In the many obituaries I read in the wake of Sir Stirling Moss’s said passing at the age of 90 on Sunday, two images dominated.
The other image shows Moss in the Ferguson-Climax P99 with which he won at a drizzly Oulton Park in circuit’s prestigious Gold Cup event in 1961. This was his only start with F1’s first four-wheel-drive racer, and the only victory for such a car at the top level, albeit in a non-championship race.
Indeed, drawing on the benefit of hindsight, Moss told Motor Sport magazine in 1997 that P99 was his favourite F1 car. He also referred to it as “the finest front-engined Formula 1 car of that time.” Some claim from a man who won F1 races in such great front-engined as the Maserati 250F and Mercedes W196.
The Gold Cup race may not have held championship status, but Moss took the Ferguson to victory against a top-drawer field. Reigning champion Jack Brabham, en route to his second title that year, appeared in his Cooper, but finished 46 seconds in arrears, pursued by team mate Bruce McLaren. Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees were also present, representing Lotus, BRM and others.
Tellingly, all cars were powered by the same Climax engine, making for direct comparisons. As well as being the only victory by a four-wheel-drive F1 car, it was the last time a front-engined car won a race for F1 machines.
The Ferguson was the brainchild of three men, namely racer/tuner Freddie Dixon, tractor magnate and erstwhile racer Harry Ferguson, and military man-turned-grand prix racer APR (Tony) Rolt. They believed fervently in the traction, roadholding and safety advantages of all-wheel drive, and set out to prove the technology, marketed under the Ferguson Formula ‘FF’ banner, in the spotlight of F1.
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The P99 contested just nine races, winning one, placing second in another and third thrice. It inspired a minor craze for four-wheel-drive technology during the sixties.
The development coincided with a significant rules change which promised to top the balance in favour of four-wheel drive. For 1966, the FIA doubled F1’s maximum engine capacity from 1.5 litres to three, while car weight rose by only 50kg to 500kg.
Even before F1’s ‘return to power’, BRM toyed with four-wheel-drive, designing the 1.5-litre P67 as precursor to a full blown three-litre car. But it appears to have been a second-string effort and was withdrawn ahead of the start of the 1964 British Grand Prix despite qualifying 15th on its only appearance. However, later vindication later came by way of the 1968 British Hillclimb Championship.
Ferrari, too, investigated four-wheel-drive, making contact with Ferguson with a request for guidelines, first in 1961 and again in 1964. Although a project number (P106) was issued, Maranello clearly decided against four-wheel-drive for the matter was not followed up.
Still, Lotus boss Colin Chapman was enamoured by four-wheel-drive and its ability to handle the power he had been promised in 1967 with the (Ford) Cosworth DFV engine, telling Road and Track magazine, “I think the (three-litre formula) is going to change racing quite a bit, actually.
“I doubt very much the type of power we are going to get with these engines will be utilised in the conventional type of chassis we have today, by which I mean a rear-engined car driving the rear wheels only.
“We are going to end up with some sort of four-wheel drive, possibly with automatic transmission, (or) other forms of multi-step gear ratios, and there will be significant changes to the chassis.”
This was during the days of treaded, cross-ply tyres and before wings became de rigeur in F1, making 400bhp a real handful. Contemporary family cars struggled to pump out better than 60bhp.
Presciently, Chapman said that adopting four-wheel-drive for F1 would “eventually lead to four-wheel drive in passenger cars, because at the limit a four-wheel drive car is safer than a two-wheel driver one.” He qualified his belief with, “I think that even passenger cars will have four-wheel drive in 20 years.”
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Audi debuted its Ur‑quattro at the 1980 International Geneva Motor Show, so Chapman was on the money. But while this launched the road car series which popularised four-wheel-drive, the world’s first production four-wheel-drive car, the Jensen FF, was only two years away from sale when Chapman gave that quote. Powered by Chrysler’s V8 driving through an automatic gearbox (as Chapman predicted), it was then the world’s most powerful four-seater.
