Quite what Tyrrell’s drivers thought when the wraps were taken off the teams new for 1976 challenger is hard to fathom, but we’re willing to bet that neither Patrick Depailler nor Jody Scheckter were exactly subdued when they saw the P34 (and its radical six wheel layout) for the first time. It looked like nothing before or since, and at a stroke the six-wheeled car cemented itself as among the most dramatic of innovations in the history of F1. This is the story of how it came to be, how it performed, and why we never got to see a grid stuffed with six-wheeled wonders.
The P34 was the brainchild of Tyrrell’s Derek Gardner, and like many of the greatest left field ideas from the annals of motorsport history it was conceived as a means of gaining a slight advantage. Roll back to the mid-seventies and the world of F1 was more hotly contested than ever, with almost the whole grid running a Cosworth DFV of some sort and with all cars sporting effective (if rudimentary) aerodynamics. Tyrrell needed to reassert itself at the front of the pack, and the concept of the six-wheeled F1 car was Gardner’s submission.
Not that the idea was a new one, not when Gardner had been pondering the concept since the late sixties when he’d floated it as a solution to the handling issues encountered by Lotus and its gas turbine-powered, all-wheel drive Indy car. Gardner reasoned that spreading the load over four small front wheels would help enhanced stability without sacrificing drive – and traction – at the front end.
The all-wheel drive F1 concept of course came to nothing, but its potential was as all too apparent – at least to Gardner. Not that the twin front axle layout was intended purely to improve handling, rather it was a clever means of reducing the number of wheels inherent in an open-wheel category like F1, with exposed front wheels liable to wreak havoc with otherwise carefully sculpted aerodynamics.
The obvious, complete solution would be to enclose the wheels in the bodywork, but this has long been ruled illegal by the F1 powers that be and as such the concept of a six-wheeler – particularly one with a quartet of small wheels at the front, was deemed a decent enough stand in. The reduction in front end lift would be accompanied by a resultant increase in grip, which would in theory permit Tyrrell to run with less front-end downforce, resulting in enhanced top-speed performance on the straights. The concept would also permit enhanced brake cooling thanks to the increased rpm of the small wheels, and also reduced brake wear, so in theory it really was a win-win.
Of course there were complications, and plenty of them. The most fundamental one concerned brake balance, with the twin front axles effectively introducing a new variable into an already heady mix, namely what would happen if one axle locked before another. This, it transpired, had the somewhat alarming effect of either lengthening or shortening the wheelbase, mid-corner, and with little to no warning. It caused a rather alarming tendency to lock up and helped make the P34 a tricky car to drive with confidence.
Gardner also fretted that the combination of the P34’s high-sided tub (by the standards of the day) and smaller wheels would prevent the driver from being able to actually see them, in turn increasing the likelihood of a wheel related disaster. His solution was to provide ‘portholes’ for the driver to see out of, one on either side of the tub. They worked well, though only until they became obscured by race grime and other race detritus.
Testing proved the P34 to be quick, though – significantly faster than its 007 predecessor and with the potential to upset the established F1 order, something it set about doing from the moment of its debut, four races into the 1986 season at the Spanish Grand Prix. Depaillier (the driver most smitten with the six-wheeler) qualified in third behind the pace setting McLaren and Ferrari of James Hunt and Nicky Lauda respectively, and while brake issues scuppered his race it was clear that there was much to recommend about the P34 and its concept.
Scheckter was markedly less sold on the idea than his teammate, though he still used it to net fourth next time out at Zolder in Belgium, while he and Depallier locked out the bottom two steps of the podium in Monaco.
Then came the undoubted highpoint of the six-wheel concept, the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp. Here, Scheckter qualified on pole and sprinted into the lead, a position cemented when Mario Andretti’s engine blew up, allowing Depallier to take second spot. A famous one-two was secured, the one and only time a six-wheeled F1 car would manage such a feat.
So, what went wrong? Why, despite tasting success in 1976 and being developed into 1977, did the late seventies not produce a slew of six-wheeled F1 cars of increasing capability, rather than the Tyrell and its imitators, never raced projects from March and Williams?
In a word, tyres – namely Goodyear’s unwillingness to further develop the special 10in tyres found on the front of the P34. The firm was already busy developing regular rubber for the leading McLaren and Ferrari teams, and as such the Tyrrell project lagged behind, something painfully obvious come the end of the season.
It didn’t help that the P34 remained a divisive device throughout its career, with Scheckter vocalising his distaste for the car and its wayward braking traits from the off, and this despite his Swedish success. Depallier loved it of course, but his team mate for 1977, the incomparable Ronnie Peterson, struggled to get to grips with it at all.
Come the end of the 1977 season and the era of the six-wheeled F1 car was over; Goodyear were unwilling to continue tyre development, and while discussions with Michelin were entered soon after the talks were never anything more than tentative. The imbalance between the continually developed rear tyres (shared with the rest of the grid) and the specialist fronts had conspired to rob the P34 of the front end grip and stability it had been designed to provide, and it was quietly retired at the end of the year.
One of the truly frustrating aspects of the whole affair was that the potential of the core concept had been proved beyond all doubt, and also that a viable solution was possible – it just demanded Tyrrell get into bed with a different tyre supplier. P34s have subsequently competed in – and won – historic F1 championships, often besting later ground effect cars, this time with fully developed Avon rubber front and rear.