Formula One 6-Wheel Cars

Formula One could have looked a lot different nowadays if Derek Gardner had succeeded in turning his 6-wheel F1 car project – commonly known as Project 34 – into a hit. Well, not that he didn't anyway, it just lasted too short and received too little support from the world of motor racing in order to become a regular in the sport. We're sure you've all heard about mid-1970s headline grabber Tyrrell P34 car. But just in case you've missed it, here's a little inside on how it all started, its short history and, of course, its too sudden end.

It was car designer Gardner who first came up with the idea, when trying to figure out a way to make Indy Car machineries more drivable in the Gas Turbine era (the late 1960s). His innovative thinking led to the idea of fitting your regular racing car with 4 wheels in the front, in order to improve the car's stability when pushing the gas pedal.

Although the idea was not initially picked up by the North American racing body – as the powerful gas turbine Indy cars were soon prohibited in the USAC – Gardner did not let go that easily. Half-of-decade later, while working as chief car designer for Elf – Tyrrell Racing, he decided to give it another shot. This time, however, the 6-wheeler design was aimed at improving the car's speed in straight line rather than provide better stability after exiting the corners (as initially planned in the IndyCar).

The time in which Gardner decided to come to Ken Tyrrell and show him the innovative design was characterized by a constant fight, from all F1 teams, to find some extra power for their cars. All cars were fitted with the same engine – Ford Cosworth V8 DFV – same gearbox and were using the same Goodyear tires.

As explained by Gardner when finally revealing the design to his team boss, if an F1 machinery would benefit from 4 smaller wheel in front and 2 regular wheels in the rear, that would lead to less lift on track. While the other cars would counteract this effect by using larger front wings, the 6-wheel car would take care of the problem while using a narrower front wing, therefore improving its performances in straight line.

Although crazy to begin with, the idea was soon picked up by Tyrrell, who immediately rolled it into production (as a prototype, of course). The project was nicknamed “Tyrrell P34” – to differentiate it from the past Tyrrell cars, having the code 005, 006, 007 and so on – and was first presented to the media at the Heathrow Hilton Hotel on September 22nd 1975.

As any project, the initial car did not prove very effective during testing. While, as predicted, very fast on the long straights, its main disadvantages came from its awful aerodynamics. After fixing those problems, the Tyrrell P34 had to overcome intense front tire wear. The cause of that was quite obvious, as the front tires were only 0.625 of the rear tires' diameter, therefore had to travel approximately 1.6 times faster than the latter.

More, both Tyrrell drivers – Patrick Depailler and Jody Scheckter – had to adapt their driving styles to the higher-front end and smaller front wheels fitted to the P34. Needless to say, both were having difficulties positioning their car in the corners, which led to the famous “port holes” in the cockpit side. This way, the drivers were able to keep an eye on their tires continuously, with the overall view also helping them evaluate their car's position in corners at any time.

The Tyrell P34 finally debuted in Formula 1 as a competition car at the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix, with Depailler (it was only him to drive the P34 in Spain) managing to score the 3rd fastest time in qualifying.

Starting the next race in Belgium both drivers were given the P34 to drive and the results were amazing. Scheckter scored P34's first (and only) win in Formula 1 during the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp – after scoring a pole position – as he was followed by teammate Depailler.

Unfortunately, due to the poor development of the front tires, the upcoming months would prove the last successful ones for the Tyrrell P34 in Formula One. Goodyear had no interest in further developing 10” tires, considering the British outfit was the only one who actually used it, making the tire wear problem impossible to tackle. In addition, the fact that the front tires were traveling at a higher speed than the rear ones also led to a higher level of heat from the brakes. Finding the best solution to cool the front brakes was also a close-to-impossible job for the Tyrrell outfit.

All in all, the P34 ended the 1976 season with an overall one win, 8 additional podiums and 2 fastest laps. Scheckter eventually finished 3rd in the overall classification, while Tyrrell also ended their maiden P34 campaign in 3rd place.

After a series of developments through the 1976/77 offseason – with Ken Tyrell setting up a new R&D centre at Ockham, UK – the 1977 campaign begun miserably for the “improved” P34. Neither newcomer Ronnie Peterson, nor Depailler managed to finish the first race, despite the newly-introduced fiber glass body shell. The entire season would go down in the same manner – mainly because, regardless of the new developments, tire wear and brake cooling were never solved – forcing Gardner to leave the team and Tyrrell Racing to renounce the idea completely.

However, the Tyrrell P34 was not the only 6-wheel F1 car to see daylight. The March 2-4-0 was another project aiming to make its F1 debut in 1977, only financial difficulties in developing the design of the car made it impossible for Max Mosley (co-owner of March Cars) and designer Robin Herd to eventually start it during an actual Grand Prix.

Having supervised the development of the initial P34 project, Herd came up with the idea of fitting 4 wheels in the rear of the car, rather than in the front. The main argument for that was that the extra grip provided by the 4 tires would have proven much more effective in the rear of the car. Also, there was no need for special development of 10” Goodyear tires, as the prototype would use regular F1 tires all the way. This would have made the car slimmer, while also improving traction.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of funds from the March team, a functional gearbox able to drive the 4 wheels in the rear was impossible to manufacture. During the car's very first demonstration lap at Silverstone, before the media, the gearbox casing flexed and the gears became unmeshed, turning the 2-4-0 into a 2-wheel drive car. The project was eventually scraped by March Team.

It was only Frank Williams, some 5 years later, to take the design of the 2-4-0 and try to turn it into a race winner during the 1982 season. Commonly known as the Williams FW08B, the car never saw grand prix daylight either, as the team was unable to further develop the 6-wheeler in order to become faster than the 4-wheel variant. “Old Frank” finally renounced the idea to revive the 6-wheel concept a year later, following FIA's decision to ban 4-wheel-drive from Formula 1.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram Twitter

Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories