Lotus 80: No skirting around the problem

“If some was good then more must be better.” That’s Peter Wright’s take on Chapman’s reasoning with the 80. It should have leap-frogged the 79 copies he knew everyone else would build. But because he focused entirely on it while the 79 was still winning, let alone when it was falling behind in 1979, the 80 distracted the team. Instead of developing the 79 into a stayer as it had the 72, the small design group was bogged down by a whole new field of problems.

Again the goal was dragless downforce. If ground effect loaded the car enough, why would you need wings? Chapman envisioned a car with a venturi under the nose (the venturi exited ahead of the driver) and main tunnels running right through to the tail, with no wings bar a low rear unit. That was the way the 80 appeared: a chisel snout with skirts, and sidepods which shrank inside the rear wheels so that the main skirts ran right to the tail, with a gap for the rear suspension. And it produced a lot of extra downforce, as long as the skirts worked. The trouble was, that S-bend round the wheels was always jamming the skirt. “A mechanical nightmare,” says Wright. “But if you told Colin something wouldn’t work, it was a red rag to a bull.”

When the skirts did work, it brought an alarming new phenomenon: porpoising. Ground effect sucks car down, using up all suspension movement, underflow air stalls, losing ground effect; car hits bump and bounces into the air, then touches down and the process starts again. Wright remembers it rearing its ugly head for the first time. “I was taping Mario and he said, ‘We’ve got a problem — I can see daylight under the front wheels!’ “

With its ground-effect nose the 80 was especially prone to this, and the front skirts were soon dumped for conventional nose wings. The only way to cut the porpoising was ever-stiffer springs, which rattled the driver and went against Chapman’s philosophy. Even Andretti, as close to Colin as he was, had a struggle to persuade him that the springs were too soft — and so was the chassis. When the skirts did work, the monocoque twisted and popped rivets. By mid-season both drivers were back in 79s, and the 80 was quietly forgotten.