Innovation needs supplier support. The Tyrrell P34 “6-wheeler” case #FT

p34aLink to the #FT website.

The story

The arrival of Derek Gardner at the Tyrrell Formula One team in 1970 as technical director produced a series of outstanding successes. These included Sir Jackie Stewart winning the F1 drivers’ championships in 1971 and 1973, as well as Tyrrell’s triumph in the constructor’s championship in 1973.

F1 regulations were looser than today and teams continually tried radical new ideas to help catch up with the top performers. By 1974 it was evident that Ford, which powered the Tyrrell car, was complacent in the face of the new 12-cylinder engine of Ferrari and Matra.


The challenge

As Gardner put it, Tyrrell needed a big breakthrough or it would risk being “hopelessly outclassed”. With Ford not undertaking any significant development for its engines, Gardner decided an alternative was to design smaller front wheels, which would reduce lift and increase speed. But this would threaten the car’s grip during turns and its overall stability.

The strategy

Gardner returned to a striking design he had developed before, but not applied, to solve instability problems. The Tyrrell P34, a pioneering six-wheel car with four smaller front wheels and two standard-size rear wheels, improved downforce and grip, and significantly increased the car’s cornering speed.

Persuading Tyrrell’s team and suppliers to support such a radical innovation was a struggle, but the P34 eventually made its jaw-dropping debut in the 1976 season, as the first six-wheel car.

The results

The Tyrrell P34 threatened to dominate F1 – but only for a short period. Four races after its debut, Jodie Scheckter and Patrick Depailler finished first and second in the Swedish Grand Prix. The season ended with Tyrrell coming third in the constructors’ championship, with Scheckter and Depailler third and fourth in the drivers’ championship.

However, Tyrrell had not considered the critical importance of Goodyear, the official tyre supplier for all F1 teams. The tyremaker had agreed to custom-make one “small-size” model for Tyrrell. But it turned out that Goodyear was not prepared to continue development of the size.

For the tyremaker, there were not enough economies of scale because Tyrrell was the only car using small wheels. It judged that the research and development costs were too high to be covered by just one team.

Tyrrell failed to persuade Goodyear that, if the six-wheeler was consistently successful, other teams would adopt the design. The tyremaker was also unconvinced of the wider potential of the design.

While Goodyear worked on improving the standard tyres on all F1 cars throughout the 1976 season, it did not work on development of the bespoke P34 front tyres. As a result, the Tyrrell car’s rear tyres became faster and more durable, while the P34 front tyres did not. The disparity undermined the car’s balance and made it almost undriveable.

In addition, the front brakes suffered overheating problems because of limited ventilation inside the small front wheels.

Eventually, Tyrrell abandoned the P34 project. Scheckter moved to the Wolf F1 team and Gardner – one of the most acclaimed and inventive F1 designers – resigned from Tyrrell and turned his back on F1 for good.

The lesson

Just because an innovation is exciting, it is not guaranteed market success. Tyrrell’s P34 experience confirms the critical importance of strategic suppliers to executing innovative ideas.

In highly technological environments, the outcome of an innovation often depends on several parties’ support and involvement. Businesses must engage with their most important suppliers when innovating.

The six-wheel concept was an effective idea, and although it vanished from F1 – six-wheelers were subsequently banned when the sport introduced more design restrictions – the idea now has several applications, such as all-terrain vehicles, vans, buses, trucks and Covini sports cars. If Tyrrell had persuaded Goodyear to support the P34, we might all be driving cars with two extra wheels today.



