James Hunt and Jochen Mass, McLaren M23 Fords, Fuji 1976 (MotorSport)

We all have favorite Grand Prix seasons, for me 1976 was an enchilada with the lot.

It was a technically interesting year filled with pathos, drama, politics and a cast of personalities the spreadsheet jockeys who own F1 this week can only dream about.

Early in the season Ferrari appeared likely to take back-to-back titles. Mauro Forghieri’s 1975-76 3-litre flat-12 engined 312T/312T2 machines were amongst his best work in a long career with the Scuderia. Reigning champion Niki Lauda won in Brazil and South Africa, then his teammate, Clay Regazzoni prevailed at Long Beach.

Lauda and Fangio, two of the bravest of the brave at Fuji (MotorSport)
Mount Fuji during the 1976 race weekend, not a race-day happy-snap mind you (MotorSport)
Breakfast of champions for James, while Barry Sheene, World 500cc Champ that year on a Suzuki RG500, looks on. Fuji 1976 (MotorSport)

James Hunt had been threatening from the get-go. Starting from pole at Interlagos and Kyalami, he finally won at Jarama with the big-league Marlboro McLaren outfit.

He’d been racing for the Boats-Bolly and Big-Boobies Hesketh outfit – Silverstone International Trophy and Dutch GP wins duly noted and admired – and got his chance in the majors after Emerson Fittipaldi committed F1 suicide by leaving McLaren for his brother’s Fittipaldi Automotive outfit.

Stuff brotherly love, I’ll take a competitive car every day of the week.

That Jarama weekend was notable for the first race-appearance of Ken Tyrrell and Derek Gardner’s absolutely wild P34 six-wheeler, and because Hunt’s win was swiped from him. His car was measured as being too wide in post-race scrutineering.

McLaren appealed on the grounds that this was due to the expansion rate of the tyres during the race. Two months later the appeal was surprisingly upheld, after all it’s up to the team to manage the width of the car in accordance with the regs knowing full well the behaviour of its Goodyears.

When Lauda won in Monaco he had a massive 33 point lead in the drivers championship from Regga and Hunt.

Teddy and ‘Kojak’ – what is the name of the mechanic with the wild and woolly hair? – and Alistair Caldwell look after Hunt’s M23. Gotta’ be amongst everyone’s favourite GP designs, long-lived as it was? (MotorSport)
The usual witty McLaren mechanic’s missive to their pilot, Hunt’s raceday message (MotorSport)
Ermanno Cuoghi and crew attend to Lauda’s Ferrari, Daniele Audetto, team manager at right. The 1975-1979 312T-312T4 were fast, reliable jewels of cars driven by some of the worlds best (MotorSport)

Who can forget the stunning shots of the P34s opposite locking their way around Anderstorp’s constant radius turns on the way to a history making one-two; Jody Scheckter from Patrick Depailler.

Hunt won from pole at Paul Ricard but only after Niki’s Tipo 015 525bhp flat-12 went pop while in the lead.

Niki Lauda took pole at Brands Hatch from James, then came Mario Andretti who again reinforced the growing pace of the Lotus 77 Ford. Colin Chapman, with Andretti’s developmental help, was finding his mojo again after a year or so in the wilderness.

The British GP controversy started when Regga tagged Lauda after the start and took out Hunt as the Swiss spun. In contravention of the rules, Hunt, Regazzoni and Jacques Lafitte started in their spares. Lauda led the restarted race until halfway, then slipped back with a gearbox problem, then the hometown boy was through and took a hugely popular, well merited win…for a while anyway.

Despite starting Regga in their spare, Ferrari, Tyrrell and Fittipaldi appealed against Hunt being allowed to start in McLaren’s spare. Two months later, amid great controversy Hunt was disqualified gifting Lauda the win.

I thought this was, and still do think this was a bum-deal. I would have pinged the organiser for allowing three teams to start drivers in their spares, but allowed the results to stand.

