Lotus 79 track test: On a wing and a prayer

A chance to drive a revolutionary ground-effect Lotus 79 was made even more nerve-wracking by the wintry conditions at Hethel...

Marc Wright

We all remember our first grand prix. You can watch it for years on the television but until you actually go and watch a gridful of Formula 1 cars come past, feel your insides churn and your ears itch, you will only have seen it. You will never have experienced it.

Mine was at Brands Hatch on a sunny summer’s day in 1978. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but in the case of the Lotus 79 I am prepared to make an exception. I can remember looking at Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson streaking away from the rest of the field in their now usual 1-2 formation and my 12-year-old mind knew exactly why. Everything else on the grid that day, the Ferraris, McLarens, Renaults, Brabhams and Tyrrells, looked obsolete.

The Lotus 78 had been a pretty impressive piece of work, but the following 79 was something else: the lowest, sleekest racing car there had ever been. I recall perfectly poring over its lines and concluding it would be impossible to design anything to look more modern than this: any wider and it would break the rules, any lower and… well it was already on the ground. Truly I believed everyone else should just give up because it was not conceivable that anyone could do any better than this.

And I wasn’t entirely wrong, though cause and effect had become somewhat muddled. Its speed was not a symptom of its looks, but the other way around. True, both Colin Chapman and Peter Wright had an eye for the aesthetics, but the reason it looked so different to any other car out there was simply because it was.

Andrew Frankel sits in the Lotus 79

“We called it the unfair advantage,” says Clive Chapman, son of Colin, boss of Classic Team Lotus and custodian of this Lotus 79 since it stopped racing. “The 78 was our first attempt at a ground-effect car, but the 79 was the first Formula 1 car to really exploit its potential. Straight out of the box it was two seconds a lap faster than the 78 everywhere, more at some tracks. We had to do some serious sandbagging.” The reason the advantage was so wonderfully unfair for Lotus was that the main opposition came from Ferrari, which had just completed a hat-trick of constructors’ titles; but its wide and low flat-12 engine made designing a true ground-effect car with proper venturi tunnels impossible. “Not only did we have something they did not, rather more importantly, they couldn’t go out and get it.”

Bizarrely, both the 79s failed that day at Brands and it was Carlos Reutemann’s Ferrari that pulled a devastating move on Niki Lauda’s Brabham to claim victory. But I only had eyes for one car, becoming mesmerised by Mario’s inch-perfect lines, lap after lap while it lasted. If you’d told me then that one day I’d drive not only a 79, but that 79, I’d have probably passed out.

But that car is this car: Lotus 79/3, Mario’s main weapon in his title year. The 79 didn’t even make its championship debut until round six at Zolder in late May, which Mario won in 79/2, before going on to win at Jarama, Anderstorp and Hockenheim in 79/3, with his fifth win of the season coming at Zandvoort in 79/4. The 79’s other win of the year was Ronnie’s last victory, at the Osterreichring driving 79/2. Two races later he would crash his 79 in practice for the Italian Grand Prix and, with the spare set up for the considerably shorter Andretti, started his last race in a 78.

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“Just what an old man needs.” Mario Andretti, then 38, was referring to his Lotus 79 after dominating the 1978 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder: on pole by eight-tenths, he…

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Of the two other 79s, 79/1 was the development car and raced just once in 1978 (with Jean-Pierre Jarier to no great effect at Watkins Glen) before being sold to privateer Hector Rebaque for the 1979 season. The last car, 79/5, was built for the ’79 season, almost as if Colin Chapman knew he needed a long-stop in the event of the radical Lotus 80 failing to realise its potential.

Today, the 79 has another beauty, one conveyed on it by history. It seems scarcely believable now, but when it won Mario his championship, the era of the slicks-and-wings F1 car had not yet seen its 10th birthday. All we knew then was that, of those seen so far, it was the most beautiful of all. But now more than 30 further years have passed and I still cannot think of another that comes closer to visual perfection from more angles. If a spaceman fell to earth pondering the meaning of the phrase ‘if it looks right, it usually is right’, you could do no better than point him in the direction of this 79.

But there’s an added magic of this particular 79. Unraced since 1979, it’s not a recreation clinging to a chassis plate as some kind of identity – it’s all real. The tub, bodywork and even the engine and gearbox you see here belonged to this car in period. Clive is usually very relaxed about his cars being raced, but just a few are regarded as simply too important to risk compromising, and 79/3 is one of them. Gently restored to fully-functioning condition about 10 years ago, it goes to shows, has run up the Goodwood Hill and has attended other demonstrations, but that’s it. It is fabulously original.

“With this weather, you won’t get heat into any of the tyres we could put on it”

Today, its task is to carry me around the same Hethel test track upon which it would have been shaken down all those years ago. Sadly conditions are terrible – the air is a single degree above freezing, track conditions vary from quite damp to properly wet, and fog limits visibility to around 100 metres – not much for a car capable of making a Bugatti Veyron’s acceleration look very ordinary indeed.

Frankly, I’d been expecting a call to reschedule, but Classic Team Lotus – still staffed by ex-Team Lotus engineers – is made of sterner stuff. Chris Dinnage used to be Ayrton Senna’s chief mechanic but today he has the somewhat less edifying task of looking after me. Conditions are right on the cusp between slicks and wets, but the slicks stay on because they’ll look better in the shots. As Chris says, “in this weather you won’t get any heat whatever we put on”.

