Six Shooter - 1976 March 2-4-0 Cosworth
In 1976 British F1-team Tyrrell had introduced the innovative and alien six-wheeled Project 34. The P34 utilized four tiny 10 inch front wheels in an attempt to reduce the drag caused by the standard-size front wheels on an F1 car. An added bonus was an increased contact patch with the tarmac and enhanced grip. Surprising friend and foe, P34 promptly scored a 1-2 finish in the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstorp
The Tyrrell P34’s success got its direct competitors at March Engineering thinking. Studying the car closely, chief designer Robin Herd discovered a major flaw in the P34’s design. Although the concept worked as Tyrrell intended, the reduced drag from the front wheels was compromised by the massively wide and high rear wheels. This meant the incoming air would strike the large rear wheels extra hard, which negated the purpose of the front wheel arrangement entirely.
With the problem identified, Herd set out to try and find of a way around it. His solution was as brilliant as it was simple. Instead of fitting four smaller front wheels, he proposed using the basic front wheel size on all four corners. The smaller wheels obviously couldn't hope to generate as much grip as the large slabs typically found on the back of an F1-machine. Realizing this, Herd decided to reverse the P34's layout, utilizing four rear wheels on two rear axles. To save initial development costs, he decided to apply his ideas to March’s existing 761 chassis.
Using the smaller front wheel all around meant the problem with the giant drag-inducing rear wheels had been solved. The four smaller rear wheels gave just as much grip as two big examples. Another benefit of using the standard front wheel size was easy tire supply and development. Tyrrell had run into resistance from tire manufacturer Goodyear to develop the tiny 10 inch front tires for the P34, an issue March was eager to avoid.
As four wheels on the back of the car offered the potential for better traction, Herd set about designing a four wheel drive system. This premise proved to be quite complicated. Robin Herd wanted to avoid losing too much engine power from the 485 horsepower 3L Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 to the increased friction. Also a concern were the higher loads such a system would be under, requiring a much stronger and heavier bespoke gearbox casing.
Herd had drawn up such a unit, but budgetary constraints meant the complicated design was too expensive and difficult for March to manufacture. To cut costs a standard Hewland DG400 5-speed manual transmission was used for the first axle, to which a second unit was bolted, extending to the second axle. This concept meant that any March 761 chassis could effectively be converted to 2-4-0 spec in a matter of hours. The only real issue with the design right out of the box was the added weight of the incredibly intricate drivetrain. The basic 761 chassis was already overweight at 26 kg above the 550 kg minimum, which didn't bide well for the heavier 2-4-0.
Robin Herd’s partner at March was future FIA-president Max Mosley. Mosley saw great potential for the 2-4-0. Even if the concept would fail to work properly on the track, he predicted the car would gain March Engineering a ton of publicity. This could attract more sponsors and help pull the financially troubled team out of the gutter. The same had happened with Tyrrell and their innovative P34.
Sure enough, a partially completed 2-4-0 unveiled in November 1976 caused a sensation. Magazines around the country waxed lyrical about a new and exciting design which could be a revolution in the world of Formula One. A photo of the car featured very prominently on the cover of Autosport magazine. Herd had derived the car's name from railway carriage nomenclature. It translated to: two wheels leading, four driven wheels, zero trailing wheels
To cash in on the amazing media buzz, March held its first test at Silverstone, just a few miles from their workshop. With New-Zealander Howden Ganley behind the wheel, the car went off on a very wet track. Immediately there was a problem. The hastily prepared gearbox flexed under the increased loads and unmeshed its gears. Ganley pulled in and the mechanics were sent in to sort the problem.
As nothing could be done to fix it, the decision was made to remove the second gearbox’s internals and send the car back out in two wheel drive configuration. In the wet conditions the car could not be pushed to the limits anyway, so the press reported the test as a massive success.
Realizing that the car needed a lot more time and a substantially stronger gearbox to work, March put the project on the back burner. They had nowhere near the funds to adequately develop the car, so their focus shifted to running the year-old 761.
The 2-4-0 was not entirely forgotten however, as it showed up for a second test at Silverstone in February 1977. Now fitted with a stronger gearbox and driven by South African Ian Scheckter (brother of Tyrrell driver Jody Scheckter) the car was able to run reliably with its four wheel drive system operational. Even though the track was wet yet again, Scheckter was very enthusiastic about the car’s traction, calling it “incredible“.
After another round of much needed publicity, the project was shelved. The chassis was converted back to its original 4-wheeled 761 specification and showed up for the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix, where it failed to finish.
Two years later after the 2-4-0's last public appearance, British hillclimb driver Roy Lane knocked on March’s door. He was interested in converting his 771 chassis to 2-4-0 spec, thinking the improved traction would give him a substantial advantage. Because of the plug-and-play nature of March’s inexpensive gearbox solution, the conversion was easily handled.
Roy Lane scored several wins with the 771/2-4-0 in the British Hillclimb Championship that year, but found the car unreliable and overly complicated. Rather than try to understand and improve his new car, Lane abandoned the concept at the end of the season. He reverted to using his car in its original 771 configuration, finally ending the 2-4-0’s maligned career.
The innovative March 2-4-0 is one of the greatest out of the box concepts to grace Formula 1 history. Rather than racing and being banned, like most unusual F1-cars, the 2-4-0 simply suffered from March Engineering’s chronic lack of funds. Robin Herd's masterfully creative design harbored a lot of untapped potential. With a bigger budget and more development, there's no telling what it could have accomplished before the ban on six-wheeled cars. The elongated chassis would have adapted very well to the coming ground-effect revolution, as it allowed for much longer venturi tunnels under the car.
Sadly the 2-4-0's only accomplishment is causing enough of a public stir to attract more sponsors for March Engineering, helping its Formula One program to survive for one more year. The shape of the incredible machine quickly became iconic, and was immortalized through a very successful Scalextric slot-car. The 2-4-0/771 used by Roy Lane has survived the hills of Britain, and has been restored to 1977 Rothmans configuration. It is currently housed at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands. A second Beta-liveried replica was used in historic Formula One racing.