Model history: From the second half of the 1960s aerodynamics became increasingly more important for racing car designers. In the years before reducing drag had top priority until spoilers and wings were attached to create downforce and increase high speed stability. The newly found levels of grip in the corners more than made up for the increased drag. In 1970 aerodynamics pioneer Jim Hall came up with a novel idea to create downforce without a drag penalty. On his Chaparral 2J 'sucker car' he had fitted two snowmobile engine driven fans to suck the air from underneath the car and with the help of lexan skirts created a vacuum. This so called 'ground effects' proved to be highly effective, but the system was quickly banned as it was deemed a moveable aerodynamic device and as such illegal.
A few years later Lotus' founder and chief designer Colin Chapman figured out a way to create 'ground effects' without using a fan. By giving the floor a wing profile, the air under the car was accelerated resulting in a low pressure area. Chapman first used this novel design on the 78, Lotus' Formula 1 contender for the 1977 season. The car featured an ultra slim monocoque, constructed from an aluminium honeycomb. On both sides of the driver's compartment the Lotus 78 sported full length side pods, which housed the radiators and created the 'ground effects'. The low pressure area was sealed off on both sides by skirts that could slide up and down, which kept in contact with the track at all times. Conventional wings were fitted both front and rear for high-speed stability.
Powered by the familiar Cosworth DFV engine, the 78 was first shown to the public late in 1976. In the hands of Gunnar Nilsson and Mario Andretti, the new Lotus had a rocky start to its career. It had captured the imagination of the competition and they were quickly working on their own 'ground effects' cars even though they did not quite understand how the 78 worked. Andretti scored the first victory of the season in his home Grand Prix at Long Beach. He won another three races and Nilsson also added one to 78's tally. Even though Andretti was the most victorious driver and the Lotus 78 was the most victorious car, both titles eluded Team Lotus due to the poor reliability. One of the problems was that the very light monocoque was not quite up to the task of handling the increased stress created by the 'ground effects.'
Chapman knew he had a winner on his hands and went about refining the 'ground effects' Lotus for the 1978 season. Much of the honeycomb used for the chassis was replaced by more conventional sheet aluminium. This increased the weight by quite a bit, but it would proof to make quite a difference. To maximize the 'ground effects', even larger side pods were fitted to the car, which now featured full length skirts. At the rear the side pod floors swooped to create two massive Venturis. Compared to the 78, the new car featured a much cleaner and smoother body. Wind tunnel tests suggested that the Lotus 79 was 25% more effective than its predecessor. Sadly the car was not ready in time for the start of the season and Team Lotus had to make do with the 78 for the first few races of 1978.
Ill health forced Nilsson to leave Formula 1 and he was replaced by the talented Swede Ronnie Peterson. Before the 79 was ready, Peterson and Andretti both scored a win in the old car. The Lotus 79 appeared for the first time at the Belgian Grand Prix and Andretti scored a very convincing debut victory from pole position. Team Lotus dominated the remainder of the season with Andretti winning a total of six races and Peterson two. Andretti and Lotus were crowned Champions well before the season was over. There was a very sad note to the season after Ronnie Peterson was involved in a fatal start accident at Monza. He had to start in a 78 after he damaged his 79 in a practice session. Posthumously Peterson finished the season second in the championship.
In 1979 the competition had really caught up and the once dominant Lotus 79 was no longer a race winner. Team Lotus had to rely on its 1978 World Champion for most of the season as the new Lotus 80 had turned out to be a complete disaster. Chapman had taken his 'ground effects' ideas a few steps too far and created a car that was notoriously difficult to drive. Especially Williams' Patrick Head had taken the ground effect design in the right direction and his FW07 formed the basis for most early 1980s designs. 'Ground effects' or 'wing cars' were eventually banned at the end of 1982 as the cornering speeds were getting far too high. One of Chapman's many great innovations underbody aerodynamics still play a vital role in the racing car design, although full 'ground effects' cars are no longer eligible in any race series.
With three victories, chassis 79/3 or JPS21 was the most successful of the five Lotus 79s built. It was driven to a debut win in the Spanish Grand Prix by Mario Andretti. He would also add the French and German races to his tally on the way to the World Championship. Substituting for the disappointing Lotus 80, it was used well into the 1980 season by Andretti and Carlos Reuteman. Lotus retained the car upon its retirement and today it is part of the Classic Team Lotus stable. Maintained to the highest standards, it is seen here during the 2007 and 2009 Goodwood Festivals of Speed.(Source: Oldracingcars.com)
On his way to the World Championship, Mario Andretti used chassis 79/4 or JPS22 for the last races of the 1978 season. He first raced the car in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort and immediately scored a victory. This chassis continued to serve well into the 1979 season when it was driven by both Andretti and Carlos Reuteman. In its second year, a third for Reuteman at Monaco was the best result. Today chassis 79/4 is owned by an American enthusiast who brought it to the 2008 Monterey Historic Races. Throughout the weekend the car was demonstrated by Mario Andretti, who still looked remarkably quick on the 30th anniversary of his championship winning season.(Source: Oldracingcars.com)
For me the 79 is the best looking f1 car ever. The body had been drastically tidied up from the 78 to produce less drag and a much sleeker look. the down force from the ground effect was simular to the 78 but sliding skirts were now used, while the fuel tank and rear suspension parts had been moved out of the way of the side pods to increace g effect and better weight disribution. Driven to the world championships by lead driver Andretti with 6 wins. Team mate Peterson won twice and comfortably followed up Andretti in the championships although he died at Monza in the old 78.