Ever since its launch in 1950, the Formula One World Championship profiled itself as a breeding ground for cutting edge technology. Thanks to a relatively liberal set of rules, both major manufacturers and smaller speedshops were able to produce one groundbreaking design after another. Throughout the years, the basic formula for a single seater changed drastically.
British firm Cooper reintroduced the mid-engine layout in with the 1957 T43, which became the template for all F1-machines to follow. In 1961 the series took a step back with a controversial 1.5L engine formula, but the lack of power encouraged improvements in chassis and suspension design, culminating in the innovative aluminium monocoque Lotus 25.
At the same time, another company was looking to maximize traction, giving rise to the first four wheel drive Formula One car: the rather archaic-looking Ferguson P99. The car grabbed headlines by winning the non-championship International Gold Cup at a damp Oulton Park under the guidance of Stirling Moss, but disappeared shortly after.
The weight penalty and drivetrain power loss smothered the already humble 1.5L Coventry Climax FPF straight four. This, coupled to the decidedly antiquated front engine layout, made the car useless on anything but a wet track. It was painfully clear more advancements needed to be made to make four wheel drive work in the extremely competitive world of Formula One.
By 1966, a breakthrough had been made. In response to lowly sportscars being able to outpace the pinnacle of motorsport, the FIA dissolved the awfully restrictive 1.5L formula in favor of a new 3.0L arrangement. The change was extremely sudden, leaving many teams without a suitable engine. Most made due with hastily bored-out engines up to 2.2L, but help was on the way.
Backed by automotive giant Ford and Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus, Frank Costin and Keith Duckworth fashioned an engine which would define the sport for more than two decades: the legendary Double Four Valve V8. Ford eventually maneuvered out of an initial exclusive contract with Lotus, and offered the DFV for sale to anyone who had the cash.
Jacky Ickx put Matra on the map by overtaking several F1 cars with an MS5 F2 at the 1966 German Grand Prix.
With this move Ford had democratized power, which enticed Ken Tyrrell, head of Matra’s Formula Two program. Mécanique Aviation Traction had been hard at work making the step to the big leagues after success in F2, but wanted to use their own V12.
Tyrrell was unmoved by this desire, as he had been thoroughly impressed by the Cosworth’s performance during the 1967 season. Ken got his way, resulting in a very competitive package thanks to aviation-inspired integral fuel tanks. This made the MS10 15 kg lighter and vastly stiffer than the competition. The V12-powered MS11 turned out to be largely ineffective, and Matra conceded to Tyrrell’s superior judgement.
With the pieces in place, Matra and Tyrrell prepared to face yet another major challenge. The 1968 season was marked by the introduction of the term downforce. After pioneering work done by Chaparral’s Jim Hall in the popular Can Am series, Formula One was ready to welcome the wings.
Unfortunately the forces at play were very poorly understood by F1’s engineers, who made the high struts supporting the aerofoils far too thin. Since the struts were mounted directly to the suspension they often collapsed under the stresses induced by hard driving. Additionally, the flimsy material used to construct the wings themselves often buckled, resulting in a sudden loss of downforce which caused cars to violently careen off the road.
Following several high-profile accidents, the high wings were banned for fear of an inevitable fatality. Because of the ban, the majority of teams went back to the drawing board. The wings became much smaller, and were now mounted directly to the chassis, where torsional forces were less severe.
With the future of aerodynamic aids on loose screws, several teams looked for a different way to generate the same amount of grip. Remembering the success of the Ferguson P99, Lotus, McLaren and even Cosworth went out on a limb to have another go at the four wheel drive concept. The increased power from the 3.0L engines provided a bigger margin for such a system to work.
At Matra, designer Bernard Boyer reached the same conclusion. Under his direction, work started on a four wheel drive development of the concurrent MS80. In order to get a head start, Boyer contracted Ferguson itself to develop the car’s drivetrain. The biggest issue with creating the innovative machine was the position of the engine.
For obvious reasons, the car would feature a mid-engine layout, but this created a whole host of problems relating to the location of the driveshafts and the complicated gearbox. Boyer decided not to try and work around the engine, but simply to turn it around. The transmission was now directly behind the driver, powering the rear wheels through a short driveshaft running underneath the V8, while a much longer example motivated the front axle.
To facilitate the extensive changes relative to a conventional car, the chassis was a tubular steel exercise instead of the more modern aluminium monocoque. Although this made the integration of the four wheel drive system much easier, the car took on a great deal of weight. In a bid to counter the increased weight from the front driveshafts, the brakes were moved inboard.
