You'll find plenty of details of engines, transmission, and so on, on other sites. Here I tell the story of Team Lotus from 1977-1979, seen from my own (then teenage) point of view. The really exciting part was the way that Peter Wright and Colin Chapman harnessed an interesting scientific principle to help Grand Prix racing take a quantum leap forward in speed. And for most of 1977 and 1978 season, there were races where the black and gold 'John Player Special' Lotuses were so far in front of the rest of the field that it was embarrassing. Fellow drivers would recall how a Lotus 78 or 79 simply 'went round the outside' of the corner, as if on rails.
The story really starts in 1976. Lotus introduced the 78 near the end of the season but hadn't really perfected the concept. The 78 was known as the 'wing car', with its side pods (containing radiators) being shaped like an inverted wing, the idea being to generate negative lift and press the car more firmly onto the ground. By the time the 1977 season had started, the 78 was sporting sliding skirts, designed to stop air from creeping in from the side of the car and ruining the aerodynamic effect.
Mario Andretti won four Grand Prixs in the Lotus 78 and would have won more had it not been for a few human errors on no less than five engine failures. It was obvious to everyone that the wing car was something special, with a degree of downforce previously unheard of.
During the winter of 77/78, Lotus worked on a successor, the type 79. This was a complete redesign, following Chapman's realisation that it wasn't so much the inverted wing that was generating all the downforce in the 78, it was a venturi effect caused beneath the side pods, with the faster airflow in the narrow parts of the venturi causing much lower air pressure, causing the air on top of the car to press it down onto the track. For the 79, the principle was extended to the entire car, not just the few feet of the side pods. Airflow into the side pods was cleaned up with a much tidier front end to the car. The pods themselves were merged seamlessly at the back into the main bodywork, with a complete redesign of the rear suspension and brakes to allow air to exit the pods as smoothly as possible. Not only was the venturi concept superbly implemented, the emphasis on smooth air flow also dictated clean lines. The Lotus 79 was downright beautiful.
After testing the 79, Mario declared the 78 to drive "like a London Bus", which couldn't have done much for the morale of the other teams. Lotus weren't quite ready with the 79 for the start of the season, but it made its debut in the Belgian Grand Prix and immediately dominated, taking pole and winning the race. The rest of the season is history, with two Lotus 79s routinely driving away from the rest of the field as if they were simply not in the same race. (The 1978 season was marred by the death of Ronnie Peterson, Mario's team mate in Lotus)
The combination of next generation aerodynamics and great driving led to Mario Andretti taking the driver's championship and Lotus the constructor's version, but by now the other teams had worked out the 79's secret and spent the winter feverishly designing their own ground effect cars (notably Williams).
Chapman had plans of his own during the winter months, eventually emerging with one of the most intriguing Formula 1 cars ever built, the Lotus 80. There was no front wing - the entire nose section of the car housed a venturi (plus skirts). There wasn't really a discernible rear wing, either. Just a swooping profile, with most of the car being one huge venturi system.
The aerodnyamic underside of the side pods was carried on through the normal rear axle area, right to the extreme rear of the car, where air finally exited.
The Lotus 80 was an outstanding design achievement, although it wasn't to prove the successor Chapman had hoped for. The 80 produced a lot of downforce, but controlling it became a big problem. The slightest variances in track ride height (such as kerbs, cornering, tyre problems) produced big changes in downforce, making the car hard to drive and dangerous. The 80 was tried with and without conventional wings, but the team were never really happy with it. A great shame.
The 79 carried the Lotus flag on throughout most of the 1979 season, but a swarm of imitators had appeared and Lotus was never again to achieve such dominance. The death of Colin Chapman in 1982 was a sad, sad loss to the ever-growing world of Formula 1 racing.
All text (C) 2004, Steve Litchfield