Towards the end of the 1981 Formula 1 season it was becoming clear that the turbo-engined cars of Ferrari and Renault had such a power advantage (allegedly around 180bhp) over the naturally-aspirated powered Williams Fords that some clever thinking was required to try and match them on track.
With no way to close this power deficit, Patrick Head and his right-hand man Frank Dernie hit upon the idea of reducing the huge amount of drag created by the two large rear wheels with their fat tyres by replacing them with four smaller wheels with the addition of an extra axle behind the existing one.
This would maintain the size of the contact patch the tyres had with the track and would make the car significantly more aerodynamically efficient.
Six-wheeler cars had been tried before, but only the Tyrrell P34 had ever made it into a race. Where the P34 was different to the Williams FW08B was that its extra axle was at the front to improve airflow over the front of the car and increase cornering speeds rather than traction under acceleration.
It has been estimated that the reduction in drag gave the Williams FW08B the equivalent of 160bhp, moving them to where they wanted to be – within striking distance of the turbos.
It also had the additional benefit of increasing the length of the downforce generating skirt beneath the car which glued (not literally) the car to the tarmac.
Because of these incredibly long skirts, it allowed venturi tunnels (channels on the underside of the car that were shaped to create an area of low pressure between the floor of the car and the track generating downforce) to extend to the very back of the FW08B six wheeler, which would have given the car enough downforce not to have needed a rear wing.
Wary that their new machine was going to suffer from an obscene amount of understeer in slow corners, Head and Dernie were keen to get the FW08B on track.
As soon as they did their fears were allayed. The handling of the six wheeler, even at slow speeds, was similar to that of its four wheeled counterpart, with then Williams driver Jonathan Palmer commenting that after a few laps he could forget he was driving a six-wheeler, but for the ‘phenomenal’ traction the FW08B would give him out of the corners.
“The FW08B [six wheeler] had no handling problems as such – it didn’t understeer like a pig, as many people expected – but there was so much hardware on the car that it was bloody heavy. It was going to be a huge challenge to get it down to a reasonable weight” said Patrick Head.
But that was a challenge Williams needn’t have worried about having to overcome.
Head and Dernie were always likely to fall foul of the FIA as four-wheel-drive cars were banned in Formula 1, and unlike the race legal Tyrrell P34 six wheeler, all four rear wheels of the FW08B were driven.
And if Williams thought they might be able to circumvent the ban on four-wheel drive cars by arguing that with an extra pair of wheels it wasn’t ‘all-wheel-drive’, before the FW08B could turn a wheel in anger, the FIA – aware of Williams’ new project, introduced a rule stating that all F1 cars must have four wheels and only two of those can deliver drive.
Williams revolutionary new design became a museum piece overnight.
How competitive the FW08B would have been is something we’ll never know. There were certainly a lot of compromises to be made to get it race ready – particularly with its weight.
What’s almost certain is that it was destined to be banned sooner or later.
As it happens, Williams won the 1982 World Championship with the four wheeled FW08 in the hands of Keke Rosberg. And they did get themselves a turbo engine for 1984, but their chassis wasn’t quite ready for it.
*Image courtesy of Andrew & Alan Frost from Essex, United Kingdom via Wikimedia Commons