19 Jun 2020

SIX WHEELS ON MY WAGON

Handling and traction have always been two of the most sort after characteristics of any Formula 1 car.

Straight line speed is largely reliant upon a slippery aerodynamics package and power train capability. Handling however is a different matter.

While cornering at high speed in an F1 car still requires good down force provided by the aero package, at lower speeds the responsibility for fast cornering and good acceleration out of the turn transfers to the mechanical handling capabilities of the car.

During the 1970’s, and before the days of ground effect, a number of teams looked to improve both aerodynamics and cornering capabilities by applying the simple notion of increasing the tyre contact surface area with the tarmac. The additional benefit was that the smaller diameter of the wheels created a less aerodynamic inefficiency commonly known as drag.

Today we look at 4 teams that experimented with 6-wheel configurations on their cars to achieve this and their relative successes.

TYRRELL P34

The Tyrrell P34 was the first and remains the most successful 6-wheeled Formula 1 car ever to be built, have raced in 30 Grand Prix and winning the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix with a podium 1-2.

Unlike any of the cars that came after it, the design team at Tyrrell opted to configure the car with the 4-wheel set up at the front.

The original idea was to build a simple 4-wheeled car with a smaller wheel/tyre than the standard front wheel/tyre size in order for the tyre to be small enough to fit entirely behind the wing. This would reduce drag and improve top speed. However, the tyre contact point area didn’t deliver sufficient grip and so a second set of wheels were suggested and then designed in to the P34. This provided the desired aerodynamic advantages without any loss of tyre contact point area. The result in car performance was reduced drag and improved top speed.

The car was first tested at the end of 1975 and was officially entered for the 1976 season shortly after.

For the 1977 season, Tyrrell made some modifications to the car now designated P34B. This car was less competitive and suffered a disappointing season. Following which Tyrrell reverted back to a 4-wheeled car for the 1978 season.

The P34 can rightly take its place as a trail blazing design alongside other innovative classics such as the Lotus 49 and 77, and the Williams FW15C.

FERRARI 312T6

The Ferrari 312T6 was a modified 312T2 which Niki Lauda drove during the infamous 1976 Formula 1 season in which he narrow lost the Driver’s World Championship title to James Hunt, and survived the crash that would define his reputation as one of the bravest drivers ever to sit in an F1 car.

Developed in 1977, Ferrari had a simple approach which was to replace the large rear wheels/tyres with the smaller wheels/tyres used at the front of the car. The car used a basic T2 chassis with a modified rear axle and gearbox to accommodate the wide rear track and smaller tyre circumferences. The car was developed primarily to reduce rear drag generated by the huge rear tyres used in formula 1 at that time. The car was tested at Fiorano by both Lauda and his teammate Carlos Reutemann but never made it to the F1 grid as it didn’t meet maximum width regulations.

MARCH 2-4-0

The 2-4-0 was named using the system used by railway engineers to designate wheel configurations on steam engines. Developed by March Engineering between 1976 and 1977, the team, owned by Max Mosley and designer Robin Herd, again opted for the additional wheels placed at the rear of the car. This time however they introduced a second driven axle with the same smaller wheels and tyres that were used by Ferrari. As a result, the car was longer than a standard chassis but didn’t suffer the same width issues as the Ferrari. In fact, the net result was a car narrower than a standard F1 car, which meant reduced drag from the rear wheels height and width. The 4 driven wheels also in theory offered better traction off the line and acceleration out of corners.

The car was tested at Silverstone at the end of 1976 but due to reliability issues on the day, only ran using 2-wheel drive. The car was further tested in early 1977 with full 4-wheel drive but the March team, under financial pressures, were unable to further develop the car and reverted back to a standard configuration for that season.

WILLIAMS FW08B

The FW08B was a car after its time. All of the other 6 wheeled cars designed up to this point aimed at addressing issues around handling, traction, and aerodynamics. Whilst this was also the case with Williams, it was a means to an end. The sole rationale behind its development was to combat the dominance of the more powerful turbo cars of Renault and Ferrari.

In 1981, Williams didn’t have a turbo deal and so were running the elderly Cosworth DFV. As they didn’t have raw power to work with, they calculated that with enough improvement aerodynamically, they could match the turbo cars for top speed. Although off the back of a World Title winning season, Williams were still a small shop when compared to the well-funded manufacturer teams. So, it was a small team led by Patrick Head, and a couple of apprentices, Neil Oakley and Ross Brawn, that went to work on building the 6-wheeler.

On completion of the car it was tested by Alan Jones in late 1981.  The test was a success with the car generating such down force from its revised ground effect and reduced drag, that it could be run without a rear wing and not lose any downforce.

Williams’ intention was to run the car in the 1982 season and its possible that with the momentum Williams had at that time they could have gone on to win a back to back third world title with the first ever title winning 6-wheeled car. Sadly, it was not to be as during the closed season rumours of the car’s development had reached the governing body who promptly banned all designs above a standard 4-wheel configuration.

There are many regulation changes in place for the 2021 Formula 1 season and we are looking forward to seeing the new car designs on the track. If you would like to experience the very best hospitality at one of the marquee races in 2021, please contact JDC Promotions and let us build a bespoke package for you and your guests.

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ianhucklesby

Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre