Innovation and the critical role of supplier support - the case of the Tyrell P34

In the 1970s an innovative design of car threatened to achieve dominance in Formula 1, but was stymied by lack of supplier support. Paolo Aversa discusses the history of the Tyrell P34, a case which confirms the critical importance of strategic suppliers to innovation in industry.

The arrival of Derek Gardner at Tyrrell F1 team as technical director in 1970 resulted in a series of outstanding successes, including the constructors' championship in 1973. With fewer regulations to inhibit them, teams explored more radical ideas in their efforts to keep up with the top-performers. Competitors eventually closed the gap on the successful Ford-powered Tyrrell, and in 1974 it was clear that the new Ferrari and Matra's twelve-cylinder engines were about to streak ahead. As Gardner claimed, Tyrrell needed to make "a big breakthrough".

Despite Gardner's concerns however, Ford would not commit to any significant development program for its F1 engines. Tyrrell's technical director looked to alternatives, specifically the use of smaller front wheels to reduce lift and increase speed. This presented complications regarding grip and stability and to resolve them, Gardner returned to a concept he had previously developed but never applied - a six-wheel car, with four smaller front wheels and two standard rear wheels. The six-wheel design improved downforce and grip, and significantly increased the car's cornering speed. Gardner faced a struggle to persuade Tyrrell's team and suppliers to commit to this radical innovation but eventually succeeded and after a long period of testing, the P34 made its first appearance in the middle of 1976 racing season. The P34 proved to be competitive from the start and in only its fourth race the car finished first and second at the Swedish grand prix. Tyrrell finished third place in the constructors' championship that season with drivers Scheckter and Depailler third and fourth overall. The P34 had shown terrific potential, but some major issues were appearing on the horizon.

Tyrrell had not fully taken into account the critical importance of Goodyear, at that time the only official tyre supplier for all F1 teams. While Goodyear had agreed to bespoke one "small-size" tyre model for Tyrrell, it never committed to continuous development. So, whilst Goodyear improved the standard rear and front F1 tyres throughout the 1976 season, the bespoke P34 front tyres' development never took off. As a result, the Tyrrell standard rear tyres became faster and more durable, while its front tyres remained unchanged. This undermined the car's balance, making it incredibly difficult to drive. In addition, the front brakes suffered overheating problems. The mediocre results in season 1977, greatly due to Goodyear's lack of commitment, resulted in Tyrrell abandoning the P34 project. Gardner - one of the most acclaimed and inventive F1 designers - resigned from Tyrrell and turned his back on F1 for good.

Not all promising innovations necessarily turn into an established design or a market success. The case of the Tyrrell P34 confirms the critical importance of strategic suppliers to innovation's performance, and its story echoes the recent issues with Pirelli tyres that are affecting some of the top-teams during this current F1 season. In highly technological environments, innovation's outcomes often depend on the commitment and integration of several players. Firms who fail to engage with their critical suppliers may undermine, even doom, the most promising innovations.

History demonstrated that the six-wheel concept was an effective idea. During the mid-90s Gardner went back to car racing and decided to use the P34 for FIA TGP Cup, a special series for "old" F1 cars. He convinced British tyre manufacturer Avon to use modern rubber technology to make the small front wheels. Indeed not only had Avon access to the original tyre moulds but also two of its engineers had worked on the original Goodyear P34 tyre project. Modern brakes were used to solve the overheating issue and the P34 proved to be extremely competitive, always qualifying on the first and second rows and collecting points any time it reached the final lap. By using exactly the same settings that the Tyrrell team had back in 1977 the car ran perfectly, proving once and for all that Gardner's concept was a sound one. Despite disappearing from F1, the six-wheel is still widely used today, such as on all-terrain vehicles, vans, buses, trucks, and Covini sports cars. It is fascinating to speculate what would have happened if Tyrrell had managed to commit Goodyear to the P34 project and the six-wheeler had become a dominant design for the automobile industry: perhaps today we would all be driving cars with two extra wheels.

A version of this article was recently featured in the Financial Times.