When Tyrrell sought an ‘unfair advantage’, there was an ingenious solution: two extra
When I say there will never be another track test like this, I say so with a confidence inspired not simply by the subject’s unique, six-wheeled selling point. It’s also because what I’m sitting in can be seen almost as more a historical document of record than a racing car.
I’ll explain. What you’re looking at here is Tyrrell-Ford P34/2, the first of the six-wheeled racers (P34/1 being the unraced prototype) which made its debut in May 1976 at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, the fourth race of the season, and effectively retired to unused T-car status after the 1977 US GP West at Long Beach a little less than a year later. And while it didn’t win any of the 14 Grands Prix it contested, it did put Patrick Depailler, the only man ever to race this car, on the podium on five of those occasions. So we can agree it is quite an important car. Combine this with the five podiums scored by Jody Scheckter’s P34/3, including a top step at Anderstorp, plus four more achieved by three other P34 chassis, and what we have here is not quite the failure that history suggests it was.
But even this is not really the point. The thing about P34/2 is that after its final season it became frozen in time, ending up as a long-term exhibit in the Donington Collection. Every single thing you can see on or in this car with the sole exception of the tyres was there in 1977. And I don’t just mean engine, gearbox and chassis, I mean wishbones, wings, wheels and wiring, seat, belts, switches and dials. It is a time capsule.
Of course there are other cars in other museums in similar condition. The difference here is that this one runs. Bought by Roger Wills after the death of Tom Wheatcroft, he commissioned WDK Motorsport to see if they could get it going in time for the 2010 Goodwood Festival of Speed. “We cleaned out the fuel system as best we could, changed the oil and put a match to it,” says WDK’s Ian Cox only slightly metaphorically. Somewhat remarkably, P34/2 sparked up as if it had been days, not decades, since she last ran. Roger and Joe Twyman drove it up the hill and now it’s sitting in the Silverstone pitlane waiting for me.
It looks frail, probably because it is. The 1977-spec bodywork with its front oil coolers is scored, pitted and blistered. The foam headrest support has perished almost entirely, and when the body comes off, exposed and ancient wiring makes me pleased this is a gentle test at a wide and safe Silverstone. At least I don’t have to think about the state of the suspension; this is one test where caution will be my watchword.
What has occupied my thoughts, not just in the run-up to driving the P34 but for years beforehand, was the thinking that led to its creation. Even our own Denis Jenkinson, who was never short of a sentence, admitted to being ‘speechless’ when he saw it for the first time.
Like many others I had bought the line that it was all about reducing frontal area, but a quick chat with its designer, Derek Gardner, soon set me straight on that. “We found ourselves in a straitjacket. Almost everyone had the same engine, gearbox and tyres; we needed an unfair advantage, and the six-wheeler was it. But it was never about frontal area: that was determined by the width of the rear tyres.”
Instead it was about grip. Four small wheels put more rubber on the road than two conventional wheels; you also gain a greater swept area of brake disc. Better, because a wheel and tyre exposed to a moving flow of air will generate a force at right angles to its cylindrical axis, and the size of that force is directly related to the size of wheel and tyre, so the smaller the wheels the lower that force will be. In short, small wheels meant less lift, which meant more grip. It was pure genius.
The driving forces behind the car were not just Tyrrell and Gardner, but Depailler too. While Scheckter was and remains to this day dismissive of the P34 — he told me he thought the car was rubbish, except his language was a little more colourful than that — it was Depailler, a lover of all things mechanical and experimental, who urged it on. The fact that it was known merely by its project number, rather than as the next in the line of ’00’ racers, demonstrates how unsure Tyrrell was about its viability, and Jenks cites Depailler as the man who provided the ‘real impetus’ to go racing with it.
It’s such a shame Patrick is no longer with us, and not just because his broken Alfa Romeo at Hockenheim deprived the world of a driver who, if greatness was measured by how good a driver was to watch, would have been up there with the best in the world. With his 1977 teammate Ronnie Peterson gone too, and Scheckter indifferent to the point that it and the dreadful Ferrari 312T5 are the only significant cars from his Formula 1 career which he doesn’t own, there is no one who drove it in anger in period to speak on its behalf.
