In his book To Hell and Back, Niki Lauda had little praise for ground effect F1 cars.
He called the things stupid, and the few who could drive them madmen. Those brutal machines were one of the causes for Lauda’s first retirement in 1979, when he slowly started coming to terms with his increasingly jaded feelings towards the sport he once loved.
Lauda quit just in time, because 1980 was the first full year of ground effect cars, with rock solid suspensions and zero consideration for driver comforts. These cars handled on rails, and couldn’t be hustled off the racing line. Lauda said the driver merely hung on for dear life.
The huge downforce these cars generated was too much for the tyres of the time and eventually ground effect cars ran their last lap, but in 1980 this new world of aerodynamics was a leveling field, and teams scrambled to design ground effect cars looking for any advantage to take the technological lead in F1.
Ferrari too was scrambling, especially since they were defending champions with Jody Scheckter having won the drivers’ title in 1979. Once Mauro Forghieri had sorted the understeering front end, the Ferrari 312T that gave Jody his title was a wonderful car, with a flat-12 engine and a short wheelbase, wide track providing what Lauda called beautiful handling.
Unfortunately these natural balances and a finely set-up 312T meant nothing in 1980. The car was by then five years old, and Ferrari was ill-equipped to turn it into a ground effect monster. The main culprit was the fantastic flat-12 engine, which was too wide with its 180-degree layout to accommodate a ground effect design.
The rest of the field took a huge leap ahead with their ‘wing’ cars, but Ferrari was left to languish with a has-been scoring its worst F1 season ever. As defending champs the Scuderia managed to collect a grand total of eight points all season, with Gilles Villeneuve bagging six and Scheckter managing a single points finish with a fifth place in the US Grand Prix.