This rev­o­lu­tion­ary Lo­tus was the first com­pet­i­tive ground-ef­fect F1 car


A look back at the ground­break­ing, ground-ef­fect Lo­tus 78

Lo­tus had dom­i­nated great swathes of the 1960s and early ’70s with some im­pres­sive ma­chin­ery: the Type 25, the 33, the beau­ti­ful 49 and nally the 72. But by 1976 the per­for­mance of their 77 was caus­ing Lo­tus founder Colin Chap­man con­cern. A new car was re­quired and Chap­man was adamant that the Lo­tus 78 would be a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ma­chine. Chap­man had stud­ied the ra­di­a­tors on the wings of a Mos­quito ghter plane and found that the hot-air out­lets pro­duced lift. He de­duced that if this was in­verted on an F1 car, it would boost down­force. He handed the project over to head of en­gi­neer­ing Tony Rudd, who put to­gether a team that in­cluded chief de­signer Ralph Bel­lamy, ve­hi­cle en­gi­neer Martin Ogilvie and aero­dy­nam­i­cist Peter Wright.

An in­verted wing prole wasn’t a com­pletely new idea in F1; Rudd had tested the con­cept at BRM. But the eu­reka mo­ment came when Wright was try­ing var­i­ous car body shapes in a wind­tun­nel. He no­ticed that as the speed of the rolling road in­creased, the car (and specically its sculpted un­der­side) was drawn closer to the road. When he added card­board sides, down­force lev­els soared – and so ‘skirts’ were born.

Chap­man gave the project the green light and af­ter fur­ther de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing work, plus more time in Im­pe­rial Col­lege’s wind­tun­nel, the 78 was put into pro­duc­tion – tak­ing de­sign cues from the age­ing 72. With a sim­i­lar wedge shape and in­ter­nal lay­out, the 78 had a stronger, nar­rower alu­minium mono­coque. The body­work was made in bre­glass.

A longer wheel­base, bet­ter weight dis­tri­bu­tion and de­tailed aero­dy­nam­ics helped, but it was all about the car’s un­der­body. In ad­di­tion, the po­si­tion­ing of the ra­di­a­tors meant the hot air they ex­pelled passed over the up­per body­work, cre­at­ing ever more down­force. This boosted grip, which in­creased cor­ner speeds. Ini­tially brushes were at­tached to the side­pods to keep the low-pres­sure area be­neath the car, but these were later re­placed with mov­able rub­ber skirts.

Five ex­am­ples were built, known as the John Player Spe­cial MkIIIs. The car was ready to race by mid-1976, and the team im­me­di­ately knew they’d come up with some­thing spe­cial. Lead driver Mario An­dretti spent a lot of time with the car at the team’s Hethel test track, de­scrib­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of driv­ing the 78 as if it were “painted to the road”.

An­dretti pushed Chap­man to run the car in 1976, but

Chap­man wanted to keep his pow­der dry since the ti­tle was al­ready out of reach and he was wary of alert­ing the rest of the grid to what he had up his sleeve. The 78 there­fore made its de­but in the rst race of 1977, the Ar­gen­tine GP. An­dretti qualied eighth and Gun­nar Nils­son P10, but only one car started the race af­ter a re ex­tin­guisher ex­ploded in An­dretti’s car dur­ing Sun­day warm-up. An­dretti took over his team­mate’s 78 for the race but re­tired with two laps to go when a rear wheel bear­ing failed, although he was still classied P5.

Fur­ther re­tire­ments for An­dretti in Brazil and South Africa, with Nils­son man­ag­ing P5 in the for­mer, were the pre­cur­sor to the car’s rst win at Long Beach. An­dretti had qualied sec­ond but his win was a lit­tle for­tu­itous since he had fol­lowed Jody Scheck­ter’s Wolf for most of the race, un­til a slow punc­ture got the bet­ter of Scheck­ter let­ting An­dretti through with two laps to go. That pop­u­lar home win was fol­lowed by an­other tri­umph, this time from pole, in Spain.

De­spite these two wins the 78 suf­fered var­i­ous teething prob­lems. The low-pres­sure area un­der the car was too far for­ward, which meant a larger rear wing was needed, which, in turn, caused drag at high-speed cir­cuits, although a small wing was later de­signed that en­abled An­dretti to claim vic­tory later on in the sea­son at Monza. Nils­son’s sole win came in the Bel­gian GP at a wet Zolder, and An­dretti was vic­to­ri­ous in France.

The brakes weren’t great and the trusty Ford Cos­worth DFV was no match for the at-12 en­gine in the back of Niki Lauda’s Fer­rari, which, in turn, forced Ford to search for ex­tra speed at the cost of re­li­a­bil­ity. This was what lost An­dretti the ti­tle in 1977, even though he won more races than even­tual cham­pion Lauda. That said, An­dretti still loved it: “If I was go­ing to choose the car that gave me the most sat­is­fac­tion winning races, then I would say the Lo­tus 78 rather than the 79.”

Other teams tried to copy it, but were hin­dered both by the skirts (which hid the un­der­side of the car ef­fec­tively) and the team’s se­crecy. Lo­tus started the 1978 sea­son with the same car and it was still com­pet­i­tive enough to en­able An­dretti and Ron­nie Peter­son to win two of the rst three races. Peter­son’s P2 in Bel­gium was the last podium for the 78 and a nal sched­uled ap­pear­ance for the car with the works team. Héc­tor Re­baque pri­vately cam­paigned the orig­i­nal 78 pro­to­type through­out 1979 and, trag­i­cally, Lo­tus brought a 78 out of re­tire­ment for Peter­son in Italy, the race that cost him his life, af­ter his 79 was dam­aged in prac­tice.

An­dretti would win the ti­tle that year and while the new 79 took an ex­tra ve wins from the re­main­ing 11 races, 18 of his 64 points came from the 78. It was in a class of its own.


SPEC­I­FI­CA­TION Chas­sis Alu­minium mono­coque Front sus­pen­sion Dou­ble wish­bones, in­board spring/damper Rear sus­pen­sion Par­al­lel top links, twin-ra­dius arms, lower wish­bones, out­board spring/damper Wheel­base 2,741mm En­gine Ford-Cos­worth DFV V8 En­gine...

RACE RECORD Starts 53 Re­tire­ments 23 Wins 7 Poles 9 Fastest laps 7 Other podi­ums 4 Points 106

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