#F1 History: 1977 John Player Special Mk III – Harnessing the Power of the Wind

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Jennie Mowbray


“Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”

~Johannes Brahms~

Colin Chapman hovered nearby as the fuel trickled into the tank. It had been a constant battle of wills with his engineers. Despite making precise and meticulous calculations to determine the exact quantity of fuel required for the race, his engineers…as well as his drivers…wanted just a little, tiny bit more…just in case. A couple of gallons could be all the difference between a glorious win and having to ignominiously park the car at the side of the track only a lap or two from the finish. Unfortunately for all concerned a gallon weighed in at a hefty seven pounds! Chapman was appalled at the mere thought of that excessive amount of weight being poured into his flawless creation. If you added a bit more to everything, just to be sure, the end result would be a car so ponderous that it would putter about at the back of the pack.  After whittling every component of the chassis back to bare bones his engineers could now ruin all that hard work in an instant by throwing in multiple pounds of fuel with nary a thought for the consequences.

“Simplicate and add lightness.” This maxim, first expressed by aeronautical engineer William Stout in the 1920’s, vividly illustrated Chapman’s ongoing obsession with weight.  He argued that if your Formula One car wasn’t light, then no matter what quantum leaps you might make with engines or aerodynamics, it was never going to go fast…and the number one goal for Chapman was for his car to go fast. This wasn’t something his drivers necessarily agreed with. Of course they desired a competitive car, but they were also the ones left with the often thankless task of testing the car on the track to determine its limits.  Not surprisingly safety came just slightly higher up their agenda than Chapman’s. If something broke, Colin would first blame his driver for mishandling his pride and joy in a manner unbecoming or his mechanics for sloppy construction. Only after those two causes had been excluded would he reluctantly admit that it just might have been due to the underlying design.

The year was 1975 and Lotus was still stuck with the rapidly aging Lotus 72 as its offspring had failed to achieve any semblance of competitiveness. Chapman’s holiday meditations and musings while relaxing in the Spanish sunshine resulted in more questions than answers. On his return he set down his thoughts in a 27 page manifesto with which to inspire his research and development department. It began with: “A racing car has only ONE objective: to WIN motor races…it does not matter how clever it is, or how inexpensive or how easy to maintain or even how safe: if it does not win it is NOTHING!” He then appointed engineer extraordinaire Tony Rudd to direct their next excursion in the arena of innovative design.

Lotus 72.jpg

Lotus 72

Rudd, thinking that Peter Wright might be getting bored with his mundane research on Moonraker boats that “only” kept him busy for 16 hours a day, suggested a “hobby” he could do in his “spare” time.  Wright’s diversion quickly turned into a full time job as he spearheaded aerodynamic testing of the Lotus Type 78 at the Imperial College wind tunnel. One of the major questions on the agenda was the effect side pods could have on aerodynamic efficiency. Vittorio Jano had placed panniers on his ground-breaking Lancia D50, shifting the weight of the fuel from the rear of the car to flanking the chassis in an attempt to improve its handling. Despite the car winning the championship in 1956 under the control of Juan Manuel Fangio when it was re-incarnated as the Ferrari D50, the vacant territory between the front and rear wheels was to remain unoccupied for many years to come.

In the late 1960’s it was discovered that wings could dramatically increase downforce, and in turn cornering speed. This new-found enlightenment resulted in every team throwing slim strips of metal on flexing stalks randomly at their cars, relying on luck rather than evidence for the vagaries of their placement. BRM engineers, Peter Wright and Tony Rudd, had the novel idea of shaping the whole car like a wing, rather than just balancing precarious and fragile contraptions above it. This left BRM with a dilemma. They had just signed the 1964 World Champion, John Surtees, to pilot their car for the 1969 season and he was adamant that BRM refrain from sailing off into any uncharted waters of radical design at the expense of development for the current season.

