The Lotus 78 used a very narrow monoque chassis, with the fuel tank placed between the driver and the engine, flanked by aerofoil section side structures. The radiators were mounted in the leading edges of the wings and air flow was kept under the car by flexible skirts which bridged the gap between the side plates and the ground.
From 1950 until 1978 no fewer than 313 races had been held which qualified towards the world championship. Only two events were run for each of the 29 years, the Grands Prix of Great Britain and Italy. The French Grand Prix was run 28 times, the German 26 and the Monaco and Belgian 25 times. Forty-three circuits had been used during this time, topped by Monza with the full quota of 29. Next come Monte Carlo (25), Nurburgring
(21), Zandvoort (23), Francorchamps (18), Watkins Glen (18) and Silverstone (16).
Top points-scorer up to 1979 was Stewart who notched up 360 points between 1965 and 1973. Next were Graham Hill (1958-75), 289; Niki Lauda (from 1973), 288½
; Emerson Fittipaldi (from 1970), 279; Juan Manuel Fangio (1950-58), 277; Jim Clark (1960-69), 274; Jack Brabham (1955-70), 261; Denny Hulme (1965-74), 248; Bruce McLaren (1959-70), 198½
; Ronnie Peterson (1971-78), 196. The top race winner was Jackie Stewart with 27 World Championship Grand Prix victories. Next in line were Jim Clark, 25; Juan Manuel Fangio, 24; Stirling Moss and Niki Lauda, 16; Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi 14, Alberta Ascari 13, and Mario Andretti 12. And all this was prior to the 1979 season.
Anyone who thought Andretti the moral victor in 1977 needed no recourse to semantics at the end of 1978, as Mario won the title in convincing fashion. He won six Grands Prix - Argentina, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Holland - and crossed the line first in one more - Italy. Such was the superiority of the Lotuses that his only serious challenger was his team mate. Ronnie Peters on was employed by Lotus as number two driver and although he won in South Africa and Austria (with Andretti out of contention) he dutifully maintained that role, finishing second to Andretti on four occasions.
Come Monza, only Ronnie had a mathematical chance of challenging Andretti, but by the next morning Peterson was dead, the victim of a fiery accident as the cars funnelled into the first chicane. Reutemann, now Ferrari's number one, took obvious pleasure in beating Niki Lauda into fourth spot in the championship. He won in Brazil, Long Beach, Great Britain and at Watkins Glen, while Lauda's wins in Sweden and Italy were both tinged by controversy. First-time winners picked up the remammg crumbs; Patrick Depailler's Monaco victory ended years of near misses, but when Gilles Villeneuve won in Canada he had not had to wait quite so long .... Andretti, with the Lotus 78, won as he pleased from pole position in Argentina, with Lauda a distant and calmly calculating second for Brabham.
Depailler rewarded Tyrrell with an encouraging third place in the new 008, while at the other end of the scale Hesketh's lady, Divina Galica, and Theedore's talented youngster, Eddie Cheever, failed to qualify. Only half the 22 starters survived the heat in Rio and none looked remotely close to catching Reutemann's Michelin-shod Ferrari. 'Lole's' third Brazilian win looked very easy as Andretti dropped back with gearbox problems and a delighted Emerson Fittipaldi came home second ahead of Lauda. Michelin's jubilation was short-lived, for in South Africa they were simply not competitive.
In a sensational race, early leaders Andretti and Scheckter dropped back with tire troubles, leaving a hard charging Riccardo Patrese in a commanding lead with the new Arrows FAr. There he stayed until the engine inexplicably exploded after 63 of the 78 laps. A surprised Patrick Depailler took the lead but in the last five laps Ronnie Peterson (having carte blanche as Andretti had fallen back with fuel starvation) remorselessly hauled him in. The two completed most of the last lap side by side, touching wheels occasionally but giving nothing away. At the Esses it was all over; Ronnie was through and Patrick was second yet again.
The undoubted star of the show at Long Beach was Alan Jones in the neat Williams FW06, latest and much the best in Frank Williams' long line of enthusiastically fielded contenders. In the end, however, Reutemann scored again as the Australian dropped from second to seventh place with fuel problems and a deranged front wing. His consolation was a new lap record at 88-41 mph. Reutemann's 20-year-old French Canadian team-mate, Gilles Villeneuve, veteran of snowmobile racing and 'round the houses' Formula Atlantic racing, Canadian-style, showed why so many people predicted a bright future for him by leading comfortably for many laps. He eventually crashed when attempting an impossible overtaking manoeuvre on former Long Beach winner Clay Regazzoni - now driving for Shadow -leaving tire marks all over Regga's helmet!
From street racing American-style the circus moved to Monaco, for street racing European-style, and in spite of his third places in Argentina and Long Beach and second in South Africa few would have predicted that Patrick Depailler would at last put himself on the winner's rostrum here. This was a classic motor race; pole man Reutemann threw it all away at the start, getting away slowly and puncturing a tire through hitting Lauda's Brabham. John Watson in the other Brabham stormed away into the lead but under intense pressure from Depailler he overcooked the brakes and finally made an undignified exit down the chicane escape road.
