Italian-American racing driver Mario Andretti declared the Lotus 78 drove “like it was painted to the road,” and proved this Formula One car’s uncanny winning streak by driving it to four victories in 1977. But after trying its successor, the 79 with 30 percent extra downforce, he declared the old car felt “like a London bus” by comparison. In 1978, the 79 helped him to the drivers’ World Championship.
The Lotus 78 had pioneered “ground effect” aerodynamics in Formula One after Lotus founder Colin Chapman and his design team discovered that sidepods shaped like inverted aircraft wings could form venturi tunnels on either side of the narrow chassis. This created a vacuum that literally sucked the car on to the tarmac. Wind tunnel experiments using a rolling road produced amazing results, which were replicated on the test track using a stiff suspension to maintain a ground-hugging stance. Flexible, sliding rubber skirts stopped destabilizing air being drawn in from the sides.
The Lotus 79 brought a radical rethink. The whole car was now one giant “ground effect” venturi. The bodywork was extended back between the rear wheels, and the suspension redesigned, so that low pressure was evenly spread along the car’s underside. This improved grip, and meant a relatively small rear aerofoil was required, causing less drag. The 79 was one of the most elegant Formula One designs ever; together with its John Player Special livery, this brought about its nickname of “Black Beauty”.
“In motor racing, Chapman had a place at the top; he changed the face of the contemporary racing car. Chapman wasn’t really an inventor. He was, instead, a developer. Practically everything for which he is credited existed before he thought about it.”
Jabby Crombac, Autocar Magazine, 1996
Video: model of the car Lotus 79
Specification: model of the car Lotus 79
YEAR REVEALED: 1977
PLACE OF ORIGIN: Hethel, Norfolk, UK
HISTORICAL STATUS: Formula One racing car
ENGINE: V8-cylinder, 183ci (2,993cc)
MAXIMUM POWER: 480bhp
LAYOUT: mid-mounted engine driving the rear wheels
BODYWORK: single-seater racer
TOP SPEED: approximately 180mph(289kph)
NUMBER BUILT: six