Before climbing aboard, there’s time to soak up a few last details. The front of the car represents standard F1 thinking of the era, but as your eyes pan back past the cockpit with its effective little wind deflector, things change. There’s no fuel in those long sidepods because, unlike the 78 that had three different fuel cells, all the 79’s petrol goes directly behind the driver, freeing up space for the venturi tunnels that would change the face of F1 racing. It still wears its skirts, too, but on a bumpy track like Hethel, they’re stowed in the pods. Simply dropping them to the floor doubles downforce.

Lotus 79 John Player Space

The Lotus 79 in all its glory

Likewise at the back, everything has been moved out of the way of the airflow under the car: brakes and springs are inboard and years of traditional suspension design was abandoned because longitudinal radius arms would have got in the way. In their place came wide-based wishbones. Indeed when work began on the 79, ground effect was the dominant principle around which the rest of the car was designed and, where needed, compromised. Even the air intakes that wrapped around the roll-hoop of a 78 were abandoned as they interfered too much with the flow of air to the rear wing.

Needless to say, power is of the Cosworth DFV variety. The 79/3 runs a standard long-stroke engine to period specification which means around 480bhp at 10,600rpm, perhaps 80 more than the earliest DFVs, but at least 60 less than the maddest short-strokers have shown. As expected, it directs its power through a Hewland H-pattern gearbox, the Getrag sequential shift Chapman had intended proving insufficiently robust for racing.

From the archive

It’s time to go. Thanking Peterson’s lanky frame for the fact that I can get in the 79 at all, I’m struck by how traditional the driving environment is… how backward, even, compared to its cutting-edge exterior. In terms of its dynamic abilities, it’s probably closer to modern F1 than an early ’60s machine, but the cockpit design appears to have evolved hardly at all. You still have to peer at tiny Smiths instruments with spidery numerals to read your revs, pressures and temperatures, which must have been irksome in a car of such retina-detaching performance. There’s a brake balance bar and separate controls for the front and rear rollbars (Dinnage says Ronnie could never remember which way to move them until Mario chipped in with ‘hard in, soft out’, after which he never forgot again), but that’s it. Compared to the jet-fighter interior of a modern F1 car, the 79 seems nearer 50 than 30 years old.

But it also makes it gratifyingly simple to drive. Just flick on the fuel and ignition, wait for the external starter to spin the engine, catch it on the throttle and settle down to an even 3000rpm idle. There is an exquisite nastiness to close encounters with DFVs, like eating raw chillies or downing neat bourbon, and you’ll put up with all the discomfitures just to feel the power. The clutch is sufficiently kind to avoid red-faced getaways and this particular Hewland ’box is as light, precise and easy as you could wish. But how would this irreplaceable slice of British racing heritage react to such terrible conditions?

At first it was unexpectedly accommodating. The motor would pull from as little as 4000rpm and felt quite strong at 6000rpm. The steering is light, the brakes meaty but responsive. I wasn’t stupid enough to risk full throttle in the lower gears, but once up into fourth, I felt I could risk stretching its legs. But I was wrong. In that instant the car jinked right, and the revs and my heart-rate leapt as one. Wheelspin at 8000rpm in fourth gear. I’d bet plenty it would have done it in fifth too. Gerhard Berger once told me that a car could only be said to have enough power if it could spin its wheels at any given point on a race track. That day at Hethel, the 79 was that car.

Team working on the Lotus 79

The less-than glorious Hethel weather

Now treating it with even greater circumspection, I learned after several more laps where it could and could not be pushed, and as long as you trod ever so gently, full throttle could eventually be reached but not for sufficiently long in the fog to feel full thrust for more than an instant or two. It was mesmerising, tantalising and really rather frustrating.

Still, I think the 79 inspired as much confidence as you could expect from a bewinged F1 car on stone-cold, soaking wet slicks. I’d anticipated next to no grip in slow corners, for its springs have to be stiff enough to maintain ride height at maximum speed and downforce, but lateral adhesion was actually good enough not to make you fear going straight on every time the wheel was turned. It understeered, but mildly and predictably. The only frightening deficiency was traction, which was fairly forgivable under the circumstances. As for the quicker stuff, it would have been insanity to try. Even in that weather, it was quick enough through Hethel’s infamous Windsock curve to make driving little more than blind. Certainly had something unexpected appeared out of the gloom there would have been no chance to stop, leaving high-speed evasion the only option. And I didn’t much fancy that.

“I felt I could risk it. But the car jinked right… the revs and my heart leapt as one”

So on the last lap I cruised, surreally driving a Lotus 79 like it was a road car. Not only was it a lot less frightening, it allowed time to look around and savour what I was actually doing, a prohibitively dangerous luxury at any higher-effort level. Mario’s wheel was in my hand, Cosworth’s DFV at my back and Chapman’s incomparable design all around me.

I can’t say I consummated my 32-year-old love affair with the 79 that freezing, foggy day in Norfolk – to be honest it wasn’t much more than a fumble round the back of the bike sheds – but when you operate from the position of someone who never even expected to sit in one, even that fleeting glimpse into its world is precious beyond words. Statistically the 79 was far from the best grand prix car in the world: it was competitive for just one season – compare that to the 72 which won races in five consecutive years – and chalked up just six wins to its name. But it did change racing and stands today as one of the most iconic cars of its or any other era. And as we move into a new era of Lotus F1 cars, it’s worth bearing in mind too that it was the last to win a world championship. And that is an act that will take some following.