The perfect Formula 1 car met the perfect driver in 1978. We’ve celebrated their union, one that produced a world championship for Mario Andretti and the pioneering Lotus 79 chassis, with immense pride ever since. The man who delivered that title for America both loves and laments that fact. Arguably the greatest driver of all time, a winner at the Indy 500, Daytona 500, and 24 Hours of Le Mans, Andretti’s eyes warm at the mention of his F1 achievement. And yet, the distance between his season of F1 glory and the absence of an American successor over the last 40 years continues to weigh on the Andretti family patriarch.
The last American to win a grand prix championship also holds a second distinction of being the last to win an F1 race. In Andretti, we have a man who represents our finest achievements and the vacuum of talent or opportunity that’s followed. At 78, Mario’s aging crown was earned more than half a lifetime ago.
With no timeline on when Andretti might welcome a new American to the exclusive club, reveling in all he and the Lotus 79 gave us—a car that transformed racing through its high-downforce ‘ground effects’ underwing—feels like a fine way to welcome the new year.
In the Lotus 79, victory in an ongoing aerodynamic arms race went to Lotus founder/designer Colin Chapman and fellow designer Peter Wright. F1’s quest to harness air in new ways had been in motion for a few years by 1978, and desires to expand upon the use of traditional front and rear wings to generate downforce led the paddock to search beneath the machines for road holding advancements in this new frontier.
Outfitting an F1 chassis with sidepods, rectangular pieces of bodywork that ran alongside the aluminum monocoque and engine bay to house giant upswept wing profiles, had been the primary pursuit of every significant F1 team. Within its U.K. base at Hethel, Lotus was at the forefront of charting unexplored aero territory.
Between Andretti’s first stint with Lotus from 1968-’69 and his return in 1976, he recalls wandering into the same ground effects zone while testing the unique March 701 chassis. Although it lacked the full box-shape sidepods that would emerge with 1977’s Lotus 78, the March sported wing-like protrusions on both sides of the chassis that captured its driver’s imagination.
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“One thing that I knew that I brought to the table was experience with a March car back in ’72.,” Andretti told Road & Track. “We were testing in South Africa with car [Andy] Granatelli owned and he sponsored a team.
“South Africa is at altitude and you’ve got thin air, so the naturally-aspirated engine [was] obviously struggling, we figure. And the March had sidepods, you know, the shape of a wing. I figured they’re not doing anything. All they are is a piece of body. [I thought], not knowing, not having experience in a wind tunnel, so let’s remove those. It’s just another piece, you know, that we probably don’t need.
“We removed those for testing, and all of a sudden, the front end started flying, which means they were producing downforce.”
Closing out a modestly successful 1976 season with Lotus and its pre-ground effects 77 chassis, memories of the March test would spark a transformational conversation. With the March, it’s side ‘wings’ ran without end plates, which drastically reduced their ability to create downforce.
Andretti with teammate Gunnar Nilsson (left) and Lotus’s Colin Chapman (in cockpit) at the debut of the Lotus 78
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“This is something that I said to Colin. I said, ‘What if we [modify] the sidepods, make them bigger and then put a fence to it,'” Andretti recalls. “And that’s what they did. That’s how the [Lotus] 78 was born. It started with the Lotus 78.
“[It] was a process that took a while [with] that the car, and like I said, a lot of people have amnesia about this quite honestly, but it didn’t start out to be even by Peter Wright or any of them to start out as a ground effects car, per se.
“It turned out to be that way because when we were discussing at the end of 1976, we were over in Hethel and just kicking about, ‘okay, what were your wishes, what’s your wish list’ and so forth. And I say, ‘Well, my wish list is to have downforce with minimum drag penalty,’ you know what I mean? Something, okay, it’s not reachable, but you know what I mean? You just throw that around.
“And we were testing and obviously the [Lotus 78] was getting some advantage out of downforce and so forth, but we didn’t really know how much because at that time they, even the wind tunnel, they didn’t have [rolling] roads, so they were not getting any real figures.
