The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

Before Formula 1 entered the modern era, it was a place where wild ideas ruled. Mattijs Diepraam of 8W penned this in-depth look at the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34, one of the most crowd-pleasing race cars ever built. —Ed.

Note: This is an excerpt from a larger story, one that focuses on the history of six-wheeled cars in Formula 1. (Yes, there are more.) That story can be found here.

A childhood dream in action. In the eyes of an 8-year-old, a six-wheeled racing machine was the self-styled art of science fiction having become instant reality. A car unlike anything you saw in the street, the P34 hit your brain like a ton of bricks. And then it won in Sweden, and came second there as well. Its beauty was in the eye of the beholder and had to grow on you, but as a bold statement of progress and modernity, it was an immediate success.

History usually repeats itself, and grand-prix history doesn't escape that axiom. When it comes to motor racing technology, there is a definite pattern of rule changes followed by a rush in technological advancements. This is in turn followed by a period of stability, i.e. designers all working in the same direction to make the cars faster and faster, only to be curbed by another major rule change. This usually creates a paradigm shift that works to start the whole merry-go-round of technology anew. It is that period following a regulations change that invariably sees the greatest designers perform at their best, resulting in a huge flurry of widely varying solutions to the same challenge. And it is seldom the inventions that best capture the imagination that win. Four-wheel drive lost out to aerodynamics and wide slick tires. Six-wheelers had to bite the dust in their battle against ground effects and turbo engines.

A technological paradigm shift doesn't need a rule change per se, although it usually comes in handy, like in the late sixties when the 3.0-liter formula set off a flood of extremely diverse answers in the effort to gain more traction from the power surge caused by the Cosworth DFV (in itself a winner among several engine design failures, such as the BRM H16). Some of the traction-improving innovations, like four-wheel drive and turbine power, hit a dead end. Others, like aerofoils and slicks, provided effective and cost-efficient solutions to the same problem. And it is both effectiveness and cost-efficiency — winning over sheer beauty and/or ingenuity — that have invariably proven to be the two major arguments supporting any widespread use of technology.

Ten years on, and stability in the 3.0-liter formula had reached its zenith. The crude aerofoils of the late sixties had become intricate rear wings. Rear-tire sizes had exploded. The same applied to the cars' frontal area. On the regulations front tea-pot airboxes had just been outlawed, while the safety-inspired deformable-structure rules of 1973 had also brought new levels of chassis stiffness. Furthermore, the oil crisis was among the reasons for teams to standardize around the Hewland 'box and the DFV which, if anything, had become underpowered relative to the advances in mechanical and aerodynamical grip. With Ferrari the only team with the financial capability to go its own way — and rather successfully so — technological progress within the 3.0-litre formula was in a deadlock during the mid-1970s. Or so it seemed.

A mere year before Renault and Lotus made their first waves (turbocharging and ground effects, respectively), there was another invention that caught the public eye. Remember, this was still at a time when you only had a choice of Ford and Hewland for driveline suppliers. It was also the time when there was still debate over such aerodynamically vital issues as the location of radiators and the shape of the frontal area (wedge or stub?) And then Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner came up with a solution that seemed logical in that small frame of time: the six-wheeler.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

In fact, Gardner's was not the first six-wheeler in the history of single-seater racing. In the late 1940s, Indy racing had seen a hideous contraption called the Pat Clancy Special, raced by Billy DeVore in 1948. This was a four-wheel-drive machine with power going to two rear axles. It was amazingly quick in a straight line but impossible to get around corners — of which Indianapolis has four. A similar concept was employed in the stillborn 1939 Mercedes Type 80 that undoubtedly would have done miracles in speed record attempts, had the war not interrupted proceedings. The P34 was new and unique in that it had two front axles. And it would remain unique. The concept had been looming in designer Derek Gardner's mind for over a decade, as on the back of his Ferguson-Novi P104 four-wheel-drive Indy Car design of 1964 (see our four-wheel drive story), he proposed a six-wheeled, four-wheel drive version of the car to Andy Granatelli. This would have drive going to the rear wheels and the rear front wheels. One step ahead of everyone's imagination, it never got past the drawing board, allowing the turbine STP Lotus 56s to become Granatelli's revolutionary pet. However, Gardner never let go of the idea.

Although the car would eventually be Gardner's final design for Tyrrell, it had been reared in very much the same fashion as the 001, in the secrecy usually attributed to major manufacturers. Yet this was another example of garagiste innovation, an all-out attempt to win back the territory lost to Ferrari, to gain the unfair advantage within the existing set of rules — just as Renault and Lotus would do only a year later. The theory was that its four tiny ten-inch front wheels would increase mechanical front-end grip, with more rubber on the road, and thus eliminate understeer while at the same time improve cornering and braking. There was another popular theory, centering around the elimination of drag by reducing front-tyre size, but that theory is not quite up to scratch, since the freed airflow only went as far as the huge rear tyres. With the bluff nose almost completely hiding the front tyres it did however mean that Gardner designed an aerodynamically more efficient machine. He thus increased front-end grip and at the same time reduced front-end drag.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

When it was revealed it was the instant sensation of the 1976 season. The car was a photo opportunity on wheels and must have given Elf more free publicity in the 1976 pre-season and beyond than it garnered during the whole of 1974 and 1975 by donning the sides of the pretty, but traditional, 007. The striking new blue and yellow livery did the rest.

