On Monday 9 February 1976 it is learned that Ronnie Peterson returns to the March, also thanks to the auspices of the count Zanon and of the sponsor Polar, company producer of caravan: after three years the Swedish driver breaks the contract that binds him to the Lotus, to marry the project of the March of Max Mosley and Robin Herd, with which he had already run five years before, arriving second in the world championship. He will tell years later Max Mosley:
"When he returned to the March in 1976 he was still the same Ronnie as before, but he was much more thoughtful as a racing driver. That last year in Lotus had really demoralized him. He was much more used to the fact that things could go wrong, and he was much more willing to wait for them to turn around".
In order to make room for Peterson, March will no longer be able to keep Lella Lombardi, who had obtained discreet results in her first performances in Formula 1. Now the Piedmontese champion, always financed by Lavazza, will have to look for another position, since Peterson's debut with the March will take place in the next race of the World Drivers Championship, on March 6, 1976 at Kyalami, in South Africa. This is the press release from Lavazza, which in the meantime withdraws its commitment to sponsoring the March:
"Lavazza having seen the decision taken by March regarding the replacement of Lella Lombardi with Ronnie Peterson on the March Formula 1 alongside Vittorio Brambilla, although understanding the sporting reasons that led to this choice, must with regret announce which Formula 1 sponsor. Lavazza does not agree with the procedure used on this occasion by the March team. It thanks Lella for her collaboration and hopes to provide her with an alternative solution".
Lella Lombardi, thirty-four years old, fifty-eight kilos of weight-form, one meter and sixty-three centimeters of height, sign of the zodiac of Aries, begins to race in 1965 on a Formula Monza at its debut on the Lombardy racetrack. Then he disputes competitions in Formula 850, Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula Mexico and Formula 5000, from which he passes to Formula 1, in 1975. Yet Lella will be absent in the South African Grand Prix. What did she feel when she learned she had been sidelined?
"A great disappointment, then anger. But I'm not resigned".
How did you find out about it?
"Coming back from Brazil, I read about it in the newspapers and that's what hurt me the most, also because I had never noticed anything. They were not correct, even though I can understand that getting Peterson could be the dream of March. They were already hoping to get him last year, but Peterson could not split the contract. All these things were reported in the newspapers. However, I could not interfere because I had a contract with Lavazza, which was asked if it wanted to leave the car free".
What was Lavazza's attitude towards you?
"Impeccable, since they could have continued to sponsor the March passed to Peterson. Instead I remained with them, who are perhaps more favorable to the March world championship of the prototypes, even if I hope that they will reconsider. On my side I would have perhaps already combined for Formula 1, but do not ask me yet with whom. I would have already found the sponsors, I still need a little money to conclude, hoping to find someone with a generous heart and wallet".
Was it hard for you to get into Formula 1?
"No, it had come by itself, doing some good results in Formula 5000. The step was short. I'm struggling now: many would be interested in sponsoring me but they have already closed their advertising budgets and are talking about 1977, which is fine with me as long as I don't leave the scene now".
What impression did it make on you to make your debut among the sacred monsters of Formula 1?
"Very excited. I started at Kyalami with the old car and with the time I recorded, 1'19"68, I would have left many behind this year. Apparently not even the great Peterson set an exceptional time in practice. I also had a swollen leg due to a nerve irritation, so I was not in perfect shape. I would have liked to repeat this Grand Prix that had marked my debut".
He has always obtained good results by completing almost all the races, but mediocre for the purpose of the classification. What do you honestly blame that on?
"Look at the rookie rankings, especially in past seasons when there were always thirty or more cars at qualifying, and you'll find worse. From first to last there were ten seconds, today they're all bunched up to say the least in three or four seconds. Then, if I'd had the car more taken care of, I would have done better".
In driving a Formula 1, do men have some more qualities?
"Physically I have nothing less than one of them, since it's not only a matter of physique but also of will, especially when I'm trained. Clearly, in a foot race with Vittorio Brambilla or Lauda I would collapse sooner. But maybe, as a woman driver, I'm a bit of an exception".
Have you ever been afraid?
"Not even when I broke my brakes at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix last year".
The most beautiful satisfaction?
"I think the victory at Monza with the Alpine prototype. Six hundred kilometers in total without ever going down, two continuous shifts, one hundred laps all precise, varying only five tenths more or less. Then I had to surrender the steering wheel to Marie Claude Beaumont".
Which of your male colleagues would you give the sympathy award to?
"Without a doubt Brambilla, who is always the most cheerful even if his car is destroyed. He doesn't even let his mechanics know about it".
