The 312 T project conceived by Forghieri, the great leadership skills of Luca Cordero di Montezemolo in keeping the team together and the great harmony between the two drivers, Lauda and Regazzoni, had made Ferrari unbeatable in 1975. The Prancing Horse had in his hands all the cards in order not only to win, but also to dominate the following seasons, and on the eve of the 1976 season the Red appears invincible.
For the English teams, the hopes of being able to fight on an equal footing against the fireball produced by the men from Maranello seem to be very low. Yet this year, which began with the domination of the Ferrari-Lauda duo, takes a different turn, also thanks to the episode of August 1th at the Nurburgring, which proves to be fundamental in establishing the outcome of this championship.
Sporting regulations changes
The federal technicians issue a drastic reduction in the maximum height of the single-seaters, going from 127 centimeters to just 85 centimeters compared to the body bottom, while to reduce the aerodynamic load the rear wing overhang is modified, reducing it from 100 to 80 centimeters from the rear axle, and the width of the cars must be contained in 215 centimeters.
The changes also include constraints for the rear tires, which must respect the limit of the maximum width allowed, equal to 21 inches on 13-inch rims: the idea is to reduce the contact surface with the asphalt and, consequently, the grip provided by the tire.
In terms of safety, a second roll-bar is imposed at the height of the dashboard: the line joining the two cages must pass over the driver's helmet, so that in the event of overturning the head would be protected, thus avoiding any crushing.
At the frame level, however, the creation of a shock absorbing area in the front is made mandatory. The changes introduced raise some perplexities, especially at Ferrari. In an interview, Mauro Forghieri himself wanted to recall those novelties, revealing:
"They were convinced that our supremacy depended on the airbox that powered our 12-cylinder engine, they hoped that by limiting the air flow the boxer would pay more in power than the Cosworth engines. They were very wrong...".
In short, the 312 T apparently frightened the Circus, and not just everything, prompting the FIA to change the technical regulations, thus hoping for a season with a less performing Ferrari and an overall more balanced championship.
Despite this, 1976 began with three successes for Ferrari in extra-European away matches (Lauda in Brazil and South Africa, Ragazzoni in Long Beach), despite the significant change in the structure of the team, with the passage of Luca di Montezemolo to external relations of the Fiat, while the new director, Daniele Audetto, arrived in Maranello from Turin.
The 312 T2 officially debuts on the track
The debut of the 312 T2 is set for the Spanish Grand Prix, to which a slightly battered Niki Lauda arrived: it is rumoured that the Austrian had fallen driving the tractor of his new home in the Hof hills.
The results were not long in coming with the new single-seater: after the second place obtained by Lauda in Jarama, Ferrari won in Belgium in Zolder and in the Principality of Monaco.
But what are the secrets of the new 312 T2? As remembered by Forghieri:
"The T2 was nothing more than the adaptation to the rules of the T that already dominated. The English garage owners thought they were making it difficult for us by banning the high airbox, but they did not know that we had done some studies in the Pininfarina wind tunnel and we had found that two engine air intakes placed in front of the passenger compartment would have made us lose less than what the competition had paid".
There are certainly some small aspects to improve, such as the construction of the two ears, which had created some problems of bulk and weight. But despite this, the men in red manage to overcome all adversity:
"The body was also lightened with the adoption of alloy materials and tubes in different sections, while the other changes required, smaller rear tires and narrower car width did not affect performance much".
The episode that completely reversed the vintage: Nurburgring 1976
After the setback in France, where the two Ferraris retired due to engine problems, Lauda wins at Brands Hatch, also thanks to the disqualification of James Hunt.
The 312 T2 is clearly the best car on the grid, both in terms of performance and reliability. Lauda appears impregnable, but in Formula 1 it takes little to completely change the fortunes, and so it happens in 1976: the Austrian, during the third lap of the German Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring, loses control of the to his Ferrari, crashing violently against the Berwerk rock.
In the wreck, Niki risks losing his life: the reigning champion was trapped in his semi-destroyed cockpit and, as if that weren't enough, Lunger's Surtees and Ertlormai's Hesketh, which arrive at full speed, cannot avoid the Austrian's damaged car, hitting it in full. The 312 T2 turns into a fire of 1.000 degrees, and only thanks to the intervention of Arturio Merzario, who undoes his belts and bravely takes him from the armpits, getting help, Lauda is extracted in time from his Ferrari.
The sports miracle of Niki Lauda
The first results of the doctors suggest the worst: the burns and the gases breathed by Lauda seem to leave no way out to the Austrian, who even receives the extreme anointing.
But Niki struggles hard, not only to survive, but to get back on track as soon as possible.
After just forty days from the Nurburgring episode, Lauda first tests the Fiorano circuit, then shows up in the Monza Paddock to participate in the Italian Grand Prix.
The world of Formula 1 is amazed by that incredible recovery, and in the home Grand Prix of Ferrari Lauda finishes fourth, after having started from twelfth place, thus gaining precious points in terms of the championship.
The crazy Fuji Grand Prix
After the successes of Hunt in Canada and in the USA, the 1976 world championship reaches the last Grand Prix, that of Japan, with Lauda ahead of the English by only three points. On the Fuji circuit, however, the conditions are nothing short of adverse: the rain had literally flooded the circuit, and visibility was totally compromised.
The five prominent drivers, namely Lauda, Hunt, Fittipaldi, Peterson and Pace, secretly gather in a trailer, deciding not to take part in the race: without them, the Grand Prix would not have taken place. Lauda returns after just one lap, and tells the truth to the reporters, underlining that under those conditions it makes no sense to take risks.
In the end, Hunt was the only one not to respect his word and, despite a puncture with a few laps to go, the Englishman made a comeback, finishing the Grand Prix in third place, thus becoming world champion with only one point clear of Lauda. On the matter, Audetto had revealed:
"I knew nothing of the agreement that Niki had reached with the other riders and we were amazed to see Lauda return on lap two. At that moment I too made a mistake that cost us the title: instead of dedicating myself to Regazzoni who was in the race, we wanted to know what had happened to the Austrian. The fact is that we delayed the tire change in Clay because the rain was less violent than at the start and as the track improved. If I had taken care of the Swiss 312 T2, Hunt would not have finished third and we would have won the well-deserved second world championship with Niki".
For Ferrari, 1976 represents a big regret: the overwhelming power of the 312 T2 is evident, as are Lauda's skills at the wheel. At the Nurburgring the world championship essentially takes the direction of Hunt and McLaren, despite the dominance of Ferrari, but the results are not long in coming. In 1977 Lauda won his second Drivers title, and Ferrari ended the year as an absolute dominator, confirming the clear superiority of the 312 T2.
Simone Pietro Zazza