The Tyrrell P34 won just one race and contested only two seasons of Grand Prix racing. Tyrrell’s lead drivers in those two seasons — Jody Scheckter and Ronnie Peterson — both disliked driving it. Yet there’s a compelling case for it to be judged as one of the most iconic racing cars ever created. It was certainly one of the most radical designs ever seen and, just maybe, could have changed the path of motor racing history.
[Ed Note: This article is an excerpt from the excellent: “TYRRELL: The Story Of The Tyrrell Racing Organisation,” written by motorsports researcher and author Richard Jenkins and published by EVRO Publishing and excerpted here with permission. You can order the book here. – MH]
Work on the six-wheel P34 started in late 1974 and it took just under a year for the car to come to fruition, but the idea had been in designer Derek Gardner’s head for a long time, as he confirmed to many publications. The following comes from a combination of feedback he gave to Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck, John Blunsden of Motor Racing Year, an interview in Challenge magazine and Motor Sport’s Andrew Frankel.
Gardner: “The whole process evolved quite slowly. The concept really went back to the 1968 Indy Lotus turbine car, on which I was responsible for the four-wheel drive. The actual behaviour of four-wheel drive wasn’t well known. So, when you took it to Indianapolis, any change in the car made it nervous. But I took it all in. I saw it as a logical approach, in 1968, to solving the problem of controlling a four-wheel-drive car in USAC racing. The drivers were having a terrible time, with the way the all-wheel-drive transmission was making the car react, when they came on and off the throttle, and that was despite a gas turbine motor which naturally behaves better in this respect than a conventional engine. These cars were absolutely undriveable. They didn’t handle at all well.”
“So, I came up with the idea of four front wheels, but only two of these four front wheels would be power driven, which meant reasonable stability could be found, without losing drive to the front,” said Gardner. “By the end of that year, I had produced a design for a six-wheeled Indy car.”
“Lotus, who were the original beneficiaries, were now gone from Indianapolis, so I put a proposal to Andy Granatelli, whose STP company had sponsored the turbine cars, but it came to nothing, as he never replied, and in disgust, I simply filed the idea away.”
“Then years later, I was able to work out how we could get a substantial gain in horsepower with the Ford DFV engine, which pretty much everyone had. So I went through my files, found the information, and the concept I’d set up in 1968. I concluded that, if I had a car that had four front wheels and two rear wheels, and the fronts could be contained within 1,500 millimetres at the front, I could reduce the amount of lift generated by normal front wheels, which subsequently meant I could find us 40-odd horsepower. I came round to thinking it might answer many of our current problems.”
“I showed it to Ken [Tyrrell] who went “good grief,” but he went for the idea as long as someone would make the tyres for us. Goodyear were very enthusiastic, but the only compromise was they wanted ten-inch wheels; I wanted nine. Ken told me we must keep the project under wraps.”
HOW TO BUILD IT
One other key decision was whether or not to completely redesign the whole car or just the front end, given the added complications and time the concept would give the mechanics. Gardner decided upon a compromise: “We worked out that our purposes would be best served by grafting the front end of the six-wheeler onto the back end of the 007. Also, this would offer us a saving both in time and cost.”
Gardner chose a ‘shovel-type’ nose so that he could bring the four front wheels, which measured 402mm in diameter with tires, fully within the shrouding influence of the nose without having to sacrifice any downforce. To keep the wheels within the 1,400mm body width, the front track was only 1,160mm, while the 1,500mm rear track was also quite narrow, measuring 76mm less than on the 007. Perhaps not surprisingly, the car was heavier than the 007, but only by 14kg.
As on the 1975-specification 007, the previous race car, there were outboard front brakes, of necessarily reduced diameter to fit within the small wheel rims. The rack-and-pinion steering connected directly to the leading wheels, with the rearward wheels turned by slave rods and levers. Steering effort was estimated to be 10–15 per cent higher than on the 007. The suspension was largely conventional, with upper transverse links (triangulated to resist braking torque) and lower wishbones.
Returning to Gardner’s comments at the time, he stated:
“We now have five percent more weight on the front of the car. It’s a short-wheelbase car and you cannot build a four-wheel-car with that sort of weight bias. Although the ten-inch wheels are spinning faster than the thirteen-inch wheels, we’ve had no wheel bearing problems at all. This was because we chose a close tolerance bearing that is self-contained. It actually goes thirty per cent higher than the wheel speed of conventional Grand Prix cars.
“It’s a very expensive car to build because almost everything is new. We can’t — of course — use anything off the front of our old cars. But we are prepared to spend more money on this project than we would if it were a conventional four-wheel car, because of the potential we see in it. We believe we can develop it to be superior to the four-wheel concept, and thus could change quite measurably. But our budget is quite small compared to other competitors, some of whom will spend to win at any cost. For us, it’s cutting one’s coat to suit one’s cloth.”
