“I actually had the idea back in 1968 but for a completely different application.” The words belong to Derek Gardner, designer of the Tyrrell Project 34, one of the most memorable and innovative Formula One cars of all time, which carried the unique distinction of being the only six-wheeled car to start a grand prix. And the limited nature of its success, says Gardner, had little to do with the idea in itself and rather more to do with mid-70s technology proving unable to keep up with it. Even as it was, the Project 34 was a winner, not perhaps in early ’70s Tyrrell terms but certainly by any other objective measure. It won only the fourth grand prix it contested and finished its 1976 maiden season having put one or other of its drivers on the podium 10 times in the 13 races it contested that year.
By the season’s end Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler — not then considered quite Premier League drivers — finished the championship respectively third and fourth behind world champion James Hunt and Niki Lauda. And in the constructors, Tyrrell scored 71 points, just three behind Hunt’s employer McLaren, itself some way behind winners Ferrari. The next best team, Lotus, scored just 29. And even 1977, now remembered as the season it all went wrong for the P34, brought one second and three thirds.
Spool back nine years, jump across the Pond and land in the 1968 Indianapolis 500, the event which sowed the seed that became the Project 34.
Gardner takes up the tale: “I was over there on secondment to Lotus, working on its four-wheel-drive gas turbine car. The drivers were having a terrible time with the way the all-wheel-drive transmission was making the car react when they came on and off the throttle, and that despite a gas turbine motor which naturally behaves better in this respect than a conventional engine. “I then went to work on the four-wheel-drive Matra F1 car and the problem was even worse. And it occurred to me then, as it had at Indy, that if you split the load over four front wheels, only two of which would be driven, then reasonable stability could be found without losing drive to the front” The idea came to nothing either at Matra or at Indy — Gardner wrote to Andy Granatelli proposing a six-wheel, four-wheel-drive gas turbine car and notes with a chuckle that he didn’t even get a reply — but it was firmly lodged in his head.
“Then we found ourselves in the ’70s and in a strait-jacket. Almost everyone out there had the same engine, the same gearbox, the same tyres: we needed to find a way out, we needed an unfair advantage, and the six-wheeler was it.”
Clearly, however, the original four-wheel drive concept for the six-wheeler had written itself out of consideration in Formula One, so the idea was adapted to serve an altogether different purpose.
It is popularly supposed that the rationale behind the Project 34 was to reduce frontal area; the truth is that though this had a little to do with it, frontal area was actually governed by the vast width of the rear tyres, so this was never its true purpose. There were many issues that spoke in favour of four front wheels, from the extra rubber it put on the road to the greater swept area of brake disc, but the real reason was downforce. A small slice of science. Introduce an exposed wheel and tyre to a moving flow of air and it will generate a force at right angles to its cylindrical axis; and the size of that force is directly related to the size of the wheel and its tyre. In short, exposed tyres create lift, and the bigger they are, the greater the lift they will generate.
The simple answer would have been to enclose them under bodywork but F1 regulations, then as now, forbade this. Gardner’s idea was to use smaller wheels, double their number to maintain or improve tyre rubber and brake pad area, and translate the resulting reduction in lift into more good old-fashioned grip. In theory this meant that while everyone else dealt with the problem by using more wing on the front to counteract the lift of the tyres, the Tyrrell would not need to and therefore have a straight-line advantage too.
As a concept it was brilliant and one that, in reality, had some interesting and positive by-products. These included massively reduced brake pad wear and, thanks to the vastly higher speeds at which the front wheels turned, much better brake cooling too.
At first, all went splendidly. Gaining the bespoke components needed for the P34 (suspension, brakes, shock absorbers) was easy enough and Gardner was amazed by just how eager Goodyear was to develop and supply the tiny 10-inch front tyres. Developing the car, however, took an age.
“When we first announced the car,” Gardner remembers, “it was the end of 1975, it hadn’t turned a wheel and, while we had confidence in it, we told everyone it was a concept for research purposes which might or might not have racing applications.”
The problems, some of which were more perceived than real, were these. First, the driver could not see the front tyres which at first made Gardner sufficiently worried about the P34 pilots being able to place the car accurately in the corners that he cut portholes into the bodywork; this way a driver could also keep an eye on tyre condition. In fact, the portholes soon became covered in dirt and the drivers, once used to the car, never had trouble aiming it into the apex.
A more thorny issue was brake balance, since it not only had to be achieved between the front and rear, but also between the four front wheels. If one axle locked before the other, it would have the effect of either shortening or lengthening the wheelbase. This would, of course, introduce rather unwelcome characteristics into the handling. Scheckter, despite winning the 1976 Swedish GP in it, is scathing about the P34. “It was a rubbish car. I never agreed with the two fundamental concepts behind it, reducing frontal area and improving braking. Frontal area is determined by the rear tyres, and as for the brakes, as soon as one set locked you had to lift off. It only really worked on very smooth surfaces and, back then, there just weren’t many of those around.”
Even so, as the winter drew on and ’75 turned to ’76, it did become abundantly clear that the Project 34 was nothing if not swift. The team tested almost non-stop, not simply ironing the bugs out of the six-wheeler but also doing comparative tests against its still-extant predecessor, the 007. “And soon,” Gardner says, “on any circuit and with either driver, the P34 was quicker.”