So impressed had Moss been with four-wheel-drive’s ability to transmit torque that he thought it would fare well at Indianapolis with more power. While he won the Gold Cup with a 1.5-litre Climax, the P99 later successfully contested the Tasman Series races with a 2.5-litre engine. Moss discussed racing it (or similar) at the Brickyard with Andy Granatelli, of STP fame.
Moss’s 1962 crash and subsequent retirement put paid to that idea. But what a tantalising prospect it was.
His suggestion had not, however, fallen on deaf ears. Granatelli subsequently commissioned Ferguson managing director Rolt to build a front-engined car powered by a supercharged Novi V8 producing 700bhp. The first time out it set times fast enough for the second row of the 1964 grid in the hands of Bobby Unser, but due to Indy’s qualifying foibles he started 22nd. Although sidelined by a crash, four-wheel-drive had proven itself.
Thereafter Granatelli switched to turbine power combined with FF four-wheel-drive, commissioning Lotus to build a suitable car in 1968. Despite increasing restrictions on air intake and wheel sizes – designed to peg back the advantages of turbines and four-wheel-drive respectively – Joe Leonard set pole position with Graham Hill in a similar Lotus 56 alongside. The former led until two laps from the end, when a $2 bearing fuel pump bearing failed.
Although Granatelli’s Indy jinx had struck again, four-wheel-drive floodgates opened on both sides of the Atlantic, and the following year there were no fewer than four F1 four-wheel-drive designs in the offing.
Famed engine maker Cosworth leading the way with its own rather angular, gawky-looking design. However a major negative of four-wheel-drive soon became apparent: weight. Cosworth addressed the shortcoming by casting a magnesium engine block specifically for the car, while the chassis was constructed from space-age mallite.
The car was due to debut at the 1969 British Grand Prix, but was withdrawn after preliminary testing when another flaw became apparent. Large dollops of torque directed to the front wheels necessitated a limited slip differential, in turn resulting in heavy steering loads. Jackie Stewart, then well on his way to the first of three world titles, briefly tested the car at Silverstone.
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“It’s so heavy on the front,” he told journalist Alan Henry, “you start to turn into a corner and the whole thing starts to drive you. The car tries to take over.”
However, given the performances of P99 and IndyCars feelings lingered that Cosworth, a dedicated engine company, and Robin Herd, then pencilling his first car after switching from working on Concorde, were still on a learning curve, particularly with regard to their in-house four-wheel-drive system.
Thus, three other teams – Matra (managed by Ken Tyrrell), Lotus and McLaren – persevered with their designs. Meanwhile Brabham, having followed Moss home that day at Oulton, sent technical enquiries to Ferguson (‘Project 153’; nothing came of it), as did Rob Walker, the wealthy privateer who successfully entered Moss from 1958-1961, together winning seven world championship grand prix.
Rolt had raced Walker’s Connaught in 1953, then entrusted P99 to the whisky heir for a number of events, including the Oulton Park race with Moss – hence its dark blue livery, offset by a white nose ring – and the 1961 British Grand Prix with Jack Fairman. Clearly a strong bond existed between Rolt and Walker, yet nothing came of that project, and not long after Walker gave up his privateering struggle.
Of the three ‘go’ projects, only Matra co-operated with Ferguson for its MS84. McLaren worked with gearbox manufacturer Hewland for the four-wheel-drive technology in its M9A. Lotus based its 63 on the 56 where possible, albeit using a mix of bits ranging from in-house designs to bought-in components rather than FF technology.
All three, though, experienced a fourth problem. Where the front-engined P99 accommodated its power unit and gearboxes ahead of and slightly to the left of the cockpit, F1’s new generation of mid-engined cars posed a bigger challenge as their engines need to be turned 180 degrees and the drivetrain slotted in below the driver, with angled propellor shafts running backwards and forwards, with unequal-length driveshafts.
