Traction replay

In 1969 four-wheel drive was supposed to be the next big thing in F1. But the theory proved hard to put into practice
By Paul Fearnley

Silverstone shimmered under a mid-July sun, yet Formula 1’s new era had not dawned brightly: Gold Leaf Lotus – we can leave out the Team bit for now – arrived late, after Thursday’s first practice; the Cosworth, purest/purist 4WD of them all, was absent too (indeed never would arrive); McLaren’s new four-wheel drive arrived on a trailer behind a Transit, and eponymous team boss Bruce, already concerned for its future, wasn’t even going to drive his ‘baby’ – Derek Bell, on loan from Ferrari, was.

Ken Tyrrell’s Matra International was an oasis of calm, Jackie Stewart, its runaway championship leader, expertly mind-managing rear- and 4WD. Not hepped up on unreasonable demands or expectations, the delineation was clear: pole and victory in the conventional MS80; more miles under MS84’s total-traction wheels. The latter was at best a handy Plan B in case of rain. “I’d always thought there should be a ‘wet car’ in the truck, a car designed and set up for those conditions,” says Stewart. “MS84 could have been that car.”

Ken and Jackie, simpatico not aggro, had as usual all bases covered – until JYS’s MS80 slapped into the sleepers during Friday’s final practice. Prior to this shunt – loose kerbing at Woodcote had sliced his right-rear – Stewart had been sufficiently confident of winning the third £100 (awarded for the fastest lap in each quarter of this two-hour session) to again sample MS84. He was mighty in it, too, opposite-locking to 1min 23.4sec. Fine – except he’d already been clocked at 20.6 in his MS80.

“That oversteer was induced,” says Stewart. “It was possible to adjust its torque front to rear, but MS84’s balance was never quite right – it had that habit of understeer. You were driving around problems, which is something you don’t want to be doing. I felt comfortable in the car, it gave you confidence at times, but it was never fast enough.” Four-wheel drive was losing its (theoretical) grip on Formula 1.

Lotus boss Colin Chapman had been considering total-traction in F1 since BRM dyno-hinted at 600bhp for its 3-litre H16 of 1966. His subsequent experiences at Indy – including a 1968 near miss for Joe Leonard in a Lotus 56 turbine – convinced him four-wheel drive was F1’s next big thing. It wasn’t just Chapman who thought so; Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth was persuaded, too. And where the two biggest brains in the business go, others follow.

This time, however, Chapman and Duckworth were not in cahoots, as they had been with the 1967 Lotus 49/DFV. Theirs was a love-hate relationship, Duckworth’s puritanical streak honed by Chapman’s sharper practices. What particularly irked Keith was Colin’s increasingly mulish handling of Jim Clark, and so he decided to rescue the Scot by building the perfect F1 car for him. After Clark expressed guarded interest, McLaren’s Robin Herd, F1’s hottest designer, was headhunted for 1968 and installed in Duckworth’s office, engineering’s high altar: drawing board, pens, cleanest of clean sheets. Only the best for Jim.

Herd: “Jimmy had said, ‘Yeah, get it going – but make it right.’ I was too young to realise what the hell was going on; it was just another car I was designing. Of course it was much more than that.” The project verged on messianic. “It was to be the ultimate, from square one: four equal wheels [15in ‘rears’], same suspension and geometry front and rear, fuel tanks in pontoons between the wheels, 50/50 splits… Keith and Mike [Costin] had big inputs, but they left the basic concept to me. It was a full-on programme, to begin with.”

By July 1969, though, Jim had been snatched away; Jackie was the best now. Scottish, honourable and quick, he was in most other ways the polar opposite of his late friend. For instance, he knew Lotus made the quickest cars, but his mind was made up: didn’t trust ’em, wouldn’t drive ’em. He wanted a car he could stretch without it snapping, and Matra’s meticulous rocket science was just his ticket. The French firm was in the business of not making mistakes, which is why designer Bernard Boyer’s first 4WD machine was relatively conservative.

