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Grand Prix greats - the Lotus 79 04 Nov 2004

Race winner Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus 79 leads his team mate Ronnie Peterson (SWE) who finished second. French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, 2 July 1978. World © Phipps/Sutton (L to R): Pole sitter and race winner Mario Andretti (USA) talks with Colin Chapman (GBR) Lotus Team Owner. Dutch Grand Prix, Rd 13, Zandvoort, Holland, 27 August 1978. World © Phipps/Sutton Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus 79 finished in tenth position after spinning early in the race. Canadian Grand Prix, Rd 16, Montreal, Canada, 8 October 1978. World © Phipps/Sutton Ronnie Peterson(SWE) Lotus 79, 2nd place Spanish GP, Jarama, 4 June 1978. World © Phipps/Sutton Ronnie Peterson (SWE) Lotus 79 finished second. French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, 2 July 1978. World © Phipps/Sutton

A look at one of Formula One racing's landmark cars

Colin Chapman’s team took downforce to new levels in 1978 with the Lotus 79, the first Formula One car to fully realise the potential of ground-effect aerodynamics. With it, Mario Andretti took the world championship by storm, winning five Grands Prix and becoming only the second American to take the drivers’ title.

The 79 was an evolution of the Lotus 78. Introduced in 1977, the 78 quickly became known as the ‘wing car’ due to its ingenious use of inverted aerofoils in its sidepods. The clever design forced air flowing over the sidepods to enter through small apertures before exiting through larger ones.

This forced the airflow to accelerate, thus reducing the air pressure under the car. In conjunction with special skirts around the base of the sidepods, this created a virtual vacuum beneath the car, literally sucking it to the ground, hence the term ‘ground-effect’.

The 78 was fast – it won five Grands Prix in 1977 – but its engine reliability often let it down. But by 1978 Lotus had dramatically refined the ground-effect concept in the form of the 79. Its central fuel tank housed directly behind the driver allowed for a much narrower chassis, which in turn meant the ground-effect principle could be utilised over a much wider area. Meanwhile improved, flexible skirts meant that the ‘vacuum seal’ beneath the car was far better maintained, even over irregular track surfaces.

These measures gave the 79 previously unheard of cornering abilities and hence a huge performance advantage over its rivals. The car was not ready for the start of the season, but when it made its debut at round six in Belgium, its potential was immediately obvious, Andretti taking pole position and victory.

From there, Andretti and the 79 didn’t look back. At the following race in Spain, where team mate Ronnie Peterson also got the car for the first time, it was a Lotus one-two, with Andretti scoring a full house of pole, win and fastest lap. For the rest of the season the Italian-American tended to either win or retire.

What was to be Lotus’s last championship-winning season was, however, also struck by tragedy. Peterson, having scored podium finishes in five of his seven outings in the 79, including a superb win in Austria, died following a start-line accident at Monza, where he had actually been in a 78, after crashing his race car in morning warm-up.

But even Peterson’s death could not prevent a clean sweep for Lotus and the 79 in both drivers’ and constructors’ championship. The late Swede still finished runner-up to Andretti in the standings, while the team ended the year on 86 points, 28 clear of second-placed Ferrari.

Not surprisingly, the grid for the first race of 1979 saw a whole host of Lotus 79 imitators. Unfortunately for Lotus, the imitators had inevitably improved on the original. The Ligier JS11 dominated the start of the season, but it was the Williams FW07 which proved to be the ultimate take on the 79, coming on strong in the second half of the year and going on to give Williams their first constructors’ and drivers’ championships in 1980.

Lotus, meanwhile, sought to take the ground-effect concept even further. While the 79 was among the most beautiful Grand Prix cars ever, its successor, the 80, was downright bizarre looking. There was no front wing, the nose of the car housing an additional ground-effect venturi, and the rear wing too was barely discernable.

It did produce huge amounts of downforce, but also proved highly undriveable. Andretti scored a third place with it on its debut, but it was to be the only race the car ever finished. And following Colin Chapman’s death in 1982, Lotus never again recaptured the level of dominance they had enjoyed with the 79.