Wings & Ground Effects

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Formula One technology developed at a furious pace in the 1970s and early 1980s, as F1 designers mastered the art of making airflow work to produce downforce. But the price was the death of Jochen Rindt and the end of the classic Nürburgring after Niki Lauda’s horrific, flaming 1976 accident.

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Lotus Gold Leaf

Copyright © 1997, 2015 Glenn B. Manishin.

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The third decade of modern Formula One, the 1970s, began with the only posthumous F1 World Champion and closed with the advent of turbo-powered cars. Points in between saw a heady mixture of close racing, new and old winners, exciting cars and amazing acts of sporting heroism. It was truly a special age, quite different from today. But the roots of the innovation and competition that characterized the 1970s and early 1980s were in fact laid a few years earlier with the transformation of aerodynamic design from a relatively simple drag-reduction exercise to the complex, defining characteristic of contemporary F1 racing — downforce.

Formula One aerodynamic engineering developed at a furious pace, seemingly out of nowhere, beginning with the initial introduction of wings (or “aerofoils”) mid-way during the 1968 season. Borrowed from Jim Hall’s revolutionary Can-Am Chaparral, wings allowed for the generation of downforce, pinning cars to the track for greater traction and vastly increased cornering speed. Starting precariously — the original high-mounted, manually adjustable rear wings tended to fall off, causing tremendous shunts — F1 aerodynamic engineering proceeded in fits and starts. Jackie Oliver’s practice crash in the Lotus 49B at Rouen in July 1968, followed by disastrous accidents for Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt during the 1969 Spanish GP at Montjuich Pack, caused wings to be banned for Monaco and the balance of the championship that year.

Jackie Stewart’s finest victory may have been in the 1968 German GP at the Nürburgring, where in the mist and torrential rain he outpaced the field to win by just over four minutes from Hill.  After Hill took over as No. 1 driver for Lotus to capture the 1968 F1 World Championship, the 1969 season belonged to Stewart and his team owner, Ken Tyrrell, who dominated F1 with their Matra MS80,Germany 68 winning at Kyalami, Zandvoort, Montjuich, Clermont-Ferrand, Silverstone and Monza — although Graham Hill captured his 5th Monaco Grand Prix. Lotus returned in force in the 1970 season, a year which was all about the brilliance of Austrian Jochen Rindt with the new Gold Leaf Lotus 72 — the first so-called “winged car” — taking the laurels in Monaco, Holland, France, Britain and Germany. Several of the races were in turn incredibly close: in Monaco, Rindt won in the last 150 meters, and in the last 200 metres at Hockenheim, both times stealing wins from Brabham. All that was overshadowed by Rindt’s terrible death in practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza’s infamous Parabolica corner. Seeking more straightline speed, Rindt had commanded that the Lotus 72’s wings be removed, which made the car rather unstable under braking, and the Austrian refused to wear a three-point harness — like many drivers of that era believing being thrown from a crash was preferable to dying in a fire. The result, which to today’s observers appears sadly inevitable, was Rindt’s decapitation during the car’s split-second deceleration after something broke and the nose of his Lotus submarined under the Armco crash barrier. The remaining Lotus cars were withdrawn from the race, in accordance with F1 tradition, and from the next GP in Canada.

QuoteAt Monza, Stewart was in the act of buckling his helmet when he broke down, wept in a corner, did get into the car, wept again. He could taste the salt of his own tears. Out there as he circled Monza’s broad acres he became a racing driver again. He spent a few laps examining the Parabolica, searching for clues as to what might have happened — then drove the fastest lap he had ever driven at Monza.Quote