And the dislike award?
"To Jarier. He hardly ever speaks, and when he does, he keeps his distance even with his teammates."
Do you consider yourself superior to any of your opponents?
"Neither superior nor inferior. I am equal to them and each circuit may be favorable or unfavorable to one rather than the other."
Are you a feminist?
"No, although I have some ideas on the subject myself. And the woman is not just an object for the home."
Have you ever thought about marriage?
"For the moment, no, I would have to stop racing".
Any predictions for the South African Grand Prix?
"Lauda has to contend with Hunt, given his times in practice. And I had already seen Hunt do well in Brazil. The McLaren is walking and that will make the championship less monotonous, even though I am Italian and so I am rooting for Ferrari and Vittorio Brambilla. I would still bet on Lauda, because he is less likely to make mistakes. Then, knowing Vittorio's character, I'm sure he won't let himself go. Would you like to bet that on the first lap Vittorio, who always has a great start, passes third?".
In the meantime continues the story of the sale of Brabham material to RAM. Saturday February 14, 1976, at the Exelsior in London, to clarify the situation between RAM and Bernie Ecclestone, Flammini, Kessel, McDonald and Salli from RAM, Franco from Martini and other minor characters not directly involved are present.
McDonald speaks first of all, he is very angry with Ecclestone because he did not get the third car as per contract. It seems that Ecclestone had tried to make either Neve or Reutemann race in South Africa with the BT44 to whose organizers the Association had sent a mysterious inscription with X. But given McDonald's adamancy, Ecclestone hurried to get the car to RAM.
During the evening Ecclestone, having taken a character from the new team, proposes an exchange between Flammini and Reutemann, who is extremely unhappy with the use of the Alfa Romeo engine: the Roman would have gone on the Brabham-Alfa and the Argentine with the RAM. The owner of Brabham, however, asks for all the money that Flammini brings, plus a settlement of fifty million liras, that is the difference between the value of the Italian driver and that of Reutemann. But knowing that in reality Flammini does not bring any money from any personal sponsor and that the money, if it arrived at all, is from Omega for Kessel who is Swiss, his attentions will turn later to the former Formula 2 driver.
Kessel obtained the money on loan from a bank, with a promise to pay it back within a couple of months. The latter would have had the word of the owner of Ambrozium to give him a substantial financial help, they speak of 250,000 Swiss francs, in part to integrate the contract of the other year that Ambrozium had with Kessel (and that was torn up by the same Kessel when Ambrozium had some misadventures in court) and in part to sponsor the new adventure with the Brabham BT44, now RAM, in Formula 1.
Kessel himself is in contact with Omega (a decision should be made in a few days), in order to have, with the name Omega or with that of the sub-brand Tissot, the sum that is missing to reach the total amount to be paid to RAM within September.
At this point, Flammini's position could become difficult, since he does not bring any money from personal sponsors and he trusts in the patronage of those who carried out the operation (who actually turned out to be a front man). Bernie Ecclestone also noticed this when, together with the Italian manager of Martini, he drafted a communiqué. A few people left on the NZ flight that arrived in Milan at 19:00, Ecclestone approached Kessel, offering him an exchange:
"Since you bring the money why do you let Flammini run in your team that doesn't bring a penny? If you take Reutemann or Neve I'll give you a financial help from some sponsor".
In the meantime McDonald spoke with someone of Ecclestone's entourage, who brought him Murray's drawings for the new air intake of the BT44, to put it in line with the new regulations. McDonald, not very convinced about the drawings, will have them developed but at the same time he will have an air intake built according to his experience. After the initial promises, RAM seems to have realized that with Ecclestone it is necessary to have a particular way of behaving. The ten engines that Brabham had to give to RAM perfectly working and refurbished, seem very far from being all ready. Therefore McDonald, perhaps being afraid of having engines that are not perfect, will decide to have Cosworth overhaul the engines, after McLaren's managers will refuse the commission because of too many commitments.
The latest news about the intricate RAM-Ecclestone-Flammini-Neve-Kessel issue, say that a Martini manager from Rome is trying to get Patrick Neve to take Flammini's place, and then possibly Reutemann, moving the Italian driver to Brabham-Alfa.
While Ecclestone tries to place his unhappy drivers elsewhere, on Thursday 19 February 1976 the tests of the new Ferrari 312 T2 start at the Vallelunga circuit, near Rome. After Regazzoni, who runs during the morning, Niki Lauda goes on track. The Austrian driver, after twenty laps, realizes that the engine performance is decreasing and he prefers to stop at the box to replace it with the reserve one. The operations are carried out during the night to allow Lauda to resume testing on Friday, February 20, 1976, and to allow the technicians to determine the reasons for the failure. The presence of Niki Lauda attracts a large audience at Vallelunga.
