For a time, Derek Gardner’s unique P34 helped Tyrrell overcome a Cosworth power shortfall"Very few people knew we were building a six-wheeler," Ken Tyrrell said. "One of our mechanics lived 50 yards away from the factory, and his father had been my mechanic in Formula 3. The night before we took the car to Heathrow for its press launch, I took him into the workshop to show him the car. His son had helped build it and he knew nothing about it!" We were lunching at The Barley Mow in East Horsley, a year or so before Ken's death in 2001. The pub, then a haunt for motor racing folk, was only a mile or two from the Tyrrell race shop, and although I recall a mechanic one day quietly referring to 'Project 34', none of us had an inkling of anything revolutionary. Why would we? This wasn't Lotus, after all. At the next race I took a flyer with Tyrrell. "What's Project 34, Ken?" Not a flicker. "Oh, just a working title for the next car. Just happens to be project number 34 nothing more to it than that..." Ah, but there was. And I still remember the moment when the car was unveiled, when the sheet was slowly pulled away, finally revealing the nose and.., those tiny front wheels. All four of them. In the momentary stunned silence, Ken's toothy grin was never wider. "At the time," he recalled, "we were gaffing £800,000 in sponsorship from Goodyear. When we launched the car the news went all over the world, and Leo Mehl, then Goodyear's racing boss, wrote me a nice letter, saying the press announcement alone was worth the money they were spending." Our immediate assumption, on seeing the car, was that low frontal area in the interests of straightline speed was the object of the exercise. But when you thought about it you concluded it couldn't be that, for the rear wheels and tyres (immense in those days) were of conventional size, and sooner or later the air was going to hit them... Derek Gardner who designed the car, later told me how he had come up with the six-wheeled concept. It went back, he said, to the four-wheel-drive Lotus turbine car of the late '60s. "I was responsible for the four-wheel drive part of that car, but in those days the behaviour of four-wheel-drive cars wasn't well known. So when you took it to a particular track, like Indianapolis, the change in characteristics between drive to over-run to drive again caused the car to be particularly nervous. "I wasn't in a position to say, 'Look, you've got it all wrong'. How could I? I was a transmission engineer, and here was Colin Chapman, arguably the finest chassis constructor of all time. As it was, I provided them with centre differentials, which gave a bigger and bigger torque split, favouring the rear, so that the amount of upset to the handling was reduced it was a sneaky way of trying to get round an inbuilt problem. "By the end of 1968 I'd decided that what was needed was an entirely different concept, and I came up with a drawing, which was for a six-wheel car, four at the front, two at the rear with two of the four front wheels being driven, plus the two at the rear. As I developed the idea, I could see that you could reduce the size of the wheels, you could actually narrow the track, should you so wish all sorts of glorious things..." STP had been the major sponsor of the Lotus lndycar programme, and so Gardner wrote to Andy Granatelli, enclosing a drawing and outlining his ideas. As it turned out, his timing was unfortunate, for although the Lotus turbines had not won the 1968 Indy 500, they had dominated on speed, and USAC was keen to ban both turbines and four-wheel drive. "I think," said Gardner "they hoped they could then go back to their beloved roadsters..." Thus, his Indy concept came to nought, but he filed the idea away and, now working for Tyrrell, revived it a few years later. "All the top cars used the Cosworh DFV it was that or a '12' from Matra or BRM, and no one wanted those, because all the horsepower went through the exhaust pipes. "I kept thinking, 'How on earth does one steal a march on the rest?' Really what we were looking for was another 50 horsepower, but where were we going to get that particularly bearing in mind that I was working for a man for whom the Ford Motor Company was the only company in the world?" Gardner went through his files and plucked out the proposal he had originally sent to Granatelli. After doing some calculations, he concluded that if he had a car with four front wheels and two rear wheels, he could reduce the amount of lift generated by normal front wheels which would in turn allow him to back off on the front aerodynamics. "Hey presto! My calculation was that that would equate to 40-odd horsepower. When I showed everything to Ken, he said, 'Good grief! What's this?', but actually it wasn't as difficult to sell him the idea as I'd expected. "On the way back from the 1975 South African Grand Prix, I talked my way into First Class for a bit, in order to talk with Jackie Stewart about it. I don't know if it was