The Lotus 80 - The next step forward

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Everyone, including Team Lotus, was expecting the successor to the Lotus 79 to make its appearance at the South African Grand Prix. However, this was not to be, as the work-force at Hethel do not concentrate solely on Formula One, and other more pressing technical activities delayed the work on the Lotus 80. The original schedule was to have seen the first car at Kyalami for the test-week prior to the Grand Prix, and if all had gone well Mario Andretti would have given the new car its debut on March 3rd. As things turned out the first car was not finished until just prior to the postponed Race of Champions so it was shown to the Press on Friday March 16th at Brands Hatch, albeit in a static and non-running condition.

It was not necessary to be clairvoyant or brilliant to anticipate the next move in the Lotus five-year revival plan, looking at the logical steps shown by the Lotus 77, the Lotus 78 and the Lotus 79. With last year’s cars clearly generating a lot of down-force from the effects of the air under the car, plus the efficient air flow over the car, it could be seen at times that the nose-fins and the rear aerofoil were being set at almost neutral down-force, thereby not inducing any drag to cut down maximum speed. It was only a matter of time before the Lotus appeared without extraneous down-force-producing fins and tailwings. Gordon Murray anticipated the Lotus 80 when he produced his Brabham BT48 for in its original form the rear aerofoil was low down on top of the gearbox and forming part of the rear of the bodywork. However, this did not work too well and when the BT48 raced it had a conventional high-mounted rear aerofoil. In South Africa Murray was still probing along the Lotus 80 idea when he ran his car without nose-fins.

As expected the Lotus 80 proved to be even sleeker than the Lotus 79, and that is saying something as anyone who has looked at the Lotus 79 from ground-level head-on will appreciate. The basic layout of the chassis has not changed radically, with narrow monocoque, fuel tank behind the driver, inboard suspension units front and rear, exceedingly slim suspension members and everything possible tucked out of the way, to give a clear passage for the air-flow along each side of the monocoque. The nose is more needle shaped and longer, devoid of the adjustable fins used on previous cars, and at the rear the bodywork covers the engine and gearbox and ends in a full-width “trim tab”. The side pods, with sliding skirts rubbing on the ground, provide their venturi effect as far back as possible and are lower at the rear than before, so that the only obstacle in the path of the air leaving the rear of the venturi on each side is the lower A-bracket of the suspension.

Some of the attempts at copying the Lotus 79 have been effective though one wonders about the true reasons, for a look up the back or at low-level at the front reveals a lot of bits and pieces in the passage of the air along the side-pods. None of them impressed for breath-taking smoothness like the Lotus 79, and that has now been made obsolete by the Lotus 80. If testing plans go favourably Andretti should give the car its racing debut as Long Beach on April 8th and Reutemann should have the second car for the Spanish Grand Prix.

In the original specification the Lotus 80 the Lotus multi-speed gearbox was planned, but work on other projects has caused the development of this transmission to be shelved. Apart from being smaller and lighter than the contemporary Hewland gearbox, the Lotus transmission is designed to have five, six or seven speeds, as a circuit demands, with a compact and very quick change mechanism that is to eventually operate with an electric clutch and no clutch pedal in the cockpit, so that the driver can use his left foot for braking, keeping overall control of the car by using his right foot on the throttle. One of the problems of high-speed handling is attitude-change in yaw and pitch, thereby altering the aerodynamics, brought on by braking and accelerating forces acting on the suspension. Colin Chapman’s two-pedal control concept is aimed at reducing these upsetting movements on high-speed corners and keeping the car more controllably balanced. The Lotus-Getrag transmission is an important part in this ultimate concept.

Naturally, to the racing enthusiast it seems strange that anything should take priority over a new Formula One car in the engineering division of a firm like Lotus, but it must be remembered that the parent factory has a production line of saleable road-cars to keep flowing, and there are other engineering projects for outside firms that provide a profitable income and help to keep the Lotus empire solvent. One important project is the assistance that Lotus engineers are giving to the Delorean sports-car project in Belfast. Such contracts are of vital importance to the future of Lotus as a complete entity, which explains why progress on the Lotus 80 Formula One car has got a bit behind schedule.

Other Formula One teams, like Ferrari and Brabham, do not have these commercial worries running alongside the racing team; Ferrari production problems are dealt with by Fiat while Alfa Romeo are big enough to allow Autodelta to look after racing, entirely divorced from Alfa Romeo production. A small unit like Tyrrell can concentrate entirely on racing, provided there is enough money available from outside sponsors, but they have few reserves to fall back on.