The misunderstanding arises from what most people suppose to be the reason for those four tiny front wheels – namely to reduce the car’s frontal area and therefore improve its aerodynamic efficiency. A superficially plausible explanation perhaps, but one that fails to stand much scrutiny. Even with conventional front wheels, the frontal area of such cars is always determined by the much larger rear tyres. Instead the car was born out of frustration: in the mid-1970s a team like Tyrrell had no choice but to use the same engine, gearbox and tyres as almost every other competitor on the grid. Its designer Derek Gardner needed an idea that would give Tyrrell something no other team had, and the six-wheeler was it.
There were, in fact, a few reasons why six wheels appeared to made sense – and none of them had anything to do with frontal area. What Gardner wanted instead was front-end grip. First and perhaps most obviously, four small contact patches puts more rubber on the road than two larger ones. For the same reason four little disc brakes provides a larger swept area than a pair of standard rotors. But the clincher was the fact that a wheel and tyre exposed to a moving flow of air will generate a force at right angles to its cylindrical axis, and the size of that force is directly related to the size of the wheel and tyre. Put simply, the smaller the front wheels, the less lift they generated, therefore the more grip they provided.
There were issues of course and greater mechanical complexity being just one of them. Unsprung weight increased too but the real problem was that on bumpy 1970s tracks the two front axles would lock at different times and the moment that happened the driver had to lift, thereby negating the potential braking advantage. The two drivers left to wrestle with it were Patrick Depailler who loved the car, and Jody Scheckter who did not. He once described it to me as a pile of rubbish – except he didn’t say rubbish.