The Project 34 prototype had to gain interest by its six wheels alone, however. In this Silverstone pit lane picture, shortly after its formal introduction, the car still basically looks like a 007 with a peculiar front side attached to it. The 1975-style colour scheme only adds to this impression. After this, the wedge-shaped nose of the 007 was first replaced by a Brabham-style nose and then a full-width stub nose also seen on the Marches of the era, while the sidepods were not yet raised at the outer edges up to the height of the front wheels. Also missing in the pitlane shot were the familiar cockpit-side windows allowing the drivers to see where the front wheels were going.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

All of these issues were adressed in testing while Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler started the season in their trusty 007s, the two amassing five and ten points respectively. Meanwhile the first three races had shown that Hunt's M23 was the only car capable of taking on the Ferraris. Back from the overseas events Depailler (who, as opposed to Scheckter, was enthusiastic about the project from the start) was entrusted with the car's debut in Spain, and he immediately qualified it third, with Scheckter languishing in 14th in the 007. Patrick's race ended with an off on lap 25 but he confirmed the car's pace in Belgium by taking fourth on the grid, behind the two Ferraris and Hunt's McLaren, but by the much smaller margin of 0.15s. Jody in his P34 debut placed the car 7th, three tenths adrift of Depailler, but he was the one to record the P34's first finish with a distant fourth behind the V12s of Lauda, Regazzoni and Laffite.

Then came Monaco, where the P34s had pretty much reached their definitive 1976 shape. Here the cars could show their cornering ability against the other DFV cars, notably the M23s, known to be quick on a straight but notoriously worthless on slow circuits. This was confirmed by Hunt qualifying 14th. While the Ferraris were again out of reach in qualifying, the Tyrrells were only separated from them by a typical problem-evasing effort by Ronnie Peterson, placing him third on the grid, although the full-width nose of the March will also have contributed to Ronnie's performance, testimony of Hans Stuck qualifying 6th in his Jäegermeister car. The rest of the field was trailing the Tyrrells by at least a second. In the race Scheckter put up a fight against Niki Lauda, finishing second 11s adrift, with Depailler taking the final podium spot. This was looking good.

Roll on Anderstorp and its endless middle-speed corners begging for front-end grip. Here Jody Scheckter took pole ahead of the surprising Andretti and Amon, with Depailler in fourth. In the race the Tyrrells strode imperiously to a crushing one-two after the development DFV of a fast-starting Andretti blew itself up on lap 45. The South African, who when later probed confided that he thought the six-wheeled concept ridiculous, was beaming on the podium. Although Lauda was way ahead in the standings (on 52 points), Jody now was second in the championship (23 points), with Patrick a close third (20 points). Ken Tyrrell had something going here. Would the Stewart years be making a comeback?

In the end, nothing came of it. The Swedish walkover proved to be a fluke, and the cars became mere bit players among the front-runners, with all the attention-grabbing being done by the McLaren team and their slug match with Ferrari, both on-track and off-track. Granted, the high-speed Paul Ricard circuit was perfect for the slippery M23, with Depailler — usually the better qualifier — doing great to take a close second. His team mate went on to score similar fine results amidst controversy at Brands and tragedy at the 'Ring, both tracks better suited to the P34 anyway. But their qualifying form was starting to slip, especially at the Österreichring and Zandvoort, where the cars were expected to perform well. In the North American races both Patrick and Jody came back to take a second place each while at Fuji the Frenchman fought hard to take yet another runner-up spot, ahead of the new World Champion. The overall impression was that the six-wheeler had done reasonably well, especially in the races, but that a normal four-wheeled 007 development would probably have done equally well, perhaps with the exception of the P34's Swedish performance. The car had also failed to qualify upfront consistently while some of the late-season results could hardly be qualified as encouraging. In this stage of development you would expect more from a revolutionary design like this to justify its revolutionary status. Instead, the results were probably down to the drivers' talent and perseverance.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

The P34s of 1977 sported a distinctively different look. The quaint elegance of 1976 — to which the team momentarily reversed in the Monaco and Belgian GP of '77 — was lost to efforts from the team to get the tiny front tires to work. This was all due to Goodyear lagging behind in development of the special tires and instead concentrating on its renewed battle with Michelin. With the tiny front tires not getting up to temperature while Akron's new rears were the soft ones it put up against the French rubber the cars suffered deerly, resulting in desperate measures to dial out the understeer. These attempts were further hampered by the extra weight that came with the concept. Four front tires also meant four front suspensions and brakes, and a four-wheel steering rack. Elsewhere weight was eliminated, cutting into the strength of the car.

The solution effectively had become the problem. All it meant was that 1977 would become the first season Tyrrell would go without a race win. The cars kept handling badly, and concurrently, would look more awful with every race, culminating in the bulky, heavy monster that Peterson and Depailler had to handle in the late-season North American races. Look at Patrick's P34 in Canada — the front tires are almost sticking out of their once cosy confinement, while the cockpit surroundings have become whale-shaped and featureless compared to the slim and purposeful looks of the original P34. Even the sponsor names look out of place.