THE BIG REVEAL
The P34 was revealed on 22nd September 1975 at a press launch at the Heathrow Hotel near the airport. As well as Ken and Derek, Patrick Depailler attended, and Jackie Stewart was also there. A good number of Tyrrell personnel were present, keen to enjoy the reaction and questions they knew the car would soon engender. When the journalists and photographers took their places, the P34 was concealed under a blue cloth. Crafty mechanics had placed a piece of wood over each pair of front wheels to give the impression that the car had two conventional wheels.
Neil Trundle and Rollie Law were given the responsibility of removing the cloth. They did so in almost Machiavellian fashion, slowly and deliberately, in three stages. The first two stages revealed a conventional engine and a normal cockpit area. But when they pulled the cloth away fully, the audience, of course, was stunned.
Three Tyrrell people gave the author their memories.
- Steve Leyshon: “There was a pregnant pause, in fact almost no reaction at all, then acclaim and applause a short while afterwards.”
- Kenneth Tyrrell: “Some of the journalists even laughed — they thought it was a joke to create publicity.”
- Rollie Law: “After a few seconds, journalists couldn’t get to the phones quickly enough, they were like maniacs!”
When Depailler got to try the car for the first time at Paul Ricard, he immediately adored it, as he described with some emotion to José Rosinski, his biographer:
“As soon as I was let in on the secret, I was enthusiastic. Scheckter manifested unconcealed suspicion towards it, so Ken put more trust in me. At the first test, you need to remember a racing car is not just a machine. It’s a wonderful thing, it’s almost like a child that has been born, and you need to teach it to walk, run, read, write, as you do the first few laps of its history. You could feel crushed by your responsibility, because so many mechanics and other people had put so much time and effort into it. I could break everything, reduce to nothing, all these hours of strenuous work so I felt paralysis and exultation at the same time.”
Derek Gardner confirmed Depailler’s enthusiasm: “Patrick loved the car. He was completely committed and loved everything about it. Jody… well, he would drive it but not with total commitment.”
SCHECKTER WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE FAN
As for Scheckter, over the years he has often expressed his dissatisfaction with the P34, but his criticisms have always been generally balanced and constructive:
“When I drove it for the first time, it was like driving a saloon car. I couldn’t see the front wheels and I couldn’t aim at the apex of the corner, so I had to feel my way round. It was almost like driving a pair of roller skates as the front wheels felt like they were right underneath me.
But it didn’t take long to get the feel of the car, and once I was used to it, I found it more economical, in terms of the amount of road it gave through a corner. That meant we saved tenths of a second going through a corner, and getting to your maximum speed more quickly, as you have an early, clean, economical line.
The trouble was, they tried to build a car that was easier to drive rather than a car that was fast and I think that was the start of things going wrong. They had two new guys and they approached it in a different way. They didn’t always want to hear what we said, and they would often say this is how Jackie did this, or how Jackie did that. But because he wasn’t there, we couldn’t learn that. So we just had this ‘Jackie Stewart shadow’ hanging over us.
I think Derek got under too much pressure to do something better than anyone else. It was in my opinion, a lousy, rubbish car. In my opinion, the theories were all wrong. They said it would brake better, as it had a smaller frontal area and six wheels, but it didn’t. I didn’t agree with them, so I was the one they didn’t like hearing feedback from. I never agreed with the two fundamental concepts behind it, reducing frontal area and improving braking. Frontal area is determined by the rear tires, and as for the brakes, as soon as one locked you had to lift off.”
Although Steve Leyshon was very much a fan of the car, there was one problem that the extra wheels gave all the mechanics: “Pitstops were different. Whoever the poor bugger was at the front, he had to change two wheels instead of one! No 2.5-second pitstops for us [laughs]! Thankfully, we didn’t do a mass of pitstops then. Today we would have been way down the order all the time!”
During the testing phase, the team had to work out whether the P34 was really going to be a better prospect than the 007. The clincher came one day at Paul Ricard in a pre-season test, when Scheckter was put in a 007 and Patrick in the prototype P34, each in turn being given the task of slipstreaming and passing the other. Patrick in the six-wheeler had no great difficulty passing Jody, but Jody, comfortable in the familiar 007, and as good as he was, couldn’t pass Patrick. The six-wheeler was ‘go’.
The 1976 Season
While the 007s continued in use for the first three Grands Prix of 1976, at Interlagos in Brazil, Kyalami in South Africa and Long Beach for the inaugural United States (West) Grand Prix, serious discussion followed about whether the six-wheeler should be entered for the first race of the European season, at Jarama in Spain. A compromise was decided, whereby Depailler would début the P34 but Scheckter would continue in a 007. Depailler out-qualified his team-mate by just over a second, third against 14th, and ran a strong fourth until overheating brake fluid began to affect the braking and he spun off.
The next two appearances were even more heartening. In Scheckter’s first race in the P34, at Zolder in Belgium, he finished fourth. Then a great result followed in Monaco when both Tyrrell drivers took podium placings, Scheckter second, Depailler third.
Next, the circus rocked up at Anderstorp, in south-west Sweden. The track had only been in existence for eight years, built on reclaimed marshland near the small town of Anderstorp, which had a population of less than 5,000.