The tests of the technicians are above all centered on the adaptability of the De Dion rear axle, instead of the traditional suspensions; Lauda marks a time of 1'08"3 with this type of specification. After fifty minutes of disassembling the De Dion, Lauda goes down on the track in the afternoon with the car equipped with the normal suspensions, and scores a time of 1'08". On a bumpy circuit such as Vallelunga, the new system provides a satisfactory result overall.
A few days later, in Bologna, on Saturday 28 February 1976, the prize-giving ceremony for the Italian driving champions of 1975 takes place. In the occasion the Csai communicates that the prize reserved to the constructors, twenty-five million of Italian liras, has been assigned to the Ferrari for the fabulous season of Formula 1.
But the engineer Enzo Ferrari sends a telegram to the president of the Csai, the engineer Alberto Rogano, communicating the intention not to accept the prize, explaining the reasons. Here is the text of the telegram
"Attorney Montezemolo communicates to me that the 1975 constructors award has been attributed to Ferrari stop thanking you very much I have to confirm you the decision of April 10, 1975 communicated by your delegates Zagato and Moruzzi consisting in the impossibility to accept it after what was written and repeated before and after the Csai annual convention held in Genoa November 12, 1974 stop. I allow myself therefore to externalize alive desire that amount is devolved to Automobile Club Bologna so that it organizes on the autodrome Dino Ferrari Imola a competition for aspiring pilots formula one whose proceeds will be devolved to the institute moral Mario Negri of Milan that develops from years scientific searches to the ends of the muscular dystrophy stop grateful for favorable consent cordially the greeting".
The reason for this refusal derives from the incredible controversy that broke out two years earlier at the Csai Convention for the assignment of the Constructors' prize to Ferrari, when Enzo Ferrari received petty accusations because the regulations attributed the Csai contribution to his company.
The decision is therefore logical and understandable, and the desire that accompanies it is very noble, both for the reflection on the sport of driving and for the moral one. The pain and anguish felt for the loss of his beloved son Dino have not been dulled by time.
With the days leading up to the race weekend over, on Wednesday, March 3, under the sun of the hot South African summer, the Formula 1 circus is preparing to experience the second episode of the World Championship, the South African Grand Prix. The race, which had been cancelled due to financing difficulties and rescheduled in extremis on January 6, 1976, is scheduled for Saturday, March 6, 1976, on the Kyalami track near Johannesburg.
All eyes are on Ferrari and on World Champion Niki Lauda, who at the end of January opened the 1976 season with a brilliant success in the Brazilian Grand Prix. The single-seaters from Maranello are the machines to beat everywhere, and the English hope to succeed at least this time. In this regard, it seems that special financing is ready for Cosworth if more than fifty percent of the races should be won by Ferrari with its twelve-cylinder boxers.
Compared to the Brazilian Grand Prix there are some changes in the teams present at Kyalami: besides the already mentioned Ronnie Peterson who runs with the March, in place of the Italian Lella Lombardi who had to give up her place, also Andretti leaves Lotus and returns to Parnelli. In place of the two outgoing drivers, the English team engages the Swedish Gunnar Nilsson, who should have already debuted in Brazil, but was blocked by an option of the March, and Bob Evans, but only for two races. Renzo Zorzi is, perhaps only temporarily, replaced by the French Leclère on the Wolff-Williams.
There is no traditional patrol of local teams, partly because of the cessation of the local Formula 1 championship: only Ian Scheckter, with a Tyrrell of the Lexington team, is entered in the race. Moreover, the Copersucar brings only Emerson Fittipaldi, while the BRM, although entered, does not take part in the race for the absence of a ready chassis.
To signal the presence of Lunger with the Surtees, that has found a sponsor in a company of prophylactics, the Durex, but that in Kyalami still runs with alternative colors, and the return of the Hesketh, in the sense that a car of the disappeared team of the Englishman Lord has been purchased by the Austrian Ertl.
Wednesday, March 3, 1976 takes place the first day of tests, divided into two sessions, for a total of about two hours and a half. James Hunt, who has replaced this year the Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel of the McLaren, passed to Copersucar, is the fastest, followed by Lauda and Vittorio Brambilla. Regazzoni gets the seventh time together with Jarier.
Hunt laps in 1'16"59, against Lauda's 1'16"90 and Brambilla's 1'17"11. Hunt and Lauda are the only drivers to go under 1'17". performance lower than those obtained in recent days in private training. Both technicians and drivers confess:
"But it was much hotter today, and the performance of the engines could only be lower."