From a distance MS84 looked like MS80, their suspension layouts and bodywork almost identical. Next to the Cosworth – with its wedge nose (to create downforce), dry-sumped diffs (minimise power losses), beryllium driveshafts and one-off magnesium-cast DFV (save weight), and six-speed gearbox (maximise anticipated bhp boosts) – MS84 was agricultural. But it was strong – a full-length spaceframe was chosen for ease of modification and access (a monocoque 4WD was envisaged for 1970) – and Matra’s strategic compromise of dropping its hydro-mechanical 4WD in favour of Ferguson Research’s proven system made it the most ‘racy’ of its ilk even though it was a prototype.

Mercurial Chapman, in conjunction with chief designer Maurice Phillippe, had of course been more radical: instant winner, not rolling test bed. Long, and low on 13in rims all round (MS84 used normal 15in rears), the Lotus 63 bore a strong Indy influence, some components indeed being interchangeable with its oval-racing big brother. Its turned-around DFV – all the 1969 4WDs rotated their Cossie through 180 to site gearbox and torque-splitter beneath the driver’s reclining back – sat almost amidships in a full-length bathtub monocoque. Power was split fore and aft along its left flank (Matra and Cosworth channelled theirs down the right) by a ZF centre diff to ZF diffs front and rear. Clever design and detail abounded, yet star driver Jochen Rindt wanted no part of it. Lotus’s mechanics had worked their tripe out to ready two 63s (and two conventional 49Bs) for the Dutch GP, but the opinionated Austrian, who had detested his 4WD Lotus Indy experience, who had written a public letter in opposition to his boss against F1’s high-flying, hub-mounted wings after his and team-mate Graham Hill’s fearsome copycat crashes at the Spanish GP, refused even to sit in his 63. Hill was more amenable, but reverted to a 49B for a race won by Stewart, back in his MS80.

Chapman was infuriated by his drivers’ inflexibility. Hadn’t Rindt expressed an interest in a 4WD future when he’d signed?

Yes, but racing drivers live in the present. Rindt’s Zandvoort pole, in a 49B now wearing a smaller, lower, body-mounted rear wing, was almost five seconds quicker than the 63’s best. A no-brainer.

For the French GP at Clermont-Ferrand, therefore, Chapman pulled out something else radical from under his flat cap: John Miles. This bespectacled, bookish – brainy – Englishman had won F3 races for Lotus, but had only a couple of F2 starts to his name. He’d sampled the 63 at Hethel, managed a few laps in it at Snetterton, and found it “kind of spooky”. One view was that 4WD required drivers with an open mind, unencumbered by prejudicial experience. Others felt Miles was a sacrificial lamb, Chapman’s ‘Eff you!’ to Rindt. Throughout practice Miles battled with bugbear understeer around this twisting, plunging track, only to retire at the end of the first lap with mechanical-fuel pump failure.

Miles retained his 63 seat at Silverstone, where Chapman was again in radical mood: he announced that he’d sold two 49Bs from under his works drivers. Trenchant Rindt still had one, but Hill would have to race a 63. This clumsy man-management backfired. Mutiny was in the air, World Champion Hill sampled a Brabham, and Chapman had to go, flat cap in hand, to retrieve a 49B from privateer Jo Bonnier. The atmosphere was poisonous.

Duckworth, a man unsuited to such a Machiavellian role, had already crossed ‘F1 team boss’ off his to do list on April 7, 1968: Clark’s death. From then on the Cosworth was a design exercise, pure and complicated. He refused to call a halt, but the project’s momentum waned and it would be a year before Costin shook down the car. A (tentative) entry for Silverstone was then made, and Duckworth asked Brian Redman to test the car. Brian duly arrived at Silverstone, but the car did not. Its transporter had crashed.

Redman never would drive the Cosworth. He was too busy winning at Watkins Glen for Porsche, so Trevor Taylor, Clark’s early-1960s Lotus team-mate, was drafted. Unofficial stopwatches had him swiftly down in the 1min 25-27sec bracket at Silverstone, but the car, despite its long gestation, still wasn’t ready and its entry was withdrawn. A demo at Mallory Park in August would be its only official public outing.

“Cosworth were the best in the business,” says Herd, “but they had their problems [in a racing sense]. This was a racing car designed by engine designers. An intellectual exercise. Engine designers can’t afford to get things wrong, so there is a necessary precision. Chassis designers, meanwhile, cut all sorts of corners to get next year’s car ready.

