1977 F1 Season, Colin Chapman, Ground Effects, Gunnar Nilsson, Lotus 78, Mario Andretti, Peter Wright, Tony Rudd
“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”
Colin Chapman hovered nearby as the fuel trickled into the tank. It had been a constant battle of wills with his engineers. Despite making precise and meticulous calculations to determine the exact quantity of fuel required for the race, his engineers…as well as his drivers…wanted just a little, tiny bit more…just in case. A couple of gallons could be all the difference between a glorious win and having to ignominiously park the car at the side of the track only a lap or two from the finish. Unfortunately for all concerned, a gallon weighed in at a hefty seven pounds!
Chapman was appalled at the mere thought of that excessive amount of weight being poured into his flawless creation. If you added a bit more to everything, just to be sure, the end result would be a car so ponderous that it would putter about at the back of the pack. After whittling every component of the chassis back to bare bones his engineers could now ruin all that hard work in an instant by throwing in multiple pounds of fuel with nary a thought for the consequences.
“Simplicate and add lightness.” This maxim, first expressed by aeronautical engineer William Stout in the 1920s, vividly illustrated Chapman’s ongoing obsession with weight. He argued that if your Formula One car wasn’t light, then no matter what quantum leaps you might make with engines or aerodynamics, it was never going to go fast…and the number one goal for Chapman was for his car to go fast. This wasn’t something his drivers necessarily agreed with. Of course, they desired a competitive car, but they were also the ones left with the often thankless task of testing the car on the track to determine its limits.
Not surprisingly safety came just slightly higher up their agenda than Chapman’s. If something broke, Colin would first blame his driver for mishandling his pride and joy in a manner unbecoming or his mechanics for sloppy construction. Only after those two causes had been excluded would he reluctantly admit that it just might have been due to the underlying design.
The year was 1975 and Lotus was still stuck with the rapidly aging Lotus 72 as its offspring had failed to achieve any semblance of competitiveness. Chapman’s holiday meditations and musings while relaxing in the Spanish sunshine resulted in more questions than answers. On his return, he set down his thoughts in a 27-page manifesto with which to inspire his research and development department. It began with: “A racing car has only ONE objective: to WIN motor races…it does not matter how clever it is, or how inexpensive or how easy to maintain or even how safe: if it does not win it is NOTHING!” He then appointed engineer extraordinaire Tony Rudd to direct their next excursion into the arena of innovative design.
Rudd, thinking that Peter Wright might be getting bored with his mundane research on Moonraker boats that “only” kept him busy for 16 hours a day, suggested a “hobby” he could do in his “spare” time. Wright’s diversion quickly turned into a full-time job as he spearheaded aerodynamic testing of the Lotus Type 78 at the Imperial College wind tunnel. One of the major questions on the agenda was the effect side pods could have on aerodynamic efficiency. Vittorio Jano had placed panniers on his ground-breaking Lancia D50, shifting the weight of the fuel from the rear of the car to flanking the chassis in an attempt to improve its handling. Despite the car winning the championship in 1956 under the control of Juan Manuel Fangio when it was re-incarnated as the Ferrari D50, the vacant territory between the front and rear wheels was to remain unoccupied for many years to come.
In the late 1960’s it was discovered that wings could dramatically increase downforce, and in turn cornering speed. This new-found enlightenment resulted in every team throwing slim strips of metal on flexing stalks randomly at their cars, relying on luck rather than evidence for the vagaries of their placement. BRM engineers, Peter Wright and Tony Rudd had the novel idea of shaping the whole car like a wing, rather than just balancing precarious and fragile contraptions above it. This left BRM with a dilemma. They had just signed the 1964 World Champion, John Surtees, to pilot their car for the 1969 season and he was adamant that BRM refrain from sailing off into any uncharted waters of radical design at the expense of development for the current season.