With preliminary wind tunnel tests defying all their expectations, Tony set Peter up in a secret workshop to begin work on their new creation. Surtees, sensing something was up, confronted BRM boss Sir Alfred Owens with his suspicions. Despite having prior permission from Sir Alfred for his undercover activities (he was bankrolling them after all) Rudd was ordered to discontinue his venture forthwith. After 19 years at BRM he immediately tendered his resignation…and was snapped up by Colin Chapman who recognized a good engineer when he saw one. Wright left soon after and joined Specialized Mouldings where he used the results of his research at BRM to add small aerofoil shaped side pods to the chassis of the inaugural March 701 which needed more space for fuel at longer races. No-one seemed to take much notice of this innovation, though Jackie Stewart did win a race in the Tyrrell run car. It was thought to be merely a convenient way for carrying extra fuel rather than the first inklings of an aerodynamic breakthrough. Within a few years Wright and Rudd would get together again at Lotus.

March 701.jpg

March 701

Part of the design brief for the Lotus 78 was the idea that sidepods shaped like inverted aerofoils housing the radiators might be beneficial aerodynamically. The Lotus 72 had already departed from the traditional nose placement for radiators, placing them in small sidepods beside the driver. This was done purely from a practical point of view as their slim, wedge shaped nose had left no alternative. While experimenting with this idea in the wind tunnel Wright noticed that the side pods were sagging. As the wind speed increased that sagging increased even more – it appeared that something was pulling them down towards the ground. As Peter Wright explained, “Thin wire supports restored the side pods to their correct position and stopped them from sagging – no downforce and consistent balance readings. Next we taped card skirts to seal the gap between the edge of the side pods and the ground, leaving only approximately 1mm gap. The total downforce on the car doubled for only a small increase in drag!”  It was the first intimations of what would shortly come to be known as “ground-effects”.

“Something for nothing” Chapman called it. There was nothing to weigh, no parts to build, just moving air…light…and free! Well, maybe it was free, but testing it rapidly became costly as well as time consuming.  It required new parts, lots of wind tunnel time, and finally, confidence to try it on the track. Air may seem light but a lack of it could be used to pull a car closer to the ground, keeping its tyres stuck to the tarmac as it catapulted around corners. As the distance between the car and the ground narrowed, the air sped up with a resultant drop in pressure. The low pressure under the car acted to suck the car to the ground, massively improving its grip. Unlike wings it had minimal drag and so was as effective at high speeds as it was at low. Unfortunately air had an irritating propensity to softly and silently flow in under the car from every side, completely negating the efficaciousness of the whole concept. The answer to this was skirts.

Lotus skirts

Peter Wright said, “We spent so much time on skirts systems, you just wouldn’t imagine! Our chief mechanic, Eddie Dennis, used to go out in the team’s Renault 4 van with a big frame sticking out behind on which we mounted our experimental skirts. He’d drive out onto the road, go up to Hethel and do a few laps, and then come back, clattering in amidst a shower of sparks before we checked how the skirts had lasted.” It would take Lotus most of 1977 to eventually perfect them.

The car was ready to race late in 1976 but Chapman was loathe to give the other teams an advance viewing, afraid that as soon as they sighted its underside they would gainfully spend the off-season attempting to copy it. When the Lotus 78, also known as the John Player Special Mk III, first appeared in the paddock at Argentina it resembled an uncouth and ungainly tank in comparison to the still slim and lithe competition. Brushes were used to keep the air from flowing in under the car as they had the advantage of not slowly wearing away as they dragged along gutters, gravel and grass. The downside to his was that they were not particularly effective…probably quite an important point! The weekend didn’t start well when Mario Andretti’s car was destroyed while sitting in the pits when his fire extinguisher exploded, tearing a large chunk out of the front of his car. Andretti, who had been sitting in the car at the time, was fortunately (mostly) uninjured…though he was later found to have broken a small bone in his foot. The car was not so lucky and was not able to be salvaged. His teammate Gunnar Nilsson was gently persuaded to hand his car over to Mario for the race. He was running in second when he suffered a mechanical breakdown with two laps to go…but was still classified fifth.

