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“History Hits”: Tyrrell P34– Six-Wheels of Trying

I am not a smart man, for one simple reason: I am a sucker. I totally believed everybody, and took their advice to heart, when they told me to do what I love in college so I get good grades and a career I love. Four years after this advice, I walked away with a History degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, accompanied by a Minor in Medieval Studies. Unless you want to teach (ew, kids) then this degree is as useful as the paper it is printed on. Okay, okay, it may not be that bad, as it did teach me how to research effectively. To try and take advantage of this, I conceived this segment, ‘History Hits’ which will be presented every Monday. ‘History Hits’ will look at really interesting cars or automotive stories which I have seen bouncing across the internet and wanted to know more about. While not looking to be the end-all-be-all for information, ‘History Hits’ is designed to be a quick read, providing all the information you could want, and definitely more than the click-bait slideshows featuring trivia the automotive press loves nowadays. Riding off the six-wheel sensation that has taken the world by storm these last couple of years, the first story will look at the Tyrrell P34, better recognized as the six-wheel F1 car.

As a history buff, I have of course day dreamed about the best time to live during. As someone who very much enjoys all my Things, anything too far back would not fill the bill. I figured I would hate not having a car, I would want all that crap with the World Wars taken care of, and of course, the most important consideration of all; pre-smog. With my admittedly tight requirements, this left one period in history: The late 60’s and very early 70’s. Not only did you not have to worry about Smog requirements, this period featured intense technological advancement. This advancement created a few new ‘races’ throughout the world; the arms race led to our policy of MAD, the periodic races between SR-71 Blackbirds and the SAM’s chasing them over Russia, and the Space Race to the Moon. The world of actual racing was also experiencing leaps and bounds, that led to not only some of the most intense races seen, but also some of the most innovative machines to race in. One such innovative machine represents a technological leap that was perhaps a bit of a stumble, and is the feature of today’s ‘History Hit’: the Tyrrell P34 or Project 34.

The Tyrrell P34 in original body

The Gestation Period:

While six-wheels may seem strange—justifiably—there is more logic to the project than simply adding more wheels. The idea was conceived because of another odd-ball racecar that could only happen during the time we were also competing in the Race to the Moon: The turbine powered F1 car. While that is a venture that will probably get its own Monday, the gist of the story is the Turbine cars were simply too powerful for the conventional RWD setup, and alternative methods for putting the power to the ground were being tried. The obvious choice was to try driving all four wheels. This caused extra weight from the required transmission and driveshaft, as well as causing complaints from the drivers, who found the handling poor. A gentleman by the name of Derek Gardner, who joined the F1 world during the 4WD boom, came up with the idea of compensating for the poor driving characteristics of 4WD cars by splitting the load on the front tire between two, having two tires in the front. He sent his idea off for proposal near the end of the 1960’s to his then-employers Lotus.

Eventually, turbines were dropped from F1, and Derek Gardner shelved his six-wheeled idea before his proposal could be looked at. However, Mr. Gardner is a committed man, and with the introduction of the Cosworth DFV engine, the F1 world was again faced with more power than they could handle. With essentially everyone adopting the Cosworth engine, creative ways to not only handle the power, but also get an edge on your opponent who was using the same engine with the same Aero rules, were being tested. Mr. Gardner pitched his six-wheel vision, citing several benefits:

  • You can increase traction by driving four wheels, while maintaining handling by distributing responsibility of the front driven wheel. This was achieved with the Front-Rear wheel being driven, while the Front-Front wheel was the only set connected to the steering rack.
  • There is an overall increase in braking area for improved performance
  • Reduced overall height of the wheels reduces both drag and lift, necessitating a smaller front wing, allowing faster straight-line performance to edge out competition

His idea made enough sense to those above him at his new employers, Elf-Tyrrell, for it to be granted approval. With that, designs were drawn up, and testing began.