With preliminary wind tunnel tests defying all their expectations, Tony set Peter up in a secret workshop to begin work on their new creation. Surtees, sensing something was up, confronted BRM boss Sir Alfred Owens with his suspicions. Despite having prior permission from Sir Alfred for his undercover activities (he was bankrolling them after all) Rudd was ordered to discontinue his venture forthwith. After 19 years at BRM, he immediately tendered his resignation…and was snapped up by Colin Chapman who recognized a good engineer when he saw one.
Wright left soon after and joined Specialized Mouldings where he used the results of his research at BRM to add small aerofoil shaped side pods to the chassis of the inaugural March 701 which was in need for more space for fuel at longer races. No-one seemed to take much notice of this innovation, though Jackie Stewart did win a race in the Tyrrell run car. It was thought to be merely a convenient way for carrying extra fuel rather than the first inklings of an aerodynamic breakthrough. Within a few years, Wright and Rudd would get together again at Lotus.
Part of the design brief for the Lotus 78 was the idea that side-pods shaped like inverted aerofoils housing the radiators might be beneficial aerodynamically. The Lotus 72 had already departed from the traditional nose placement for radiators, placing them in small side-pods beside the driver. This was done purely from a practical point of view as their slim, wedge-shaped nose had left no alternative. While experimenting with this idea in the wind tunnel Wright noticed that the side pods were sagging.
As the wind speed increased that sagging increased even more – it appeared that something was pulling them down towards the ground. As Peter Wright explained, “Thin wire supports restored the side pods to their correct position and stopped them from sagging – no downforce and consistent balance readings. Next we taped card skirts to seal the gap between the edge of the side pods and the ground, leaving only approximately 1mm gap. The total downforce on the car doubled for only a small increase in drag!” It was the first intimations of what would shortly come to be known as “ground-effects”.
“Something for nothing” Chapman called it. There was nothing to weigh, no parts to build, just moving air…light…and free! Well, maybe it was free, but testing it rapidly became costly as well as time-consuming. It required new parts, lots of wind tunnel time, and finally, confidence to try it on the track. Air may seem light but a lack of it could be used to pull a car closer to the ground, keeping its tyres stuck to the tarmac as it catapulted around corners.
As the distance between the car and the ground narrowed, the air sped up with a resultant drop in pressure. The low pressure under the car acted to suck the car to the ground, massively improving its grip. Unlike wings, it had minimal drag and so was as effective at high speeds as it was at low. Unfortunately, air had an irritating propensity to softly and silently flow in under the car from every side, completely negating the efficaciousness of the whole concept. The answer to this was skirts.
Peter Wright said, “We spent so much time on skirts systems, you just wouldn’t imagine! Our chief mechanic, Eddie Dennis, used to go out in the team’s Renault 4 van with a big frame sticking out behind on which we mounted our experimental skirts. He’d drive out onto the road, go up to Hethel and do a few laps, and then come back, clattering in amidst a shower of sparks before we checked how the skirts had lasted.” It would take Lotus most of the 1977 season to eventually perfect them.
The car was ready to race late in the 1976 season, but Chapman was loath to give the other teams an advance viewing, afraid that as soon as they sighted its underside they would gainfully spend the off-season attempting to copy it. When the Lotus 78, also known as the John Player Special Mk III, first appeared in the paddock at Argentina it resembled an uncouth and ungainly tank in comparison to the still slim and lithe competition. Brushes were used to keep the air from flowing in under the car as they had the advantage of not slowly wearing away as they dragged along gutters, gravel and grass.
The downside to this was that they were not particularly effective…probably quite an important point! The weekend didn’t start well when Mario Andretti’s car was destroyed while sitting in the pits when his fire extinguisher exploded, tearing a large chunk out of the front of his car. Andretti, who had been sitting in the car at the time, was, fortunately (mostly) uninjured…though he was later found to have broken a small bone in his foot. The car was not so lucky and was not able to be salvaged. His teammate Gunnar Nilsson was gently persuaded to hand his car over to Mario for the race. He was running in second when he suffered a mechanical breakdown with two laps to go…but was still classified fifth.
