Six Of The Best: The Tyrrell P34

Sharing top billing alongside the Group C sportscars, Super Tourers and GTs at this year’s incredible Silverstone Classic festival were the cars of the Grand Prix Masters Series: predominantly Cosworth-powered Formula 1 racers from the ’70s and ’80s that included a number of rarities in its grid, like this unmistakeable Tyrrell P34. The Project 34 was one of only a handful of six-wheelers developed for F1 during its heyday of innovation in the ’70s and ’80s, when all sorts of avenues were followed in the pursuit of speed, and no two F1 cars ever looked the same.

Having won the World Championship with Jackie Stewart in 1969, 1971 and 1973, Tyrrell Racing were able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other great British privateer teams of the time: Lotus, Brabham and McLaren. The P34 was a radical departure even for the ’70s: the concept aimed to reduce lift and to provide the maximum downforce and mechanical grip at the front. Small slots were made in the bodywork so the driver could see the front wheels and power was provided by the evergreen 500hp, three-litre V8 Cosworth DFV.

The 600kg chassis utilised an aluminium monocoque and the 10″ front wheels were held by double wishbones and coil springs over dampers. Brake cooling was supplied by piping from the nose section. You can see from this image just how far forward the driver’s feet are: right on the axle-line for the front pair of wheels, just behind the radiators and tiny crash-structure. Typical for the time, it makes my ankles hurt just to look.

Basic dials mounted on the welded front roll-hoop have been supplemented with a modern transponder system to help with monitoring lap times, but apart from that there’s no complication. PUMP, IGN, START, gear, throttle, away. Six-wheeled joy!

Jody Scheckter (’76), Ronnie Peterson (’77) and Patrick Depailler (both years) raced P34 chassis in period, with the highlight the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp where P34s finished first and second – Scheckter winning from pole. Its success was short-lived. Scheckter, never a fan of the concept, walked away for ’77, when the P34 really ran into trouble…

The car’s shortfall was always its tiny front tyres: the development that the specialised rubber required was never forthcoming from Goodyear, and after a dismal season in which Tyrrell didn’t win a race for the first time since 1970 the P34 was reworked into the rather more conventional 008 for 1978. But in recent years P34s have re-emerged in historic F1 races, thanks to tyre supplier Avon being persuaded to do what Goodyear wouldn’t at the time, develop bespoke rubber for the 10″ rims. Back in action for over a decade, P34s are now regular visitors to the racing tracks of the world, and they are most welcome.

The P34 is still a quick machine: #4’s driver at Silverstone, New Zealander Roger Wills, is an experienced hand behind the wheel and has won in both current and historic machinery. Having started racing just eight years ago, he now competes in both GT events like the Spa 24 Hours (he’ll be in one of the Von Ryan McLaren MP4-12C this weekend) and a whole host of historic series. At the Silverstone Classic he was out in several other cars besides the Tyrrell, including a Group C Lancia LC2 and a Cortina! This a man who is demonstrably enjoying his weekend driving.

The P34 here was running in its 1977 spec: lap-times were edging down into the low 1:50s, which are impressively quick times. The P34 wasn’t able to threaten the faster, more developed cars from the early ’80s that also compete in the series (and again, some with contemporary GT drivers at the wheel), but was always near the front.

A second six-wheeler – the unraced-in-period March 2-4-0 – was also out at Silverstone, and three examples of six-wheeled Formula 1 cars had been on show at the Goodwood Festival Of Speed at the end of June, the third example being the Williams FW08B, which like the March used four driven rear wheels. They’ll be more on the rest of the Grand Prix Masters grid coming up soon. In the meantime, enjoy this lap on board a P34 shorn of bodywork at Monaco with Patrick Depailler at the wheel. A real F1 go-kart!

Jonathan Moore

Speedhunters at the 2012 Silverstone Classic


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