Racing car: Lotus 79

Jenks on talent versus effort

The casual F1 observer could be forgiven for thinking that the Lotus 79 is little more than an updated 78, but he would be very wrong, for not only is this year’s Lotus Formula One car a completely new design, it is working on different principles to last year’s model.

Whereas the Lotus 78 could come under the category of a ‘wing car’ as popularised by Tony Southgate when he was designing the Shadow DN9 and the Arrows FA1, the Lotus 79 is more a ‘ground effects’ car, a principle started many years ago by Jim Hall on his Chaparral Can-Am car, except that the Lotus does not extract air from under the car with sucker fans, but uses the air. Some people in Formula One are saying that without a ‘wing car’ they will be left behind. What they have overlooked is that they are talking of 1977. The Lotus 79 is a step ahead of that concept.

Designing and building a car like the Lotus 79 is one thing, making it work is another matter altogether. With a sensitive driver like Andretti, the finer points of the Lotus 79 can be used to the maximum, not necessarily to make it any faster than the one driven by the inspiration and innate skill of Peterson, but to make the driver’s task easier. Andretti is able to juggle with all the anti-roll bar settings, spring rates, aerofoil loadings front and rear, suspension settings, wheel loadings and camber angles, to get the car to handle and ‘feel’ exactly as he wants it for any part of any circuit and, with a bit of luck, all round a circuit When he has achieved this, providing there is time during practice, it means that his fastest lap is not a lucky fluke but one that he can repeat to order for as long as you like.

On the other hand Peterson, who does not have this ‘feel’ for adjusting a car to such fine limits but has enormous natural fast-driving talent, will lap as fast as Andretti, but not necessarily to order, nor indefinitely. For a given result that Peterson may find hard work Andretti would find it easy.

In the cockpit of the Lotus 79, on the left, are two controls: one is a short lever like a small gear lever that slides along a tube and controls the stiffness of the rear anti-roll bar; just in front is a round knob controlling the front anti-roll bar.Varying the roll stiffness affects the handling of the car, trimming it rather like an aircraft Clearly, these two controls are not for decoration, so I asked Andretti if he would give me a short rundown on how he used them while driving the car. His answer was simple and honest: “No, I won’t.” We looked at each other for a moment in complete silence, and then in all seriousness he added: “That’s information I don’t even give my team-mate.” You have to respect a driver like that.

Later, in conversation, I posed the same question to Peterson and he was much more explicit, admitting that he didn’t really mess about with them very much. He said that as the car had been tailored for Andretti he found them difficult to operate, due to his longer arms, and in fact the only way he could slide the knob of the rear one was by using his right hand across his thighs. That afternoon on the straight at Jarama he had reached across and moved the knob ready for the right-hander at the end, only to find he could not bring his arm back. He had trapped his glove in the ratchet mechanism!

You don’t need the mechanical skill and sympathy of an Andretti to go fast if you have a natural animal instinct for high-speed driving, but if you have this sympathy you can go fast with less effort. Moss and Stewart drove in this way by instinct, not by application as Andretti does. — DSJ
July 1978