Remember when Formula 1 cars had contrasting design features and distinctive silhouettes?
A few years ago one of the Japanese Formula 1 magazines published a fascinating quiz. It was built around black-and-white side-elevation line drawings of that particular season’s competing cars, omitting all advertising decals, livery lines and numbers. The quiz was simple. Identify each car by constructor name and model.
To anyone with a less than comprehensive contemporary feel for Formula 1, it was incredibly difficult to tell one car from another. Such was the effect of the category’s wall-to-wall modern regulations, combined with the common laws of physics that dictate shape from wind-tunnel testing.
One of the compelling characteristics of Hunt/Lauda era Grand Prix cars as demonstrated so engagingly by the Rush movie is their obvious variety in shape and configuration. James’s 1976-season McLaren M23 was as different from Niki’s Ferrari 312T2 as chalk from cheese. Similarly different from one another were the contemporary season’s flat-12 Brabham-Alfa BT45, the Lotus 77, Surtees TS19, Penske PC4, March 761s and Hesketh 308. Not to mention the Copersucar FD04, which looked like a cross between a corncob and a bulldozer. And, of course, there was the Tyrrell P34 – with its unique 4-2-0 layout and six wheels, the front four steerable.
After the 1977 season, Formula 1 regulations began to change rapidly, progressively confining, constricting and funneling the category into the ever more detailed strait jacket that prevails today. Certainly when Gordon Murray began design work for the McLaren F1 coupé, he absolutely revelled in the freedom suddenly available to him (fresh from Formula 1) within everyday road traffic regulations worldwide.
So something different always came as a refreshing relief in face of gathering regulation, and the sight of Ian Scheckter – Jody’s older brother – preparing to test the 0-2-4 configuration March six-wheeler at Silverstone back in 1977 has cheered me up.
Like Patrick Head of Williams with their 0-2-4 six-wheeler project, Robin Herd of March Engineering felt that with a modern rear-wheel drive F1 car, the extra contact could be employed more usefully in providing extra traction from the driven wheels, and with all six tyres the same size as the regular F1 front tyre, the car would pass much cleaner air over the rear wing than was possible with contemporary two-foot wide rear tyres as used by four-wheeled contenders.
The cash-strapped Bicester team then built a four-wheel-drive rear end to be bolted onto an existing March 761. As many existing parts as possible were used, with an effectively standard Hewland gearbox driving the centre pair of wheels plus an extension casing and drive for the third pair bolted on behind. March unveiled the car to the press in November 1976, but during Silverstone testing trouble soon intruded with the austerity-budget rear gearbox casing flexing – some of Robin’s intended reinforcing ribs having been omitted to save cost. The 2-4-0 then settled onto March’s back burner until February ’77 when, essentially for an instant sponsor-return in publicity, Ian Scheckter tried it at Silverstone in Rothmans livery, with the Rothmans aerobatic team’s Pitts Special biplanes handily lined-up for press photography. March – and its sponsor – got some exposure, Ian Scheckter described the 2-4-0’s traction as “unbelievable”, but the notion’s time within Formula 1 was past. So uniformity’s grip upon the premier class began to tighten, in every area except budget… and talent.