#F1 History: Ferguson’s Futuristic Four-Wheel Drive

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Jennie Mowbray

“There is no use trying,” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.” I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

~Lewis Carroll~

The first four-wheel drive car in Formula One, the Fergusson P99, was indisputably the most successful of all the 4WD cars introduced to the racetrack before 4WD was ultimately outlawed in 1982. Surprisingly, its designer had made his name (and fortune) designing and building tractors and ploughs. Tortoise-like tractors and flying Formula One cars may seem worlds apart but the mastermind behind the Ferguson P99 wasn’t the only innovator to go from tractors to the track.  Lamborghini had started out as a mechanic, then after World War Two had gone into business building tractors in Italy before moving on to designing his celebrated sports cars.  His counterpart in Great Britain was Harry Ferguson.

Early Life

Harry Ferguson, the son of an Irish farmer, was born on November 4, 1884. As a teenager he had joined his brother’s car and bicycle repair business as an apprentice, but promptly started making and racing his own cars and motor cycles, eventually he struck out on his own with a garage in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is best known for his innovations with ploughs and tractors, believing that improving food production was the best way to raise living standards. In 1943 he stated, “Agriculture should have been the first industry to be modernised, not the last.”

In addition, he pushed the limits in the air and became the first Irishman to build and fly his own airplane. He researched aircraft design by visiting aviation events, inspecting and measuring planes, as well as reading everything he could find on aircraft design. The inaugural flight of his wood and fabric monoplane was on December 31, 1909, in which he managed to keep his airplane aloft for 130 yards before landing it without harm.

Ferguson Flying his Monoplane

Ferguson flying his Monoplane

Ferguson’s Formula

Ferguson’s last ambition was to construct a safe family car with a 4WD system and, in 1950, he united with racing drivers Fred Dixon and Tony Rolt to start a new company, Harry Ferguson Research Ltd.  Fred Dixon had come into contact with Ferguson during the 1930’s when he had been considering constructing an all-wheel drive car to attempt a land speed record.  Due to World War Two this project never eventuated. Tony Rolt was a talented young driver who would win Le Mans in 1953.

The car they designed, the R5, was far ahead of any other car of its time. Having four-wheel drive, anti-lock and disc brakes, electric windows, and a hatchback boot it was the forerunner of the modern car! Three prototypes of the R5 were built in 1959, including one that had a supercharged flat-four engine that was able to reach 100 miles per hour in testing.

For more information on the Ferguson R5 Road test in 1966, click here.

The Ferguson Car - The R5

The Ferguson Car – The R5

The Ferguson P99

To help generate manufacture interest in the R5, Ferguson audaciously decided to construct a Formula One racing car to display the potential advantages and reliability of his new 4WD drive mechanism.  He hired ex-Aston Martin chief engineer and designer Claude Hill to help further develop the car, the Ferguson P99, with its cutting-edge four-wheel drive.

It was necessary for the P99 to have a front mounted engine because of the importance of spreading the weight evenly between the front and the rear of the car, unlike the rest of the grid which now universally had rear mounted engines.  The car was also slightly heavier than its rivals because of the extra mechanical systems needed to actuate both the front and the rear wheels. If it hadn’t been for Ferguson’s mechanical aptitude and innovative skills the car would have been even more ungainly as he managed to restrict its weight by using magnesium alloys for the different casings.

There was also a change in rules for the 1961 F1 season which resulted in engine size being reduced from 2.5 litres to only 1.5 litres, which further disadvantaged the P99 due to its heavier weight. The change in engine capacity was additionally complicated by the lack of a suitable British engine.  The British teams had vigorously argued against the decrease in engine size, eventually embarking on the 1961 season employing a modified version of an old four cylinder Climax engine (the FPF) while Ferrari had streaked ahead with their development of a powerful V6 1.5 litre engine.  It wasn’t until October 1961 that Coventry’s new 1.5 L FWMV V8 was ready for the race track.

As well as its revolutionary 4WD the car was also fitted with Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes, however, not all the drivers were impressed with these. They could be very unpredictable and when they were activated the relief valve fed directly into the master pump, which resulted in the brake pedal being driven back toward the driver.

Scrutinising the suspension on the P99

Scrutinising the suspension on the P99

The whole project took less than a year to complete, but sadly Harry Ferguson died in October, 1960 and never got to see his revolutionary car in action. It was thought that the cars advantages in the wet would outweigh its outdated front mounted engine and increased weight causing everyone to desire a rainy day that would suitably display the cars unique capability. The car’s first appearance was on July 8th at the 1961 British Empire Trophy at Silverstone. The race had started off wet but unfortunately a crash on lap 2 led to its early retirement.

1961 British Grand Prix

The 1961 British Grand Prix was held on July 15th, at the 3 mile Aintree Circuit near Liverpool, which had first hosted a Formula One race in 1955.  Rob Walker Racing had entered the experimental Ferguson P99 where it was driven by Jack Fairman, an endurance sports car racer, development driver for Connaught and occasional Formula One racer.

The car handled reasonably well in the torrential rain that affected both qualifying and the race start. Fairman’s teammate, Sterling Moss, took over the car on Lap 44 after the brakes on his Lotus failed following a spin off the circuit while fighting for the lead with Wolfgang von Trips in his Ferrari. Moss was working his way back up through the field when unfortunately he was black flagged, on Lap 57, because the car had been push started in the pits earlier during the race.