“We had some overheating issues, but the big problem, as it was for everyone attempting four-wheel drive, was the cam-and-pawl front diff. Bruce McLaren described it best when he said it was like trying to sign your autograph while somebody kept jogging your elbow. The locking action of the LSD fed up through the steering.

“With modern technology, viscous couplings, etc, it could easily be made to work in F1. We weren’t far away, though. Jackie Stewart was there one day and we asked him to give it a go. He did his usual trick: on the pace straight away, good feedback: ‘There are a few things to do, but basically it’s there.’

“We should have tried it with a rear wing to balance it, because that wedge shape pressed the nose down pretty well. As it was we were just trying to make it work. We never did set it up.” By autumn Herd was setting up March instead – but not before the disenchanted Rindt had asked Robin to build an F1 car for him.

Lotus was shambolic at Silverstone: Rindt missed Friday’s first session, too, because a rogue rivet had chafed a bag tank, and Hill’s returned 49B had a wheel bearing fail. Miles, wisely, had waited patiently while frazzled mechanics changed another fuel pump, an engine-out job, and then, despite having had no Thursday running, settled into a rhythm on Friday to work down to 1min 25.1sec, good enough for 14th on the grid.

Bell’s similar role, he’d managed a 26.1 in the unsorted M9A on Thursday, was compromised by unreliability, too. A transmission failure – that “farmyard smell” was hydrogen sulphide emitted by overheating oil breaking down inside a gearbox tucked away rather than slung out back – cost him the whole of Friday.

McLaren’s monocoque was the shortest 4WD (11ft 10in) and the only one to retain its DFV as a fully stressed item. Designed by Jo Marquart, it ran on 13in rims (15s were an option) and achieved a 50/50 weight distribution by pushing its driver forward, like the Lotus 63. Although broadly based on Ferguson’s system, the Hewland pinions in its gearbox were the drivetrain’s only outsourced items. Such ambition had spread this team even more thinly than Lotus, but Bruce was more pragmatic than Chapman and kept knocking back M9A’s debut date. Until now.

“I don’t remember the car fondly, but I appreciated the opportunity to drive for McLaren,” says Bell. “What I remember most was the understeer. It wasn’t terminal, but it was always there, and there was nothing you could do about it. It wasn’t adjustable on the throttle like a two-wheel-drive car; lift off momentarily and it just carried on along the same line, only slower.

“Bruce and Denny [Hulme] were busy trying to win in their regular cars and were clearly hoping I’d turn up and get on with it. I remember them debating whether to run with a rear wing or not. I was hoping they wouldn’t because then I could have tried one. The theoretical precision, faster turn-in and higher top speed of a [wing-less] all-wheel-drive car just wasn’t there. You had two front-to-rear ratios – torque and braking – and when you approached a corner, braked and changed down, they seemed to confuse the chassis. It wandered around. I never got closer than 2ft to the track’s edge because I felt I could be on the grass at any moment.”

The 63 had sprouted a rear wing in France. Now so had MS84. Jean-Pierre Beltoise still wasn’t a fan, but he was stuck with it because Stewart had seconded the Frenchman’s MS80 to (re-)qualify second – and win the race. Beltoise had recorded a 22.1 in his MS80; the best he could manage in MS84 was a 31.2, 3sec slower than Bonnier, whose learning process in Hill’s rejected 63 was curtailed by yet another fuel pump failure. Beltoise likened the MS84 experience to driving “a very powerful Mini”, which was bad news for his weakened arm, legacy of a 1964 crash at Reims: “The MS84 was impossible for me. Its steering was way too heavy. Two hundred per cent heavier.”

Thus the 4WDs occupied the last four places on the grid. The impressive Miles managed a 23.2 (on Lotus’s watches) during morning warm-up, a time that would have lifted him above three conventional cars on the grid, including Hill’s 49B, but the writing was on the wall.

Bell made a good start to lead the 4WD pack and Vic Elford’s privateer McLaren M7A. ‘Quick Vic’ repassed him on lap two, however, and Miles, who had moved ahead of Beltoise, also overtook Bell on lap four, and began to haul in Jackie Oliver’s BRM P133. He passed it on lap nine.