It looks jolly enough, and I’m sure it was, but laced with no shortage of tension as well given the stakes. James, Niki and Ronnie at Fuji as officialdom rubs its Chrystal Ball as to the likely weather patterns for the balance of a Fuji Sunday (MotorSport)
Slightly soggy Fuji start…Andretti on pole, Lotus 77 Ford, Hunt alongside in his M23, Niki behind, Ferrari 312T2, and John Watson’s Penske PC4 Ford by the fence. The other car in the distant gloom is Carlos Pace’ Brabham BT45 Alfa Romeo. Goodness gracious, all that variety, three V8s and two different makes of flat-12, something Liberty Media’s Q-Department only have in their wet-dreams (MotorSport)
This shot of Ronnie Peterson retiring his March 761 Ford without completing a lap due to engine problems further reinforces the staggering amount of water on circuit (MotorSport)

Then it was off to the Nurburgring where Hunt put in some scintillating laps to start off pole from Lauda who was nine-tenths adrift of his British buddy.

Niki’s terrible, lap two accident on the left kink before Bergwerk was probably caused by rear suspension component failure. Were it not for the efforts of Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger, Harald Ertl and Art Merzario to get Lauda out of the car – in advance of the arrival of marshals – he probably would have been fried alive there and then.

Instead, the staggering Lauda, having been given the last rites at the Ludwigshafen Hospital trauma unit, showing indomitable will of human spirit, returned two races and just six weeks later at Monza.

While Lauda set about the business of survival and recovery, Hunt won the restarted German GP, and the Dutch at Zandvoort. John Watson (Penske PC4 Ford) took a well deserved and very popular win for Roger Penske on the Osterreichring in between Hunt’s victories.

Lauda out of the car, content with the decision he had made to stop. Regga was fifth (MotorSport)
(Gloomy isn’t it. Hans Stuck out with drowned electrics, March 761 Ford (MotorSport)
Battle for second between Mario Andretti and Vittorio Brambilla, aboard Ford Cosworth powered Lotus 77 and March 761 (MotorSport)

When Niki Lauda appeared at Monza he stunned everyone, not least Enzo Ferrari who had hired Carlos Reutemann to drive in his place.

In great pain, his burns not fully healed with balaclava and skin enmeshed in blood, the crazy-courageous Austrian finished the race in fourth place behind Ronnie Peterson’s March 761 Ford, then Regga second and Jacques Laffite, Ligier JS5 Matra V12, third. Hunt collected no points having spun on a charge up the field.

In the week between Monza and Mosport James’ British GP disqualification was made. So, with three races to run – Mosport, Watkins Glen and Fuji – Hunt had 47 points to Lauda’s 64. It seemed and was a tall order for the British babe-magnet.

Undaunted by the Mosport challenge, James took pole and led from lap 10 having made a typically tardy start, while Niki ran fifth but faded with handling issues.

It was then well and truly game on, Lauda’s margin slimmed to eight points, there was plenty of debate globally between racing mates about which of the drivers you wanted to prevail.

I was in Niki’s camp, his sheer bravery and dogged – cussed – will to go on and win was and still is an outstanding moment of human spirit in any sport.

Andretti’s Fuji winning Lotus 77, look at the volume of water early in the race, Hunt below looking similarly soggy (unattributed)
(unattributed)
Brambilla dived down the inside of Hunt on lap 20 but James anticipated the move so the Italian didn’t take him out in the process (MotorSport)

But Hunt kept on coming. Watkins Glen was one Grand Prix racing’s great challenges, he popped his McLaren on pole – his eighth of the year – and won the race after a duel with Scheckter’s six-wheeler while Lauda bagged the other podium spot.

As the teams travelled to the orient, Niki’s margin was down to three points, it was a showdown that either racer could win.

I remember trying to follow events at Fuji over the weekend in those far way pre-internet days with shithouse international motor racing coverage in the local Melbourne ‘papers, the sporting coverage of which extended to footy (Aussie rules), cricket (a British insomnia cure), donkeys and dish-lickers (greyhounds).

I negotiated with my father captaincy of the TV set at my nana’s place. There was a family celebration at her joint, at all costs I wanted to watch the scratchy Channel 2/BBC (?) coverage of Fuji. Do you (Australians) remember that we only got colour-telly in March 1975?