Grand Prix Showdown — Christopher Hilton

Although the Cosworth engine was by now ubiquitous in F1, the Lotus 72 — with its distinctive “shovel” nose and nose wings — was significantly faster. Rindt won the 1970 championship posthumously, and his replacement as number one driver for Lotus, young Brazilian Emerson FittipaldiStewart 70piloted the 72 to his first F1 pole position and win, in only his 4th F1 start, at the season-ending U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Stewart and Fittipaldi then split the next four World Championships, with Stewart taking 1971 and 1973 for the new Team Tyrrell, sponsored by Elf, and Fittipaldi winning with the black “John Player Special” Lotus in 1972 and giving Team McLaren its first F1 title in 1974. (Bruce McLaren had died, after winning four GPs, including Belgium in 1968 in his own car, during Can-Am testing at Goodwood in 1970.) The first of the Stewart title seasons, 1971, was also the year that saw a little-known driver named Niki Lauda start his first race in the Austrian Grand Prix and begin a meteoric climb up the Formula One ladder. Stewart himself retired at Brands Hatch 72Watkins Glen in 1973, one race short of 100 GPs, withdrawing from the contest after the death in practice of Francois Cevert, his friend and dashing French protégé at Tyrrell. (A year before in ’72, Bernie Ecclestone joined the F1 fraternity when he bought the Brabham team, and Jean-Pierre Beltoise posted a memorable last win for BRM in the rain at Monaco, his only GP victory.)

Rising once again after Stewart’s retirement, Ferrari returned to the forefront of F1 in 1975 with the flat-12 powered 312T and drivers Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni. Despite a season marred by protests and concerns about driver safety — Fittipaldi refused to drive in the Spanish GP at Barcelona’s beautiful Montjuich Park, which was stopped after 29 laps when a car launched into the crowd, despite new Armco barriers hurriedly installed at the directive of FIA, killing four spectators — Lauda took nine poles and won five races to comfortably secure the first of his three F1 crowns. Though there were a total of nine different winners in six different marques, including Vittorio Brambilla for March at the Österreichring (becoming the only F1 driver ever to take the checkered flag backwards, spinning out of control as he crossed the line), Lauda outclassed the whole field. A Ferrari driver hadn’t captured the World Championship since 1964 and the Austrian, who displaced Regazzoni as the Scuderia’s No. 1 driver, helped to galvanize the team into fulfilling its potential. Formula One cars now sported huge and rather ugly airboxes behind the cockpits to increase air flow to the engine, leading the way — after a short experiment with the famous six-wheeled Tyrrell P34, which was a front-runner throughout 1976 — to the next major technical revolution in F1: ground effects.

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But another mention of Niki Lauda, one that illustrates the savagery and heroism of F1, is required before ground effects can properly be explored. Coming off his championship, Lauda battled with James Hunt (driving the McLaren M23 Cosworth) to win six of the first nine races of the 1976 season. But at the German Grand Prix on 1 August, Lauda crashed his Ferrari at Bergwerk, a 150 mph section of the Nürburgring, in a massive, flaming accident that still brings shivers when viewed to this day. Suffering severe facial burns and inhaling toxic fumes from the car’s burning bodywork, Lauda was expected to die and received the Last Rites in the hospital, yet in a rare display of sheer determination, made a near-miraculous recovery to return to the cockpit just six weeks later for the Italian GP, where he finished 4th. (The Nürburgring’s famous Nordschleife was retired as the home of the German GP — the jumps and twists deemed too unsafe for modern F1 cars — and moved to Hockenheim the next year, reincarnated only in shortened, sanitized form 20 years later as the Luxembourg GP.) If not for the roller coaster tragedy of that ’76 season, Lauda would almost surely have been just the second Formula One driver, and the first since Fangio himself, to win three consecutive championships.

