit, then it would be at Montreal. I was delighted. What we've done on the 79 is to trade download for wing. The car isn't significantly quicker than its rivals on any section of a given circuit. It's just that, say, some cars are good on fast corners, some good on straight-line speed and some good on slow corners; we're good on all of them. That's where we score with the Lotus 79."

The one area in which Chapman has still some work to do is in perfecting his five-speed transmission, the troublesome unit which has been fitted to both 79 and 78 models during the course of the season but has suffered a series of pinion shaft breakages. Apart from being significantly lighter than the Hewland five-speeder and another part not bought in from outside, the Lotus system allows for clutchless gear-changing, a concept initially anticipated with the "two-pedal" 76 four years back.

This theoretically enables the car to corner in a much more balanced attitude, with power on for longer spells in the corner itself. Indianapolis experience indicated that the really quick way was to keep the power on while dabbing the brakes, thus minimising the car's pitch change. Even Jarier, unfamiliar with the 79, came in at Montreal and said, "fantastic, but wouldn't it be good to have the power on even longer." An unprompted remark, but one which underlines the direction in which Chapman is thinking.

On the engine front, Chapman isn't unduly bothered about special units or development engines. "Give me a nice 485 bhp DFV with plenty of reliability and I'll get it to move through the air as quickly as a 525 bhp flat-12. That's what I think we should all be concentrating on. Getting the best out of a nice reliable power unit. What I want is to make power have less work to do or have more of it working more often."

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Mario Andretti , Jacky Ickx , John Watson , Emerson Fittipaldi , Jean-Pierre Jarier , Frank Williams , John Surtees , Jim Crawford , Ronnie Peterson , Brian Henton , James Hunt , Colin Chapman
Teams Ferrari , Team Lotus , McLaren , Williams
Article type Analysis
Tags autocourse, colin chapman, lotus, lotus 79