To view the Brian Tregilas photo collection from the 1961 British Grand Prix, click here.

1961 International Gold Cup

The 1961 International Gold Cup was held on September 23 at the hilly circuit of Oulton Park. It was a glorious English summer day – crisp, a steady drizzle and a sodden track – ideal conditions to show off the Ferguson’s traction advantage.  The P99 was again entered by the Rob Walker Racing Team but this time it was being driven by Stirling Moss. Moss managed to qualify the P99 2nd on the grid, next to Jack Brabham in his Cooper-Climax, and by the conclusion of the race Moss was 46 seconds ahead of Brabham to give the 4WD its only Formula One success.

Moss later said, “As far as the Fergie is concerned, it’s a car that would be wonderful to keep at the back of your garage and if it’s raining on race day you’d take that out and when it’s dry you’d use another one. In its day, when it was wet, that car was unbeatable, absolutely unbeatable.”

It was both the first and the last victory for a Formula One four-wheel driveas well as having the distinction of being the last car with a front mounted engine to win a Formula One race. Subsequently, Moss stated that it was one of his favourite cars from that era to drive.

Stirling Moss in the Ferguson P99

Stirling Moss in the Ferguson P99

Hill Climb Racing

In 1964, Peter Westbury drove the Ferguson P99 to win the British Hillclimb Championship.  The car continued to be competitive for several years before it was eventually retired in 1968.  The distinctive sleek blue car with its dazzling white stripes still makes regular appearances at the Goodwood Revival and Festival of Speed much to the delight of its devotee’s.

Ferguson went on to supply their 4WD transmission to sundry Indycar and F1 stables, with BRM using it on their Formula One prospect, the BRM P67, in 1964.  The following year Jenson Motors made the Jenson Interceptor FF (FF standing for Ferguson Formula), which was the first use of 4WD in a car not intended for off-road use.  Finally, there was a flood of four-wheel drive vehicles introduced at the 1969 Formula One British Grand Prix with three of the four outfits using the Ferguson Formula for their 4WD mechanism.  Ferguson was unquestionably an innovator ahead of his time.

14 responses to “#F1 History: Ferguson’s Futuristic Four-Wheel Drive

  1. Thanks for that. What type of coupling was used back then? I imagine it was a Hooke’s joint, rather than a CV joint. That might have made driving the cars interesting!

    • Hopefully someone with more mechanical knowledge will know:) I suspect it would take me hours to try to work out what you’re even talking about (thought I have heard of CV joints!) Moss did comment that it did take a bit of practice to drive the car – it was quite different to drive from the non-4wd cars.

  2. Another great article Jennie 🙂

    Q. – wouldn’t the R5 have been described as a shooting brake rather than a hatchback at the time ?

    Are you going to be writing about the other 4 wheel drive F1 cars ?

    • Thanks:) It was while doing research on the 1969 4WD cars that I read about the P99 and there was so much that I decided to write a whole article just on the one car. Ferguson was such an interesting character as well with his varied background in all sorts of engineering.

      I don’t think the hatchback description was used at the time – just how we would describe it today.

  3. Well done! Another great article to learn a bit of more of lovely F1 history.

    “Moss stated that it was one of his favourite cars from that era to drive.”

    I’m prejudice toward AWD myself, and not just for their technical advantages on the race course. I’ve one in my garage for my daily driver. Such a pleasure to hustle that little box thru the curves…

  4. (another) great article, Jennie. If you are looking for a topic at any time, I would be interested to hear more about lead driver’s taking over a teammate’s car during the race, its impact on results and when this practice came to an end.

      • The Court frustratingly rejected my comment b/c I put an amazon link in it and b/c of how long the comment was and the fact that I would have to retype it from scratch, let me just say that there is a book you should look into for comprehensive F1/grand prix history

        Speed Addicts: Grand Prix Racing Hardcover
        by Mark Hughes

        It’s a nice (large format) hardcover w/ amazing pics and some good tech devo detail as part of the overall history.

        • Thanks Joe:) I’m sorry your long comment went into deep space as I’m sure I would have enjoyed reading it. Will go look up your book suggestion right now…you can never have too many F1 books!

  5. Ironic to read this article as i’d just spent a few days myself last week researching 4wd F1 cars, my interest being primarily in the 6-wheeled Williams of 81/82.

    Interesting to discover how much Moss enjoyed driving that car.. my own reading of the 1969 F1 4wds was that the drivers hated those ones, and their on-track performance was actually quite poor.

    The Williams car on the other hand was brilliant from what I understand, and it was probably (guessing) this car that prompted the 1982 ban of 4wd’s.

    A pity, I wonder just how much technology over the years has been banned, either mechanical or electronic. I’m guessing the list would be quite staggering to be honest.

  6. ” which resulted in the brake pedal being driven back toward the driver.”
    reminded me of my old Citroen BX’s, with the hydraulic system used for both suspension and brakes. Loved to drive those, speakers from the living room in the back blaring out Underworld while doing 160kph in 4th gear – because there were no more gears – tie rips all around… those days…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.