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The greatest F1 car that never was

Words by Nathan Irvine

When F1 needed a hero, a brave new vehicle entered the mix.

Back in the 1970s, Formula One technology had stagnated. Every team, except Ferrari, was using the same tyres, gearbox and engine combo. The playing field was level, sure, but the sport had become predictable.

That was until team owner Robert Kenneth “Ken” Tyrrell and designer Derek Gardner decided to shake things up.

Their plan was simple: create a trailblazing vehicle that did away with the status quo parts and dominate the sport of F1. What he conjured up was so bizarre that upon hearing about this new vehicle, F1 legend Jackie Stewart almost choked on his drink.

The six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 was born – the greatest F1 car that never was.

Six of the best

With two traditionally sized wheels at the back and then a cluster of four smaller ones at the front, the Tyrrell P34 was like nothing else in F1.

Gardner calculated that by keeping the front wheels within the width of the body, it’d reduce the amount of lift and thus add an extra 40bhp or so.

Having managed to convince Goodyear to produce the 10″ tyres, the concept soon became a reality. The whole project remained a secret until the big unveiling to the press. Even driver Jody Scheckter was kept in the dark about this new vehicle.

Tyrell P34

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Wiki Commons Jody Scheckter in the cockpit of the Tyrell P34

Race ready

While the media and certain rivals sniggered at this oddity, the Tyrrell P34 soon became a source of envy. It was quick. Very quick. The extra traction that the smaller wheels provided also made it great at handling.

The only downside was when it came to braking. In a straight line, it was fine. But when turning,  the Tyrrell P34’s front wheels would slip and slide all over the place.

Even with the brakes problem, the P34 was approved for racing and made its debut at the 1976 Spanish GP. Patrick Depailler was the man to take it on its maiden voyage in front of the crowds and cameras desperate to see how the six-wheeled race car would fare. Team-mate Jody Scheckter drove a more traditional, four-wheeler for Team Tyrrell.

Although Depailler managed to place it on the grid in qualifying, the P34 succumbed to a brakes problem that forced it into retirement. However, two weeks later the P34 secured a fourth place finish in Belgium. In Monaco a week later, Team Tyrrell finished second and third behind Nicki Lauda’s Ferrari.

Ken Tyrrell

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Wiki Commons Six-wheel pioneer Ken Tyrell salutes the crowds post-race

Fleeting success

It was at the Swedish GP that history was made as Jody Scheckter raced to a first place finish. The P34 was the real deal, and getting quicker with each race.

Soon six-wheel concepts were being devised by Tyrrell’s rivals such as McLaren and Ferrari. Each taking a leaf out of Gardner’s design, but experimenting with the quad setup in the rear. It seemed as though Tyrrell had sparked a revolution.

But as quickly as the P34 raced onto the scene to stir things up, the wheels soon fell off. Quite literally.

Goodyear simply didn’t have the means to continue making the bespoke, smaller wheels. And with that, the Tyrrell P34 was dead.

As it currently stands, it’s still the only six-wheeled car to win a Formula One race, which is no mean feat. But we can’t help but wonder just how Hamilton, Vettel and the sport of F1 would be like if the P34 concept was still around today.

Could it have become the greatest F1 car ever? We’ll never know. But the genius behind such a foundation shaking change is sorely missed in the modern day sport.

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