Lotus 78.jpg

Car development continued at Brazil, again more by luck than design, when during practice some tires were inadvertently put on that had a wider offset. This left more room between the rear wheels and the significant increase in performance helped to demonstrate the essential nature of freeing up the air flow as it negotiated the mass of tyres and suspension at the rear of the car. In an attempt to further improve the air flow the brush skirts were sealed with tape from behind. This time it was fourth place for Gunnar and mechanical issues for Mario. There was more of the same in South Africa with neither driver finishing in the points.

The last of the fly away races was at Long Beach…a tight and twisty street circuit that looked like it fulfilled all the required credentials to host a Formula E race…which in fact it did! I wondered why that hairpin looked familiar. For this race the brush skirts had been replaced by plastic ones and their improved effectiveness gave Andretti second on the grid beside Niki Lauda’s Ferrari. After a chaotic start Jody Scheckter (driving a Wolf) dominated, leading for most of the race, but was eventually undone when he had a tyre blowout with four laps to go. Mario had stuck right behind him and was in the perfect position to take the win. It was the third victory of his career and the first time that an American Formula One driver had won at home.

Back to Europe and car evolution continued with spring loaded, sliding rubber skirts edged with ceramic “pencils” to better stand up to the constant contact with the road. Their improvement was obvious at Jarama when Mario got his first pole position for the year, followed by a second victory. Both drivers put in steady but unspectacular performances at Monaco, but at Zolder the car was again dominant…too dominant. Chapman was worried that the faster the car looked, the quicker it would be copied. When Mario’s pole setting time was 1.5 seconds quicker than second placed driver John Watson, Chapman complained, “Now you’ve shown them all what you can do! Why did you need to go so quick? You ought to have backed off!”  Watson took the lead off the start and Mario, sure that he was faster, ran into the back of him while trying to reclaim it. With torrential rain followed by a drying track, spins, slides and tire strategy slowly depleted the field.  Eventually Gunnar Nilsson only had Niki Lauda in front of him whom he passed to secure the sole victory of his sensational but sadly shortened career.

Nilsson zolder.jpg

By the end of the season Mario Andretti had taken seven pole position, four fastest laps and four wins…but several engine failures of his overclocked Ford-Cosworth engine and two races where he would run out of fuel while leading left him in third place in the championship and 25 points behind Niki Lauda. Although Niki had only three wins he had been more consistent overall with ten podiums, giving both him and Ferrari more points…and Niki the freedom to not show up for the last two races of the season, no love being lost that year between him and Ferrari. Lotus had taken second in the Constructor’s Championship but the source of their success was still hidden in the murky waters of supposition. The car had looked spectacular at the tight circuits, but their large rear wing which was needed to balance their front downforce meant they lacked straight line speed on the faster tracks.  Maybe it was all down to the superb skill of their drivers. Chapman and Rudd aided their cause by spreading rumours about a special differential. There was also the unique way the fuel drained out of the tanks during the race…or maybe they were only fast because Chapman refused to weigh down the car with that couple of extra gallons of fuel!

The Lotus 78 was only the beginning. Chapman, Rudd and Wright had fortuitously stumbled onto ground-effects and slowly over the course of the year succeeded in ironing out many of its foibles. Now they would use everything they had learned to build a ground-effects car from the ground up. Grand Prix racing would never be the same again. Like lots of Chapman’s bright ideas skirts did eventually get banned, but large sidepods with radiators in-situ have been a part of the makeup of every single seater race car ever since…as has the quest for the holy grail of maximizing the air flow under the car and achieving downforce without drag.