So the less said about the actual results, the better. Except that they were generally lousy. Patrick Depailler was a star to take three podiums with this car (unwieldy looks or not, he took this car to a close second behind former team mate Scheckter in Canada!) while it took Ronnie until a rain-washed race at Zolder to score his first points of the season in the old-style car!

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

What had happened? Probably a combination of factors. Front-tire development was of course critical to the P34's performance, and while the car's pace at best levelled out because of the lack of it, the P34 was effectively overtaken by the ground-effects Lotus 78, the car that should have walked the 1977 championship had it been built more reliably. The new Wolf in the hands of a capable driver was another example of what a simple car could still do, while an inspired James Hunt was able to squeeze yet another competitive season out of the M23. And, of course, in terms of consistency and pace, no-one had been able to outsmart Ferrari and Niki Lauda. All of this would change in 1978 and it is tempting to think of what the six-wheeler concept would have done in the ground-effects era. For one, mechanical grip would have been a lesser issue in a wing car. And second, the narrow-track front tires would have blocked the free flow of air underneath the chassis and through the sidepods. Conversely, a concept with two wheels at the front and four at the back, all of the same size, would have been a huge advantage, as the smaller rear tires would have helped in the way of taking the big rear tires out of the equasion, thus allowing for ground effects that would stretch beyond the rear wheels. In fact, this is exactly what another leading team thought of at the start of the eighties, but we are getting ahead of things now.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

After Tyrrell's 1977 disillusion and with Gardner's health deteriorating the designer parted with the team, being replaced by Maurice Philippe of Lotus 72 fame, who was hired by Gardner to adapt the P34 for a shock Renault turbo customer deal that eventually fell through. Philippe designed the 008, which won the 1978 Monaco GP at the hands of Patrick Depailler, but was also responsible for the disappointing 79 and FW07 clones (009 and 010) that led to Tyrrell becoming an also-ran, a downfall that the team never really recovered from, in spite of a few giant-killing performances by Michele Alboreto.

Ironically, with Avon manufacturing new front tires for the P34, it was given a new lease of life through the efforts of Simon Bull. Precisely twenty years after it was forced into retirement the Antiques Roadshow clock and watch expert took delivery of a 1977-spec P34 raced by Ronnie Peterson.

Since 1996 Bull had been the enthusiastic entrant of an ex-Stewart Tyrrell 005, having become acquainted to Derek Gardner during his time as the owner of the March 712M that gave his loyal racer Martin Stretton the 1994 Historic European Formula Two title. Here, Gary Critcher relates how, having discussed the merits of 005 with Gardner, Bull stumbled on an advertisement for the very car one week later! He bought and rebuilt it for Stretton to win the inaugural FIA Thoroughbred Grand Prix Championship of 1996.

This led to Bull and Stretton targeting a P34 that had lived a dormant life in the hands of Jean-Pierre Jarier. JPJ had received this chassis, P34/6, as a gift after leaving the Tyrrell team. "Jumper" allowed it to be put on display in a French museum before selling it to a German collector. The duo made a deal with the German and managed to interest TGP's control tire manufacturer Avon into specially producing the front tires. After a complete rebuild the car was entered for the 1999 TGP season.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS

As in 1976, the car was an instant hit with the fans. And it was on form too. It started with some promising qualifying and race results (including class wins) before taking an outright win in its fifth races, against much younger and faster ground-effect machinery. But this time, as opposed to 1976, progress didn't halt. Stretton managed to acquire a special feel for the car, and the special Avon tires really made the car work as it was always supposed to have done. To Gardner it was unfinished business finally reaching full circle. At the end of the season P34/6 had easily won its class of the TGP championship. In the overall standings Stretton was a close runner-up to Bob Berridge in the more sophisticated 1982 Williams FW08B. In 2000 Martin went one better and became the unchallenged TGP champion.

In Stretton's hands the car also proved itself to be an able hillclimber, as could be witnessed at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2000 and 2002. In 2000, Martin's spectacular no-holds-barred style brought FTD to P34/6 while he was only beaten by the mid-nineties 850bhp Toyota Celica hillclimb special of Rod Millen in the 2002 event. It gave everyone present a good impression of what could have been.

The Life And Death Of The Six-Wheeled Race CarS


Today the answer to the question is simple again. What does a racing car look like? It's got four wheels and a steering wheel, with the engine in the back driving the rear wheels. Apparently, the 21st century is no time for playing around in another ballpark.

8W, part of Forix.Autosport.com, is a motorsport history portal. The site covers the "drivers, cars, circuits, eras and technology that shaped the face, sounds and smells of motor racing." This story originally appeared on 8W on August 21, 2002.

For more on the history of six-wheeled racing cars, including efforts from Williams and Ferrari, read the original, uncut version of this story here.

Photo Credits: Brian Snelson/Flickr, Lothar Spurzem/Wikipedia, Siegfried Wessler/Wikipedia, Russell Whitworth/Wikipedia