The net result was long cars – particularly marked in the case of the 63 – and/or high centres of gravity, which made the cars particularly unwieldy. The MS84’s additional kit added 60kg (12%) to the weight of its 2WD MS80 sister. Somehow McLaren managed to contain the increase to 10kg, but the added weight still told, and of the four-wheel-drive trio MS84, 63 and M9A, the latter performed by far the poorest.Jochen Rindt. At the end of 1969 the car was withdrawn, but its wedge-shape heavily informed the lines of the legendary 72.
The MS84 was the only one of the trio to score a (single) point by finishing sixth in the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix. However, it came in six laps down and with its front drive (allegedly) disengaged without driver Johnny Servoz-Gavin being informed, which caused post-race mirth in the garage after he said his disappointing performance was down to the four-wheel-drive system.
That said it all: In order to dial in performance and enable drivers to induce under- or oversteer at will, the front:rear torque split was gradually reduced until negligible (or no) drive was directed at the steered wheels. Thus, all that weight was carried around for no real purpose, while making the cars all the more difficult to set up.
Stewart put it most succinctly: “To me, as a driver, [MS84] never felt as though it had brain in any segment – front, rear or centre – which I would of course have wanted. It was therefore a difficult car to drive at the highest speeds in all slow, medium or high-speed corners.”
There was one last throw of the four-wheel-drive dice by Chapman: he adapted a 56 to race under F1’s then-turbine equivalence formula, in which guise its Pratt and Whitney STN76 delivered 500bhp, or 50bhp more than contemporary Cosworths. Still John Miles, a qualified engineer and superb driver/tester, reckoned the 56B had too much driveline inertia.
“It would spin, very slowly,” he told Motor Sport magazine in 2014, adding that, “It had so much inertia in all that drive train – drive shafts, diffs front and rear and centre, all of which had to speed up or slowdown in response to throttle and brake. On twisty tracks it was disaster. It was long and heavy and slow down the straights because of transmission power losses.”
Simultaneously F1 rubber improved in leaps and bounds, largely negating the need for four-wheel-drive. To compensate, Chapman reduced the front torque settings, which in the words of Miles, “turned a four-wheel drive car with some potential into a terrible two-wheel drive car…”
Throttle lag effectively meant driving full throttle even under braking – no easy technique given a turbine’s lack of compression braking – which led to drivers misjudging cornering speeds. Indeed the 1971 Dutch Grand Prix, held in atrocious conditions, saw Dave Walker take advantage of four-wheel-drive traction and the turbine’s smooth delivery to move up the field, then throw away a solid result under braking.
Four-wheel-drive enjoyed one last hurrah when Emerson Fittipaldi drove a 56B in the Italian Grand Prix, and in a non-championship race at Hockenheim. These were both high-speed circuits, where turbines and four-wheel-drive come into their own. The future world champion qualified eighth at Monza and placed second in Germany, yet later described 56B as “the worst car I’ve ever driven.” And Emmo sure drove some dogs towards the end of his F1 career…
So ended a brave but misguided experiment, one that promised so much, yet delivered one points. There is no doubt four-wheel-drive offers enormous advantages in tricky conditions as found under rally conditions, but seldom during grands prix. Hence for 90% of time that unnecessarily complex and heavy technology is lugged about for nothing.
Then, enormous strides in tyre technology – although slick rubber made its debut in 1971, rim widths grew ever wider – overcame grip issues, while wings created downforce-induced traction at the same time as four-wheel-drive was adopted by the three-litre brigade. One is effectively free and light; the other complex and heavy. A no-brainer.
What, though, spelt the end for four-wheel-drive were, ironically, regulations aimed at banning double-rear-axle six-wheelers – such as the March 2-4-0 and Williams FW07D – which stated that cars could have only one driven axle.
Could four-wheel-drive, though, make a comeback? There is talk of kinetic recovery via front-wheel driven generators, which could be switched to electric motors at the flick of a mode button, LMP1 style. That would, though, totally kill off the last true spectacle in F1: oversteer. Let us hope the rule makers consider Stewart’s words.
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