A sucker for progress

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Colin Chapman’s drive for giant leaps sometimes faltered. As Goodwood assembles ground-effect cars for the 74th Members Meeting, we roll out the Lotus that dug a pit for itself – and kept digging

Writer Gordon Cruickshank | Photographer Howard Simmons

Like a nervous animal released into the wild, the long nose appears from the trailer and inches forward as though scenting alarming new territory. No aerofoils, just a flat shovel of a nose until the wide garden-roller slicks confirm that this is a car, not some snuffling beast unknown to science. It’s not well known to history either: this was one of Colin Chapman’s trips into the gravel, one of those dead-ends he occasionally herded his people down just in case there was treasure to be found at the far end.

There wasn’t. After a glorious year with the Lotus 79 proving that there was free speed to be reaped from the new theory of ground effect, the Type 80 punctured that balloon and handed the technical lead to others.

Success or not, this dark green machine with Martini stripes will be a highlight of the 74th Goodwood Members Meeting on March 19-20, on static display while rival ground-effect cars of the 1977-82 era will for the first time
hoover up the Sussex dust in a high-speed demonstration. That’s why we’re standing in the paddock watching the unloved, unlamented Type 80 take its first Goodwood bow.

Say ‘ground effect’ to a pilot and his mind works the opposite way to ours. To fliers, ground effect is the cushion of air that a plane or helicopter surfs on close to the earth. A buoyancy aid, the regime that a hovercraft or the bizarre Soviet ekranoplan relies on for its support. Our sort of ground effect reverses that long-known principle, turning a cushion into a vacuum to multiply grip, and the beauty of it is that this is a gain at little cost in either drag or power. Aerodynamicist Peter Wright was chasing it during his 1960s BRM years under Tony Rudd, but when Rudd left there was neither time nor inclination to follow it up. By the late
1970s, though, both Wright and Rudd had reconnected at Lotus, just when Chapman was facing a disaster.

It’s the sign of a great leader, the ability to use a defeat to springboard success, and after a disastrous 1975 with the Type 76 Chapman instituted two paths: the short-term one was the 77, which just about put Lotus back in the picture. The long-term one was a document – 27 pages of open-ended discussion aiming to rethink the F1 car from the beginning, and end up with a wing car. Rudd, Wright and designer Ralph Bellamy took on this brief, working in a separate ‘skunk works’, and after much research and testing created the 78 – and changed racing.

It’s widely known how Wright’s team, working on the Imperial College moving-ground wind tunnel, saw downforce soar as the cobbled-together inverted wing sidepods sagged, closing the car-to-ground gap. Card skirts and duct tape proved that ground effect was real, and increasingly effective skirt systems, tested behind a Renault 4 around Hethel, made the 78 into a winner while its successor, the 79 with its slimmer, cleaner underparts and increased downforce, brought the 1978 championship for Mario Andretti by an indisputable 86 points to Ferrari’s 58.

Sadly, Ronnie Peterson’s second place was posthumous after his death at Monza.

In truth ground effect saved the 79, which was flawed in many ways. Without Peterson’s innate flair and Andretti’s dogged work refining and balancing the handling, especially in its pitch sensitivity, it could not have carried the Italian-American ace to the flag seven times and his Swedish team-mate twice. Realising that the downforce acted too far forward on the 78, which meant a big rear wing to compensate and a consequent drop in top speed, Peter Wright and Ralph Bellamy had extended the venturi section rearwards – the narrow throat where the air squeezes under the upside-down wing section of the sidepod, speeding up and so creating the desired low pressure. With all its fuel behind the driver instead of partly in the sidepods there was more active aero surface, while inboard rear springs and an up-and-over exhaust made for a cleaner run to the rear wing. Add to that the crucial skirt system (sliding skirts had now been accepted as legal on Wolf’s WR5) which finally worked properly – rigid panels sliding within a slot on rollers and tipped with hard-wearing ceramic – to trap the low pressure underneath where you want it, and the wing car had arrived.

