Banned! Six-wheelers

Tyrrell P34, 1977, Donington Collection, 2007Complete the following sentence: Formula 1 cars need more ______ .

Power? Drag? Advertising space? No – F1 cars need more wheels. Six of them, to be precise.

At least four different teams experimented with the idea within a few years of each other, and they succeeded in producing some of the most hideous F1 cars ever seen.

A laughing stock to begin with, the final iteration of six-wheeled cars proved the concept had tremendous potential – before it was banned.

Just before the launch of the Tyrrell P34 in 1976, team boss Ken Tyrrell let venerable F1 journalist Denis Jenkinson in early for a sneak peek. On first sight of the car Jenkinson declared, “Right – I think I’d better go out and come back in again.”

Three years after Tyrrell’s last championship win designer Derek Gardner was grappling with the problem of reducing the car’s drag to get as much speed from it as possible. Having exhausted conventional solutions, he turned to the realm of the truly weird.

By using four small wheels at the front of the car instead of two larger ones, he could reduce drag while increasing grip. His bizarre idea required Goodyear to produce tiny 10 inch (250 mm) tyres for the front of the car.

It wasn’t ready for the start of the season and the team made do with the 007 chassis in the meantime. Patrick Depailler raced the first P34 at round four in Jarama, Spain.

Three rounds later Jody Scheckter gave the car its one and only win at Anderstorp, Sweden. But the South African driver was not keen on the car and left the team at the end of the year.

Tyrrell plugged on with the P34 for another year before retiring it. But the concept didn’t die.

March were the next team to give six wheels a try, but opted for the more logical solution of putting the four wheels at the back and having them all driven for greater traction. At least, it would have done, had the 2-4-0 chassis ever raced.

Ferrari also experimented with six wheels – placing four rear wheels on the rear axles of its 312 in 1977, creating the 312T6. This idea had its roots in the pre-WWII Auto Union Bergrennwagen.

The Ferrari, like the March, never raced. Some wilder rumours even suggest they dallied with the concept of an eight-wheeler…

Alan Jones, Williams-Cosworth FW07D, Donington Park, 1982The final team to experiment with a six-wheeler were Williams. But when the governing body got wind of the performance advantage Williams had unlocked the technology was quickly banned.

Williams originally designed the car to make the most out of ground effect aerodynamics which employed skirts down the sides of the cars, touching the ground, to create a vacuum under the car at speed and generate enormous grip.

With a six-wheeled chassis front wheel-width tyres could be used at the rear, allowing the skirts to be extended along the full length of the car, creating even more grip.

Williams found an unexpected feature of the six-wheeled design. In wet conditions slick tyres could be used on the rearmost axle because the road those wheels were running on was swept sufficiently clear of water by the tyres in front.

Alan Jones, Williams-Cosworth FW07D, Donington Park, 1982, 2Their six-wheeled car promised a leap forward in grip comparable to that which had been seen when ground effects first arrived. Williams’ 1982 car had a lift to drag ratio of 8.2 – the six-wheeler’s was 13.4. At the end of 1982, ground effects were banned, and Williams’ 1983 car had a lift to drag ratio of 1.1.

The governing body also took steps to ban the six-wheeled innovation. Not only was four-wheel drive banned for 1983, but cars were soon after limited to only four wheels as well.

Williams’ engineers had a fleeting glimpse of the kinds of extreme performance that modern F1 cars could have if the rules were less restrictive.

Whether the drivers would be physically strong enough to cope with the loads without the kind of G-suits worn by fighter pilots is another matter…

Postscript: While researching the above article I found an image of a car that reportedly raced in the 1957 Indianapolis 500, a world championship event at the time. The car is another six wheeler with four wheels at the rear. It was called the Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser 500G “Pat Clancy Special” (reference – external), driven by Jack Turner.

As I wasn’t able to find any corroborating material about the above car I did not include it in the piece, but if anyone has any information about it I’d be fascinated to learn.

