Losing Their Grip

Losing Their Grip

Racer Blog

Losing Their Grip


Colin Chapman and Lotus revolutionized Formula 1 with the ground-effect Type 79. Suddenly, the little teams had a massive performance advantage – and F1’s grandee manufacturers didn’t like that one bit.

Lotus 79 hit the ground sticking. The skirted, black and gold beauty caught the rest with their pants down at the 1978 Belgian Grand Prix. Comfortably fastest in every practice session, Mario Andretti led all 70 laps of Zolder to win by 10sec from teammate Ronnie Peterson (aboard the older 78). If, as “Super Mario” so quotably suggested, Type 78 was “painted to the road,” then 79 added the varnish.

The “wing car” had taken off. Ground effect had come home to roost.

This uplifting natural phenomenon was a gift to the “garagisti,” as Enzo Ferrari disdainfully called the small, independent (and mostly British) teams that provided the bulk of the Formula 1 grid and the bulk of its ingenuity. It used sidepods shaped like an upside down aerofoil, set close to the ground and sealed at their sides, which produced vast amounts of downforce for a minimal increase of drag. It wasn’t quite speed for free, but it was pretty close.

Meanwhile, the “grandees,” Ferrari, Renault and their ilk, were betting their future competitiveness on power – raw, unsubtle, expensive turbocharged power.

Formula 1 was on a collision course, as ground effect’s unprecedented levels of G-force – up from 2 to 5G in the faster turns – and turbocharging’s horsepower frenzy threatened to tear the sport apart.

Yet this is the same basic recipe that today’s turbulent F1, fretting about its potency and attractiveness, is considering for 2017. Taking a cue from single-chassis junior formula GP2’s underbody tunnels – not seen in F1 since their summary banning, ostensibly on safety grounds, in 1983 – the premier category is considering slashing lap times by 5-6sec with lighter cars, wider tires, ground-effect tunnels, and simpler front and rear wings that allow them to follow each other more closely in a cleaner wake.

Aerodynamicist Peter Wright is unconvinced by this Back to The Future vision: “It’s beyond me why they’d go to all that effort. There’s a conflict between increased speed and overtaking. They’ll end up with a faster car, more expense – it’s a whole new area of research – but be lucky if they have the same amount of passing as now. And already they’re arguing.

“My fear is that nobody has defined the objectives,” adds Wright. “They’re talking detail before working out what the trade-off between technical development and entertainment will be.”

Wright knows of what he speaks. Not only has he been an FIA technical consultant for 20 years, but he was also in on the ground floor with ground effect at Lotus some 40 years ago. Not only did he summon the ground-effect genie – a eureka! moment born of desperation and inspiration, modeling clay, card and adhesive tape – but he also watched powerless as it become a political football.

(By the way, he wasn’t as sad as you might think when it was kicked out of play. Moral? Be careful what you wish for…)

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