Being first with the new idea is only part of the battle. Frank Dernie, Williams R&D chief at the time, tells Keith Howard how the team picked up the ground-effect ball from Lotus and produced a multiple winner
Hegemony in Formula One — if you’re clever enough to achieve it in the first place — rarely lasts for long. Like breakaway riders in a cycle race, most teams who establish an advantage over the rest of the grid are quickly reabsorbed by the relentlessly pursuing group.
So it was for Lotus in the late 1970s when it pioneered ground-effect aerodynamics. In 1977, its type 78 wing car performed well enough to secure the Norfolk team second place in the constructors’ championship. But its points tally was well short of Ferrari’s, and few in F1 apparently appreciated that this car was only the warm-up act. When Lotus’s real star — the full ground-effect type 79 — appeared the following season, the world witnessed one of those rare occurrences in motor racing of any sort: dominance achieved through a single technical breakthrough.
With such a major research and development lead over its rivals, Lotus ought to have had the 1979 season sewn up too, even allowing for the fact that the 79 would be used as a template by other teams. But aware that its pursuers would be pedalling hard to close the gap, it over-reached itself. In attempting to realise the maximum possible downforce from the type 80, Lotus made the car a thoroughly alarming beast to drive. And so the pursuing group didn’t just catch Lotus; it rode straight over the top of it.
It was during that season that Williams introduced the car even Peter Wright — whom many regard as the true father of ground effect, and who played a key role in the Lotus breakthrough — has described as “the definitive ground-effect Formula One car”: the Williams FW07. In 1979, it demonstrated its potential by winning four of the last six races; in ’80, it would secure for Williams its first constructors’ title, and its first drivers’ title too, with Alan Jones. But this was no walkover in the style of the type 79. It was a hard-fought season which saw Williams secure its two titles over Ligier and Brabham only in the penultimate race at Montreal.
Frank Dernie, now back in the Williams fold, first joined the team in January 1979. His position was officially head of R&D, but, as he points out, “We didn’t really have job titles in those days. There were only three engineers at Williams then: Patrick [Head], Neil Oatley, who was just out of college, and myself. So I did lots of design, too. Some initial aerodynamics had been done by Neil at Imperial College, but I took that side of things over when I joined, and did all the aero work at Williams until I left in 1988.
“We had about six weeks a year development time at the Imperial College wind tunnel,” he recalls, “working at quarter-scale. I don’t believe there was another moving-ground tunnel in the world at that time. The revelatory moment there came when it became clear that if you did not have a working skirt you did not have a ground-effect car. Initially, for various reasons, the car had to be tested without it touching the belt, so there was a skirt gap. The car was massively sensitive to this. You could tell whether the upstairs lecture hall was full or empty because one of the balance supports went upwards; the movement of the floor as students shifted about had a significant impact on the downforce.”
Frank talks in depth about the FW07 over the page. The emphasis is firmly on the car’s aerodynamic development and performance, but no apology need be made for that. Ground effect was, after all, what Germans call the zeitgeist — the spirit of the age — in Formula One of the late 1970s and early 80s.