Retro: The 6-wheeled Williams F1 car that never raced

A few days after he won the Las Vegas Grand Prix on October 17, 1981, for Williams, the previous year’s world champion Alan Jones flew back to Europe to shakedown a strange-looking Formula 1 car that had six wheels.

Retro: The 6-wheeled Williams F1 car that never raced

All Formula 1 fans have seen the infamous Tyrrell P34 car with four tiny wheels at the front and two standard Goodyear tyres at the back. March also produced a six-wheel car in the mid-1970s, named the 2-4-0, which had two normal wheels at the front and four small ones at the back. Unlike the Tyrrell (pictured below), it was never raced in F1, but the thinking hadn’t passed by the Williams tech boffins of the day...

The front wheels of the Tyrrell P34

The front wheels of the Tyrrell P34

Photo by: Franco Nugnes

Patrick Depailler, Tyrrell P34-Ford Cosworth

Patrick Depailler, Tyrrell P34-Ford Cosworth

Photo by: LAT Images

The front two wheels of the Tyrrell P34 Ford in the paddock

The front two wheels of the Tyrrell P34 Ford in the paddock

Photo by: LAT Images

Near the end of the 1981 season, it became clear to the Williams technical staff that something needed to be done in order to challenge the powerful Ferrari and Renault turbo cars (pictured below).

“We designed the six-wheel car because we couldn’t get a turbo engine,” Frank Dernie tells Motorsport.com. Then working as a consultant, Dernie was the right-hand man of Patrick Head, the chief designer and technical director of the British team.

“At the time, the turbo engines were about 180 horsepower more powerful than the normally aspirated Ford Cosworth DFV we were using,” he adds. “We really struggled to produce a car that had enough downforce and little drag to compete with them.”

During 70 laps, they all tried to push Gilles Villeneuve at fault and pass him; they never could and Gilles went on to win his 6th and last Grand Prix

During 70 laps, they all tried to push Gilles Villeneuve at fault and pass him; they never could and Gilles went on to win his 6th and last Grand Prix

Photo by: International Press Agency

René Arnoux, Renault RE30 leads Alan Jones, Williams FW07C-Ford Cosworth, Nelson Piquet Brabham, BT49C-Ford Cosworth, Jacques Laffite, Ligier JS17-Matra

René Arnoux, Renault RE30 leads Alan Jones, Williams FW07C-Ford Cosworth, Nelson Piquet Brabham, BT49C-Ford Cosworth, Jacques Laffite, Ligier JS17-Matra

Photo by: LAT Images

Stuck with the DFV, the engineers had to find an aerodynamic solution to make the car run faster.

“We looked at the wheels and we found out that the rear tyres were producing a huge amount of drag,” Dernie continues. “We came up with this idea of if we could produce a car which had four front wheels at the back, one behind the other, we’d probably be producing much less drag.

“We did some measurements and the six-wheel car showed a substantial reduction in drag. I think it was equivalent to over 160 horsepower in gain of drag. So Patrick [Head] worked on the gearbox and rear suspensions and I worked on aerodynamics.”

The 6-wheel Williams FW08D

The 6-wheel Williams FW08D

Photo by: Camille De Bastiani

The small technical department of the Williams team could count on two young and talented engineers who were on an apprenticeship.

Dernie says: “Only Patrick and I had some experience in racing car engineering. We had a relatively young engineer named Neil Oatley, who was still in the learning phase. In the windtunnel, it was basically a model maker and me. I was also acting as wind tunnel technician. We had an assistant named Ross Brawn, who helped me.”

“We built the gearbox and ran it because Patrick was very worried that with four driven wheels we might end up with a car that had terminal low-speed understeer. So, he wanted to get some circuit testing.”

Keke Rosberg, 6-wheel Williams FW08B

Keke Rosberg, 6-wheel Williams FW08B

Photo by: LAT Images

Williams FW08B (6 wheel) and FW08C (4 wheel)

Williams FW08B (6 wheel) and FW08C (4 wheel)

Photo by: Dickie Stanford

Keke Rosberg, 6-wheel Williams FW08B

Keke Rosberg, 6-wheel Williams FW08B

Photo by: LAT Images

Dernie worked on the car’s aerodynamics and he maximised the use of the sidepods to generate ground effect.

“The bodywork I was working on in the windtunnel, which would have been the final version had we gone ahead, didn’t have a rear wing at all,” he reveals. “That car had huge venturi tunnels, all the way to the back and the bodywork extended all the way to the rear. We managed to get the downforce without a rear wing.

“The drag reduction was phenomenal. Really crude simulations at the time would have us go flat-out through the Signes corner of the Paul Ricard circuit at over 200 mph.”

Alan Jones, 6-wheel Williams FW07D

Alan Jones, 6-wheel Williams FW07D

Photo by:

Williams FW08B (6 wheel) and FW08C (4 wheel)

Williams FW08B (6 wheel) and FW08C (4 wheel)

Photo by: Dickie Stanford

A test car was produced: the Williams FW07D, which was based on the successful FW07C. The new rear end with four wheels (and two differentials) was bolted to the rear of the DFV.

Jones flew back from his last-ever F1 win at Vegas to the UK to test the new car at Donington. After that, another car was built, the FW08B, the car that was supposed to contest the 1982 season.

“Alan Jones, Jonathan Palmer, Keke Rosberg and Jacques Laffite drove the two versions of the six wheel,” Dernie continues. “Laffite drove it most, especially at Croix-en-Ternois, a short and twisty track located in Northern France.

“Our big concern was we would get massive power understeer out of the slow corners. When Jacques came in to the pits for the first time, we wanted to talk about the handling and he just forgot the car had six wheels! He loved it.”

Frank Williams and his technical team

Frank Williams and his technical team

Photo by: LAT Images

The FIA heard about these strange cars, and decided to make a change to the F1 rulebook to ban cars with more than four wheels. Additionally, the FIA considered that the Williams was illegal because it was four-wheel drive, which had already been forbidden.

“Patrick was furious when it got banned,” says Dernie. “In reality, everybody would have done it as quickly as they possibly could, so in a way it was good for F1 that it did get banned.”

 Martin Brundle drives a six-wheeled FW08B

Martin Brundle drives a six-wheeled FW08B

Photo by: Joe Portlock / LAT Images

 A six-wheeled Williams FW08 is prepped, as Karun Chandhok, Keke Rosberg and Nico Rosberg watch on

A six-wheeled Williams FW08 is prepped, as Karun Chandhok, Keke Rosberg and Nico Rosberg watch on

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / LAT Images

 Felipe Massa, demonstrates a six-wheeled Williams FW08

Felipe Massa, demonstrates a six-wheeled Williams FW08

Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images

The FW08B has been recently restored by Williams, and can be seen in action during special track days – Felipe Massa, Martin Brundle and Jenson Button have all driven it.

“The car is still in working condition, which is an amazing feat,” concludes Dernie. “We built only one gearbox and only one set of complete suspension. We only had a small number of internal spares for the gearbox. That was it.

“We were just about to make some more parts when the six-wheel car was banned in F1. That was the end of the road for that project.”

 Frank Dernie and Felipe Massa, Williams

Frank Dernie and Felipe Massa, Williams

Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Alan Jones
Teams Williams
Author René Fagnan
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