It may have been the Lotus 79 that gave Mario Andretti his world championship but it wasn’t his favourite car to drive. He said, “If I was going to choose the car that gave me the most satisfaction winning races, I would say the Lotus 78 rather than the 79…   I loved the 78. You could hustle that car right to the end of the race”…or at least until it ran out of fuel…

The only way I could have done justice to the 1977 season would have been to write a book about it:) Below is part one of the summary of the season…some of the highlights were Wolf winning at their first race, first win for Alan Jones, first race for the turbocharged Renault…steaming by the side of the track at Silverstone, first race for Gilles Villenueve…and lots more…

18 responses to “#F1 History: 1977 John Player Special Mk III – Harnessing the Power of the Wind

  1. Good article about an interesting time in the sport’s technological development. Thank you, Jennie.

    • What was most fascinating was how much of it was just fortuitous…the questioning of seemingly random happenings and where it led…

      During my research I came across this quote from Peter Wright…“I met Jim Hall once, at the Festival of Speed. He was this wonderful tall Texan and you couldn’t miss his Stetson. I went up to him and said, ‘You’re Jim Hall, I’m Peter Wright. I think between us we wrecked motor sport!’”

      • Such an apt quote of Peter Wright.
        Far too many people believe, spuriously I will ad, that cars of any class can not be raced unless they are adorned with ‘aerodynamic aids’.

        The positive to ‘aero’ is greater cornering speed. (Though, one second in a 90 second lap does not tell me the speed is quite as large as what the punter is led to believe).

        One of the negatives – and it is a huge negative!! – is that any car following too closely can not gain complete use of its own aerodynamics because the preceding car has created large turbulence and a huge mess of low air pressure, (study the spray pattern behind any current F1 car in the wet, even at low speed!) and thus has to remain about one second behind waiting for the air to reconstitute itself.

        The ‘wrecking’ that Wright refers to is that no longer can a driver dictate exactly how close he will hound the preceding car and for how long, aerodynamics having forced every following car (or cars) to remain at that one second barrier. To race inside that one second area will increase forces on tyres so markedly that within a few corners, because of the reduced effect from the wings, tyres will be ruined and so possible for only a fleeting moment.

        That means that the car, or more specifically the aerodynamics, dictates the distance it can compete with a preceding car. That distance, measured in precious time, is far too large. So large, droves of once staunch fans are leaving, due to their insomnia being cured.

        Bernie and his cohort of vandals realise this and have failed miserably trying a spray of ludicrous tactics to make F1 ‘exciting’.
        The only thing needed in F1 (and maybe every form of car racing) is to ditch the aerodynamics and rely solely on gravity. (MotoGP currently corners at close to 2 ‘G’ forces. Not a sole would win arguing they are slow around corners).

        Currently I feel terribly sad and sorry for the chaps ‘racing’ in F1. Very few can truly show their complete skill, bravery and talent because they are restricted and inhibited from actual racing. How frustrating for them. All due to aerodynamics.

        Abolish the ‘aero package’ and allow the racers to race.

        • Thanks Mo…really enjoyed reading your thoughts…

          I think Peter Wright saw that it was like opening Pandora’s Box…that it would never be possible to go back…unfortunately…

          It is also interesting that Moto GP bikes are now starting to have “winglets” and so disturb the air of the bikes following them. They were trying to ban them, but instead from 2017 they are going to give everyone compulsory spec winglets and so avoid a “winglet war” with aero costs spiraling out of control…they have obviously learned from F1!

          • Thanks Jennie
            I do understand your (or Wright’s) point but disagree.

            It seems very likely that the admins of F1 treat their ‘bread and butter’ cynically, in that, in exactly the same way politicians – hey let’s face it, Bernie and his villains think & act as the most powerful pollies do – there is a false belief that major changes can not happen, and prefer to let things ride. Or slide in the case of F1.

            Some of the opposition I have come across when talking of wing abolition are too silly to mention, but the most sensible was that the smaller classes would immediately be faster then F1. Therefore abolition would have to cover all single seat categories.

            Let us reminisce; due to the disastrous 1982 season a permanent & major change was implemented for the ’83 season: the abolition of ‘ground effect’ cars. So, revolution can happen. However, any thought from ‘the powers’ of wing abolition has been non existent and wings are so entrenched that fans give zero consideration to cars not wearing them. They are totally excepted. To not have them may be analogous of appearing in a crowded mall in knickers only.