Lauda, second for a while, dropped to sixth in having a rear tire replaced and in a truly memorable drive he fought back to second place ahead of Scheckter, Watson, Pironi and the impressive Patrese. Lauda left the lap record at a remarkable 83.57mph, but Depailler now moved into the lead in the championship. In Belgium, Andretti gave the Lotus 79 the best possible debut with pole position and a flag to flag win - followed by Peterson, who also took the lap record at 1I4.68mph. Three former world champions - Hunt, Lauda and Fittipaldi - were eliminated in a multiple accident on the grid, precipitated by some rather over exuberant starts and Reutemann missing a gear.
Andretti and Peterson repeated their performance in Spain, both now in 79S. James Hunt, so far well out of contention, led initially and Jacques Laffite underlined his current form with a dogged third place. Carlos Reutemann was lucky to escape unscathed from a spectacular accident which left his Ferrari perched between the Armco and the paddock. Controversy reared its head at the Swedish Grand Prix which followed. The Brabham team, struggling to make the BT 46 a front runner arrived with the car equipped with an engine-driven fan which sucked air from under the car. Lauda soon disposed of Andretti and simply drove away into the distance.
Patrese took the equally controversial Arrows into second, a whisker ahead of Peterson who had recovered from seventeenth place after a puncture. Not surprisingly the protests about the Brabham flew thick and fast but although the FIA subsequently declared it illegal, the Swedish result stood. Andretti and Peters on were now first and second in the points table and they reflected this with another dominant one-two in the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard but then in the British Grand Prix, at Brands Hatch, both the. black and gold cars were out within 28 laps. Peterson went out first, after six laps, and Andretti conceded the lead to Scheckter when his engine let go.
Scheckter in turn succumbed to gearbox failure, leaving Niki Lauda to be hauled in by a hard charging Reutemann. By lap sixty they were running together when, at Clearways, they came up to lap Bruno Giacomelli in the third McLaren. Giacomelli waved Lauda through and then inadvertantly moved across on him. In an instant Lauda had half spun and Reutemann had ducked through on the inside to take the lead. Although Niki set a new lap record, at 119.71 mph, he was 1.23 seconds adrift when the flag came out. In stifling heat, Andretti won the German Grand Prix at the soulless Hockenheimring, from Jody Scheckter who drove a magnificent race after making a mess of his start.
It was Andretti himself who did it all wrong in the opening moments of the Austrian Grand Prix, colliding with Reutemann's Ferrari. The race was stopped after seven laps as the rain came down and from the restart Peterson was uncatchable. Although, nominally at least, the Drivers' Championship remained open, this result clinched the Constructors' Championship for Lotus yet again. Didier Pironi and Riccardo Patrese put the cat among the pigeons shortly after the start of the Dutch Grand Prix by having a monumental (yet, miraculously, non-injurious) accident near the front of the pack. When the dust died down and the track was cleared, Andretti stayed out of trouble to score his sixth win of the year - followed again by Peterson.
Tragically, Zandvoort was to be Peterson's last race. When the teams arrived at Monza, Andretti had amassed 63 points and only Ronnie, with 51, could possibly take his title away - but he was adamant that he would abide by his 'number two' status. It was immaterial; the two Lotuses started from the front row (with Andretti on pole) and as the field - many of whom had taken a rolling start as the lights flashed green - crowded into the first chicane, disaster struck. As the whole grid bunched up into the corner, cars began to touch and run out of control. James Hunt's McLaren was pushed into Peterson's Lotus which ran across the track to the right, head on into the barriers at enormous speed and bounced back, the front totally demolished, in a horrifying ball of flame.
For once the marshals were magnificent and, aided by Hunt, they quickly had the fire out and the critically injured Peterson out of the car. After what seemed an age he was taken by helicopter to hospital with shattered legs and minor burns and eventually news filtered back that he was critically injured but would survive. Vittorio Brambilla was also seriously injured when a flying wheel struck him on the head. After a further delay to replace a barrier which Scheckter flattened in the second warm up, the remaining cars restarted. Again the start was chaos and after a race long battle between Andretti and Villeneuve had gone to the new champion elect, both were penalised for jumped starts and relegated to sixth and seventh places.
Niki Lauda thus took his second controversial win of the season, followed home by John Watson, and Mario Andretti's championship was confirmed. There were no celebrations, for Monza had been a disaster. All interest in the championship was lost the next morning when Peterson died after emergency surgery on his shattered legs. He was 34 and unquestionably the fastest driver of his era. His loss was deeply felt. The final two races of the season were sombre formalities. As Carlos Reutemann crossed the line to win the US Grand Prix, from Alan Jones in the Williams, he gave a derisory salute to the Ferrari pit which left them in no doubt as to his feelings about his imminent departure to Lotus.
