Forty years ago Team Lotus looked untouchable as F1’s pacesetter. But then almost overnight its success dried up. We look into what started its irredeemable decline
In motorsport you never know what is ahead. Even for its most imperious competitors.
So it was for Team Lotus, still today one of the most revered squads in Formula 1 history. Forty years ago this week in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort it took the most routine of one-twos.
It was its eighth win of the year, Mario Andretti’s sixth, on the way to an imperious world championship double in the ground effect Lotus 79. The shot of the black and gold pair of Andretti and team-mate Ronnie Peterson at turn one already several yards clear of the squabbling pack encapsulated their advantage.
One wonders what response you would have got had you suggested after the chequered flag that for Andretti there would be no more F1 wins; for Lotus there would be no wins for near enough four years and indeed the team would never again dominate F1. But that’s what happened.
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Chance denied Lotus in the year’s remaining three rounds – Andretti was first over the line at Monza but was docked a minute for jumping the start while in . The team also had to cope with Peterson dying in a crash in the Italian race. But then from the opening round of 1979 certain of Lotus’s rivals, in Andretti’s words, ‘just plain jumped over us… man, it was a rude shock, I’ll tell you.’
First Ligier, then Ferrari and then – emphatically – the Williams FW07 left Lotus behind. It dropped to a distant fourth in the constructors’ standings and in the second half of the year only got two points. Subsequent seasons if anything continued the decline.
Lotus kingpin Colin Chapman rather than consolidate for 1979 aimed for another big leap in the Lotus 80. But the radical option that had worked so often for him this time backfired.
‘Colin Chapman was already thinking of his next project,’ Andretti recalls of the latter part of 1978. 'It’s a typical thing. He was not thinking of perfecting pretty much what he had, his mind was on the next big plan and because of that we suffered.’
‘He loved new ideas,’ adds the team’s designer Peter Wright, ‘what he particularly loved was having something that other people didn't have.
‘The original plan for the 78 [Lotus’s car in 1977] was to make a car that was aerodynamically pitch sensitive and that appeared to work,’ Wright continues. ‘So for the 79 he said “OK I’m going to design the car around ground effect,” and wanted it to be more pitch sensitive, and it was very good.
‘So he redesigned the structure for the following year which was the Type 80 and aerodynamically we set out to produce a more efficient car and one that was even more pitch sensitive. And it turned out to be too pitch sensitive, that was the big problem. We built a very long car, built as much pitch sensitivity as we could into it and it became unstable and porpoised.’
That last term entered the F1 lexicon at that time, taken from the motion of a porpoise diving into and out of the sea at speed. It reflected downforce moving around under the car sucking it to the ground then releasing.
It all left the team no choice but to abandon the 80 mid-season and return to the 79 for the year’s remainder. Yet even with the 79’s previous success this did not provide refuge.
‘Unfortunately the underlying car was not very good,’ Wright notes, ‘it was structurally a bit inadequate particularly as suspension spring rates went up and up and up, it was quite flexible and failed right inside the monocoque in places we discovered at the end of the  year. Also the exhaust system used to fall apart and the brakes didn't work very well, but Andretti and Peterson had enough performance that they could win races with it [in 1978].’
‘There was some improvement in the downforce situation but the chassis itself, the tub, remained the same,’ Andretti adds, ‘and while we achieved more downforce by cleaning up diffusers and doing all the right things the chassis was just not strong enough to withstand stiffer springs and whatever and we had a myriad of problems.’
The way to go for 1979 would instead have been to take the Lotus 79 concept and refine it. Williams with its rapid FW07 quickly went on to demonstrate as much.
‘Teams like Williams and so forth once they understood what they needed to do their cars were much better prepared for that, designed for that,’ Andretti continues, ‘their cars were much stiffer and had the qualities that went with higher downforce. So I know exactly what we suffered.’
Wright agrees. ‘Williams built a Type 79 with a thought through structure and layout and had a very simple effective car and won the championship,’ he notes.
‘The Williams was just a very nice 79. What other people did was basically do it better, build the rest of the car better, less compromised by ground effect and then produced a better racing car.’
Wright denies also that ground effect development especially raced ahead in this time. ‘The big steep bit of the slope was the [Lotus] 78 and the 79,’ he says, ‘people then went “ah, I get it,” and I don’t think the cars changed so radically.’
Was evolution rather than revolution something Lotus considered for 1979? ‘There was a faction within Team Lotus led by Nigel Bennett, who was one of the race engineers, [who advocated] to sort out the Type 79,’ Wright recalls, ‘but of course Chapman was the boss and always wanted more of something.’
There were more specific problems with the Lotus 80. ‘The Type 80 came out with all titanium suspension which was a disaster,’ Wright adds, ‘so all the suspension had to be redesigned. The ability to fabricate in titanium was not a technology that was perfected, certainly not in England, and the suspension cracked so that was another setback we had to deal with.’
It also wasn’t so simple for Lotus as to get back on the horse once the 80 had been ditched.
‘We’d effectively lost a year,’ Wright notes, ‘and bearing in mind how small Team Lotus was compared to modern teams, having that sort of hiccup and the need to recover from it is actually quite difficult.
‘In the drawing office I think there were four people, five people; the R&D department there was two people. You didn’t have the amazing analysis and data that people have nowadays to sort these things out. We were flying by the seat of our pants.
‘The time lost in the technical struggle in trying to understand the 80 and sort it out was quite major.’
There also were wider factors going on at Lotus, including that at around this point Chapman was starting his involvement in the notorious DeLorean sportscar project. Indeed the Lotus 80 debuted two rounds later than planned as it was delayed by work on non-F1 tasks.
‘There was an awful lot going on at Lotus at the time,’ Wright admits, ‘possibly Chapman was spread quite far, quite a long way over his other businesses. Maybe he wasn’t concentrating hard enough.
‘He’s the guy with all the racing experience and I guess is the guy who should make those trade-offs between reliability and ultimate performance and consistent performance, that sort of thing. That’s what was missing, we went too extreme, but that to a certain extent was in his nature.’
Wright denies though that Chapman’s love of new ideas blinded him to developing existing concepts. ‘He was very good at sussing out whether something was a real technical barrier that needed to be overcome or whether it just wasn't done right,’ he says, ‘and he would push through technical barriers; he’d put a lot of effort into it.’
Lotus indeed in time showed signs of finding light at the end of the tunnel. Until circumstances took hand.
‘At the end of 1979 we ran a Type 80 at Paul Ricard in a test, Stephen South was driving it,’ Wright explains. ‘And we went stiffer and stiffer and stiffer on springs and he said “it’s getting better and better and better but I can’t keep my feet on the pedals!” So we went “ah, OK there’s a clue, nothing wrong with the aerodynamics, we’ve got to get control of the dynamics,” and we had Plan A and Plan B for that.
‘Plan A was the Type 88 was to separate the dynamics of the aerodynamic bit and the dynamics of the masses with two suspensions, and we weren’t allowed to do that [it was banned in early 1981].
‘Plan B was active suspension and unfortunately Colin Chapman died on the day that the active car first ran, and the management changed and it got sort of dropped.
‘So we understood the problem and we had the solutions for it, and fate intervened followed by politics.’
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images