“The 63 was a little better than it has been made out to be,” says Miles. “It was basically a stable understeerer and so was at home on fast, sweeping corners. It handled like an early Audi Quattro: once you were committed to a line, that was it. You had to be very precise.”

Miles’s praiseworthy effort was, however, completely overshadowed by the Homeric lead struggle between Stewart and Rindt. They doubled Beltoise on lap 16 (of 84) and would have swiftly overhauled Bell and Bonnier too, had they not already retired, Derek with suspension failure on lap five, Jo in a puff of engine smoke on lap six.

Miles, who staved off the leaders until quarter-distance, and who had been without a clutch for most of that time, was now experiencing increasing trouble with the gear linkage. He pitted on lap 55 and, after a stop that cost him several laps, re-emerged with only third gear. He finished 10th, nine laps in arrears; Beltoise was ninth, six laps down. Oh dear. Wall. Writing.
Bell: “After the race Bruce said to me, ‘It’s not going to work, is it?’ I could have reassured him, but in my heart of hearts I couldn’t.” Derek’s simple “No” sufficed. M9A never raced again.

Lotus, though, had one more ace to play: Mario Andretti. The American had shone in a 4WD Lotus 64 turbo during Indy practice – until it stuck him in the wall – and was keen to drive a 63. He did so at the Nürburgring, his first visit to the track. Two camshaft breakages ruined his practice/familiarisation, and running on full tanks he bottomed out at Wippermann on lap one and wiped off the left-hand wheels. Undaunted, he had another go at Watkins Glen, when, lo and behold, it rained during Friday’s practice. (There had been a flood of wet GPs in 1968, but ’69 had remained stubbornly dry bar a squall in Holland.) This surely was 4WD’s F1 moment. Stewart and Andretti, the best from either side of the Atlantic, boldly ventured out – and sank: JYS was more than two seconds quicker in his MS80; Mario couldn’t get within two seconds of Hill’s 49B best.
“I was surprised,” says Stewart. “But in very difficult conditions you need even more command over your vehicle. In the wet the driver is even more the captain of his ship. And those 4WDs, with the technology we had, allowed us less command. With a racing car you need an invitation not a challenge, and the MS84 made it too hard to be consistently on the limit.”

Miles wasn’t surprised: “I’d driven the 63 in the wet at Snetterton. It was awful. As soon as you opened the throttle it spun. Plus there was so much inertia in the transmission that lifting the throttle provided only a delayed effect. That long wheelbase was ponderous, slow to react, too. You were a passenger. Chapman’s attempt to make it more like a rear-wheel-drive car by increasing the rear axle’s load didn’t make sense on a car with tyres close to equal size front and rear.”

By Watkins Glen the 63 was up to 82 per cent rear torque. Johnny Servoz-Gavin had brought MS84 home sixth in Canada – 4WD’s only World Championship point – but he finished six laps down, knackered and unimpressed. At the season-ending Mexican GP he ran the car with its front diff disconnected.

Four-wheel drive had been overtaken by other technologies. Wings, though severely pruned after the Barcelona fly-bys, remained surprisingly effective. Tyres, too, were making huge strides because Firestone (Lotus), Dunlop (Matra) and Goodyear (McLaren) were slugging it out: tread widths had increased by 60 per cent since 1965; aspect ratios and pressures had all but halved; inner tubes were a thing of the past; futuristic complex synthetic rubber provided softer compounds.

In contrast total-traction’s extra weight — MS84 and M9A were approximately 100lb heavier than their 2WD cousins — its power losses through a complex drivetrain, its lack of mid-corner adjustability and the extra man- and spending power required to design, build and run it added up to a big, fat negative. A talent like Stewart’s could drag it up a row, but that still left it back in the pack.

“We’d all been excited about its potential,” says Stewart, “and there was no doubt it was the right thing to do, explore an opportunity that might have allowed us at least a season with the Unfair Advantage, especially in the wet, but it just turned out not to be.”

Even Chapman saw the light(ness), made his peace with Rindt and moved on to smaller and better things.

Four-wheel drive’s moment had gone. Long gone. But it’s not impossible to imagine Clark winning at a rain-soaked Rouen or ’Ring in a sorted Cosworth… in 1968.