Hyper Tension - 1979 Lotus 80 Ford
In 1977 Colin Chapman’s Lotus had introduced the concept of ground effect to a bewildered Formula One. The previous year Chapman had studied the World War II era de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito fighter-bomber, which featured wing-mounted radiators. This setup forced the incoming air to the radiators mounted between two wing sections. As the hot air was forced upward into the upper wing it created extra lift. Chapman theorized a reversed variant of this system incorporated into a F1-car’s floor could provide a large amount of negative lift, better known as downforce.
After studying Bernoulli’s theory of fluid dynamics, he put his thoughts into a 27-page research paper. Chapman delivered the document to chief engineer Tony Rudd, who proceeded to create one of the most revolutionary cars in Formula One’s history: the Lotus 78. Although the 78 was a major step forward, it was far from perfect. So in 1978 the improved 79 was introduced, which promptly won seven races with “Super Swede“ Ronnie Peterson and Italian-American racing-wolverine Mario Andretti. In the process Lotus swept the Manufacturers Championship and gave Andretti the coveted driver’s title.
By shocking the paddock with their highly successful and advanced machine, Lotus had established a formidable reputation to live up to. The principles of ground effect design were still shrouded in mystery for their competitors, which gave them a very useful advantage. To stay ahead of the curve Colin Chapman knew they had to do everything in their power to improve the design even further. In conjunction with Tony Rudd, Martin Ogilvie and Peter Wright, Chapman started work on the 79’s successor.
Back in 1977 the 78 model had employed venturi tunnels in the floor to generate a low pressure area under the car. The incoming air was forced into the tunnels, which were molded into the sidepods. Within the sidepods the air would flow over the inverted wing/radiator combination Chapman had envisioned, forcing the car down onto the road. Unfortunately the 77 experienced serious issues with containing the low-pressure area under the car. Sudden losses of pressure made the car very unpredictable and uncomfortable to drive.
With the 79 this problem was fixed by fitting full-length flexible rubber skirts, which sealed the gap between the sidepods and the road. This vastly improved airflow, downforce, and most importantly stability, making the 79 virtually unbeatable in 1978.
Another improvement of the 78 was the extension of the venturi tunnels to just inside the rear wheels. The larger tunnels not only provided even more downforce, they also corrected a severe balance flaw in the 78, allowing the center of pressure to shift rearward. For 1979 Ogilvie and Rudd decided the most logical next step was to extend the tunnels even further, and create one giant ground effect generator. The extensions stretched the system to its very limit. The new chassis featured tunnels reaching beyond the rear axle, and incorporated a second system into a lengthened nosecone in an effort to maintain balance.
In effect, the car was now one massive wheeled wing. The amount of downforce generated was so immense it required extensive strengthening of the chassis to keep it from tearing itself apart. An added benefit to the ground-effect system was that it caused a very low amount of aerodynamic drag. In a traditional car with conventional wings this wasn’t possible, as an aggressive high-downforce setup slowed it considerably on the straights. With the incredible potential of the 80, conventional wings were therefore deemed unnecessary. As a result the wingless, long-nosed machine looked completely otherworldly compared to its opposition
Like every Lotus car since 1967’s 49, the 80 was powered by the venerable Ford-Cosworth DFV 3.0L V8, producing 485 horsepower through the ubiquitous Hewland FGA400 five-speed manual transmission. The rigorous chassis reinforcements had made the car a bit overweight at 624 kg (1378 lbs).
Since tobacco brand John Player Special had left Formula One after 1978, the 80 abandoned the iconic black and gold livery for a classic British Racing Green adorned with the famous stripes of new title sponsor Martini & Rossi.
The finished car was handed over for testing to reigning World Champion Mario Andretti, and new hire Carlos Reutemann (ARG), who replaced Ronnie Peterson after his tragic death at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. During testing Andretti immediately noticed a fatal flaw with the car. At high speeds the ground effect system worked like a charm, but in slow turns it was still very unpredictable.
As the car slowed below a certain threshold it lost almost all downforce in a violent fashion. When the car sped up again it would suddenly regain its downforce, thrashing its driver around and subjecting him to vicious g-forces. Andretti and especially Reutemann found this very hard to adjust to.