turbulence or something in his drink, but he had a fit of choking! He'd never seen anything like it before." Once the idea was accepted in principle, the first task, of course, was to find a tyre supplier. Tyrrell was contracted to Goodyear which raised no objections and promised support. "Leo Mehl asked what size we'd want and I said, 'Well, ideally I'd like nineinch...' We compromised on 10, which was Mini-size, of course. People always wondered how we kept the project secret, but we operated a very simple principle, and it's still the most reliable: if you don't want people to know, don't tell them! Yes, the Goodyear people knew about it, but there were a lot of racing Minis in those days, with people doing peculiar things with them, and they had small wheels, so perhaps that helped provide a bit of fog..." From the rollover bar forward, the first P34 was a new car, but fundamentally a simple one: "The rear was straightforward 007 (the 1975 fourwheeled car) just bolted on. It was very much the prototype didn't have any bag tanks in it, for example: it was purely a test vehicle, but weighted up to what I thought the race car would probably be. In fact, the aerodynamics were fairly appalling, so it didn't gain anything from that, but inherently it was quicker than 007 the turn-in, and so on, was marvellous. After testing at Paul Ricard, in late '75, we started work on building the proper race car." The P34 made its debut at Jarama, round four of the 1976 World Championship. Only one car was entered for Patrick Depailler, Jody Scheckter sticking with his regular 007, which qualified 14th 11 places behind the six-wheeler... "Jody," said Gardner, "would drive the P34, but you knew it wasn't with total commitment. He did win at Anderstorp but, you know, you'd see his head go on one side... Patrick, on the other hand, took to it like a duck to water. He was a committed racer, liked everything about the P34, and was very good to work with occasionally he'd be a bit.., mercurial, but he was French, after all! "Patrick was the first driver to test the car, at Silverstone, and his immediate impression was it was very quick. He also said it turned in beautifully if anything, we had to keep a tight rein on him!" It wasn't all straightforward, however. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were problems with the tyres, and also with the front brakes. Because of the construction of the tiny Goodyears, if the carcass were stiffened up, in order to control the profile at high speed, so also was the sidewall. In those days, F1 tyres were still cross-ply wonderful for spectators, who revelled in the sight of cars sideways, but less so for engineers. "If they'd been radial-ply," said Gardner "it would have been possible to stiffen the carcass, and not the sidewall to separate them but with cross-plies it wasn't. "The first time I saw the car, coming down the straight at Silverstone, I was horrified, because I could see the tyres literally being sucked off the rims. As soon as the driver touched the brakes, they just collapsed down onto the rim. In fact, they never lost pressure it was just one of those hair-raising things, and luckily the drivers couldn't see it! Later on, we put little windows in the cockpit sides to allow the drivers to see the tyres, to pick up the shadow across them. Whatever Ken may have said, those windows were not put in to allow spectators to see the drivers' hands at work! "The second problem we had was with the front brake calipers: because of the smallness of the wheel, cooling the brakes was a problem. You could accept the temperature of the brakes, but what you couldn't do was get the temperature away from the fluid. Once you got above a certain temperature even with the silicone fluid, a special Dow Corning mix we were using at the time you just lost your brakes..." In that first race, at Jarama, Depailler went off for just that reason. Ultimately the team resolved the problem by 'pushing more and more air through the brakes', but that of course had a negative effect on the aerodynamics. The P34's strongest suit was always turn-in, particularly apparent at a place like Monte Carlo, where Scheckter and Depailler were beaten only by Niki Lauda's Ferrari. At Anderstorp they were beaten by no one, and this was to stand as the car's high watermark, but in overall terms Tyrrell's 1976 season has to stand as a success, Jody and Patrick routinely scoring well, and finishing third and fourth in the World Championship. But after three seasons with the team, Scheckter was on the move. He'd never hidden his inherent dislike of the P34, and now accepted an invitation to be the only driver in Walter Wolf's new team. Depailler, however remained with Ken, and when Ronnie Peterson agreed to partner him, all in the team were optimistic about the '77 season. Wrongly so, as it turned out. By the end of the year Patrick and Ronnie were 10th and 14th in the championship, Gardner had left, and the P34 era was at an end.
