Black gold: the Lotus 79's debut


How Lotus built the iconic 79 – a major step up in aerodynamics from the 78 – for Mario Andretti 


“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 led from start to finish and won by – one suspects it could have been more – by 10sec.

Those impressive wind tunnel numbers had translated to the track and Peter Wright was a relieved R&D guy back at Ground Effect Zero.

“1977 had in some ways been disappointing because we should have won the championship with Type 78,” he says. “We lost too many points because of that [development engine’s] valve-gear problem. I think we would have won using a bog standard DFV.

“I didn’t go to Zolder. For me the event that really told us about 79 was the non-championship International Trophy at Silverstone [the design’s competition debut in March] when Andretti came back in and said, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve got something here!’

“Ah, okay, we’re off.

“And Mario had had a year with 78. So he knew the principle of ground effect but commented that it felt very different with 79. That was an enormous stimulus to get the new car really sorted as soon as possible.

From the archive

“But it was Zolder that gave us the confidence to push even further ahead. Colin Chapman wasn’t one to rest. Once we’d got 79 built and running and got the odd bit of data from it, he wanted the next big thing for 1979 – Type 80 – which was misguided.

“But interesting.”

Nigel Bennett, who was at Zolder race-engineering Andretti’s team-mate Ronnie Peterson to second place in a 78, would rather have re-engineered 79: “It was an excellent car aerodynamically but poor in terms of: rear brakes, which overheated because the calipers were part of the gearbox; cooling; and chassis stiffness, which deteriorated throughout the year.”

Indeed, according to Wright, many internal steel brackets were discovered to have cracked when the chassis were dismantled at the end of the season: “That’s when we thought, ‘Hang on a minute, this is a different environment.’

“We hadn’t understood the forces involved. It was a very steep learning curve. Because 79’s structure was a bit flaky – it was the last of the old way of constructing a GP car – and as its ground effect worked better and better, hence the need to fit stiffer springs, you were loading it more and more.”

The run-up to Zolder had had its problems, too, according to Bennett: “I am pretty sure we never did a full day of testing. They used to be halted by a gearbox failing.”

Chapman was determined to continue experimenting with Getrag’s method of sequential shifting based on the principle used in bubble cars.

“It was very small,” says Bennett of the resultant gearbox. “Too small. Colin had failed to take into account increases of downforce and grip. Its crown-wheel was tiny.

“After the International Trophy I seem to remember Mario giving Chapman an ultimatum: ‘We gotta change this effing gearbox!’”

The American had sensed the opportunity and its urgency, and it was he who would curtail a tyre test at Jarama so that more time could be devoted to building 79s: “We need more!”

Having qualified third at Silverstone, behind Peterson’s 78 and the Brabham-Alfa Romeo of Niki Lauda – neither of which would take their positions for the start of what would be a chaotic, rain-hit race – he had led until lap three.

Like many others, he aquaplaned off. Only he, however, hit Clay Regazzoni’s abandoned Shadow. The impact wrecked the Lotus’s left-front corner and broke its right-front engine mount.

The subsequent rebuild of 79/2 included adapting it to a Hewland FG400 gearbox and that’s the form in which Andretti used it during practice at Monaco.

He chose, however, to race a 78 around the houses – even though the new car’s front end was already just as good and traction much better – and regretted his decision when three pit stops because of fuelling issues dropped him from fourth to a very distant 11th.

The 78 was yesterday’s news: “Ralph Bellamy had drawn it to be an ordinary racing car,” says Wright. “Its ground effect bit was added to it and wasn’t super-powerful and so didn’t destroy it.

“Whereas 79 was a new sheet of paper. We were still in the era of ‘more is better’ and Chapman compromised everything to the aerodynamics.”

A slim, riveted aluminium monocoque with tall central fuel tank behind the driver; bunched and centralised up-and-over exhausts; inboard suspension, front and rear; inboard rear discs with magnesium calipers; slim hub carriers flush with the wheels’ offset; and brake pipes threaded through tubular lower wishbones.

This approach would become a problem in 1979 when an enforced reversion because of 80’s insoluble problem – S-shaped skirts jamming and leaving it suddenly in the aerodynamic lurch – found the undeveloped 79 gasping for air and cooking its brakes in the hustle, bustle and jostle of the mid-grid swirl.

Whereas at Zolder 1978, such was its aerodynamic advantage – now that Lotus had copied Harvey Postlethwaite’s ‘board in a box’ sliding skirts for Wolf’s WR5 – Andretti had breezed along in clean, clear air.

From the archive

But there was more to it than met the eye, according to Bennett: “I did quite a lot of testing with Mario and he was the sort of driver who would say, ‘Lower the front springs by an eighth of a turn. And let’s have a little more pressure in the right-rear.’

“I remember him having me measure and select rear tyres for him. He wanted stagger: a bigger left than a right. We’d always measured circumference but normally we were trying to get them evenly balanced. Now we were looking for a difference of about 0.2in, something that a slight variation in ply angle would cause.

“Because of Mario’s vast wealth of experience of racing on ovals he was used to asymmetry: different spring rates from side to side and corner jacking. That’s not to say he was always chasing that kind of set-up.

“Ronnie was more straightforward: he told me what the car was doing and left me to make the changes.”

79 was tailored, as had been 25 to Jim Clark, to Andretti’s methods and requirements. When the taller Peterson attempted to adjust its rollbars [via sliding lever to the rear and push-pull knob to the front] he’d had to reach across his body with his right hand.

And caught his glove in the ratchet mechanism on the approach to a fast right-hander at the end of a main straight. Superswede tended to leave well alone thereafter.

His accident at Monza when his 78 was pinched into the Armco on the opening lap – his troublesome 79 had lost its rear brakes and crashed at the same place during morning warm-up – cast a tragic shadow over a remarkable campaign.

Six wins to world champion Andretti and two to Peterson – one apiece scored aboard 78 – resulted in Lotus’s securing the constructors’ championship by 28 points from Ferrari.

“Winning was a relief after 1977 – and bloody exciting,” says Wright. “We were like a jet on take-off because Chapman was so excited. That made him tough to work with but, because he was prepared to take a risk, it was fun, too.

“They were the most exciting years of my career. But although 79 is the iconic car because it won the championship and was pretty, the picture I have hanging in my house is of 78.”

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