(by Paolo Aversa, Ph.D)

The Formula One 2013 season is just about to start and – as it always happens at this time of the year – the entire world of fans and experts is wondering how the new regulations will affect the upcoming competitions. I believe that first of all it is important to define whether the new changes will have a significant impact on the cars technology and thus the teams’ strategies. Formula 1 official website provides a quick overview on the major rule changes for year 2013. At a first glance, I agree with what several experts already stated: it won’t be a year of massive change. If compared to other season – as the recent 2009 – the architectural design of the cars and their subpart remains more or less stable. The front wing, load and crash tests updates are fundamentally aimed at increasing the driver’s safety, but won’t impact performance or heavily force the other subcomponents’ re-design. The increase of minimum car weight –  from 640 to 642kg – is an effect of the new Pirelli tyres which are exactly 2kg heavier than the one used in the previous year. Consequently, the weight-distribution requirement has also been revised to minimum figures of 292kg: 343kg front to rear, leaving teams a flexibility of 7kg of ballast to position at their convenience. All in all, definitely not a game-changer. So what’s really interesting to talk about?

I believe two aspects require some (strategic) reflection, as they represent the areas of critical decision making for teams and drivers.

First, the new Pirelli tyres. Pirelli – who is today the one and only tyre supplier for F1 teams – released this year a new 8-type tyres set for F1 cars, which present some change both in new compounds and construction (for more technical specs see the new video Pirelli recently released). The main point is that all the different tyres will be softer than 2012 – which translates into better grip, faster cars, but also quicker tyre degradation, and consequently more pit stops. In recent years pit stop have changed from being a refueling break to becoming incredible overtaking opportunities. Therefore, the enhanced gripping quality of the tyres will probably correspond to an enhanced gripping quality of the show. As Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery affirmed “Our 2013 range of tyres mixes up the cards once more to help overtaking and ensure two to three pit stops per race.” F1 fans who like strenuous battles with numerous overtaking and race strategy changes will be probably be more than content. As in 2012, we will be able to spot which set of tyres the cars fit thanks to the colored elements on the tyre side. For dry-weather track, 2 sets of high working slick: orange (hard), yellow (soft); for low working range white (medium) and red (supersoft). One tyre for intermediate conditions (green) and for wet weather (blue). As before, each F1 car will have 11 sets of tyres available for the weekend, made up of six sets of the harder and five sets of the softer compound (source:

The reason why Pirelli was asked to developed softer tyres with better gripping properties is also probably related to the change of rules for the drag reduction system (hereafter DRS). The DRS is a motorsport technology aimed at reducing aerodynamic drag in order to promote overtaking in Formula One. DRS was introduced in the 2011 Formula One season and is an adjustable flap on the rear wing of the car, which opens and closes in response to driver commands. The use of the DRS system is an exception to the rule banning moving parts whose primary purpose is aerodynamic and were introduced in response to the banning F-ducts, as they were not susceptible to enforceable regulation (source: Wikipedia). The DRS helped the drivers exploiting the benefits of the additional acceleration boost provided by the kers. However some major FIA regulation updates will affect the development and use of this device. The active DRS, as well as the Redbull and Mercedes tricky “double-DRS” are now outlawed from races. They can only be used, in limited straights – and only within some specific speed/position conditions – during practice and qualifying days. Still, passive DRS will be allowed through all the race. Passive DRS means that the read flap will be “on” all the time, thus providing an increased speed through all the track, and especially along straights. However, since the main benefits of the DRS are derived from decreasing downforce, cars might experience grip loss and teams might consider them too dangerous to be operated in tracks with several fast-corners. Accordingly, while we can expect that all the teams will implement and use the traditional active DRS during practice and qualification, the use of passive DRS will be highly discretionary during races and not all teams will be likely to have it on the starting grid. The introduction of the passive DRS will push teams to handle an increase in complexity and deciding which of their technological features better fits each of the tracks will get even harder in the upcoming season. As we can expect that tracks with long straights and slow-corners will be preferential for the DRS, there is little understanding of what teams will identify as the threshold to consider DRS as a sufficiently safe solution.

All in all, despite the FIA regulations have not undergone a major update on the technological level, these few changes – tyres and passive DRS – might increase the importance of management team’s decision on the cars’ performance. Strategy is definitely one of the key factors to achieve success in F1, and tt is likely that the major teams will continue increasing the resources dedicated to data processing and analysis, in order to acquire a clearer understanding of the boundary conditions that should drive their decisions, and thus find the right interpretation to the sudden changes that the racing competitions offer.