The 1976 Formula One racing season was one of the most dramatic battles for the championship, and the stepping stone to making F1 the world-wide must see sport it is today. Respected film director, producer and actor Ron Howard made the film “Rush,” which is based on this true-life story. Even though Howard makes no claim to have made a documentary, the new feature film promises to take us back to that remarkable year in Grand Prix racing and those two larger-than-life characters, James Hunt and Niki Lauda.
The 1976 F1 season turned into a struggle between Hunt and Lauda for the World Championship. It had more turns than a soap opera and it left fans and the general public glued to the television sets in the middle of the night as the final round played out in Japan.
Hunt went to public school (which is actually private school for the upper classes) and had some aspiration to become a doctor, but he gave it up for racing. Lauda came from a well-to-do family in Vienna, but he flunked out of high school and, to the family’s dismay, took up car racing. Both started racing in Minis and moved on to small formula cars.
Hunt’s big break came when the young Lord Hesketh, who inherited his family fortune, decided to get into motor racing and hire Hunt as his driver. Before long they were simultaneously racing in F1 in their own Hesketh car and hosting the most out- rageous parties ever. They had reputations for over-the-top dilettante behaviour, but managed to did score 14 top-fives and a win at Zandvoort during 1973-75.
Lauda, despite his family’s money, chose to make it on his own. He talked a Viennese bank into loaning him money against a life insurance policy (no doubt, the bank was well aware the older Lauda patriarch was good for it if things went wrong). He bought an F1 ride in March of 1972 and switched to BRM the next year, having borrowed even more money. BRM’s sponsor Marlboro signed on as a personal sponsor to help bring him out from under the load of debt.
Lauda first came to my attention when, in the rain at the 1973 Canadian GP, he started from the fourth row and soon took the lead, which he held until the track began to dry. Lauda also caught Ferrari’s attention and was hired by them for 1974. He won the world championship by 1975. At this point he was the best F1 driver on the best F1 team.
At the start of the 1976 season, Lauda looked like a shoe-in for the title. Who could challenge he and Ferrari for the championship? Not Fittipaldi in the Copersucar, not Scheckter in the strange six-wheeled Tyrell, not Lotus with its uncompetitive Lotus 77 and no name drivers, and not Brabham with its down-on-power Alfa engine. The answer was Hunt – who would have guessed?
Hunt found himself out of a ride at the end of the 1975 season when Hesketh decided he could no longer afford to run the team from his own resources. Luckily for Hunt, the two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi left McLaren in the lurch when he accepted a lucrative offer to race for the Brazilian Copersucar team in 1976. McLaren signed Hunt, but it wasn’t clear whether he was going to be the number one driver or number two to Jochen Mass, a driver no one would have tipped as having championship potential.
I was grand prix racing mad in those days. I had already attended 26 GPs in Canada, the United States and in Europe – my total rose to 48 by the end of the decade. I was a bit of an insider in that I was one of the ASN’s designated sporting stewards from 1976 on.
The first round of ‘76 was in Brazil. Hunt put everyone on notice when he won the pole but his car failed during the race and Lauda won the race. Next came Kyalami in South Africa. Again Hunt won the pole with Lauda beside him on the front row. Lauda led every lap to win over Hunt. This was the first year for the Long Beach GP and I saw a Regazzoni-Lauda one-two Ferrari sweep. Hunt crashed out of the race. After Long Beach, Lauda was leading with 24 points while Hunt, with six points, was fifth in the standings.
During the interval after the Long Beach GP, Lauda was working on his new home, building a swimming pool. Lauda jumped onto the front-end- loader tractor to move some earth and he managed to roll the tractor on top of himself – a compound fracture of three ribs and other injuries.
The fourth round was in Spain at Jarama. Hunt won the pole and the race. Lauda, despite the broken ribs, was second. However, post-race scru- tineering revealed that Hunt’s McLaren was 1.8 cm too wide across the rear tires and he was disqualified, elevating Lauda to first. On appeal eight weeks later, McLaren’s Teddy Mayer argued that disqualification was too severe and he won the day, the win was reinstated and replaced by a $3,000 fine.
Lauda won both the next two rounds – Belgium and Monaco – while Hunt dropped out of both races, falling further out of contention. Still awaiting the deci- sion on the Spanish GP disqualification, Hunt had a mere six points to Lauda’s 51. Six races in and it looked like Lauda had the title all but wrapped up.
In the next two races, Lauda finished third in Sweden, and dropped out in France with engine failure while Hunt was third and first. You might assume that Hunt and Lauda were adversaries on and off the track, but despite the difference in their personalities they were on good terms, having been roommates in earlier days. The British Grand Prix was as close as they came to being in a one-on-one conflict.
The British GP was held at Brands Hatch, a very intimate circuit where the bulk of the spectators are in a bowl around the pit/paddock area. Lauda and Hunt qualified on the front row with Lauda’s teammate Regazzoni on the second row. Hunt had another of his poor starts and Regazzoni flashed past only to ram Lauda. Hunt hit Regazzoni’s rear wheel and vaulted over. With apparent chaos in the first corner, the officials threw the red flag and stopped the race – a questionable decision. Hunt’s front suspension was damaged and he pulled around and took a short cut back into his pit stall. The race officials didn’t seem to know what to do next – they were being assailed with suggestions from all interested parties. Should they allow drivers to use backup cars or not? Should they allow Hunt, who had not completed a full lap to restart?
The partisan British crowd, with some encouragement from pit lane, started to chant and the atmosphere began to feel like a near riot. The officials bowed to the real- ity of the situation and allowed Hunt, whose car had been repaired during all this back- and-forth, to restart the race. Hunt passed Lauda for the lead just past half distance and the crowd was ecstatic. Hunt finished in first, Lauda second. Ferrari immediately appealed the decision to allow Hunt to restart the race. Two months later the Court of Appeal ruled against Hunt and he was disqualified and Lauda was awarded the win.