Also Hunt and Brambilla are victims of some driving mistakes: the first one after his exploit, the second one at the beginning of the test phase in the afternoon. No damage for the Englishman and the Italian, but some dents for the McLaren and the March.
"It was a trivial mistake. In a curve I went out of the usual trajectory and I ended up on the dirt at the edge of the track. A moment and I found myself outside. It was nothing. The car behaved very well and I think that tomorrow I can improve this time".
Admits Hunt, while Lauda does not seem to be disappointed with the outcome of the first day of practice:
"We modified many details in the set-up of my car, but more than that I could not do".
Daniele Audetto, Ferrari's sporting director, adds:
"Last week we worked with Goodyear to choose tires for the rest of the season: as you know, the regulations will change in Spain. We only did a few laps with the tires for the South African Grand Prix, so today Niki and Clay had to gradually adapt their cars".
In the Anglo-Italian Brabham-Alfa Romeo team, the faces are moderately satisfied: Carlos Reutemann manages to get the sixth time, but his teammate Carlos Pace is blocked by the failure of the twelve-cylinder boxer of the Milanese manufacturer.
The debut of Nilsson is disappointing: the Swedish driver goes on the track, makes a lap and returns to the pits, but in the meantime his car catches fire; the flames are quickly tamed, but the car will not be ready before Thursday. The Frenchman Laffite, for his part, remains for a long time idle because of the Ligier-Matra's gearbox problems.
The following day, Thursday, March 4, 1976, James Hunt is confirmed as the poleman of the Grand Prix of South Africa, while Niki Lauda is forced to settle for the second best time. Hunt and Lauda, therefore, will be on the front row. During this second day of official training, condensed into just one hour, the McLaren driver, who uses a six-speed gearbox, improves the time set on Wednesday by 0.7 seconds, making the chronometers stop at an appreciable 1'16"10.
The World Champion marks a time just ten hundredths faster, dropping from 1'16"90 to 1'16"20. A nothing that anticipates how balanced and exciting Saturday's challenge can be.
This is not the first time that Hunt and Lauda have faced each other in a wheel-to-wheel duel: in addition to the one that took place in Brazil, in 1975 the Englishman and the Austrian were the protagonists of two memorable challenges, in Holland, where Hunt won ahead of Lauda, and in France, where Niki took a brilliant revenge.
Fittipaldi, on the other hand, in a car that was still young and clearly uncomfortable on the Kyalami track, obtained only the 21st best time: 1'18"40, more than two seconds behind the Englishman and the Austrian, showing how Emerson and his technicians still had a lot of work to do on the Copersucar.
In the ranking of the best drivers, John Watson, with the American Penske, and Jochen Mass, with the second McLaren, was further demonstration of the competitiveness of this car at Kyalami. Vittorio Brambilla, who on Wednesday was third, drops to fifth position. A good result, especially considering that the Italian was the fastest of the March teams: Peterson will start in the fifth row, and Stuck in ninth.
Next to Peterson is the second Ferrari driver, Clay Ragazzoni: the Swiss driver gains a few hundredths of a second compared to the first day of practice, but is unable to make any exploits.
"Niki too had his problems in setting up the car with the tires for the race, but he had been at Kyalami much longer than me, staying in Italy until last Sunday for a series of other tests. I couldn't do any more".
In the Maranello team, however, the atmosphere is quite calm.
"What counts is to qualify well on Saturday, even if, obviously, it would have been nice to get the pole position. However, the gap between Hunt and Lauda is minimal. The race is open to every possibility".
Backward step, instead, for Brabham-Alfa Romeo: on Wednesday Carlos Reutemann had obtained the sixth time, but in the last hour of test he was pushed back, up to the eleventh, and Carlos Pace, with the other BT 45, did not go beyond the fourteenth.
Reutemann's time of 1'17"09 is almost a second slower than those of Hunt's McLaren and Lauda's Ferrari. After the Brazilian Grand Prix, in England at the Brabham headquarters they worked on improving the petrol filter, the pipes, the air intakes and the stiffening of the shock, while in Italy, at the Autodelta headquarters, the attempt was made to remove weight from the engine. But the results remain unsatisfactory.
During a meeting following the Brazilian Grand Prix, Reutemann and Pace had already complained about the weight of the engine and the lack of development, to the point that the former advised Ecclestone to let only Pace run with the Alfa engine, asking for himself a return to the Cosworth engine. But the British manager prefers to continue with the collaboration in place with the Milanese car manufacturer, while not hiding in an interview granted to the newspaper El Grafico that:
"Alfa-Brabham has a serious problem: its weight. The problem is the engine, which is slow without flexibility and lacks the ability to react".