The 1976 event didn’t go to plan initially for Scheckter and Tyrrell. During practice, Jody’s P34 car suddenly felt “springy”. He continued briefly before realising what had happened. He pulled into the pits and told Ken Tyrrell and Derek Gardner about the altered handling he had experienced. Ken called his mechanics over to investigate what the possible reasons for the sudden change might be. By now Scheckter could barely keep a straight face. It took a good 20 seconds for anyone to notice that one of the front wheels on the left side had fallen off.
For qualifying, all went swimmingly, with Scheckter taking pole, 0.349 seconds quicker than Mario Andretti’s Lotus 77. Depailler lined up fourth, alongside an on-form Chris Amon’s Ensign N176. No one could have imagined at the time that this pole position was to be Tyrrell’s last.
On a cool, cloudy day with over 30,000 fans cheering Peterson and Nilsson, Andretti settled into the lead of the 72-lap race, albeit after a jumped start that soon earned him a one-minute penalty. Although Mario knew about this from pit signals, the Tyrrell duo in second and third places didn’t. They continued to push the Lotus, unaware that they had nearly a minute in their pockets.
Just after the halfway mark, Ken cottoned on that Andretti was probably facing a penalty but couldn’t confirm it. But it didn’t matter: on lap 46 the Lotus’s Cosworth engine cried enough and Andretti retired. Scheckter and Depailler were now first and second with Niki Lauda (Ferrari) and Jacques Laffite (Ligier) distant enough in third and fourth not to cause too many dramas. The two Tyrrell drivers drove carefully, held station and came home to achieve a glorious 1–2. Not that the partisan crowd cared too much. Peterson finished an underwhelming seventh and Nilsson retired early.
The P34 had won only its fourth race. As ever, Ken was cautious and didn’t get excited. Quoted in The Guardian newspaper, he said: “I don’t think we should get too cocky about the result in Sweden. Anderstorp was probably the only circuit that Ferrari will be at a disadvantage. We will be strong at circuits, like Anderstorp, where there is a long straight to capitalise on our speed.”
Goodyear supplied the entire Formula 1 field in 1976. The choice for the company was quite simple: should it focus its tire development on the majority or divide its efforts to include the needs of just one team? As the season progressed, this conflict of interest resolved itself with increasing clarity as the bitterly contested championship fight between Niki Lauda and James Hunt intensified, leading both Ferrari and McLaren to push for tire development that suited them.
The tire company had too much to juggle. Due to the strength of its relationship with Tyrrell, stretching back to 1971, Goodyear wanted to support the team as best it could but decided there was little it could do to further develop the unique front tires.
Even if there were to be no more victories, the P34s certainly posted lots more strong results in 1976, and Tyrrell ended up a very encouraging third in the constructors’ championship. The six-wheeler was reliable, finishing more races than not, and when retirements did occur they were unrelated to the extra two wheels at the front except on one occasion. After the Swedish Grand Prix, the remaining nine races yielded six second places, three each for Scheckter and Depailler, Jody’s in Britain, Germany and the United States (at Watkins Glen), Patrick’s in France, Canada and Japan. There were also quite a few other points-scoring finishes, such that Tyrrell came home empty-handed only once over the rest of the season, in Austria, where both cars dropped out.
The closest a P34 came to a second win was at the end-of-season Japanese Grand Prix, held in wild weather. This race was the championship decider: Lauda, making his remarkable comeback from severe injury at the Nürburgring, led Hunt by three points, but in torrential rain he famously withdrew from the race after the second lap, citing the conditions as too dangerous to continue. That left Hunt just needing to finish in the top four to claim the title. With 11 laps to go, Hunt was in front but struggling with excessive tire wear, like many of the drivers. Depailler pounced and once again a P34 led a race. But his hopes of winning disappeared within only two laps when he suffered a puncture in, the irony of ironies, one of the rear tyres. Although he roared back to finish second, victory had gone Mario Andretti’s way.
This remarkable season for Tyrrell had been accomplished with just 34 employees, excepting Ken, Norah and the drivers.
Despite all the positives of Tyrrell’s 1976 season, the six-wheeled concept very much polarised opinions. The new World Champion, James Hunt, was one of the skeptics and stated:
“There’s nothing special about the six-wheelers and, as yet, they’ve done nothing that you can’t do with a four-wheel car. When the car has reached the end of its development life, they have either got to take the theory substantially further or go back to four wheels. I don’t see that there’s a future for them or anyone else building a six-wheeler to the configuration they’ve got at the moment.”
But, ultimately, the car was beloved wherever it went and popular beyond its actual performance. “The P34 has sold more models than any other Formula 1 car — millions have been sold,” said Bob Tyyrell. “And even today it’s still one of the most iconic Formula 1 cars ever made — if not the most iconic.”
The above is a shortened excerpt from the excellent: “TYRRELL: The Story Of The Tyrrell Racing Organisation”, published by EVRO Publishing and excerpted here with permission. You can order the book here. The Autopian may get a commission from the link if you do.