Yet within its ground-sucking form the narrow 79 monocoque was torsionally weak, the magnesium alloy brake calipers were unreliable and the exhausts problematic. It won races and a championship, but it wasn’t good enough. Not for Chapman. There was more gold in this mine, and he pushed to dig ever-deeper seams. In addition, despite some misleading pantomime pretending it was a trick differential that gave the 78 its speed, the opposition had rudely peered under its skirts, slapped its collective forehead and gone off to build its own wing cars. The opening 1979 Argentine and Brazilian GPs brought surprise victories for the Ligier JS11, simple, sturdy and suction-heavy, while that season would see Williams introduce Patrick Head’s supremely effective FW07 ground-effect car, which in the following year’s B form would more or less get where Chapman wanted to be, by the direct route. Meanwhile at Hethel…

***

It made perfect sense on paper. Ground-breaking as it was, even the 79 needed nose and tail wings for balanced grip, but all wings eat power and sap speed. Trading top velocity against cornering power circuit by circuit is always one of the great team skills,
but Chapman saw a way to gain at both extremes – strong downforce with low drag. A car that was fast everywhere. And that meant a car that was one big suction device with no aero addenda. Enter the 80 with its long skirted snout sans front wings, allowing cleaner air to reach the radiator intakes in the sidepod leading edges, and main skirts stretching from the nose of the sidepods to vertical plates beside the gearbox with a lazy bend inside the rear wheels. Small springs bore down on the skirts to maintain track contact. A super-narrow gearbox helped exit flow, brakes were outboard, springs inboard and only driveshafts and streamlined A-frame rear wishbones protruded into the long venturi, while a low tail flap allowed for trim. On the nose an adjustable exit flap bled air from between the nose skirts, altering the amount of suction. While the suspension concept followed 79 principles, titanium components in Martin Ogilvie’s aluminium-honeycomb monocoque reduced weight to the permitted minimum – and made it the most expensive Lotus ever. But extensive tunnel and rig testing showed good downforce and low drag – exactly as hoped. 

Here at Goodwood the car rolls skirtless down the ramp, and Jeff from Classic Team Lotus gets ready to fit the thick carbon-fibre-skinned foam skirts. Lying on the ground they’re enormous, eight inches deep, the length of a man and kinked like a quick chicane. That kink would compound the inherent flaw which would lead to the three completed 80 chassis being returned to store while last year’s 79s fought gamely against a new crop of younger, fitter rivals.

1979 didn’t start too badly, even though the 80 wasn’t ready: while the Ligiers relished their brief shot at stardom, the 79s in their new Martini livery (JPS having dropped its deal) were the next best. It was only in round five, Spain, that the wondercar appeared. It had even been late for its own press launch at Brands Hatch on a snowy March day, as Lotus mechanic Bob Dance recalls: “We had only just finished the prototype, still a non-runner, and everyone was waiting in the Kentagon for us. Colin had to help push the car up the ramps it was such a rush.”

***

At Jarama Mario Andretti managed to place his 80 third despite colliding with Patrick Tambay’s McLaren; from then on it was a tale of stress, labour and frustration as the new car got worse while the flaws in the once untouchable 79’s armour gaped ever wider against its second-generation ground-effect competition. “And Goodyear had changed the tyre specification,” says Dance, “so we were redeveloping the old car to cope with that while we were struggling with the new one.”

That struggle centred on porpoising, a friendly name for a nasty phenomenon. As the car pitched forward or back under braking or acceleration, a bump in the track or a stuck skirt would break suction, letting one end bounce up, only to fall back, reconnect skirt with track, suck down and bounce up again, sometimes going into resonance which could pogo the front wheels off the road. Hitting the brakes calmed it, but with the centre of downforce skipping invisibly to and fro below deck, the thing was fearsomely unpredictable. 

Lotus was not alone in this: after agreeing to withdraw his ingenious BT46B fan car – the other type of ground effect – Gordon Murray had used intuition to field his wingless Brabham BT48 at the 1979 Buenos Aires season-opener. But one porpoising practice session was enough for Niki Lauda; the full-length venturis were removed and a rear wing installed. Without access to the same tunnel testing facilities as Lotus, Brabham reverted to ‘known knowns’ while Hethel plunged deeper into unknown ones.

As a workaround Andretti tackled that Jarama debut minus nose skirts and sporting wings front and rear, far from the wingless wonder Chapman strove for. What’s more, the titanium suspension arms had proved faulty so new ones of heavier steel were fitted, and as the car had been expanded to maximum permitted dimensions for greatest aero effect he now had a long, wide, heavy car with aerofoils. Sidepod revisions arrived for May’s Belgian GP but after a practice crash damaged a front corner Mario raced the 79, retiring with failing brakes.

