• Car profile: Tyrrell P34

The winning 'piece of junk'

Chris Medland
January 19, 2012

A profile of the six-wheeled Tyrrell that boasts a record of one victory and 13 podium finishes in two fleeting seasons

The Tyrrell P34 was guided to a grand prix victory by Jody Scheckter © Sutton Images
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When designer Derek Gardner first proposed a six-wheel racing car in 1968, he got no reply. When Tyrrell owner Ken Tyrrell first showed one to trusted journalist Denis Jenkinson seven years later, he was speechless. When the Tyrrell P34 was officially unveiled to the public in London Frank Williams' jaw dropped.

A number of cars and their innovations have surprised onlookers in the past, but none have been as striking as Project 34, which also had some success to back up the concept. A brave design that threatened to change the face of Formula One in 1976, the venture proved unsustainable but made a lasting impression during its short lifespan.

The initial concept first came in to Gardner's thinking at the 1968 Indianapolis 500. The Lotus 56 was causing issues for its three drivers; Joe Leonard, Art Pollard and Graham Hill. Coming before wings, the aerodynamic wedge shape on the four-wheel drive car was causing the front to become unstable when getting on and coming off the throttle.

A year later and Gardner was working on Matra's four-wheel drive gas turbine car, and was experiencing the same problem. Though the Matra never started a race Gardner began investigating potential solutions having learnt that Lotus was also having a similar problem when trying to develop the 56 as an F1 car. One idea he came up with was a six-wheeled car with four smaller wheels on the front to split the load and make the car more stable. It was never developed.

The Lotus 56 was the catalyst for Derek Gardner's idea © Sutton Images
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In 1970 Gardner joined Tyrrell as technical director and enjoyed plenty of success. The Tyrrell 003 delivered a drivers' championship for Jackie Stewart in 1971 as well as the constructors' championship, and another title for Stewart followed in 1973. The Tyrrell-Ford combination was proving difficult to beat as the V8 DFV powered the team to 16 wins in its first three full seasons, but the engine had debuted in 1967 and other manufacturers were catching up.

"In about 1974 it was becoming apparent that the Ford engine had lost its edge," Gardner said. "It was still producing the same horsepower that it always had, or a little more even, but with the success of the Ferrari, the possible success of engines like Matra or anybody else who came along with a Flat 12, V12 or 12 cylinder whatever, you're going to be hopelessly outclassed. I wanted to make a big breakthrough."

And in looking for this "big breakthrough" Gardner returned to the Indy six-wheel concept. Investigating ways of finding more straight-line speed his thinking was that smaller front wheels would reduce lift, in turn meaning the car would require a smaller front wing producing less drag. He presented the idea to Tyrrell but Tyrrell wasn't interested, later admitting: "I didn't think that we were long enough established as manufacturers to go to something so radical."

Gardner persevered and in the end Tyrrell was persuaded. A prototype was commissioned and four front wheels were grafted on to the existing Tyrrell 007 in order to test the theory. Similar to today, there was only one tyre manufacturer at the time - Goodyear - and the next hurdle was to convince it to manufacture tyres especially for the P34. In 1975 it commissioned the 10" tyre and the prototype was ready to go.

The prototype P34 used the rear end of the Tyrrell 007 during testing © Sutton Images
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Clearly excited by the radical nature of the car, Tyrrell was ready to unveil it to the press in September 1975. First, though, he wanted to show it to his close friend Jenkinson, the famous Motor Sport writer. In his book Jenks: A Passion for Motorsport Jenkinson recalls the first time he saw the P34.

"When Ken Tyrrell rings you up and says: 'Can you come over, I've got something to show you', you don't ask: 'What?' or 'Why?' One thing about Ken is he never called a spade shovel; you know exactly where you stand with him, right or wrong. So one morning in September 1975, having just got back from Monza, I got on my motorcycle and rode over to Ken's house in West Clandon, and after a welcoming cup of coffee he said: 'Come out into the garden'. Totally unprepared for what to expect, I followed him out to the lawn and my mouth fell open, and a look of total disbelief came upon my face. Ken roared with laughter as I stood there speechless, and to this day he still has a chuckle at the memory of 'Jenks speechless'."

Having showed the rest of the press, the prototype was tested. Though the sessions were far from smooth, the key was that Gardner's theories were proved correct, and the car was put in production.

The car made its debut at the start of the European season at Jarama in May. Only one was ready, but at the hands of Patrick Depailler it qualified third while team-mate Jody Scheckter could only line up 14th in the old 007. A brake failure caused Depailler to crash out, but the car had shown potential. The size of the front wheels restricted the size of the disc brakes which were difficult to keep cool, but Gardner persevered and was rewarded with a sensational one-two finish at the Swedish Grand Prix the following month.

Clear panels were placed in the bodywork to allow the drivers to see where to position the front wheels © Press Association
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The season ended with Scheckter and Depailler third and fourth in the drivers' championship and Tyrrell a close third in the constructors'. 11 podium finishes pointed to potential, but Scheckter thought otherwise. The P34 might have brought him victory at Anderstorp but he departed for Wolf labelling the car "a piece of junk". Ronnie Peterson replaced him but could only manage thee points finishes in 1977, with Depailler securing five; though three of them were podiums.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just the drivers who were losing faith. A telling sign was the lack of other teams adopting a similar design, Goodyear's enthusiasm had waned and the tyres were not being developed, which Gardner said was a costly issue that was out of his hands.

"Where I think we went wrong was that Goodyear were supplying most of the teams with rubber, and they were only supplying one team with small front wheels. Therefore development of the tyres - which is continually going on - meant that almost with its first race the development of the front tyres went back - they just didn't develop as fast as everyone else. Whereas the rear tyres were being developed with the existing front tyres, so in effect you're having to de-tune the back of the car to stay with the front."

The braking issues would not go away either despite the car using a special triple-master cylinder system to control the brakes on each axle, and Tyrrell admitted they were problems that could not be overcome.

"It became difficult to get big enough brakes to fit inside small front wheels," he said. "Because everyone else was using a standard front tyre it became politically difficult for Goodyear to develop the small tyre for us. The car became too heavy with our attempts to put bigger brakes in it and at the end of the second year we had to abandon it."

The P34 was replaced by the more conventional 008 after the 1977 season, and though Ferrari, Williams and March developed six-wheeled cars, only four-wheelers have ever been raced in Formula One since.

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