Ferrari, however, were perhaps not too concerned, for their continued faith in Gilles Villeneuve was amply rewarded when he took his very first Grand Prix win at the closing race of the season. Fittingly, it was on home ground as the Canadian Grand Prix was fought out on a new circuit on the lie Notre-Dame, in Montreal. Only cruel luck kept temporary Lotus recruit Jean-Pierre Jarier from winning as a brake pipe fractured on his 49th lap. Villeneuve's home win brought some joy to a sad end of season as everyone went home to think of some way of challenging the flying Lotuses.
During winter testing it became apparent that the Ligier team, with a switch to Cos worth engines and a 'ground effect' chassis, had found the answer. In the opening South American races, Jacques Laffite and his new team mate, Patrick Depailler, were simply untouchable. They started side by side from the front row in both Argentina and Brazil. Laffite won both races without challenge and, but for handling and fuel vaporisation problems which dropped him to third place in Argentina, Depailler would have been second again. At Kyalami, for the 1979 South African Grand Prix, the tables were turned again with the arrival of the Ferrari 312 T -4S, which gave Gilles Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter a splendid one-two win in dismal weather conditions. The start of the 1979 season simply confirmed what motor racing has shown throughout its history - even when you are winning, someone will always find a better idea.
The 1978 cars began to appear before the wheels had stopped turning in '77 and there was plenty of technical interest on one of the first, Gordon Murray's elegant Brabham BT46. Retaining the ever improving Alfa engine, Murray evolved a compact triangular monocoque chassis with integral surface coolers, obviating the need for separate radiators. In theory the surface coolers would save a lot of weight and eliminate a significant amount of cooling drag. The outer skin of the chassis was formed of a double-skinned element of high strength aluminum, ribbed on its exposed surface, through which flowed the oil and coolant.
Murray's innovative approach did not stop with the cooling system; digital instrumentation with information modes selected by the driver was backed by a pit-triggered lap time display, all the information appearing on a panel on the steering wheel. Borrowing from longstanding USAC practice the BT 46 was also fitted with on-board pneumatic jacks with a quick action connector for a pit air bottle. Murray also gave some thought for the driver, with a built in cooling panel and immensely strong protection areas. The braking system used steel discs with a carbon fibre skin as the friction surface, and the pads were also carbon fibre based - the system owed much to Dunlop's work on Concorde.
Sadly, Murray's radical new approach met with problems from the start and, although the oil cooling systems worked, the water cooling effect was seriously inadequate and the car reverted to conventional radiators (in the front nose wings) even before the season started. The BT46 did manage to win two races during 1978, but both were in controversial circumstances. At Anderstorp, Sweden, the team arrived with a BT 46 equipped (la Chaparral) with an engine driven fan, mounted, vertically, at the rear - which turned out to be the only view most people saw. The fan sucked air from under a completely sealed engine cover which was also sealed to the ground by a perimeter of sliding skirts.
Brabham pointed out that it was for cooling purposes but those who saw it disappear into the distance thought otherwise, and the protests came thick and fast. It was considered to infringe the rules regarding moveable aerodynamic devices; it was feared that it might pick up track debris and hurl it at its pursuers; it was thought to corner just too fast for safety - with probably dire consequences if something caused the suction to fail in mid-corner; and it was argued that to compete with 'the fan car' everyone else would have to take the same, expensive, route.
The Swedish win was allowed to stand, but the car was declared illegal and reverted to its more conventional guise. In this form it 'won' at Monza, but only after two cars which led it over the line had been penalised for jumped starts. The car which won an the road at Monza was Chapman's own version of the 'ground effect' theme but, with another touch of genius, Chapman managed to achieve much the same ends without resorting to an extractor fan. In the Lotus 79, the flow of air over the car did the job itself, exhausting air from below the bodywork and sucking the car on to the road.
The 79 Lotus was a development of the 78, but it took the state of the art a step further. The 78's major shortcoming had been a lack of straightline speed. With the 79, Chapman retained the narrow monocoque but tidied up the elements intruding into side airflow, tucking front and rear suspension well inboard and adapting an up and aver exhaust system. The crucial part of the design, however, was the adoption of very efficient sliding skirts around the lower edge of the monocoque which effectively sealed the car to the ground; air was now exhausted from above the car and not allowed back in underneath, sucking the car down on to the road and giving the tires all the dawn farce they needed.
The only part of the 79 which did not work was the troublesome Lotus gearbox around which the car had been designed. Had it worked it would have allowed clutchless gearchanges and two pedal control - shades of the Lotus 76. Instead the team was forced to revert to the heavier Hewland box once again. In this form the 79 won six Grands Prix (seven disregarding the penalty at Monza) and with the 78 having won two more, Lotus took the Drivers' and Constructors' Championships once again. Naturally there were many imitators of the 78 now in circulation but they were already a step behind.