Formula 1 racing cars have recently returned to an emphasis on “ground effects,” an aerodynamic approach pioneered in the 1970s to optimize a vehicle’s adhesion to the track. On February 1, in an exhibition center under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, one of the most famous cars of that bygone era proved a suction for attention as well.
As it turns out, Mario Andretti’s 1978 John Player Special Lotus-Cosworth Type 79 will be the headlining car to be auctioned in the first collaboration between Bonhams and the F1 Paddock Club at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. This was the car with which Andretti won the Dutch Grand Prix that year, then went on to also finish first at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza (though he was dropped to sixth place due to a penalty for jumping the start). Andretti’s performance that season resulted in him becoming only the second Formula 1 racer from the US to take the World Drivers’ Championship title. This was also the car that gave the Lotus team—under the direction of Colin Chapman— its final and most convincing constructors’ title.
“I love that car,” said Andretti in a recent email to Robb Report. “I cherish what it means to me. I hope it goes for a gazillion dollars!”
Not since the 1955 season, when the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows won five of the six races, had a car so dominated: In 1978, the Lotus Type 79 steered its drivers to six overall victories and five podiums in 11 Grand Prix races. In that same span, it clocked five fastest race laps, of which two were set by Andretti.
Mark Osborne, the Global Director of Motorsport for Bonhams Collector Cars, expects this example to fetch between $6.5 million and $9.5 million. Bonhams would not release the name of the current owner, but said he lives on the east coast of the United States.
“This particular car represents the zenith of Chapman and the designers at Lotus,” says Osborne. “And if you want a championship-winning car driven by an American, that’s your only choice—your only option.” The Ferrari 156 “sharknose” of the other American world champion, Phil Hill (who won the title in 1961), was scrapped by the team after the season and no longer exists.
Osborne credits the Lotus Type 79 as marking one of the three historic revolutions in Grand Prix racing cars. The trio comprise the 1932 Alfa Romeo Tipo B, which was the first true single-seat Grand Prix racing car; the 1958 Cooper Climax, the first real rear-engine Formula 1 car; and the 1978 Lotus, for its advancement of ground effects.
An innovative new approach to aerodynamics at the time, ground effects use the underbelly of the car to suck the vehicle down to the track to improve traction and allow it to corner better. During early testing, the Lotus Type 79 produced 30 percent more downforce than its Type 78 predecessor, and so the chassis had to be strengthened.
“Although they are only months apart, if you put the two cars side by side, the 79 looks a different generation compared to the 78,” says Osborne.
The technology was very quickly adopted by the other teams, that is until it was banned in 1983 because the cars became too fast in cornering and accidents occurred when the seal between car and track was broken. Ground effects did not officially return until the 2022 season.
Starting with its victory at the Belgian Grand Prix on May 21, 1978, the Lotus Type 79 dominated the series that year. Up for auction is chassis No. 79/4, the actual car in which Andretti won the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, with teammate Ronnie Peterson coming in second. Those finishes were enough to give Lotus the constructors’ title.
With three races left, Peterson was the only driver who could still threaten Andretti’s lead in the charge for the World Drivers’ Championship. But tragically, the Swede was injured in a multicar pileup at the start of the race in Monza, and died overnight in the hospital.
Adding to this Lotus Type 79’s iconic status is its livery—one of the most recognized in all motorsport: the John Player Special black and gold, which led to this car sometimes being called “Black Beauty.”
“It’s major cool,” says Philip Kantor, International Chairman of Bonhams Motoring. “It is like a Martini livery, or Gulf. Those are magical liveries.” But he added that the Lotus goes well beyond that. When it comes to technological innovation, a world championship title and a legendary driver, “it ticks all of those boxes,” says Kantor. “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Click here for more photos of Mario Andretti’s 1978 Lotus-Cosworth Type 79 Race Car.