Ferguson’s intricate 5-speed transmission and the steel construction added 80 kg (187 lbs) over the two wheel drive MS80, bringing it to a lardy 635 kg (1399 lbs). Since power from the Cosworth had stayed the same at 430 horsepower, the business case for the MS84 looked shaky from the get-go.
Matra’s star driver, the up and coming Scotsman Jackie Stewart, was given the car for a test at the 1969 Dutch Grand Prix. Stewart drove the car for a number of laps, but didn’t feel particularly comfortable with it. Owing to the car’s light nose and an unforgiving 50:50 torque split, the car tended to understeer dramatically.
Furthermore, the front driveshafts interfered with the steering, causing an uneasy, jerky sensation. Underwhelmed with the new car, Jackie Stewart opted to stick to the more conventional MS80. At the same venue, Lotus debuted their four wheel drive 63.
The MS84 remained a reserve and test car for the French Grand Prix. On the harrowing street circuit of Clermon-Ferrand, Jackie Stewart tested the car for a second time in practice. His fastest lap clocked in at 5.7 seconds slower than the MS80, further confirming the Scotsman’s suspicions. As a result the car sat out the race under a tarp once more. The next race saw a similar story play out, with Stewart abandoning the car after a few laps on the Nordschleife.
At Silverstone the MS84 was finally gifted a chance. Jackie Stewart had badly damaged his MS80 in practice, leaving no time to repair it before the race. As the team’s number one driver, he was given priority over his teammates, leading to Frenchman Jean-Pierre Beltoise giving up his car. This left him with the MS84, which Beltoise begrudgingly accepted.
Beltoise was not alone in the four wheel drive club, as Lotus fielded the 63 for John Miles(GB), and McLaren entered the brand new M9A for Derek Bell (GB). Both British machines proved to be too much to handle for Beltoise and his Matra, as he lagged behind in 17th on the grid. Miles was fastest of the trio in 14th, with Bell close behind in 15th.
Owing to Silverstone’s incredibly fast and flowing layout, the 4x4 cars could take little advantage from their superior traction. Instead, Miles, Bell and Beltoise found themselves fighting the unruly machines through every turn.
Derek Bell made it only six laps before his suspension failed, but John Miles and Jean-Pierre Beltoise soldiered on. Eventually he finished 9th, 6 laps behind his teammate in his own car. In the process he had finished second to last, but cleared Miles’ Lotus 63 by three full laps.
The flaws of the MS84 were becoming ever more apparent to the Matra engineers, who felt disappointed their miracle cure hadn’t worked. Realizing the cause of the intense understeer, the crew worked to alter the transmission’s torque split. The counterproductive 50:50 arrangement was gradually dialed back, directing more and more power to the rear axle.
The MS84 was passed on to young gun Johnny Servoz-Gavin (FRA) for the trio of North American races following the Italian Grand Prix. First on the calendar was the Canadian Grand Prix, held at Mosport Park. Servoz-Gavin recorded a 15th place on the grid, but kept out of trouble during the race. His efforts were rewarded by a record-setting 6th place, 6 laps down on Brabham’s Jacky Ickx (BEL). With points awarded from 6th place, Johnny Servoz-Gavin scored the first ever point for a four wheel drive car.
The US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen saw a wet practice session, but neither Jackie Stewart nor Mario Andretti in the Lotus 63 could rise above the conventional cars. On race day Servoz-Gavin again started 15th. He crossed the finish line in 7th place, but did so without completing 90% of the race distance, leaving him Non-Classified. By the final race of the season, four wheel drive turned out to be a mere pipe dream.
The MS84 was stripped of the Ferguson system, and was now essentially nothing more than an overweight tubeframe MS80 with inboard front brakes. Regardless of the changes, Johnny Servoz-Gavin still took the car out on Ciudad Deportiva Magdalena Mixhuca circuit. The weight savings moved him up a place to 14th on the grid, but overall performance was broadly similar. A distant eight was all he could manage. And with that disappointing result, the year of four wheel drive fizzled out.
The Matra MS84 was a starting manufacturer’s attempt to solve one of Formula One’s most difficult problems. Like Lotus and McLaren, Matra saw an opportunity to use the agricultural four wheel drive system as a replacement for the fragile and dangerous wings recently introduced to the sport.
Unfortunately, their clever layout had more downsides than positives. Increased weight, a lesser chassis, disrupted steering feel and truly catastrophic understeer rendered the complex set of gears, differentials and driveshafts completely redundant.
Despite the efforts from three front running teams and an experienced engineering firm, 1969 was simply entirely too early for four wheel drive. Instead, advancements in tire technology and the successful implementation of ever more advanced wings became the focus of attention. As a result the MS84 remains as a curious footnote in the history of Formula One.