Tyrrell P34 - the 6-wheeled F1 superstar

4d ago


A concept, the likes of which we will never see again thanks to much stricter F1 rules. The P34 is a car that really drew outsiders into F1. In an era of engineering advances, new engines and changing rules, Tyrrell saw an opportunity. Designer Derek Gardner and his team saw an opportunity to create more grip and stability using two front steering axles. The result was easily the most radical looking F1 car on the field and possibly in the entire history of the sport.

The Tyrrell Racing Team

Started in 1958 by Ken Tyrrell, the original Tyrrell racing team started from humble origins. A racing driver himself, Tyrrell saw that he didn't have the ability or funding to reach F1 glory from behind the wheel. He therefore switched gears and after stepping down as a driver in 1959, began running Tyrrell cars in Formula 3, the team then made their way up to Formula 2 by 1965.

Tyrrell gave many famous British drivers their first taste of single-seater racing such as the legendary Jacky Ickx, who made his debut in Formula 2 at the wheel of a Mantra powered Tyrrell machine (though crashed out and failed to finish the race). The real rising star though for history of Tyrrell was none other than the legendary Scot, Sir Jackie Stewart, the legendary three-time Formula 1 champion.

The Tyrell 003, one of Jackie Stewart's Most Successful Cars

The Tyrell 003, one of Jackie Stewart's Most Successful Cars

Jackie Stewart was spotted by Ken Tyrrell and his team in the lower Formulas in 1963. The Scot started in the Tyrrell Formula Three team in 1964, instantly dominating and taking the driver's championship, failing to win in only two races (one due to a breakdown). Despite offers of F1 after his first race in Formula Three, Jackie remained with the Tyrrell team for the season, before moving to Lotus for Formula 2. He felt that he needed more experience in the lower echelons of the sport before progressing to the top tier.

In 1968, Tyrrell finally made it to the big leagues, Formula 1. A partnership with the French manufacturer Mantra meant they had funding and backing to run the full championship and secure their prodigy driver Jackie Stewart back into the team. 1968 was not a massively successful season but the team returned in 1969 with a renewed vigour, taking the driver's championship, the first for Jackie Stewart.

1970 was a big year for Tyrrell as they moved away from Mantra backing and created their own, all new car from the ground up. After a season of poor reliability, Tyrrell stormed the 1971 championship. Jackie Stewart again took the driver's championship and the team took the constructors title. Jackie Stewart took the title for the third and final time in 1973 in the Tyrrell 005, but this was the last real success that the team saw in Formula 1. After Jackie Stewarts retirement at the end of the 1973 season, the team fell from the top of the sport, though did remain relatively competitive throughout the 1970's.

The team struggled for the next two decades, working furiously to fight against better funded teams and quickly advancing technologies. Tyrrell were the last team to switch to turbo-power in the 80's, gaining the last win for the Cosworth DFV V8 and their last as a team at the 1983 Detroit grand prix. The team disappeared at the end of the 1998 season as their entry was bought out by the BAR team (which went on to become Honda and then Brawn GP) and the remnants of their technology, equipment and cars were sold on to the beginnings of the Minardi team.

The P34 Hits the Track

September 1975 was the first time the covers were pulled off the P34 and its six-wheeled magnificence was revealed to the world. The radical design of the P34 was a massive step away from the common design in F1 at the time. Nearly all teams were using the same engine, gearbox and tyres, which meant that it was difficult for any team to gain a distinct advantage. Enter Derek Gardner.

Gardner was the man responsible for the highly successful Tyrrell 002, 003 and 005 models already, but his engineering brain was far from depleted. While McLaren and Ferrari experimented with four driven wheels at the rear (around the same era), Gardner had the brain wave of using two smaller sets of wheels for the front steering axles. The smaller wheels fit behind the re-designed front wing to give better aerodynamics, while the second axle was added to increase the overall contact patch of the tyres, one set of 10-inch wheels and tyres could not provide the necessary front-end grip to compete around the bends.

The experiments in 1975 were successful, leading to the car hitting the track at the Spanish GP in 1976. The car was successful throughout its first season, drivers Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler scoring podiums at nearly every race. The duo went on to score a 1-2 finish at the Swedish grand prix, the high point for the P34. The drivers finished the year in third and fourth place respectively in the driver's championship behind the iconic duo of James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The car unfortunately grew heavier for the 1977 season and couldn't produce results with the same frequency as before, with the team also struggling for reliability. The complex design and lack of support from tyre supplier Goodyear led to the six-wheeled concept being dropped for the 1978 season and replaced with the more conventional Tyrrell 008 (pictured below).