If you go onto YouTube and look at the on-board footage of Depailler hoofing it around places as diverse as Monaco and the original Kyalami, flinging this very car into extravagant drifts at ludicrous speeds just because he could and, I suspect, because he knew there was a camera on the car, you’ll know man and machine rarely achieved a more harmonious union than this. He once told editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck: “I run all the time at the limit. I like to run at the limit, to push things as far as I can. I am the same at everything. If I decide to do something, I give it everything. All the time.” See that footage of him and the P34 together and you won’t doubt his word.
But today, some 35 years after it was first unveiled to a disbelieving Jenks on the lawn of Tyrrell’s house in West Clandon, and despite the fact that I still own a rather battered die-cast model bought as a child, it remains a strange beast. It’s sitting in a garage full of other period racing F1 cars, but so far as the attention they’re getting from onlookers relative to the P34 goes, they might as well not have been there. If you hold up your hand and block off the front at the cockpit, it seems conventional, less pretty in its 1977 First National Travelers Checks (sic) livery than simple 1976 Elf blue, but normal enough. But move your hand to obscure the rear and reveal the front and wha you’re looking at might not even be a racing car, but something as likely to be designed to function on the moon, or the seabed. No wonder words failed our intrepid Continental Correspondent all those years ago.
Those diminutive 10-inch front wheels, the same diameter as those used on a 1959 Mini, are nothing like so interesting as the miniature double wishbone suspension system behind each one and the tiny ventilated discs they carry. I’ve not seen the data but for all they brought in terms of mechanical and aerodynamic grip, the price was paid in mechanical complexity and, surely, unsprung weight.
It’s a surprisingly and, some might say, needlessly spacious car. No modern aerodynamicist would allow such a wide aperture for accommodating a component as easily adaptable as a driver, even if he was the size of Ronnie Peterson. But as someone used to driving such cars in agony, if at all, it’s a blessed relief. We need to remove Patrick’s seat (how strange it is to write that…) but once installed on the bare aluminium tub there’s room aplenty for my shoulders, feet and elbows. Even his now somewhat threadbare belts fit.
Most of what I can see represents standard thinking of the day. Indeed the driving environment could as easily date from the early ’60s as the late ’70s — as if, shark-like, it had evolved to a point where there was no practical room for improvement.
That seems laughable now as, just for a start, the dials are so small you almost have to squint to see readings for fuel and oil pressure, water and oil temperature. The rev-counter is larger and straight ahead but still needs to be consciously looked at, rather than assimilated in your peripheral vision. But that’s just one of many differences between now and then: we watch gauges like hawks because these are old cars and expensive to repair; they just went flat out because nothing else mattered.
There’s a stubby, wood-topped gearshifter exactly where you would expect, less than a hand’s breadth from the small, black steering wheel, and then there’s a porthole. Yes, a porthole, through which I can see not one but two front wheels. Back then the ports were cut into the P34’s body to allow the driver to aim the car more accurately and, some say, monitor front tyre wear. Now they serve only to remind me that the rearmost set of front wheels are approximately parallel with my knees. I’ve never driven a car that can’t provide a straight answer to a question as simple as: ‘what’s the wheelbase?’
Time to go. Master, pump and ignition on, throttle on the floor, press the button and the DFV explodes into life much like any other. Except the pistons shuttling up and down the bores of this one as it warms up at an even 4000rpm are 33 years old, meaning they have exceeded their life expectancy by at least 32 years.
To say I am mindful of this is to understate the obvious. This P34 is about to go into a yearlong front to back restoration, and as the last person to drive it in original form the fear of damaging its ancient internals informs my every action more even than the usual fear of taking to the track in someone else’s F1 car with a power-to-weight ratio approximately double that of a Bugatti Veyron.
The clutch needs pumping before it will give me a gear, which is less than encouraging, but with a bit of gentle rocking first engages and with a surprising lack of drama the P34 eases out into the pitlane.