Such were the dramas that year that many non-racing folk were interested in the Japanese Grand Prix with most I knew rooting for that plucky Austrian.

The Fuji weekend was ruined by the tropical Sunday rain, Mario Andretti’s Lotus was on pole from Hunt and Lauda.

There was intense, long debate about whether the race should start at all, such were the challenges of fog, rain and vast amounts of running water all over the track. But the decision was to race, the majority of drivers didn’t disagree.

Hunt led from Watson and Andretti, then Watson went down an escape road on lap two, on that lap Lauda pulled in. Larry Perkins completed one lap, Carlos Pace seven, and Fittipaldi nine. The Brabham duo came in, I think, on the command of Generalissimo Bernie. In all of the circumstances who could blame Niki. His courage was not in doubt.

McLaren pit – sixth with 3 laps to run and 4 seconds adrift of Depailler, James’ task is clear. Teddy and Alastair Caldwell at right with 6 to run, 45 seconds in hand and tyre stop pending (MotorSport)
Hunt’s critical tyre change on lap 68 of 73 laps – you can see how shot the discarded left-front is (unattributed)
Patrick Depailler’s Tyrrell P34 Ford when running second (MotorSport)

James still needed points, he had to finish no lower than third in immensely difficult conditions, no pressure…

He continued to lead, by lap 10 his margin was greater than eight seconds. For a while local boy, Kazuyoshi Hoshino’s privately run Tyrrell 007 Ford was running third, from grid slot 21! He failed to finish after one of his Bridgestones (yes Martha) failed.

More worrying for Hunt was the second place contest between Andretti and Vittorio Brambilla, March 761 Ford. Vit was pretty-pacey in the wet – remember his ’75 Austrian GP win – soon passed Mario and on lap 20 challenged for the lead but spun. Anticipating/seeing the move, James gave him room then cut-back inside the hapless Italian.

Hunt then seemed set for the win, his team mate Jochen Mass was second with Andretti slipping back, but Hunt lost ground as the track began to dry.

He took no notice of pit signals to cool his soft-wets by seeking out the still watery sections of the track, as Mass was. Andretti picked this up, cooled his tyres and never pitted, while Mass closed on his team leader, then spun on lap 36.

By mid-race Merzario, Watson and Brambilla had succumbed to mechanical dramas, Stuck to drowned electrics, Hoshino with tyre troubles, while Mass’ car was damaged after his spin.

Trance like, Hunt continually stuck to his dry line, his choices then were to pit for new tyres or tough it out and hope others wouldn’t run him down.

His choice was settled on lap 68 when both left-hand tyres deflated due to excessive wear. He scraped into the pits and endured a long pitstop – the well-drilled pit-stoppers were nearly a decade away – then emerged in fifth place with four laps to run and needing third to win the title.

For two laps he didn’t progress, then with two to go he passed Alan Jones’ Surtees TS19 Ford on the exit of turn one, only Regga was in the way now.

The tough, swarthy, experienced Swiss normally would have been a big, probably insurmountable problem, but he’d already been sacked by Ferrari for 1977, so when Hunt’s intent was clear, Regga all but waved him past. Faaark Ferrari team orders/expectations he not unreasonably thought.

Hunt endured a nail-biting two final laps, but with third place points he snitched the title from Lauda

It wasn’t all bad for Ferrari though, they won the Constructor’s Championship, meanwhile Mario Andretti, somewhat forgotten a bit in all of this melodrama, won the race in a portent of what Lotus had to come, with Depailler a very well deserved second.

Even Liberty Media couldn’t have written a script like this. And yes, I know Ron Howard, or rather Peter Morgan did.

What a year and race it was…

At the end of the race James remonstrates with Teddy Mayer thinking he had fallen short, he had not! (MotorSport)

Credits…

MotorSport Images

Tailpiece…

(MotorSport)
(MotorSport)

Finito…

Comments
  1. David Thompson says:

    The drivers in the cars look so big. But that’s because these F1 cars were only about two-thirds as big as today’s behemoths.

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