The Lotus 79 was yet another product of Colin Chapman’s fertile mind. This time, the legendary Lotus boss trained his sights on ‘ground-effect’ – the process of aerodynamically ‘pressing’ the car to the race-track. In theory, it is said, an F1 car could be driven upside-down – so strong is the ‘downforce’ it generates. It was that kind of handling, then, that Chapman sought to incorporate into the new Lotus.
Lotus had started their ground-effect quest with the 78 – or, ‘wing car’. Each side-pod housed an inverted aerofoil. ‘Skirts’ below the side-pods ducted air through a venturi. That created a vacuum – by slowing down, and then speeding up air through a bottle-neck. The skirt sealed in the air – which the aerofoil then used to ‘suction-clamp’ the car to the tarmac. The upshot was that the Lotus 78 had been the fastest car on F1’s grid. The 78’s speed advantage, however, had been offset by reliability issues. The 79 would sort them – or so Lotus hoped. The best parts of the 78 car were retained. Lotus then added a couple of updates. By placing the fuel tank behind the driver, the chassis could be narrowed. That helped the venturi do its thing – which was increasing the downforce. The side-pod skirts, too, had been upgraded. They now moved up and down, as required – providing a surer seal.
The net result of these changes was precisely as Lotus had planned. The 79 car was streets ahead, in the ’78 season. Mario Andretti drove the car to five F1 wins – enough to take the World Championship. Team-mate Ronnie Peterson also won – and was runner-up in the final standings. And Lotus-Ford took the Constructors’ Championship, at a canter. Chapman – and the Norfolk-based team – were ecstatic. But – as is so often the case in F1 – it was not to last. From the start of the ’79 season, it was clear Lotus’ competition had come prepared. Almost to a team, they were armed with their own takes on the ground-effect phenomenon. Indeed, some of the engineers had twigged that yet more downforce could be served up – so long as parts of the car were strengthened to cope. Lotus was duly outstripped by its beefed-up rivals. But, that would never obscure the fact that – during its brief season in the F1 sun – the Lotus 79 had put the opposition well and truly in the shade!