QuoteFuji was drawn in another dimension: a widespread disbelief that Lauda was actually alive, never mind driving his Ferrari. . . After three laps Lauda prised himself out of the cockpit and as he walked away from the mechanics someone put a comforting arm round his shoulders. But Niki Lauda needed no comfort from another man; he alone would live with his decision.Quote

Grand Prix Showdown — Christopher Hilton

After several victories by Hunt at Mosport and Watkins Glen, F1 1976 went down to the last race, at Fuji in Japan. Leading the World Championship by three points, Lauda withdrew from the race after three laps of torrential rain, giving the championship to “Master James,” Britain’s last F1 champion for 16 years, who nursed his rain tires — after some pre-race sex — until a late-race pit stop and finished the race, unable to see the track, not knowing where he had placed or whether he had won the title. Lauda re-captured the title with Ferrari in 1977, but quit the team with two races to go, following a calculated 4th place championship-clincher at the U.S. Grand Prix, to join Bernie Ecclestone’s Parmalat Brabham team — and be replaced in the Ferrari by Gilles Villeneuve.

Formula one engineers, now referred to as “designers,” had been steadily working on aerodynamics for more than a decade. The zenith of the art may have been reached in 1978 with the “ground effects” Lotus 78/79. Ground effects turned the entire car into a large, inverted wing,Andretti 78 using side skirts and underbody design to literally glue the car to the circuit. Mario Andretti, who took the Lotus to the championship in 1978, explained that ground effects made the race car “feel like it’s painted to the road.” Colin Chapman’s careful development of the ground-effect car principle had rendered conventional GP machines virtually uncompetitive in a little over 12 months, as Lotus won nine of the 15 races in the ’78 season. (Andretti’s own championship winning race was marred by the death of teammate Ronnie Peterson at the start of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, an accident for which then second-year driver Ricardo Patrese was sanctioned but eventually absolved.) Yet the other teams would catch up shortly, and 1978 was the last time a Lotus driver would win the World Championship before Colin Chapman’s death. Indeed, the big surprise of 1979 was Team Lotus itself, which tried to continue its amazing aerodynamic experimentation but launched a new car with such problems that the team had to return to the old Lotus 79 models. Afterwards, the Lotus racing organization slowly (and poignantly) declined into mediocrity and dissolution, except for brief flashes of success with the young Ayrton Senna and then Nigel Mansell in the mid-1980s.

Despite their advances, ground effects had a problem, namely that slight miscalculations in set-up would render the ground-effect F1 car undriveable and wickedly unstable. The need to keep ground clearances extremely low led to rigidly sprung, rock-hard cars with virtually no ride height tolerance and little if any ability to handle bumps and curbs. Something really terrible, unnatural and unpredictable would happen if the airflow beneath the car was disrupted for one reason or another.

QuoteTo be honest, there was no such thing as cornering technique in the ground effect era. “Cornering” was a euphemism for rape practised on the driver. . . When you came into a corner you had to hit the accelerator as hard as you possibly could, build up speed as quickly as possible and, when things became unstuck, bite the bullet and give it even more. In a ground effect car, reaching the limit was synonymous with spinning out.Quote

— Niki Lauda —

As Lauda commented, “The wildest imaginable things could happen behind the wheel of a ground effect car.” After advancing throughout the grid, by 1981-82 all teams were using ground effects. But in an effort to bring more driver control and skill to F1, ground effects — first the skirts (along with six-wheeled and four-wheel drive cars) in 1981, and then underbody venturi tunnels in 1983 — were finally banned from Formula One.

Meanwhile, the economics and business of Grand Prix motor racing were also changing rapidly. Bernie Ecclestone rearranged the management of Formula One’s commercial rights, turning the sport into a billion-dollar global business. Becoming president of FOCA in 1978, Ecclestone persuaded the teams of their worth and the value of negotiating as a coordinated unit; until then, circuit owners and race promotors controlled many aspects of the sport. In 1979 FISA (Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile) was formed and almost immediately clashed with FOCA over revenues and regulations. Matters deteriorated to the degree FOCA boycotted the 1980 Spanish GP and threatened a breakaway (tactics that were often turned on Ecclestone years later). In return FISA removed its sanction from Grand Prix races. An uneasy truce came with the 1981 Concorde Agreement, an ultra-secret contract governing allocation of the substantial and increasing revenues from F1, which began worldwide television broadcasting and initiated fees for race promotors that now exceed a rumored US$25 million per year per GP.


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