            And here’s the kicker!; at the height of the ‘ground effect’ era, the cars could corner at around 2 gravities. This large (then) amount was accepted as a contributor to colossal carnage. Computer aided technology has allowed current F1 cars to corner at way above the amount that caused a small revolution more than 3 decades ago.

            I can easily imagine that because air is invisible it is not given much consideration. And maybe fans of motor racing rarely if ever think of its properties; a fully laden 747 (500 tonnes) takes off at a measly 190mph/310kmh! To explore this a little further takes only a short time to conclude the effect the extremely powerful ‘aero kit’ currently employed in Eff Wun has on such a feather light machine.

            Do not get me wrong though. I would gladly accept any amount of cornering force, but only if it does not prohibit the ability of nose to tail racing for as long as the drivers wish. At the risk of sounding like a politician via repetition it is solely the fault of the aerodynamics which dictate the distance a chasing car can get to the ahead car. I see it as an inability to race.

            However, a question needs to be posed; is the enormous performance characteristics responsible for the demise of circuits such as Brands Hatch, Charade, Österreichring, Zandvoort, Montjuic, Nordschleife? If it is, then gladly I would accept a vast reduction in performance to witness racing at the above circuits.

            Bernie and his poisoning allies have been devising ways – as fans want – to allow ‘passing’. Ask any fan and what they want is nose to tail wheel to wheel race long dicing between any and all drivers. Passing is the ‘icing’. Presently the difference needed in speed between any cars to complete a pass is huge. And as the ‘passer’ sails off into the distance at an alarming rate, these passes leave me flat. True competition lacks.

            The thing is it could be so very very good.

          • I’ve really enjoyed reading your thoughts! After all, what is the use of knowing what happened in the past if it can’t change what we do in the future:) So…the possibility of going back…when were cars last able to follow closely…certainly they could in the early 2000’s…and by early 2010’s they couldn’t…was it just wings but tyres as well…as they changed the tyres to degrade did effect following and passing as well?

            I thought I was biased because of my love of the “pre-wings” era…and my lack of knowledge about the “aero era”! Even during the late 1970’s they were sliding their rear wheels around corners and were able to follow reasonably closely…I wonder if just simplifying the front wings would be a huge step forward, as well as a huge saving of money! It sometimes seems the teams spend most of their time making their front wing ever more complicated, and so even less able to deal with the dirty air coming from the car in front of them.

            “However, a question needs to be posed; is the enormous performance characteristics responsible for the demise of circuits such as Brands Hatch, Charade, Österreichring, Zandvoort, Montjuic, Nordschleife? If it is, then gladly I would accept a vast reduction in performance to witness racing at the above circuits.”

            So would I but even so I can’t imagine it ever happening…though I have heard rumours of upgrades to Zandvoort…but the thought of F1 cars ever racing there again seems too good to be true 🙂

            What you’ve written has made me think…as well as realize how much I don’t know…but I would love to see less wings on F1 cars…

          • Hi Jennie

            Thankyou for your comments. Is there a limit to how many comments can be made? Or made in a row? Your last (jennie mowbray April 16, 2016 at 22:27 ) on the topic of #F1 HISTORY: 1977 JOHN PLAYER SPECIAL MK III – HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE WIND does not seem to allow for a ‘reply’. Is it hidden somewhere where I can not see? I can reply to comments above and below but they;re not really related to what we’re discussing.

            Cheers to you Brett Hart

          • Hi Brett, there is a limit to the number of replies…I think because they can get too difficult to read, especially on phones. Thanks for your discussion and ideas – it was very interesting! Jennie

  2. “Now you’ve shown them all what you can do! Why did you need to go so quick? You ought to have backed off!”

    Mercedes have learned this lesson well 🙂

    • But what are Mercedes trying to hide…we all know they have an amazing engine..but if teams think they’re catching up maybe they won’t try so hard…or maybe not…
      Lotus “misled” the field about their “secret” for a whole season…but not for two 🙂

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