Why 6-Wheelers Don't Work

The concept was a fantastic idea and worked exactly as planned but there were some downsides to the two front-axles of the P34. One of the main issues was the availability of new, smaller tyres. Goodyear were the sole tyre supplier for F1 in the mid 1970's and as a result Tyrrell had to convince Goodyear to make small-batch runs of these this bespoke size. The production of these tyres was not particularly profitable for the American manufacturer, which led to difficulties convincing them to continue creating the tyres (as well as updating the tread for the 77' season) and possibly caused the demise of the P34 prematurely.

Another issue with the smaller tyres was the wear rate. Due to the smaller wheels rotating much more often over the same distance as a larger tyre the tread would overheat and wear too quickly. This became an issue later in the race as the cars front-end grip would drop off dramatically. All this extra heat around the wheels also played havoc with keeping the brakes cool, particularly at tracks with high speeds and large braking zones.

The final issue with the car and one that ultimately denied the P34 from ever reaching its true potential was the extra complication caused by the six-wheeled design. The extra brakes caused drivers difficulty in finding a brake balance from front to rear and all but prevented any braking with steering lock applied. Along with making the car more difficult to set-up, this made drivers dislike the vehicle as the nervous nose-end could make for serious oversteer on entry to corners. These issues did not seem to bother Patrick Depailler, but both Scheckter and 1977 driver Ronnie Peterson could not gel with the car and felt that the extra wheels, weight and tricky handling held them back rather than giving them an advantage over the four-wheeled competition.

Overall, the concept was fantastic but the realities of running such a bespoke vehicle in F1 meant that the P34 never really reached the heights it was destined for. Perhaps with a more manageable setup and better tyre options, the six-wheeler would have worked. Formula 1 banned six-wheeled vehicles from competing in the early 1980's and as a result we will never see the likes of the Tyrrell P34 again.

Where Are They Now?

In all there were 8 Tyrrell P34's built, 7 of the original run, built back in the 70's and one built up in the 1990's using a spare chassis that never saw official grand prix or Formula 1 test action. The cars were sold on by Tyrrell at the end of the 1977 season with most seeing out their days in museums across the globe. One even resides in the Tamiya head office in Japan (hold the water fountain), sounds like one hell of a piece of office furniture to me.

Two notable cars however, number 5 and 6 are still being kept up to racing standards and are performing on track across various classic race car formulas, with surprising success. Simon Bull, the owner of chassis No.6 managed to persuade the tyre company Avon to reproduce the tiny 10-inch tyres for his P34, in order for the car to go racing one again. In the hands of driver Martin Stretton, the car proved successful in its first outing at the 1999 TGP series, going on to take the title in 2000. The development of this car then led to chassis No.5 receiving restoration and upgrades, before taking the same title in 2008.

The cars were thrust back into the limelight for one last time in the film Rush, based around the 1976 season which saw James Hunt and Niki Lauda pitted against one another in a fight for the driver's title. In order to keep the piece period correct the film studio enlisted the Martin Stretton car (dressed with a 1976 body) and borrowed the chassis No.2 car from a US collection to star in the film.

Why There Aren't Mad F1 Cars Nowadays

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see any outlandish innovations in Formula 1 any time soon. Things like the Tyrrell P34 or the Brabham fan car have not come up often in the history of motor racing. Cars like these were abstract from the competition, they require a completely different way of thinking. These cars were designed by people who could look outside the borders of the rules and think of extraordinary ways around them, taking the risk to get the big rewards.

I think the risk is part of the problem for modern Motorsport, F1 in particular. Teams are now so heavily reliant on the sponsorship money and the prizes for certain placement in the constructor's championship that they are reluctant to take any large risks with their car design. Any team that steps outside the box and tries something radically different may prove highly successful, or they may suffer poor performances, lose a couple places in the championship and as a result possible not secure the funding that will allow them to continue to race in future years.

The other major issue with engineering design changes in the current Formula 1 championship is the strict rules governing almost every aspect of the car. The idea of the rules is that it makes a more equal platform for all teams, though judging by recent seasons this hasn't been much of a success, but the rules are often stifling and prevent any alternative design ideas from the teams. We have seen through history that any exciting ideas that push the boundaries of performance (and sometimes safety) are often outlawed very quickly, the only recent memory I have of a revolutionary improvement in design was from Red Bull with their double diffuser concept (thank the genius work of Adrian Newey for that), possibly the last of the great engineering leaps from the sport that wasn't forced by a rule change like the new engines.

So, it is unlikely we will see something so dramatic in Formula 1 in the near future, though this means that more than ever we should celebrate the by-gone cars from these radical designers and admire the revolutionary design and engineering brilliance from some of these under-funded and often forgotten teams. The Tyrrell P34 is just one example from the history of motor racing but is possibly the most visually radical design change in memory. Here's to Derek Gardner and the Tyrrell team for making the madness a reality.

Let me know your thoughts about the P34 down in the comments, is there another icon that you would like to see explored in more detail?

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