 With his oval racing experience Andretti was super-sensitive to small changes in tyre pressure and ‘stagger’, experimenting with asymmetrical set-ups to cope with the new car’s radically increased pitch sensitivity. Unlike the technically minded, determined Andretti, prepared to test, tweak and try everything, Peterson’s replacement Carlos Reutemann was not a believer in the 80 concept and was easily deflated. 

 “Mario always put maximum effort into making things work,” says Dance. “On his day Carlos was a good driver, but I’d worked with him at Brabham and I knew that if he got depressed he wouldn’t try.”

Lotus was thus effectively operating two teams, one supporting Andretti’s efforts to find the secret formula that would make the 80 fly, the other trying to keep the 79 competitive under the Argentinian. It was a heavy load even for a race team used to many an all-nighter. 

“There was a lot of pressure,” says Dance. “One mechanic left because of it. Everybody was trying hard; Peter Wright was very involved, Mario gave it his best shot, but if he couldn’t make it work, no one could.”

Monaco was worse, Mario qualifying 13th and thankfully breaking a suspension arm. For the French round there was a Mk2 80 with altered venturi, raked-back front suspension to shift the centre of gravity forwards and once again no rear wing – but on the fast Dijon-Prenois circuit the porpoising was worse. Those wiggly skirts kept jamming one end within their slide-boxes like a sticking drawer in a chest, letting air in and suddenly puncturing the downforce. “A mechanical nightmare,” said Wright later. “But if you told Colin something wouldn’t work, it was a red rag to a bull.”

***

Stiffer and stiffer springs merely threatened to make the car a mobile trampoline; with such unpredictability it was impossible to stabilise the underbody pressures and sort the balance. A team packed with top-level design and engineering skill had somehow managed to swap a poor chassis with great aero for a good chassis with the aerodynamics of a cigarette paper. With little regret the two completed 80s were shelved after their three race outings and both drivers returned to last year’s fading star, seeing the title lifted by Jody Scheckter’s Ferrari 312 T4. It was a galling twist that, unlike the convenient V of a Cosworth V8 block, Maranello’s wide flat-12 motor mitigated against effective downforce, coming through on sheer power and reliability. Meanwhile the outgoing Formula 1 champion slotted in 12th in the driver standings – five depressing places behind his less adventurous team-mate.

From that sad season the relics of that brave, or misguided, experiment sat at the back of the Lotus cupboard. Chassis 1 escaped and has competed recently in Masters races driven by Manfredo Rossi, though with wings front and rear and minus skirts – just what Chapman wasn’t aiming for. Though waiting its turn for full restoration, Chassis 2 has been tidied up by Clive Chapman’s indefatigable crew at Classic Team Lotus, and squats in front of us in pure form, as it came from the drawing board. 

“Prepping it for the photoshoot has stirred our interest,” says Clive. “It looks fabulous and it could be interesting to try to realise its potential. Not sure we’ll ever get the extraordinarily complicated nose skirts to work, though!”

Peering under the low tail it’s easy to see how the underbody curves smoothly up from sidepod to tail flap; from here it looks clean, elegant, typically Lotus. From the side those uncompromising black slabs of skirt pressed to the bitumen give it a blocky, even clumsy appearance. It’s a silent day at Goodwood, but even rolling the car around the skirts scrape and boom on the ground. The noise at three-figure speeds must have rivalled its DFV in full voice.

***

Was it always doomed? Discussing
the 79 in Motor Sport in 2000, F1 designer Gary Anderson, said: “Lotus over-exploited the 80’s aerodynamics. That was never going to work, a total wing-section car with the skirts coming back through the wheels – too complex for the technology of the time. But with today’s facilities, you could make the Lotus 80 work.”

In his autobiography Lotus engineer Nigel Bennett recalls looking at the FW07 with Mario and saying, “That’s what we should have done – a properly engineered and developed 79.” With a stiffer structure, soft springing,
straight skirts and conventional brakes a 79-and-a-half could have challenged Williams and out-cornered Ferrari. But that wasn’t the way Chapman’s brilliant, impulsive mind worked. “Anyone can do development,” he said. “We are going to lead with new concepts.”

Already the next concept was crystallising in his thoughts: a way of channelling major downforce directly to the wheels while giving the driver a comfortable ride. The twin-chassis concept of the 86 and 88 would leap-frog many of the 80’s handicaps. It also, in Peter Wright’s words “drove a coach and horses through the rule book” which for 1981 banned skirts. Punching legal holes in the regulations was Chapman’s delight, and if that left some debris behind it could be swept into a corner. Like the ground-hugging, crocodilian Lotus 80.

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