A secondary complication was the car’s tendency to savagely rock back and forth as the center of low pressure shifted along with its center of gravity. In addition, any slightly uneven elevation change to the road surface had a dramatic effect on the car’s balance, causing it to alternately squat and lift uncontrollably. Combined with the rock solid suspension needed to sustain ground effect this resulted in a truly torturous driving experience.
Because of these tremendous problems, Carlos Reutemann quickly lost confidence in the experimental machine. Instead he opted to drive an updated version of last year’s 79. Mario Andretti was not as quick to give up however, and continued testing the 80. Conventional wings were added in a bid to cure the unruly single-seater, along with a shortened and simplified nosecone. Unfortunately it seemed to have very little effect on the car’s chaotic behavior. Nevertheless Andretti pressed on in developing the car, confident he could turn it around like he had done with the 79.
The various critical flaws with the 80 resulted in Lotus reverting to updated 79 chassis for the first four Grands Prix. At the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, the 80 showed its face for the first time.
Despite its problems Andretti managed to take an encouraging pole position, beating out Niki Lauda´s Brabham BT48 and Gilles Villeneuve´s Ferrari 312T4. Even though the 80 had performed well, Andretti still opted to take the 79 for the race proper, finishing 3rd.
The car finally made its world championship debut at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama two weeks later. Carlos Reutemann still refused to drive it, which once again left Andretti to defend the 80’s honor. In a testament to the car’s potential, he qualified 4th in front of Reutemann in 6th.
Amazingly Mario kept the hyperactive machine pointed in the right direction long enough to record a strong 3rd place finish. Ironically he had been beaten by his teammate, who pipped him to second in the older 79.
The 80 was sidelined again for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, but made a return on the incredibly tight street circuit of Monaco. The low corner speeds were a major concern for Mario Andretti, as the alterations made to the car during testing hadn’t changed its brutally violent handling.
Unsurprisingly the 80 was nearly impossible to drive round the principality, resulting in a paltry 13th place on the grid. On race day the conditions didn’t improve for Andretti. The car kept frantically shaking him around, and eventually succumbed to its own excessive downforce with a suspension failure on lap 21.
The French Grand Prix at the fast Dijon-Prenois venue provided a vastly different setting, but the 80 refused to budge. Again fighting the car every step of the way, Andretti muscled the rabid machine to a meager 12th position on the grid. The Sunday presented another bitter disappointment, as Andretti’s brakes gave out after 51 laps.
The string of retirements and Andretti’s continued complaints about the car eventually forced Colin Chapman to admit the Lotus 80 wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In response Chapman pulled the car from competition, and resigned himself to using the increasingly outdated 79 for the rest of the 1979 season. The 80 would never race again.
The Lotus 80 was the next logical step in the Lotus’ ground-effect revolution. By taking their cutting edge ideas to new extremes, the team hoped to retain their technological advantage over the rest of the field. Sadly Colin Chapman’s overzealous team overstepped their mark with the car, resulting in a machine they didn’t fully understand either.
Its violent driver-crushing handling and lack of performance on low speed tracks proved to be its downfall. Surprisingly it scored a glorious podium finish at the smooth and fast Jarama circuit, but the 80 proved to be a dangerously unstable design anywhere else. Despite his tenacity, commitment and tremendous development ability, even reigning champion Mario Andretti couldn’t come to terms with the insane wing-car. Colin Chapman refused to give up however, and started work on a more manageable ground-effect design with the innovative twin chassis 88.
Happy 76th birthday Mario Andretti!
One of the most versatile, talented and technically capable drivers in racing history.
Daytona 500 (1967).
Indianapolis 500 (1969).
Pikes Peak International Hillclimb (1969).
12 Hours of Sebring (1967, 1970, 1972).
24 Hours of Daytona (1972).
12 Formula One Grands Prix.
USAC Champ Car Champion (1965, 1966, 1969).
USAC Dirt Track Champion (1974).
Formula One World Champion (1978).
International Race of Champions (1978-1979).
CART Champion (1984).