The Lotus 79 was yet another offering from the fertile mind of Colin Chapman. This time, the legendary Lotus boss trained his sights on 'ground-effect' - the process of aerodynamically 'pressing' the car to the race-track. In theory, it is said, an F1 car could be driven upside-down - so strong is the 'down-force' it generates. It was that kind of handling Chapman sought to incorporate into the new Lotus!
Lotus started out on their ground-effect quest with the '78' - dubbed the 'wing car'. Each side-pod housed an inverted aerofoil. 'Skirts' below the side-pods ducted air through a venturi. That created a vacuum - by slowing down, and then speeding up air through a bottle-neck. The skirt sealed in the air - which the aerofoil then used to 'suction-clamp' the car to the tarmac. The upshot was that the Lotus 78 was the fastest car on the grid. Though that would be partly offset by reliability issues. The Lotus 79, then, up-dated the ground-effect project. The best parts of the '78' car were retained. And Chapman and the team added a couple of extras. By placing the fuel tank behind the driver, the chassis could be narrowed. That helped the venturi do its thing - so increasing down-force. The side-pod skirts had also been up-rated. Now they were free to move up and down - providing a surer seal than previously.
The net result of these developments was exactly as Lotus had hoped. The '79' car was streets ahead in the 1978 season. Mario Andretti drove the car to five GP wins - enough to take the World Championship. Team-mate Ronnie Peterson also won - and was runner-up in the final standings. Lotus-Ford took the Constructors' Championship at a canter. Chapman - and the team - were understandably ecstatic. But it was not to last. When the '79 season dawned, it was clear that the competition had come prepared! Almost to a team, they were armed with their own versions of 'ground-effect'. And some of the engineers had twigged that yet more down-force could be wrung from it - so long as parts of the car were strengthened to cope. Lotus would be outstripped by their beefed-up rivals. But that never obscured the fact that - during its season in the sun - the Lotus 79 had put its F1 rivals well and truly in the shade!