After testing the Lotus 79, Mario Andretti entered the Belgian Grand Prix and immediately dominated taking pole and winning the race. The rest of the season is history, with two Lotus 79s routinely driving away from the rest of the field as if they were not in the same race, but unfortunately the 1978 season was marred by the death of Ronnie Peterson, Mario’s team mate.
The combination of next generation aerodynamics and great driving led Mario Andretti taking the driver’s championship and Lotus the constructor’s, but even so the other teams had worked out the 79s secret and spent the winter feverishly designing their own ground effect cars, especially Williams. So in true Chapman style, he had his own counter plans which he worked on during the winter, eventually emerging with one of the most intriguing Formula 1 cars ever built, namely the Lotus 80.
There was no front wing – the entire nose section housed a venturi (plus skirts). There wasn’t really a discernable rear wing either, just a swooping profile with most of the car being one huge venturi system. The aerodynamic underside of the side pods was carried on through the normal rear axle area, right to the extreme rear of the car, where air finally exited.
The 80 produced a lot of down force, but controlling it became a big problem. The slightest variances in the track ride height (such as kerbs, cornering, tyre problems) produced big changes in down force, making the car hard to drive and dangerous. The 80 was tried with and without conventional wings, but the team were never really happy with it, such a great shame.
As always, the team were ready with a pragmatic solution, quickly applying wings to the nose, and a rear wing to try and make it competitive. Reutemann still refused to drive the car, so Andretti ran it skirtless to qualify fourth fastest at Jarama. In the race itself, using conventional nose aerofoils, he finished third – a good placing, but sadly no indication as to the car’s future performance.
At Zolder, a far quicker circuit than Jarama, Andretti’s car appeared with a revised centre section and shorter nose without skirts. He qualified only fifth before colliding with the Arrows of Jochen Mass, badly damaging the front of it yet escaping injury. It had already been noted that repairs were not easily made to the radical design of the Lotus, thereby requiring the team to work all night to rectify this damage. Andretti, however, was still unhappy and returned to his type 79.
At Monaco, the pattern was repeated; Mario qualifying only 13th and retiring with suspension problems. By now the team were split into two, one half supporting the efforts of Reutemann in the 79, the other trying desperately to make the 80 for Mario really work. However in the French GP where severe bounce caused extensive wear to the nose section forcing Mario again to switch back to the 79, his second Type 80 fared little better retiring on lap 52 with brake and handling problems.
Chapman at last agreed to call it a day on the 80, reverting back to the favourite 79 and so the Type 80 was pushed into retirement. The wonderful example of the type 80 shown here in the pictures was taken by Peter McFadyen at Luffield Corner during the Silverstone Classic in 2006. This car we believe is now owned and driven by Sid Hoole (a prolific historic racer) who also drives other wonderful historic cars. On the Saturday it didn’t start, but on Sunday he finished 6th as the only ‘invited’ car in the race as all the others were Pre ’77 F1 cars in the Grand Prix Masters Series.
It is great to see that despite its lack of success in the past it can still hold its own today.
Credits Tim Steel and Peter McFadyen