WHEN 6 WHEELS WERE BETTER THAN 4 - TYRRELL P34

Credit: LAT Photographic

With almost every constructor running the same Cosworth DFV engine, a Hewland gearbox, and identical Goodyear tires, the competition in the mid-1970s was unfathomably close. Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner then introduced his latest design, the outlandish six-wheeled P34.

Arguably the most radical F1 car to race competitively, Gardner’s idea for a six-wheeled racing car was so unorthodox that even the great Jackie Stewart – to quote Gardner himself - “had a fit of choking” when informed of the idea on the flight home from the 1975 South African Grand Prix.

But what was the rationale behind such a radical design, and did it pay off? Well, in a nutshell yes… at least for a while.

Gardner aimed to improve upon several key aspects of the traditional F1 car with the introduction of a second front axle. Front-end lift is a common cause of understeer, an issue he sought to minimise with the P34. Theoretically, replacing the two front tires with four smaller ones contained within the width of the bodywork was the solution; the improved front-end grip and reduced drag was calculated to add an extra 40bhp to the car, making the P34 a competitive machine.

Credit: LAT Photographic

Not only did the 10-inch wheels reduce lift at the nose, but the physically increased contact area on the ground brought further grip-related benefits. The smaller wheels also made additional improvements to the brakes. The now-doubled front discs increased the braking force of the car whilst remaining at a stable temperature due to the increased rotational speed of the front wheels. In theory this could allow the driver to brake later prior to cornering.

With smaller front tyres, positioning the car became a difficult task for the drivers. With the standard two wheels, the driver is able to view the tyres at all time and position the vehicle on the desired racing-line, not to mention the ability to see which direction they’re pointing in; that’s always helpful. To overcome the obstructed view caused by high sideboards and the smaller wheels, Gardner added portholes to either side of the cockpit. These in theory would allow the driver to position the car with greater accuracy. In practice, not so much, as I'll revisit later...

The concept would prove to be successful at the car’s first F1 appearance, the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix. With only one chassis available for the weekend, Patrick Depailler qualified an impressive third on the grid in the new P34. This was 11 places better than teammate Jody Scheckter who was running in the two- year-old Tyrrell 007. Depailler would however fall victim to brake issues – which would riddle the P34’s F1 career to come – and retired from the race. Despite an early retirement, qualifying had illustrated the capability of the P34 and the fact it was a serious contender.

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A few weeks later in Monaco, Tyrrell experienced its first major success with the P34, finishing second and third, behind only Niki Lauda in his Ferrari. The team went from strength to strength, and at Sweden’s Anderstorp circuit Scheckter drove the P34 to victory, followed closely by Depailler, achieving an incredible one-two for the team. In doing so, the P34 became the only six-wheeled car to date to win a Formula 1 race. The car would go on to achieve a total of 14 podium finishes in just two seasons (30 races), which is very impressive.

Credit: Sutton Motorsport Images

Despite the success, Tyrrell’s P34 would face a premature demise, and the team would return to a more conventional four-wheeled approach from 1978 onwards. Several factors hindered the potential of the six-wheeled Tyrrell. The most notable was Goodyear’s reluctance to develop the bespoke 10-inch wheels for the P34. Whilst development continued for the full-size tyres, Goodyear paid little attention to Tyrrell’s special order, lacking incentive as these weren’t particularly profitable. Gardner recalls the development for these tyres as almost “non-existent”.  So, as the season went on the P34 became increasingly disadvantaged and drivability worsened, negating the main benefit of having four front tyres.

Another problem which riddled the P34 throughout its lifetime was the effect of having an altered brake balance. By introducing a second front axle, the balance was no longer a matter of front-to-rear, but now rather front-to-front-to-rear, which was a nightmare for the drivers as the wheelbase would effectively lengthen or shorten depending on which axle locked. And this was a common occurrence. Due to the smaller size of the front wheels, the chances of wheel-locking were far greater, meaning that the drivers would have to mash the brakes before applying any steering lock - not an issue on long straights and smooth surfaces, but in the '70s those weren't particularly common...

Credit: Sutton Motorsport Images

The issue of tyre wear was also a regular gremlin for the team; running smaller tyres than the standard 16-inch front wheels naturally resulted in faster tyre wear due to a higher rotation rate. As a result, the tyre tread would often overheat prematurely, and the front-end grip would deteriorate at an alarmingly quick rate further into the race.

The previously mentioned portholes also failed to perform effectively. Whilst the idea was commendable, it fell short in practice, as these transparent windows would become covered in dirt and grime within a few laps of racing, rendering them all but useless. However, in Anderstorp 1976 they did prove handy when one of the front tyres flew off Scheckter’s car during practice. Initially suspecting a puncture, the future world champion was surprised when he looked through the window to see a brake disc with no wheel, immediately heading for the pitlane.

The car received mixed reviews from its 3 drivers: Jody Scheckter, Patrick Depailler, and Ronnie Peterson. Depailler was a big fan of the P34 and is often credited as a major driving force behind the project. Achieving 8 podiums, he enjoyed the excessive oversteer which the car carried through tighter bends. Despite a reputation for flying around corners in opposite-lock, the ‘SuperSwede’ shared a dislike for the car along with Scheckter, who both complained that the tricky handling offset the theoretical benefits of running with six wheels.

Credit: Sutton Motorsport Images

Without a doubt the Tyrrell P34 was somewhat of a success in its first season of Formula 1 in 1976. Securing a win as well as several other podium finishes is impressive for such an unorthodox car, and Gardner's design even lead to other teams such as Williams and Ferrari testing six-wheeled cars of their own. However, the P34 remains the only six-wheeled design to race competitively and win in the sport. Perhaps with the right support from Goodyear, and technical upgrades carried into 1977, the bespoke Tyrrell machine would have gone much further; the F1 cars of today may have looked very different indeed.

 


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