Car development continued at Brazil, again more by luck than design, when during practice some tires were inadvertently put on that had a wider offset. This left more room between the rear wheels and the significant increase in performance helped to demonstrate the essential nature of freeing up the airflow as it negotiated the mass of tyres and suspension at the rear of the car. In an attempt to further improve the airflow the brush skirts were sealed with tape from behind. This time it was fourth place for Gunnar and mechanical issues for Mario. There was more of the same in South Africa with neither driver finishing in the points.
The last of the flyaway races was at Long Beach…a tight and twisty street circuit that looked like it fulfilled all the required credentials to host a Formula E race…which in fact, it did! I wondered why that hairpin looked familiar. For this race, the brush skirts had been replaced by plastic ones and their improved effectiveness gave Andretti second on the grid beside Niki Lauda’s Ferrari. After a chaotic start, Jody Scheckter (driving a Wolf) dominated, leading for most of the race, but was eventually undone when he had a tyre blowout with four laps to go. Mario had stuck right behind him and was in the perfect position to take the win. It was the third victory of his career and the first time that an American Formula One driver had won at home
Back to Europe and car evolution continued with spring-loaded, sliding rubber skirts edged with ceramic “pencils” to better stand up to the constant contact with the road. Their improvement was obvious at Jarama when Mario got his first pole position for the year, followed by a second victory. Both drivers put in steady but unspectacular performances at Monaco, but at Zolder, the car was again dominant…too dominant. Chapman was worried that the faster the car looked, the quicker it would be copied.
When Mario’s pole setting time was 1.5 seconds quicker than second-placed driver John Watson, Chapman complained, “Now you’ve shown them all what you can do! Why did you need to go so quick? You ought to have backed off!” Watson took the lead off the start and Mario, sure that he was faster, ran into the back of him while trying to reclaim it. With torrential rain followed by a drying track, spins, slides and tire strategy slowly depleted the field. Eventually, Gunnar Nilsson only had Niki Lauda in front of him whom he passed to secure the sole victory of his sensational but sadly shortened career.
By the end of the season, Mario Andretti had taken seven pole position, four fastest laps and four wins…but several engine failures of his overclocked Ford-Cosworth engine and two races where he would run out of fuel while leading left him in third place in the championship and 25 points behind Niki Lauda. Although Niki had only three wins he had been more consistent overall with ten podiums, giving both him and Ferrari more points…and Niki the freedom to not show up for the last two races of the season, no love being lost that year between him and Ferrari. Lotus had taken second in the Constructor’s Championship but the source of their success was still hidden in the murky waters of supposition.
The car had looked spectacular at the tight circuits, but their large rear wing which was needed to balance their front downforce meant they lacked straight-line speed on the faster tracks. Maybe it was all down to the superb skill of their drivers. Chapman and Rudd aided their cause by spreading rumours about a special differential. There was also the unique way the fuel drained out of the tanks during the race…or maybe they were only fast because Chapman refused to weigh down the car with that couple of extra gallons of fuel!
The Lotus 78 was only the beginning. Chapman, Rudd and Wright had fortuitously stumbled onto ground-effects and slowly over the course of the year succeeded in ironing out many of its foibles. Now they would use everything they had learned to build a ground-effects car from the ground up. Grand Prix racing would never be the same again. Like lots of Chapman’s bright ideas skirts did eventually get banned, but large side-pods with radiators in-situ have been a part of the makeup of every single-seater race car ever since…as has the quest for the holy grail of maximizing the airflow under the car and achieving downforce without drag.
It may have been the Lotus 79 that gave Mario Andretti his world championship but it wasn’t his favourite car to drive. He said, “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 loved the 78. You could hustle that car right to the end of the race”…or at least until it ran out of fuel…