Mario driving the Lotus 78 during the 1977 F1 season
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“What opened our eyes big time was we were testing in Hockenheim and at the end of the two long straightaways, it’s a long righthander and quite fast … I could find additional downforce.”
The Lotus 78’s first stab at using sidepods and underbody wing profiles offered promise, and through testing, the next breakthrough in the concept began to emerge.
Sitting a few inches off the ground, the outer edges of the sidepods would prove to be too high, which allowed the air flowing beneath to leak out and escape before traveling the full length of the ground effects tunnels. As Andretti found while turning into fast corners and the Lotus 78 leaned to one side, the outer sidepod came close to sealing the edge against the road.
“And so obviously with Colin, I said, ‘looks like I’m closing the gap between the fence and the road because of the body roll.’ I was running the car fairly soft still. And so he said ‘Right,’ and he sent [chief mechanic] Bob Dance to town to buy some strips of plastic to close the gap.
“So I’d go out [and it’d improve]. But then the plastic would wear off, you know, then you’re back to square one. So that’s why, if you look at the season in 1977, as the season was progressing, what we had, we had like brushes. And then he had one of the photographers—they hired him to go a different [corners] to photograph and see which way the bristles are going to get an idea of the flow.”
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Without a device that would extend from the outer edges of the sidepods to connect with the ground while Andretti and teammate Gunnar Nilsson traveled at obscene speeds, the Lotus 78 would lack the proper vacuum beneath the car to reach its downforce potential. Plastic strips and brushes were a good first attempt, and it was all prep to get it right for the 78’s successor.
“We were losing a lot of air going down the straight. So that’s when moveable skirts were born. So as you can see, it was one process after another. Now the next problem was the diffuser in the back, you never thought about having a clean exit for the air, but that was important.” Andretti said. “Obviously, we were increasing the flow, which was creating a downforce, so the difference between the Lotus 78 and 79 is they really cleaned up the back of the Lotus 79.”
Chapman examining the rear of the 79.
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Getting ready for 1978 with Andretti and his new teammate Ronnie Peterson, Lotus took the small lessons gained from the 78 and applied them to the 79. Inevitably, new problems were introduced in the process.
It’s known as a legendary car today, but Mario says the 79’s sublime aerodynamics and winning downforce figures masked at least one enduring issue that came from the cleanup process.
“We had inboard brakes in the rear, and this turned out to be a double-edged sword. What [Chapman] did, he had Hewland cast half of the calipers into the gearbox, magnesium, so they would be as sucked in as possible so [the air] would have a nice flow to the back for the diffusers. And it did accomplish that. However, the gearbox runs pretty hot and all of a sudden we were boiling the [brake] fluid.
“And like, even the first race that I won in [Argentina], I mean, I had technically no brakes because what it was like on a full load of fuel and everything else, you need a lot of brake. And I mean, every corner you had to keep pumping the brakes, keep pumping the brakes and then after a while, you really didn’t even have any rear brakes because the fluid was just boiling.
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“And Ronnie and I just kept complaining to Colin all the time, and I guess he just did not believe that that was an issue. But we won races, you know, with no brakes. So the car was not, you know, we didn’t have that much of an advantage, if you will.
“There were some shortcomings but the bottom line is, yes, the result of the development of the ground effects became something that became known and then to be exploited further. The problem is, however, the more effect you have, the more downforce, the stronger the springs and everything that you need to hold [the car] up.”
Figuring out the Lotus 79’s needs came while testing the car prior to the start of the championship, and in those outings, the working dynamic between Andretti and Chapman was on full display.
Mario’s swift driving style, one featuring a residency on the limits of cornering, braking, and acceleration, all without stepping over the edge into broad slides and jagged movements of the steering wheel and pedals, was tailor made for the Lotus 79’s ground effects. Wonderful pictures from the era show some of Andretti’s closest rivals in a constant state of yaw, applying opposite lock with ease. Those photos are a rarity with Andretti at the controls of his championship-winning car, and it wasn’t for a lack of car control.
