Great racing cars: 1977 Lotus 78


The first in a new series taken from the 164-page Motor Sport special Great Racing Cars, which is available to buy here.

To buy the lead image click here.

From the editor Damien Smith

How would you define a ‘great’ racing car? Race wins and championship titles are an obvious place to start – and admittedly, when we began the process of rounding up the ‘voices’ to fill this special magazine, published by the team behind Motor Sport, we had in mind the likes of the Lotus 72, Ferrari F2004, Porsche 917, Audi R10 and so on.

But as the interviews of familiar racing figures began, we realised greatness is often a very personal thing. Naturally, most – but not all – would pick cars they had experienced first-hand, as a driver, designer, engineer or team boss. And on occasion the cars that stood out in their minds as ‘great’ weren’t necessarily so in the grand scheme of history. That’s why you’ll find a Minardi here among Formula 1 cars from Lotus, Williams and McLaren.

Unexpected? Certainly. Wrong? Not to the man who chose it.

As the interviews accumulated, our magazine took on a life of its own, full of personal anecdotes about the myriad cars that made careers. Some of those we spoke to, such as Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney, couldn’t be tied to a single choice from multi-faceted lives at the wheel. Such heroes have earned the right to choose an F1, sports and Indycar, so we allowed them more than one bite.

Others refused to be confined by category. Hence the short ‘Odd ’n Sods’ chapter on cars that, by and large, are mere footnotes in lower divisions of racing lore.

Thus there is nothing definitive about the selection listed herein. Then again, there’s no claim that this compilation offers the ‘Greatest Racing Cars’ of history. It’s much more personal than that, much more quirky – and all the better for it.

1977 Lotus 78 by Mario Andretti
1978 F1 world champion, 1969 Indy 500 winner… one of racing’s greatest all-rounders

In Formula 1 everyone expects me to pick the Lotus 79. But quite honestly, the Lotus 78 to me was much more fun to drive. The 79 had poor brakes. I won several races in the 79 with my brakes to the floor. When I clinched the championship at Monza with the 79, at the race where Ronnie died, I actually won but Villeneuve and I were penalised for jumping the start. I spent the whole race chasing Villeneuve down and I had one clear outbraking chance on the last lap. When I did, the brakes on the 79 were so bad that my foot damn near went through the nose!

At Watkins Glen, the downhill section is fast and dangerous. In 1978 Carlos Reutemann had a slower car than me but he had the measure of me because his car had better brakes and I couldn’t stay with him through there.

So in many ways it was frustrating.

Essential info: Lotus 78

Entrant: Team Lotus
Drivers: M Andretti, G Nilsson, R Peterson
Debut: 1977 Argentine Grand Prix
Achievements: 7 wins, 9 poles
Constructors’ Championships: 0
Drivers’ Championships: 0

The reason the brakes weren’t very good was because of the way Chapman designed them. Both the Lotus 78 and 79 had inboard rear brakes but they were detrimental to the airflow through the diffuser. So Colin decided to move the brakes further inboard on the 79. He had Hewland cast the gearbox containing half of the brake caliper, which was therefore made out of magnesium.

Well, with a full load of fuel after four or five laps the brake pedal started getting longer and longer because the fluid was boiling in the calipers. You had some braking from the front but the rear would go to the floor. Pretty soon, there were no rear brakes.

We went through the whole season with both Ronnie and I screaming about the brakes. The problem was at the end of the race when they rolled the car onto the trailer they would ask the mechanics to check the brakes and once they had cooled down a little bit, the brakes were fine. So Chapman didn’t believe us. He didn’t like drivers telling him about technical things so he ignored us. We had battles over other things as well, but I’ll always remember how bad the brakes were on that car.

So if I was going to choose the car that gave me the most satisfaction winning races, I would say the Lotus 78 rather than the 79. I should have won the championship with the 78 in 1977 but I ran out of gas in three races. Chapman used to pull the last litre or two of fuel out of the cars before the race. He wanted them to be as light as possible. He always pushed to – and sometimes beyond – the limit.

In South Africa he pulled fuel out of the car just before the start and I ran out with two laps to go while I was leading. In Sweden the metering unit slipped to full rich and I was leading by 28 seconds when it ran out of fuel with two laps to go. That was before two-way radios and when I pulled in they had to scramble to get some fuel and put it in the car and I finished fifth or sixth. But I should have won that race.

At the end of the season at Mosport I had a one-lap lead on Scheckter and I ran out of oil on the second-last lap at the top of the hill on the back straightaway. The engine scattered and Scheckter and a bunch of them went past me and I was classified ninth. So it should have been an easy championship win with the Lotus 78, but it wasn’t to be.

I loved the 78. You could hustle that car right to the end of the race.

Denis Jenkinson on the Lotus 78
When the new Lotus made its debut in the Argentine Grand Prix

Entirely new in concept is the JPS Mark III or Lotus 78 as it will be known, and whereas the 1976 cars were pencil slim the 1977 cars are ‘full-width’, with radiators in the leading edges of the sponsons just behind the front wheels. The hot air from these radiators exits on top of the sponsons by the cockpit and under the sponsons the shape is that of an inverted aerofoil, to create a suction or downforce. To guide the air and keep it on the straight and narrow path, the sides of the sponsons have plastic skins reaching almost to the ground. These are covered by brushes that do actually sweep the ground and ensure that any air under the car stays there until it escapes through the back. They also prevent any air going under the car from the sides. In the interest of a long wheelbase layout, the casting separating the Cosworth engine from the Hewland gearbox is the oil tank, with a hole through the centre for the clutch shaft, the clutch being operated axially through this shaft. Although the body of the car is to maximum permissible width, the cockpit itself it incredibly narrow, tapering forwards almost to a point. Engine air is taken in through ‘ears’ protruding on each side of the cockpit crash bar and compared with the Tyrrell the upper surface of the new Lotus is very ‘craggy’ and far from smooth. Two of these new cars have been built at this time, and both were shown to the press in December, ready to race. [Mario] Andretti drove 78/2 and [Gunnar] Nilsson drove 78/1 in practice, the American taking over 78/1 for the race.

Taken from the February 1977 issue of Motor Sport
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