So what changed so much in the car’s second season? The overriding problem, Gardner said, lay with the front tyres. “By 1977 Goodyear were supplying the whole of F1 but the tiny front tyres were for one team only. Of course every team wanted development, so Goodyear tended to develop the rears and normal fronts and our front tyres just got left. Therefore we were working with developed rears and static fronts: in ’77 that really began to show up, and the advantage of the six-wheel concept was going rapidly out of the window.
“The car was always good on top speed at Watkins Glen it was 8-10mph quicker than anything else but one could take that as read to some degree, because of course the tiny front wheels led to a reduction in drag. And, theoretically, it should have had enormous stopping power, but, as I said, we were hampered there by just gaffing the heat away from the brakes.
“Prior to the ’77 season we spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel, developing as near an enveloping bodyshape as it was possible to do. It provided very low drag but it was also extremely heavy because it was made in glassfibre. Later in the season we had Kevlar bodywork, and that made quite a difference. That was early days for Kevlar.”
Car problems aside, Peterson’s time with Tyrrell was a disappointment in itself. “I liked Ronnie as a driver” said Gardner, “but in terms of reporting back to us what was going on.., he was hopeless. He got in the car and drove it and that was it! Ronnie’s natural way was to drive around a problem, rather than solve it.
“He always had colossal brake pad wear, and I assumed he must be using the throttle and brakes at the same time the kairting technique so I instrumented the car to prove it one way or the other and in fact he never used them together at all! Even so, his brake pad wear was fantastic 50 per cent higher than Patrick’s and I never did find a reason, other than the fact he was simply driving so much on the brakes. Jody’s pad wear had been higher too, because he tended to be rougher with a car, whereas Patrick… became part of it much more. Their driving techniques were completely different.
“The main problem, though, was that we were always suffering from undeveloped rubber at the front. That got worse, to the point that I even hurriedly contrived a wide-track front to try and counteract the problem. I’m not criticising Goodyear their workload was enormous but we’d put the tyres on, and we had nothing to check them against. If other teams had been using them, we’d have been saying, ‘This isn’t working for us is it working for you?”
On the horizon for a time, too, there had been a different engine, and Gardner laments to this day that nothing came of it. “I’d begun to despair of gaffing more horsepower from the Ford, even though the Cosworth people had put away their toys and started to focus on development. The turbocharged Renault V6 was there, and was destined for a Tyrrell. The first thing was to put it in the six-wheeler, without interfering with the race programme, and I hired Maurice Philippe to do that. This was mid-summer in ’77 around the time the Renault F1 car made its debut at Silverstone. The whole thing strongly tied in with Elf they were Tyrrell’s major sponsor, and they sponsored development of the Renault engine.
“That engine had tremendous possibilities. When I saw the power and torque figures on the original, they were mouth-watering I couldn’t wait to get it in the car. Before I left the team, right after Monza, we’d got a mockup engine and a car in an advanced state. I still think that if Renault hadn’t had delusions of grandeur, and simply focused on the engine, they would have had a lot more success, but as it was, they tried to do the complete car…
“Even so, the writing was probably on the wall for a six-wheeled car, because of the front tyre situation. Either something had to be done about that or we had to forget the whole thing.”
In 1978 Tyrrell went back to a conventional car, with which Depailler won at Monte Carlo. And the FIA settled for good and all the question of six-wheelers by banning them…