John Player Team Lotus hit the track running in 1978 with Mario Andretti winning the opening race of the season in Argentina and his team mate Ronnie Peterson winning the third race of the season after a thrilling last couple of laps in South Africa. Both of these victories were achieved with the previous seasons Lotus Ford 78 ‘wing car design’ for 1978 Colin Chapman and his engineers came up with something even more refined in the shape of today’s featured car the ‘ground effect’ Lotus Ford 79.
The Mario Andretti first raced a Lotus 79 in the non championship International Trophy race at Silverstone a race well remembered because the front row qualifiers Ronnie Peterson and Niki Lauda both spun of on the warm up lap leaving Andretti and James Hunt to start at the front of the grid despite qualifying 3rd and 4th. Andretti only lasted two laps before he spun out with Hunt spinning out one lap earlier at the same spot.
However for the Belgium Grand Prix there were no mistakes Mario qualified on pole and won, driving I believe from Ronnie who started 7th in the older Lotus Ford 78. At the Spanish Grand Prix Mario was I believe given the #79/3 seen above while Ronnie took over Mario’s Belgium winning #79/2 seen below. Mario qualified on pole and Ronnie 2nd and that is how the Spanish Grand Prix finished.
Mario retired from the Swedish Grand Prix after qualifying on pole leaving Ronnie to finish 3rd behind the controversial Brabham fan cars of Lauda and Watson. Bernie Ecclestone chose to withdraw the Brabham BT46 fan cars after just one race. At the following French Grand Prix Mario qualified 2nd and Ronnie 5th, however they finished 1st and 2nd respectively for the 3rd time in the 1978 season.
For the British Grand Prix it was Ronnie and pole and Mario next to him but both cars retired. In Germany Mario qualified on pole with Ronnie sat next to him on the grid and by now unsurprisingly that is how they finished the race. In Austria Ronnie was again on pole with Mario starting second however Mario retired leaving Ronnie to take an unchallenged win which would prove to be his last.
At the Dutch Grand Prix Mario qualified on pole in #79/3 with Ronnie beside him in #79/2 and the pair duly took their fifth and final 1-2 result of the season. This would prove to be Mario’s last Grand Prix win and indeed the last for any American driver and Ronnie’s last ever finish too. Ronnie crashed #79/2 during practice for the Italian GP and started the race from fifth in an older Lotus 78 while Andretti started from pole in the latest #79/4. Ronnie was involved in a start line accident which broke his legs, unfortunately during the night bone marrow from his injuries got into his blood stream and he died the following morning. The race was restarted and a subdued Mario finished sixth which was enough to claim the championship, but in truth Mario was far more concerned for Ronnie with whom he had been good friends since there time as team mates driving Ferrari sports cars in the early 1970’s. Ronnie for the second time in his career finished second in the World Drivers Championship.
The success of the Lotus 79 was largely due to what was happening to the airflow beneath the bodywork, by building the monocoque just wide enough to hold the driver with fuel tank behind him and the motor behind that, Colin Chapman and his engineers Peter Wright, Geoff Aldridge, Martin Ogilvie and Tony Rudd used the side pods to create venturi by using a low wide neck at the front entrance to the side pods and tall wide exit, with side skirts sealing airflow under the car. When the car was moving air was guided into a partial vacuum created between the venturi side pods under surface and the surface of the road and this had the effect of sucking the car to road which allowed the car to negotiate corners at higher speeds than their competitors, most of whom had still not got to grips with the wing car aerodynamics advanced by the previous years Lotus 78.
For the last two races of the 1979 season perennial Formula One under achiever Jean Pierre Jarrier joined Mario in the team Mario qualified on pole in the USA with J-PJ 8th but neither car finished in the US Grand Prix. The final race of the season was held in Canada where Mario could only qualify 9th and Jean Pierre sat on pole. During the race Jean Pierre looked set for a win until he retired with an oil leak.
Mario finished tenth. The Lotus 79’s were set to be replaced by even more radical Lotus 80’s in 1979 but everything did not go to plan and so the 79’s were pressed into service again for most of the season but were out classed by their competitors who were getting to grips with ground effects aerodynamics.
A little post script courtesy Barry Boor, Mario Andretti was invited to drive the inauguration lap of the next home of the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the America’s on October 21st, the car he drove was naturally a Lotus Ford 79 with which he won his world Championship, you can see how he got on in this linked youtube clip.
Thanks for joining me on this “Mario & Ronnie Show” edition of “Gettin’ a li’l psycho on tyres, I hope you will join me again tomorrow. Don’t forget to come back now !