Cutaway design of P34

Putting it into Practice:

One large hurdle that was apparently overcome early on was the tires. Goodyear supplied the tires at the time to the F1 series, and after a little talking, agreed to develop a 10in diameter tire for the venture. With that, a physical mock-up could be made, accomplished by attaching a four-wheeled front end forward of the cockpit on their current Tyrrell 007 Formula One race car. While reviews from drivers were not glowing—with one claiming it to be undrivable, while the other test driver was ready to learn the car—it proved that all of Derek Gardner’s proposed benefits existed to some degree. The project was given the go-ahead with the goal of racing in the 1975 season, and with maintaining press secrecy.

When the car was unveiled, the press was understandably hesitant about it, a hesitancy strengthened when the Tyrrell team was less than open about testing results. The P34 chassis, a unique development from both its 007 predecessor and the prototype, was not testing well, and the Tyrrell team were keeping their lips sealed. Development continued, and features such as the unique driver’s portholes that allowed a view of the front tires, were added. This allowed a late start in the 1976 Formula One season, with both cars retiring early in this first race. One car spun out of the race, while the other suffered brake failure. While a less-than-glowing start, history had been made: a six-wheeled car had raced Formula One.

The season continued with the Elf-Tyrrell cars working out their teething problems. This season culminated in a 1-2 victory at the Swedish Grand Prix of the 1976 season. Not only would this be the cars first victory, it would be its last and greatest. Not knowing that they had reached their peak, the Elf-Tyrrell team finished the season and took what they had learned and worked on trying to improve the car.

What they Learned:

The engineers at Tyrrell Motorsports, the developers of the car, came to realize there were a certain few fundamental problems with such a design:

  • While brake area is increased, the difficulty in brake cooling is also increased, as demonstrated by the early retirement in the first race, a problem that would plague the car its entire life. Not only did the smaller brakes heat quicker, they could not be sufficiently cooled while keeping the frontal area
Attempts at Brake Cooling
  • The smaller wheels, unavoidably, spin faster than the larger rear one. With such a size difference—the ratio was .625 to 1.0 front to rear—the front tires would spin significantly faster than the rear. For example if the rear tires are going 150mph, the fronts are travelling at 244mph. This causes wear problems.
  • Goodyear never gave the specialty tires the same development, and the technology never reached parity with the standard size, further complicating the above design.
  • Some drivers simply could never get the hang of such a design.

Despite the long to-do list the above problems caused, they attempted to ready the car for the 1977 season. The main means of solving the above problems was the fitment of an aerodynamic hard-body for the car. As an interesting historical side-note, they also fitted a computer diagnostic system to aid in developing the car, the first to do so in the world.

Updated Bodies

This hard body only caused further problems, plaguing the entire season. The body blocked cooling further, not only to the braking system, but also to further mechanicals of the car. The 1977 season was hounded by problems for the Elf-Tyrrell venture, and the project was officially retired by 1978.

The Death of Six-Wheels?

Surprisingly, this was not the death of the six-wheel Formula One racer, with teams such as March and Williams developing both six-wheel, 4WD, cars of their own, although their dual, driven wheels were located behind the cockpit. It was these cars which caused F1 organizers to not only ban six-wheel cars, but also 4WD applications in the sport.  As for the fate of the Tyrrell P34, two chassis’ have been restored in recent years (006 and 008), with both competing in classic racing, and appearing at the Goodwood Revival regularly. With the help of tire manufacturer Avon, these two cars have been put back into running condition, with Chassis #006 winning the inaugural FIA TGP racing series.

The One you can see today

With the continued support of companies like Avon, hopefully these pieces of rolling history can continue to exist in a state where one day you can see it blasting past you on a track.

I would like to pass thanks to the site Project34 over in the U.K. for not only providing a good source of background information, but also providing the source list I utilized in my own research. The source list is as follows:

Ken Tyrrell, Portrait of a Motor Racing Giant, by Christopher Hilton
Ken Tyrrell, The Authorized Biography, by Maurice Hamilton
Jenks, A Passion for Motor Sport, by Denis Sargent Jenkinson
Hamlyn – Formula 1 Decades, by John Tipler
Motorsport Magazine, Vol LXXVII No 2 -February 2000

Comment below on any questions you may have, and stay tuned for next weeks. Always remember to share with your friends!

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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