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Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis
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Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis

The secrets of Formula 1's six-wheeled racer

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The secrets of Formula 1's six-wheeled racer
By:
Co-author: Matt Somerfield
May 2, 2020, 12:39 PM

On this day in 1976, one of Formula 1’s most unique cars made its debut at the Spanish Grand Prix when Tyrrell introduced its infamous six-wheeled P34.

The P34 was the product of lateral thinking at Tyrrell, as it looked for a way to outsmart its rivals, most of whom were using the same Cosworth DFV engine and the Hewland gearbox.

Technical director Derek Gardner’s ambitious plan was to use four smaller wheels at the front of the car, as he hoped that their compact size plus sitting them in behind the front wing, rather than above it, would lead to a reduction in drag and perhaps even increase the car's agility.

The P34 featured four 10” wheels mounted at the front of the chassis, with the steering directly attached to the front axle, whilst a bell crank arrangement was used to steer the second.

Tyrrell P34 1977 front suspension comparison

Tyrrell P34 1977 front suspension comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

It was also anticipated that with four wheels at the front, rather than two, braking would be improved.

However, it turned out that one unintended consequence here was a bigger headache in cooling the brakes, with numerous solutions arising in an effort to improve the issue.

The other problem it had was the car's wheelbase would be either shortened or lengthened if one axle became unloaded or locked-up before the other.

This made driving and setting up the P34 especially difficult, and due to the wheels being much smaller at the front, they also went through more revolutions than their larger counterparts at the rear of the car.

This had a  significant impact on the tyre’s lifespan, a problem that was further exacerbated by Goodyear's improvement of the rear tyre and lack of development of the small front tyres.

Giorgio Piola had unprecedented access to the car during this period and takes up the story…

"It all happened by pure coincidence, as I was flying out to Rio and ended up sitting beside Ken Tyrrell on the flight," he said. "In life you need to be good, but also lucky.”

Tyrrell knew of Giorgio’s work and asked if he would be interested in doing the press kit for his team’s car, which meant he could get a lot of information and take a lot of pictures of the car.

"It was some of my best work, I was very attached to that car, as I had a good relationship with Tyrrell’s chief designer - Derek Gardner. I did three big cutaways of the car and an incredibly detailed top view that Derek helped me with."

The top view is incredibly detailed and one of the most difficult drawings Piola has done, as he explains that with the cutaway drawings you can often use tricks, like putting bodywork over an area you’re not sure about and want to obscure.

However, this overview drawing had to be extremely accurate, with everything precisely where it should be, even down to the position of the pipework. 

"For me it was one of the best drawings I’ve ever done, but no-one would publish it at the time as it had 32 annotations,” explained Piola. “This was too much detail and not something that could be published in a magazine at that time, and due to it being a huge hand-drawn illustration the arrows and numbers couldn’t be removed."

So, we can now exclusively reveal the work as he originally intended, complete with a run-down of the annotations.

Tyrrell P34 exploded top view

Tyrrell P34 exploded top view

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

  1. Adjustable aluminium splitter

  2. NACA- shaped air ducts in the front wing fed air through to the brakes via pipework [6]

  3. Adjustable Gurney flaps

  4. Brake and clutch master cylinders 

  5. Fire extinguisher for the engine

  6. Pipework feeding cool air from the front wing through to the brakes

  7. Steering arm

  8. Vented front brake discs

  9. 10” wheels

  10. Clutch pedal

  11. Steering Column

  12. Cockpit fire extinguisher

  13. Goodyear’s specially commissioned tyres

  14. Front rollover hoop

  15. Removable cockpit bodywork

  16. Bodywork recess to give access to the fuel fillers

  17. Sidepod bodywork

  18. Gear-shift lever mechanism 

  19. Fuel filler caps for the side tanks

  20. Left-hand fuel cell trap

  21. Water pot

  22. Rear rollover hoop

  23. Oil Tank

  24. Right-hand oil cooler

  25. Right-hand radiator

  26. Cosworth DFV V8 engine

  27. Hewland FG400 gearbox

  28. Inboard rear lockheed brake calipers

  29. Left-hand brake air scoop

  30. Rear anti-roll bar

  31. Rear Wing

  32. Right-hand exhaust

Jody Scheckter, Tyrrell P34-Ford, stops in front of his team after the win

Jody Scheckter, Tyrrell P34-Ford, stops in front of his team after the win

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The P34 did have its moment in the sun, taking victory at the Swedish GP, but the issue it had with the tyres continued to be exacerbated by a lack of development from Goodyear and the eventual downfall of the project. 

The P34 was withdrawn from service following the 1977 season and six-wheel designs were subsequently banned.

While Tyrrell’s foray into this solution had seen it add an axle at the front of the car, several other teams had seen an opportunity to do similar at the rear.

Williams FW08 1982 comparison with FW08B six wheeler

Williams FW08 1982 comparison with FW08B six wheeler

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Unable to acquire a turbocharged engine, Williams set about trying to find a way to level the playing field. While Ferrari and March also had six wheel projects of their own, Williams had the most race ready of the trio.

Four wheels at the front was a dead end though, as proven by Goodyear’s lack of development on the 10” tyre for Tyrrell’s P34. Instead, Williams would focus its efforts at the rear of the car but still with the intent of reducing drag.

The rear tyre was still much wider than those used at the front of the car, so Williams proposed using two front tyres in series at the rear of the car.

This approach not only gave the requisite drag reduction but came with the added benefits of four-wheel drive and an increase in the car's wheelbase. 

Able to place the narrower wheels further out, it was able to lengthen and widen the Venturi tunnels and bodywork all the way to the rear of the car, resulting in a significant increase in downforce from ground effect.

Williams had put extensive effort into converting the FW07 to test out the theory and even planned on racing the FW08 in that guise. That is until the governing body banned four-wheel drive, which proved to be even more infuriating for Patrick Head when he was told by Sir Frank Williams that he’d agreed to it, in a meeting with the other teams at Maranello.

Patrick Head’s attempt at a six-wheeled machine would have been a massive step forward for Williams, with the car reportedly a handful of seconds quicker than its predecessor. Alas, it wasn’t to be and the car was shelved without having turned a wheel competitively.

Alan Jones, 6-wheel Williams FW07D

Alan Jones, 6-wheel Williams FW07D

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About this article

Series Formula 1
Teams Tyrrell
Author Giorgio Piola