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8 comments on Banned! Six-wheelers

  1. Found more general information on six-wheelers here: http://www.forix.com/8w/sixwheelers.html

    It only mentions the Pat Clancy Special as an aside, as here, but explains that it had two pairs of back wheels were all drive wheels, giving it amazing straightline speed but poor turning, as repeated in many of the cars mentioned. The goal of four wheels in the rear appears to be creating a large contact patch for the motor, at the expense of a relatively small contact patch in front.

    It’s a wonder teams haven’t experimented with tank treads… or have they?

    Banned! is a great series and I thank you for it.

    Best wishes

  2. Opinions vary on if the P34 was about drag or braking. The frontal area of a car of that era was still dominated by the rear tyres, so the P34 had the same frontal area as its rivals. But it had four brake disks and four brake calipers at the front, which its rivals didn’t.

    What killed it, by the way, was increasing understeer. In its later years a full-blown tyre war waged, which meant that the rear tyres got better and better. The fronts didn’t, because no other team needed tyres so small, and the cars progressively had less and less front balance. Gardner engineered a P34 in EuroBOSS in the early 2000s, fitted with balanced Avon control tyres, and it swept all before it.

  3. SPB said on 4th March 2008, 10:10

    I had the privilege of working with Derek Gardner when the P34 was resurrected and entered into the Historic Formula 1 Championship(which it won). The concept of the car incorporated several advantages. 1. The air resistance generated by the wheels/tyres is not split evenly, it is predominantly at the front, and also creates turbulence which reduces the efficiency of the wing. Small inboard wheels improve this. 2. The contact area was greater than a single larger tyre. 3.The contact area of the brakes was greater. 3. The effective wheelbase of the 6 wheel is measured between the centre line of the rear wheel and the mid point between the 2 front, so turn-in is very impressive. igb correctly states that with a single tyre supplier for f1 in 76 (Goodyear), they were sure to be champions so the rears were continually developed and the mini fronts lagged behind. Furthermore, they were cross-plys, so they tended to “balloon” at high speeds, although did not loose pressure. Avon now produce all tyres for the historic f1(still cross-plys), and with the “new” mini fronts the car has proved vindicated. I believe Ken found the car to be too radical and it may have contributed to the reason why Derek left the team. The 1977 car was under development and was intended to have carbon fibre chassis, Renault turbo engine and radial tyres by Michelin – that would have been interesting!

  4. Excellent article!

  5. PeterG said on 23rd June 2010, 9:38

    Every real innovation will be illegal. This is the most serious threat to F1.

  6. Ceadderman said on 22nd December 2010, 20:35

    I seem to recall that elf also had a car that had a 6×4 configuration. Being that it was a year or two before my Highschool years, I remember that one ran Indy. Whether it was in a Race or exhibition I don’t recall. However years later I related my recollection to my Uncle who has had dealings with every motor sport that ever took place in the U.S. from the time he was in his 20′s and he thought I was full of you know what.

    Well I was perusing around Google looking up Michael Shumacher news when I remembered this yet again and decided to dive in looking for any images I could find. I found several of the elf P34 which finally led me to an archive image of the Williams FW08B with reference. I also noted that while much of the information regarding six wheel cars is similar that no two sites had the same information exactly other than that the FIA moved fairly quickly to ban 6 wheel cars.

    I miss the days of the big wing cars. These new medium and small wing cars just don’t look right to me. IMHO, the Rear wing should extend to the edge of the tires. Especially more so since Teams have taken to adding a central tail fin over the rear Axle.

    Anyway if anyone has any archival images of the rear tandem 6×4 configurations on the track it would be greatly appreciated. I’d like to pass them on to my uncle who thought I was full of you know what. *grins*

    Thanks.

  7. Malcolm Tucker said on 27th February 2011, 5:34

    http://www.ultimatecarpage.com/forum/showthread.php?t=32099

    some pics of the pat clancy special

  8. US Williams Fan (@us-williams-fan) said on 14th May 2011, 8:28

    Niiiiice! First time seeing the picture of the March six wheeler…..

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