Well like most great inventions, it doesn’t take long before the competition comes up with their versions and in this case they most certainly did. By the 1979 season Lotus had lost its dominance and even if the other teams may not have mastered ground effects technology, they performed better because they improved on all the other aspects of a cars and teams.
Perhaps as a result of trying to push the technology too far, the Lotus 80 was difficult to drive so much so, they actually used the Lotus 79 instead, for most of the 1979 season. But, there were those who did get things right and a good example of that was Patrick Head of team Williams. In hindsight, we can say, he developed the technology on the right path and had dominating results with the Williams FW07.
Unfortunately, the Williams FW07 only made its 1979 season appearance by the 5th round, in Spain. In addition, only after fixing some rear-end chassis leaks and most importantly getting the skirts to keep touching the ground almost constantly though a race, did the “eureka” moment happen. Alan Jones grabs pole position and these FW07’s were two seconds faster than the other teams, which is remarkable considering they are usually splitting fractions of a second. As it was, team mate Clay Regazzoni wins that race.
By that 9th race, it was Williams that was giving Ferrari the challenge, with Allan Jones taking four out of the six remaining races. Though Ferrari was the “force to reckon with” from the start of the season, they took both constructors and driver titles.
As the new decade rolled in, the 1980 season was now dominated by the Williams FW07 and did garner the 1980 driver and constructors titles. In the rapidly evolving environment of F1, its dominance lasted till the first half of 1981.
On a good day, all these ground effects cars were difficult to drive and set-up with suction often inconsistent as the undulations of the track affected the down force it generated. All this increasing downforce meant suspensions would have to get stiffer to counter the downforce and a substantial increase in cornering speed meant more G-force. Both of which would take its toll on drivers, causing fatigue and even injury. The skirts provided so much traction (downforce) that if they broke off or the car got airborne for some reason there went the traction and away went the car.
The FIA adjusted the regulations by limiting ground clearance to no less that 6cm and an outright ban on the flexible side skirts in 1981. Though engineers were finding all sorts of ways to circumvent these restriction. Unable to enforce the regulation nor get any effectivity from them, the FIA decided to legalize rigid skirts and remove height restrictions by the 1982 season.
But, things continued getting too dangerous and as exciting as the racing was, it was also riddled with terrible accidents including the fatal ones of Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti while Didier Pironi’s forced him into retirement. With no recourse, The FIA decide to enforces the “flat-bottom” rule for the start of the following season, doing away completely with the ground effects cars that we all knew then.
1983 would be the start of the new normal and in the years to follow, engineers would continue to innovate. They will eventually find ways of creating downforce with minimal drag from the underside of the car, without skirts or sidepods as they were. Humanity’s minds had now opened to a new enlightenment and it was Collin Chapman and his team of engineers that shed this light that race engineers still milk today.
Thank you, for following me through the decades of aerodynamic history. I hope you enjoyed it, as I surely did. It certainly helped fill my days in the last couple of months of Quarantine. Now it’s time for us to checkout our own new normal. Be Safe!
1990 – 1991