The first lap is a voyage of discovery but not for reasons I had expected. With tyres still cold I’m not going to do much more than guide the car around the track, but what strikes me first has nothing to do with its unique configuration. It’s the delightful ease with which the engine and gearbox can be used. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few DFVs under my right foot over the years, but none as tractable as this, suggesting a degree of drivability which has been sacrificed in more modern times in the pursuit of raw power. It pulls very nicely from under 5000rpm and starts climbing properly onto the cam from as little as 6000rpm. I drove one once that would scarcely function below 8500rpm…
And the Hewland five-speed gearbox is as nice and light as any I’ve tried. It may be that this one was particularly sweet when new and is now well run in, but once you’ve retuned your brain to accept just how close the gate is, you don’t have to think about it again because with two such well-defined planes, and first a safe distance away to your left, wrong-slotting seems inconceivable.
So it seems safe to up the effort level a little. Back in its day Depailler would have revved this engine to 10,500rpm or more, and until I’d discovered just how flexible this motor was, I’d worried about the unavoidable need to stay well shy of such numbers. In fact, because it comes on song so early you can gain a good impression of its raw speed without running the risk of decorating the Hangar Straight with its insides.
The punch of this era of F1 car is a novelty that must never wear off. Even this old Tyrrell, being driven necessarily gently and defensively, is so fast I can hear myself cackling in my Arai even above the exquisitely ugly din of the DFV. Coming out of Luffield in second it eats gears so fast that, even on the short pit straight, there’s all the time in the world for it to consume third, fourth and all the revs we’ll be using in fifth before you’re heading into Copse.
We sail through in fourth — I’m sure that on fresh rubber, with new suspension and a driver better versed in such cars it would get through in top — and head to the series of curves at Becketts. This is the bit I really wanted to get to: I was interested not so much in how it behaves on the limit because that was one place we’d not be visiting today, but simply how the six-wheeler addresses the road through the sweeping series of alternate lefts and rights.
And to be honest, it feels bloody strange. It’s so reactive to your every input the wheelbase seems shorter even than it is. It appears that you need do little more than look at a corner for the car to want to turn into it. Moreover the car plays a trick on you, I think because your mind is given the wrong impression of where the front wheels are relative to the rear and where, therefore, the yaw axis should be. But because — most of the time at least — the wheelbase has to be determined by the distance between the rear wheels and the aft pair of front wheels, that axis is further back than you think.
I imagine it’s a car that even someone who’s raced many F1 cars of this period would need to build up to; it may even provide some clue as to why a driver as gifted as Peterson entirely at home behind felt never its wheel. I suspect it’s a taste you either acquire, like the free-spirited Depailler, or don’t. Even the iron-willed Scheckter who mastered this car better than anyone never really got on with it, singling out the brakes for special criticism: “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.” He has a point.
Happily these are issues that will never concern me. I’m just astounded to be sitting here, guiding this car through Silverstone’s twists, watching those tiny wheels bob up and down, wondering about what might have been.
What appears beyond dispute is that none of the P34’s apparent shortcomings — its extra weight, mechanical complexity, variable wheelbase and unchanged frontal area — were responsible for its downfall. Instead it was undone by its tyres, specifically Goodyear’s inability or unwillingness to develop the fronts, unique to Tyrrell, at the same speed as the rears, which were the same as every Goodyear runner on the grid. Anecdotally it’s been suggested that by the end of ’77 the P34 would have been over a second a lap quicker if its front tyres had been able to keep up with the rears.
But it was not to be: Scheckter left the team at the end of ’76 despite the P34 coming home a mere three points behind McLaren in the Constructors’ Championship (whose driver James Hunt was champion too) and soon after Gardner jumped ship. Maurice Phillippe came on board and moved the oil radiators forward and widened the front track, but all to little avail. As Gardner told me, “by then the car was fundamentally unbalanced front to rear”, and the results spoke for themselves.
The great irony of the P34 is it was undone by front-end grip, the pursuit of which had sparked its creation in the first place. But as has since been suggested in historic racing, where another P34 driven by Martin Stretton has proven the class of the field thanks to Avon making front tyres that are just as good as the rears, its story could have been very different.
The good news is that P34/2 will race again, too. Roger Wills feels disinclined to let it remain a museum piece so will have it sympathetically restored, keeping every nut and bolt that can’t be used but making it safe to do once more what it was born to do. He’s even invited me back to have “a proper go in it”. I can scarcely wait.
Thanks to Roger Wills, Joe Twyman, Ian Cox of WDK Motorsport (www.wdkmotorsport. corn), the HSCC and Silverstone Circuits for making this feature possible.