All cars in the current Formula One paddock are rear-wheel drive, meaning 100% of the power generated by the engine is sent to the rear set of wheels. One might expect 4WD to provide extra levels of grip compared to RWD, but the costs of the technology have been found to far outweigh this sole benefit. This article will explore how and why all-wheel drive is no longer a thing in the world of F1.
Why is 4WD Not Competitive?
The main reason for the lack of all-wheel drive in the sport is mass; the cars would be considerably heavier than their rear-driven competitors. A lot more extra mechanical parts are needed to drive double the number of wheels, which takes up valuable weight in a discipline where being as lithe as possible is beneficial.
The problem of being heavy is two-fold: more weight equals less agility through corners, and more weight also equals a lower power-to-weight ratio. So unless grip levels are unusually low (e.g. on a sopping wet racetrack), a 4WD car will be slower on tight and twisty circuits like Monaco, as well as fast, flowing tracks such as Monza.
There are other, less influential reasons for the omittance of AWD as well. As mentioned previously, the technology requires a bunch of extra parts, some of which are complex and difficult to package neatly. This increases the likelihood of mechanical failure as more bits can fail.
The aerodynamic capabilities of modern Formula 1 cars means they have plenty of grip through the corners anyway. There is no need for bulky and complicated all-wheel drive systems as they would provide no added benefit apart from perhaps a little more acceleration from a standing start.
4WD in The Past
Despite all this, there have been a few experiments with four-wheel drive in the past. Some of these designs actually made it on track to race!
It all started with the Ferguson P99. Built to participate in the 1961 season, it managed to win a non-championship race as the damp conditions that day made it difficult for the less grippy RWD rivals to keep up.
Several teams tried their hand at AWD in 1969, as more powerful engines were legalised and thus meant there was more BHP than the drivetrain could ordinarily handle. Lotus, Matra and McLaren all produced AWD efforts but they were all woefully slow. They often finished a handful of laps behind their RWD counterparts and were commented on by their drivers as being undriveable at the best of times.
A couple years later in 1971 Lotus tried again with 4-wheel drive, this time also utilising a gas turbine as the mode of propulsion in the notorious 56B. The gradual power delivery in conjunction with 4WD meant the car excelled tremendously in wet weather despite being incredibly heavy. Dave Walker made up 12 positions in just 5 laps at the Dutch Grand Prix that year before unfortunately crashing out. The vehicle’s best result was 8th at the ’71 Italian GP, with Emerson Fittipaldi at the reins.
In 1982, the governing body at the time, FISA, banned AWD outright after the 6-wheeled FW08B showed promise in early testing. It had two pairs of wheels at the back, all of which were driven. Since then, teams have not bothered to continue research and development on a concept which is no longer allowed. We are unlikely to see 4WD return to the sport we love any time soon.
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