Turning Point

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This Lotus 77 transformed its maker’s fortunes from no hope outsiders to Grand Prix winners and World Champions in waiting. Matthew Franey tells its tale and then climbs aboard.

It is hard to imagine the effect that victory in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix had on Team Lotus. To call the previous few seasons a lean period in the marque’s otherwise glorious history would be understatement of the grandest kind, for Lotus in the mid-1970s was but a shadow of its former self.

Finger-pointing some two decades on is an entirely pointless exercise, for the statistics alone show just how bad things had lately become. Colin Chapman’s drivers had not stood on the top step of a Grand Prix podium for over two seasons, Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72 scraping home ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren at Monza in the autumn of 1974, and the team’s best endeavours to right the increasing wrongs resulted in the Lotus 76, a distinctly high-tech solution that produced depressingly low-grade results.

The 76 was fashioned with all the flair of a Chapman Grand Prix car: a hand-operated clutch lever left the driver’s feet free to operate two separate brake pedals, while sophisticated anti-dive suspension and an unusual bi-plane rear wing ensured better traction. On paper it looked good, the reality was somewhat different, and before the 1974 season had been played out the car had been relegated to the subs bench. For the 1975 championship Team Lotus, once the epitome of avant garde Grand Prix design, was forced to use an updated Lotus 72 chassis, a car it had unveiled some five years before.

Yet within two years Lotus was once more a genuine contender, the team claiming five Grands Prix wins and leading more laps than any of its rivals. In the space of one season, Chapman had steered his outfit from virtual also-rans to championship contenders. How? The answer lies with that single 1976 season, a driver called Mario Andretti and a car that won a just single Grand Prix, the Lotus 77.

Launched in September 1975, the 77 was never intended to be anything more than a stop-gap measure while Chapman and his designers put their minds to the creation of the Lotus 78, the ground effect car which would revolutionise the formula for several years to come. Nevertheless, the interim 77 was much more than just a temporary solution to the team’s problems. Seemingly unable to err on the side of conservatism, Chapman’s new car had several noticeable features.

Weight and its distribution were key factors in ensuring that the 77 was a worthwhile replacement for its rather portly predecessor. Writing in Motor Sport Denis Jenkinson told of how, after several evolutions, the trusty 72 had been “altered, modified, bodged, hacked about and generally messed around”. The result was a car in which, for example, the oil tank and radiators were separated by 15 feet of piping while weight was in excess of both the minimum requirements and its closest rivals.

The new car, Chapman decreed, would have no problem matching other team’s figures and, furthermore, would have one distinct advantage: the ability to significantly alter its wheelbase and track depending on which particular circuit it happened to be visiting that weekend. The end result would, he predicted, be the sport’s first fully-adjustable Formula One car. Jenks erred on the side of caution. “Whether they hit the right combination each time,” he noted, “experience will show.”

Experience, it seems was in short supply when the cars were wheeled out for the first race of the season in Brazil. Andretti had joined Peterson on a one race deal but both failed to make any impression — except on each other. After qualifying at the wrong end of the grid the duo collided and the 77’s debut was over after just 10 laps. To rub salt in the wounds, a frustrated Peterson quit the team and Andretti left to drive for Pamelli Jones… only to rejoin three races later after his drive went up in smoke along with his car at the Long Beach Grand Prix. A chance meeting with Chapman in his hotel after the race started negotiations once more and the sight of a thoroughly revised Lotus 77 flying at the Daily Express Trophy in the hands of Gunnar Nilsson was enough to convince the American to return to the fold. All attention turned to developing the car for the long European season ahead.

With Andretti’s undoubted development skills and the arrival of experienced designers Tony Southgate and Len Terry, the car began steadily to improve. Failure, as Jenks had warned, to cmec to terms with the intricate `adjustacar’ had forced the team to modify the front suspension and drop the seemingly ingenious in-board brakes. As the season progressed, the aerodynamics and handling were also improved with the addition of partial skirts to funnel the air under the car and an adjustable rear anti-roll bar that was operated by the driver. By the time Lotus arrived at the Mount Fuji circuit for the last race of the season, Andretti and team-mate Gunnar Nilsson had made it to the the podium on four occasions (albeit only in third place) and the team was, in the American’s own words, “making some tremendous gains”. Reward for all the hard work was about to materialise.

With attention focussed on the fierce battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda for the world title, Andretti’s experience guided him first to pole position and then a memorable win in conditions so atrocious Lauda retired a healthy car, preferring to give up the championship than continue. It was, in Mario’s opinion, the greatest race of his career and set the team up for far greater success in the two seasons to come.

“It’s amazing what a win like that does for momentum in the team,” he said. “It was the start of something special; over the next couple of years there were many times that we had something to celebrate on Sunday evening.”