To an extent it would have been rather concerning had it not been. The 007 had made its debut in 1974 and while it had proved itself more than capable then — Jody and Patrick came first and second in Sweden just as they would two years later — the game had rather moved on. Even so, the 1976 season would be already four races old before the concept became reality at the Spanish Grand Prix. In the heat of Jarama, a lone P34 was provided for Depailler who duly qualified it ahead of everyone save Hunt and Lauda. The 007borne Scheckter could manage just 14th.
Patrick ran out of brakes after just a third of the race but P34 would score its first points with fourth place for Jody at Zolder a fortnight later, and then claim both remaining podium positions behind Lauda’s winning Ferrari at Monaco.
The curve peaked at Anderstorp on 13 June. Jody gave the P34 the one and only pole of its career and followed Mario Andretti’s Lotus 77 until the American’s DFV blew 45 laps into a 72-lap race. Mario was operating anyway under a one-minute penalty for jumping the start, so effectively Jody led from the flag. He won, with Patrick second again and Lauda a distant third for Ferrari. Today Scheckter puts it down to no more than, “Tyrrells always seemed to go well in Sweden.”
Flat this may sound, but there is a point of sorts in there: Anderstorp had always been an odd circuit where odd things happened, and few thought that the result had much to say about the true pace of the car. Gallingly, the car itself was getting quicker but this would not be shown in its relative pace through the rest of the season. There would be many more podia, races led and fastest laps, but its winning was already over. Gardner has no trouble identifying the source of the problem.
“It was the front tyres,” he recalls. “Ferrari and McLaren were the real front-runners that season and, understandably, Goodyear put most of their efforts behind these two teams. So while our rear tyres improved considerably, development of those at the front was almost non-existent.”
There was also an inherent problem in the crossply construction of the Goodyear slick when applied to such tiny tyres with such consequently high rotational speeds. Michelin were approached and were keen to develop a 10-inch version of its radial tyre which Gardner believes might have been the answer but, by the time it was ready, Goodyear would be yet further down the track. The season ended with a fine and fighting second place for Depailler in the rain of Fuji, but by the time the grid reconvened in Argentina on 9 January 1977 with Ronnie Peterson replacing Scheckter, the dream was almost over. By now the front and rear of the car were dramatically imbalanced and, says Gardner, “poor Ronnie just couldn’t get on with it at all, unlike Patrick who took to it as if it were his own.” Ronnie qualified 14th and spun into retirement in the race. Scheckter, by contrast, was now driving the Wolf WR1 in the team’s first season as a constructor — and won.
We will not dwell on the rest of the season. A disillusioned Gardner left the team before its end, and was replaced by Maurice Phillippe who widened the front track and moved the oil radiators forward, all to get back the very front-end grip which had been its secret weapon the season before. It did not work.
James Hunt predicted at the end of 1976: “There’s nothing special about the six-wheelers and, as yet, they’ve done nothing that you can’t do with a four-wheel car. When the car has reached the end of its development life, they have either got to take the theory substantially further or go back to four wheels. I don’t see that there’s a future for them or anyone else building a six-wheeler to the configuration they’ve got at the moment.” He was right. Formula One is full of what ifs, but at least how the P34 would have performed on tyres that were up to the job is no longer one of them.
Last year Martin Stretton won outright the Thoroughbred Grand Prix championship driving an early 77-spec P34 running on Avon tyres that are as good at the front as back. “I tell you,” says Stretton, “it has the best frontend grip of any non-ground effect grand prix car. The brakes are also fabulous. Those Avons we run have at last allowed the car’s potential to be fulfilled. It’s not as quick in a straight line as it perhaps should be, that’s only because we have to run with much more wing on the car to keep up with the later cars from the ground-effect era that it now races against” No one, least of all Stretton, is making direct comparisons between then and now.
The drivers, tracks and surfaces have all changed so it is not possible to even suggest how the P34 would have got on in 1977 had it run on tyres of the calibre of the Avons. All we do know, however, is that Gardner left Tyrrell after the 1977 Italian Grand Prix having written down by hand the set-up for the race. When the car was restored to race again and it returned to Monza, he produced the same piece of paper and applied exactly the same settings. “And the car,” says Stretton, “was brilliant straightaway.” Not something either of its original drivers would have been tempted to observe at the time.
We’ll never know, but neither Gardner nor Stretton doubts that the true pace inherent with Project 34 went unrealised in 1976 and ’77. And what remains beyond doubt is that, so competitive was the car back in early 76, it would have only taken a small improvement to put it at least on a par with the top performers — the McLaren M23 and Ferrari 312T2. Had this been the case, Goodyear might well have paid more attention to its front tyres and, instead of falling off the pace, the P34 might have gained the hardwear to set it.
What this would have meant for the future of the car, the project and perhaps even Formula One is something over which we can now only speculate. But back then, Fl only looked forwards. On the 15 January 1978, the team appeared in Argentina with the new 008 and it put Depailler on the podium at its first attempt Like every other car to start a grand prix since, it had just four wheels. Tyrrell’s Project 34 was dead.