But a lot had happened in the meantime. The German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring followed the British race and it was here where Lauda had his near-fatal accident. They were still using the old Nordschleife and it was obviously too dangerous for F1 racing, but Lauda was outvoted and the race went ahead. Lauda, who had changed to dry tires after the first lap, was running well back from the leaders. Apparently something broke on his suspension and he crashed heavily out back. This was compounded when two other cars crashed into his car, turning it into a ball of fire. The following drivers stopped and tried to help, but it took a long time before Lau- da was extracted from the car and rushed away to hospital. He had serious burns and lung injuries from the toxic gases and fire extinguisher Halon – he was read his last rites. It looked like, at best, Lauda’s racing career was over.
Meanwhile, Hunt was the winner in Germany. Ferrari sat out the next race, Austria, which was won by John Watson in a Penske, while Hunt was fourth. I was at the next race, Holland, which was won by Hunt. At this point Lauda still led the championship with 58 points to Hunt’s 56 (Hunt still had his points for the British GP at this point). With Lauda seemingly out for the rest of the season at least, Hunt now looked set to win the championship. Cheers from the Brits; boos from the Italians.
No matter what, the next race – the Italian GP at Monza – was going to be dramatic. The McLaren haulers were held up for hours at the Italian border cross- ing. After qualifying, officials took samples of fuel and declared the McLarens, which had been using their own supply of Texaco fuel, had too high an octane rating. Nothing for it but to replace the fuel with the track’s supply and go to the back of the grid for the start. On Monday the Italian officials’ position proved to be unfounded, but it was to late to fix it.
That was nothing compared to Lauda’s stunt. Just seven weeks after his horrific crash at Nürburgring, Lauda was back, swathed with bandages. He qualified fifth, the fastest Ferrari. Hunt fell out almost immediately and had to walk back to the pits past the crowds of screaming and spitting tifosi. Amazingly, Lauda finished fourth, his bandages soaked in blood. With the appeal decision giving him the Brit- ish GP win about this time, Lauda had rebounded to a 17-point lead over Hunt with just three races remaining.
Of course, I was at the Canadian and the Watkins Glen GPs. Hunt won in Canada while Lauda, in eighth, scored no points. At the Glen, Hunt won again but Niki was third. This left the points standings going into the finale in Japan at Lauda 68, Hunt 65. Hunt could wrest the championship way from Lauda, but he would need to earn at least three more points.
Japan saw the dramatic conclusion. Race fans across the world were glued to their televisions. After a long delay due to heavy rain, the organizers who were under pressure to get the race started before they lost their satellite feed to the rest of the world, decided to start. Lauda who had been vocal in demanding they wait until the rain had let up, started the race but after only a couple of laps he pulled in and retired. No doubt the dam- age to his eyelids from his accident in Germany (which would be repaired during the off-season to follow) contributed to his difficulties driving in the rain.
With Hunt in the lead, it would seem he had it in the bag but the rain soon let up. Hunt failed to respond to a signal to come in for new tires and he ran his tires completely bald and pitted with two flats, A lengthy pit stop saw him fall to fifth, but then others had similar tire problems which saw him finish in third – enough to win the magic four points and the championship by a single point over the heroic Lauda.
Of the two drivers Lauda was the bet- ter and if it weren’t for his Nürburgring accident, would surely have been the champion by a solid margin. He did win the championship in 1977 and, after coming out of retirement, again in 1984. He continues to be active in F1 as a TV commentator and, now, as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 Team.
Hunt was the darling of much of the English-speaking fan base, but how good a driver was he? He was addicted to tobacco, drinking and women. In those days nobody spoke openly about drug use, especially in motorsport, but there are commentators now who contend Hunt was a user of cocaine – either on a limited basis or throughout his racing days. For sure he drove on an adrenaline high – which meant it took a while after he got out of the car before he came back down to normal. Ask Ernie Strong, the marshal who tried to assist him after he crashed out of the Mosport race in 1977. Hunt swung a roundhouse and knocked him flat on his back for his trouble.
Hunt continued with McLaren in 1977 and 1978, but the M23 had been around since 1973 and the new M26 was no faster. 1977 was a disappointing season despite three wins; 1978 was marked by nine retirements and a disqualification. In 1979, he drove the first seven races for the Walter Wolf – six DNFs and an eighth – before he called it a day and retired for good.
The 1976 season was a turning point for Grand Prix racing. Bernie Ecclestone was already working to build an organized, money-making sport out of the casual collection of almost amateur garagistes and a couple of factory teams. The rivalry between Hunt and Lauda, energizing the support of the rival fan groups – English versus German and Italian, made F1 must-see television. That was the foundation upon which modern F1 is built. It quickly became a staple of big-audience, big-money television in countries around the world, rivalling the Olympics and World Cup in its commercial importance.
Simultaneously, we have seen a gradual change from the old easy-going attitudes toward safety and race rules. No more do we see threats of driver boycotts as they struggle to demand minimal levels of safety. No more do we see the somewhat ad hoc approach to the rules. Now they pay close attention to the rules and have a protocol that ensures there is much more continuity of race personnel and the administration of the race procedures and decisions. We are now used to decisions made during the race or immediately after, no more waiting months from a group of well-meaning old-timers to make a decision based on who knows what.
In today’s more orderly racing world, it seems impossible to imagine another wild character like Hunt reaching the pinnacle of motorsport – or a Lauda persevering to almost win the world championship despite two serious accidents. And is the sport better for it?