Two decades later, Andretti’s Lotus 77 is cared for by Classic Team Lotus under the auspices of the founder’s son Clive Chapman. A frequent runner in the FIA Cup for Thoroughbred Grand Prix cars, the black and gold car is a glorious reminder of those halcyon mid-70s championships. As it stands in the pitlane at the Paul Ricard Circuit in the south of France, a quick glance at its bulging rear tyres tells you all you need to know about this car’s potency. On tap is in excess of 500bhp from the 3-litre Cosworth DFV engine, a five-speed Hewland gearbox all that separates that power from the 16-inch Avon slick tyres used in the current race series. Between the wheels nestles a svelte aluminium monocoque which narrows down to a rakish nose and ‘canard’ front wing; climbing aboard it soon becomes abundantly clear that you can only build a petite car if your driver is of similar proportions.

Shoe-horned into a cockpit 12 inches too short, my knees alarmingly foul the steering wheel. Opposite lock, though not the first priority of the day, seems even less of an option than ever. Yet with the Lotus’ seat removed and my backside plonked straight onto the bare metal floor, any remaining discomfort pales into insignificance when the bodywork is slipped back over my head and the Lotus is rolled down the pitlane.

Drop the clutch in second and the mechanical tick-tick of the fuel pump is drowned by a fearsome crack as the DFV bursts into life. A few prudent dabs at the throttle is all that is required to clear its lungs and the Lotus relaxes into a happy chatter as it makes its way out onto the long start-finish straight. Vibrations resonate up through the aluminium panels at low revs and it is not until the Cosworth comes on cam the far side of 7,000rpm that the car settles down. In the cockpit the dog-leg first gearshift is accessible without being instantly to hand – the penalty once more of a six-foot frame – while the suede Momo steering wheel almost fills the narrow cockpit. Visible between its spokes sit a large tachometer and combined oil gauge but attention at this early stage is, by necessity, fixed firmly on the track ahead.

This Grand Prix thoroughbred acts like its equine equivalent. Nervously tracking across the road, reacting to every camber change and dip in the asphalt, it takes considerable concentration ensuring arrow straight progress. Braking hard at the end of the straight the Lotus squirms as the front wheels begin to chirp alarmingly in protest. Gentle, progressive braking is the only way to slow the car without locking a wheel and with the car skittish in every sense, the last thing you want to do is overshoot a turn-in point.

The steering, as with any Grand Prix car, feels ridiculously fast at first and it is only with sustained lapping that your mind becomes attuned to the ferocity of direction change. The Lotus doesn’t turn towards an apex, it literally lunges at it, scrabbling for grip while at the same time plunging ever deeper towards the corner. If you are good – Andretti good – then this comes as no problem, because as with any racing great you are already worrying about the next corner rather than the one you are currently barrelling through. If you are nowhere near the Andretti league, then the 77 is one of those cars that leaves you feeling rather inadequate.

Like the other Cosworth-powered racers of its era, certain of the Lotus’ qualities are what you could term common to its rivals. The delivery of power is at odds to the chassis, handling and brakes, for a DFV is as tractable and forgiving an engine as you could wish to have sitting behind you. The sudden thrust of acceleration will never become boring in much the same way as any car which can accelerate from first to fifth gear in a handful of seconds will always hold your attention, but it is the way in which the engine allows you to balance the car in the middle of the corner without any hint of complaint that really sticks in the memory long after the car has been stowed safely back in the garage.

Like the engine, the Hewland gearbox is equally satisfying, the shift as short as the Cosworth’s powerband is wide. Travelling up through the ratios is a simple matter of a short lift of the throttle, a dip on the sharp but not overly aggressive clutch and a tweak of the lever followed by the reassuring thunk as gear meets gear and onwards once more presses the Lotus.

With more time and talent, exploring the boundaries of this beautiful car might become feasible but what it goes to show is that the gap between driving a Grand Prix car and really driving it is as large as you might imagine. Quite how Mario Andretti managed to conserve his tyres in drying conditions almost the entire duration of 1976 Japanese Grand Prix while holding pace with the very fastest runners I can’t even begin to tell you. What I do know, however, is that the fact that he did and the consequences of his actions were more important to Team Lotus than anyone will ever know.

Peter Warr, Lotus’ team manager in the 1970s, described their abject failure at the Long Beach Grand Prix earlier that same season when Bob Evans failed to qualify and Nilsson, starting at the back of the grid, crashed heavily at the start as “the low point of Team Lotus’ entire career”. The fact that just a few months later they had crafted a car that would set them on the road to a world championship within two seasons shows just how all concerned managed to turn the team around. For that they can thank Mario Andretti, but they can also give some credit to the Lotus 77.

Our sincere thanks go to Junro Nishida, classic Team Lotus and the organisers of the Thoroughbred Grand Prix championship for their help in making this feature possible.