Owing to the big downforce advantage the 79’s underwing possessed, applying a level of extreme smoothness, which kept the chassis from rolling and bucking, and in turn, shedding underbody downforce, is where Andretti made his mark.
“Well, let’s face it. The success of any team is everybody working together, everybody contributing. I always was so interested in the dynamics of the car because I felt that’s a tool that I have to work with, and the more refined that tool, the easier my job is. That I learned right from the very beginning. I always had my nose in there.
“Testing the car, I understood the steps. I was the one that was giving feedback on what was happening. The one thing about Colin is, as brilliant as he was, he didn’t want to hear a lot of suggestions to change in the car from the driver. He really did not, because he thought, you know, ‘Okay, just worry about the driving, worry about the set-up; let me worry about the technical side.’ That’s something that … he would just blow his top. Quite honestly, it was very difficult to make the point there.
“To Bob Dance, I said ‘common sense goes a long way. If you see something [wrong], just tell me, I’ll fight it. Because you know…I’d like to live another day, if possible.’”
Andretti would win the season opener, add another in Belgium, a third in Spain, a fourth in France, a fifth in Germany, and close his championship account with a sixth in Italy, his birthplace. Six wins from 16 races, along with two from Peterson before his crushing death at Monza, gave Lotus and its 79 a 50-percent success rate in 1978.
Andretti, Peterson, and the Lotus team.
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But Mario has lived with the conflicting emotions that trail from his title-winning day in Italy.
Confusion at the start of the grand prix had the starting lights triggered before the field was in position, and with the polesitting Andretti and Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve streaking away from the front row on their own, a jumbled assembly of cars barreled towards Turn 1 with Villeneuve in the lead. In the middle of that field, a multi-car crash reached Peterson’s Lotus, which burst into flames. Severe leg injuries, rather than the fire, and an embolism that followed would claim Peterson’s life.
As Andretti’s primary threat for the 1978 title, Peterson’s sudden death left Andretti as the defacto champion.
The crash that claimed Peterson’s life
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“You can’t help it but [to] bringing up a negative in the midst of an incredible positive. You know it’s always going to be there. It’s always going to overshadow what could have been, probably clearly for me, the most satisfying day of my life you know to win a World Championship and to clinch it. But I could never really truly celebrate and I never will.
“It was an enormous jolt. You never really totally recover from. You don’t want to dwell on the negatives. But that’s a reality that is very powerful. And that’s what we were handed us and that’s the what we have to live with.”
Ignoring the occasional personality clashes, Andretti and Chapman, along with Peterson, combined to rewrite performance expectations for F1, Indy car, and sports car racing through the 79’s advancements in ground effects. As a standalone creation, the Lotus 79 lives to the right on racing’s evolutionary chart. Most forms of the sport that rely on downforce rely on the discoveries that went into that 40-year-old car.
Separate from the sorrow attached to losing Peterson, thoughts of winning the F1 championship offer feelings of gratification mixed with lasting frustration. For all those Americans who’ve reached the pinnacle of F1 since 1978, Andretti continues to hold the distinction of the last man to get the job done.
Surprised that he continues to stand as the country’s last F1 title holder, Mario would welcome passing the torch.
“I’d love to see more Americans be with a top team, to have a chance,” Andretti said. “We’ve had a period when we had several in Formula 1, but I cannot even hardly believe that I had to be the last one to win a race in Formula 1 so far back.
“But it all comes down to the individual. Here in the States, we have so much to offer the career of a racing driver. You can probably be a champion without even owning a passport. They’re really talents that we know could be, because the champions here can be champions there. Believe me. I don’t care what anyone says. If you’re a champion here, like, say [2017 IndyCar title winner] Josef Newgarden, and you get an offer with Formula 1, which offer are you going to take?
“Formula 1 is very difficult, because of the disparity of the teams. Unless you can go with one of the top three teams, if you’re a champion [that’s] capable, you’re not going to give up what you can do here. Formula 1 would benefit greatly from a competitive US driver, especially now. I don’t know if that problem’s going to be solved any time soon.”