With the impending UK release of Ron Howard’s F1 extravaganza ‘Rush’ fast approaching on September 13th, it is perhaps a good time to furnish readers with the story of that classic 1976 season’s key moments. Of course, some will be familiar from witnessing events first-hand – but who wouldn’t want to relive the best and worst moments of what proved to be an incredible year? It had everything; controversy off-track, controversy on-track, anger and glory, triumph and despair. Two men, close friends, bitter rivals, one championship. Read on one and all…
5. Spanish Grand Prix, Jarama, 2nd May
This is a peculiar race in F1 folklore; it was won by 2 different drivers on 3 separate occasions. Hunt beat his Austrian nemesis to pole position in qualifying, but it was the Ferrari man who seized the initiative on the run down to the first corner and took the advantage away from his McLaren rival. Lauda comfortably led the first half of the Grand Prix, but Hunt and team mate Jochen Mass soon found more performance in their M23s, passing Lauda for the leading positions. Mass dropped out late on with engine failure, but Hunt clung on for his first victory of the season in his bid to catch up with the man who was already running away with the title…or did he? In post-race scrutineering Hunt was disqualified, with the stewards claiming his car was too wide. Lauda was declared the winner, and the circus moved on with the Austrian heading the championship with a healthy 23-point lead. The saga wasn’t over yet though, and a furious Hunt, along with team boss Teddy Mayer, protested the result. Hence 2 months later, the Englishman was made the victor for the 2nd time and put himself right back in the championship challenge. It was the first in a series of heated run-ins between Ferrari and McLaren…
4. British Grand Prix, Brands Hatch, 18th July
British fans had taken James Hunt to their heart over the first half of the 1976 season, and when their hero won the preceding French Grand Prix ticket sales went through the roof for seats at Brands Hatch. Under a scorching Indian summer sun, Hunt and Lauda’s already intense rivalry was about to hit a whole new level. A crash started by Ferrari number two Clay Regazzoni took out both Hunt and Lauda and red-flagged the race, but while Ferrari quickly repaired the Austrian’s car, McLaren could not do the same for the Briton. A re-start was scheduled, and when it became apparent the fan’s favourite would not make it resentment and displeasure rippled like static through the masse ranks on the banks and grandstands. With a full-scale riot threatening, the start was delayed almost an hour before Hunt reappeared in his spare car, ready to do battle once more. He went on to win the race to the delight of the home crowd – a protest from Ferrari saw him disqualified for the second time that season and this time, there was to be no reinstatement. The FIA upheld Ferrari’s complaint that Hunt should not have taken the restart, and Lauda inherited what would prove to be his last laugh in 1976…
3. German Grand Prix, Nurburgring Nordschleife, 1st August
Even for those unfamiliar with the 1976 season, the German Grand Prix of that season probably stands alone as an infamous moment in F1 history. Not since the death of Jim Clark in an F2 race at Hockenheim in 1968 had Formula One come so close to losing one of its star drivers – it was merely the beginning in an incredible tale for Niki Lauda. Rain hit the 14 mile-long circuit shortly before the start, and Hunt and Lauda both wisely started from the front row on wet tyres. A bad first lap for Lauda left him well down the order, and he pitted at the end lap one for dry tyres in a bid to recover lost ground – he was fated never to complete his out-lap, for he lost control at the sweeping Bergwerk curve, smashing his Ferrari 312T2 against the inadequate catch fencing and instantly becoming trapped in a raging fireball as his fuel tank ignited. Desperate efforts by fellow drivers and marshals saw the critically-burned Austrian extracted from the wreckage and flown to hospital in Koblenz, where he was given the last rites by a priest; unbelievably (by modern standards) the race was re-started and Hunt took a muted win that pulled him to within 15 points of his now-crippled rival. Lauda would fight back and make an incredible return to the cockpit in Monza just over a month later but, unsurprisingly, this was Formula One’s last visit to the old Nurburgring.
2. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 12th September
‘Back from the dead!’ screamed the headlines as Niki Lauda climbed back behind the wheel of the machine that had almost take his life a mere month beforehand. Terribly burnt, and in tremendous pain from his scalded lungs, the reigning World Champion ensured his place in the hearts of the Tifosi was cemented forever as he courageously raced to protect his world title lead from the closing Hunt. 4th was his reward, and Hunt’s spin into retirement on lap eleven meant the Austrian extended his lead to a slender five point margin. Things got even better for Ferrari before the next race in Canada, as it was announced Hunt had lost his British Grand Prix victory and the nine points that went with it. With two races left, Lauda had eight points in the bag to play with.
1. Japanese Grand Prix, Fuji, 24th October
James Hunt’s day of days didn’t dawn a particularly promising one; heavy rain and fog threatened to call off the championship decider in the mountains of Japan – indeed, some drivers, including Lauda, campaigned to postpone the event. Television won the battle, with the organisers not wanting to lose coverage slots in Europe they had worked eagerly to obtain, and the racing duly began in truly treacherous conditions. Hunt led away, but events took an unexpected turn when Lauda peeled into the pits at the start of the second lap and climbed from his car. ‘My life is worth more than a title.’ he explained to the howling press, eager for copy.
Newsworthy events were not out of the equation yet though; Hunt still needed a top four finish to secure the title, and in the prevailing conditions it was anything but certain the Briton was going to cruise to the crown without incident. Things began to unravel for McLaren as the track began to dry near the end of the race, forcing Hunt to rethink his strategy – should he continue on worn wet tyres and hope he falls no lower than 4th? Or should he pit for fresh rubber and pray he can climb back up to that all-important 4th place in time? The decision was take out of his hands as his left rear tyre suddenly began to deflate, and tense moments followed as the increasingly irate Englishman waited for his pit crew to do their work. Back out on track, he was 5th; not enough. With just 3 laps of racing left, Hunt passed Depailler, Jones and Regazzoni to stand on the last step of the podium. It was edgy, gritty and, above all, flamboyant – everything the new World Champion embodied.