Certainly, Carlo Chiti does not miss the opportunity to answer, declaring:
"The experimental phase is very delicate and requires a considerable readiness for adaptations and modifications, and it is a pity that the technical and working potential of Autodelta cannot be used only because of Ecclestone's incomprehensible policy".
On Friday, March 5, 1976, the drivers rested, waiting to return to the track for the South African Grand Prix. Everyone expects a very tough battle between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and in this regard the British driver admits:
"My McLaren is very fast both on the straights and in the bends, and in the mixed section of the circuit it has fabulous grip. The only problem is the six-speed gearbox: I have to work more than usual with my right hand, or I fear that tomorrow, at the end of the race, it will be painful. Here, I can really say it, I fear neither Lauda nor Ferrari".
Lauda, on the other hand, is always very cautious and calm in his judgments and predictions.
"It's a race like many others, Hunt and I have a good chance to win, but at least five or six other drivers have just as good a chance. One fact is certain: this time I don't have the advantage that the 312 T offers me on other tracks. I hope, however, to still be able to take the lead and impose my pace on the race".
According to the precedents and to the trainings of the previous days, the McLaren appears in Kyalami on the level of the Ferrari or, even, slightly higher. The fact results from the combination of two elements: on the one hand the chassis of the British car is extremely valid on this circuit, on the other hand the performance of the twelve-cylinder boxer engine is less incisive due to the altitude and the climatic conditions.
However, it should be noted that in the space of a second there are twelve single-seaters. There is a certain general balance, and in the race it could be decisive both those little touches that each team adopts - with jealous secrecy - on its cars, and the reliability of the cars. A cocktail that needs to be mixed with the usual tire unknown.
While waiting for the start of the Grand Prix, the drivers' association, the Gpda, which has been much talked about in recent years, especially in relation to safety issues, was dissolved by the decision of its own members, who decided to join forces with the manufacturers as of this year. Together they will establish a line of conduct.
In particular, a safety commission is constituted within the constructors' association, composed by Lauda, Fittipaldi, Scheckter, Mass and Jarier. It seems that among the first problems that will be dealt with is that of Monza: a request will be made to move the Italian Grand Prix to Mugello.
After a day of relaxation and rest, Saturday, March 6, 1976, at 13:35, in front of an audience of 100,000 spectators, the South African Grand Prix gets underway. Niki Lauda immediately takes the lead followed by Jochen Mass, Vittorio Brambilla and James Hunt, while both Watson and Jacques Laffite are soon at the back of the field due to an unfortunate start; Brambilla then passes Mass during the second lap.
The local idol Ian Scheckter is hit at the entrance of the Barbeque curve, on the right rear wheel, by the Wolf Williams of Leclère, and closes immediately in the nets, after a few hundred meters, his only Grand Prix of the season.
Hunt also passes his companion Mass during the second lap, only to be involved in a tough battle with Vittorio Brambilla. Behind Ronnie Peterson passes Patrick Depailler, taking fifth place. Lauda, meanwhile, takes advantage of the lightning start, which allows him to take immediate command of the South African Grand Prix, to impose his pace on the race.
In the same occasion Hunt loses, if not the race, certainly the possibility to fight with Lauda more closely. The Englishman gets caught up in the small group of the first pursuers of Lauda, giving way to his teammate Mass and Brambilla.
During the sixth lap Hunt takes advantage of an error made by Brambilla, conquering the second place, and on the eighth lap also Mass passes the Italian driver, once again the author of a mistake.
From the back of the pack Tom Pryce, eighth after the first lap, at first passes Carlos Reutemann, then takes advantage of a contact between Peterson and Depailler to move up to fifth position; on the eighteenth lap the Briton also passes Brambilla, who shortly afterwards is also passed by Clay Regazzoni.
As the retirements begin to occur one after the other, Moss is third, Pryce is fourth, Regazzoni fifth and Brambilla sixth, while in the meantime James Hunt tries to reduce the gap from Lauda, whose Ferrari begins to have tire problems; the rear ones, in particular, show an excessive wear.
At lap 43 Pryce is forced to change tires; Regazzoni climbs up to the fourth position but, after being passed by Jody Scheckter, he is forced to retire because of an engine failure. Now the classification, behind the duo Lauda-Hunt, sees Mass, Scheckter, Brambilla and Watson.
In the last laps Hunt approaches Lauda, who suffers for a debris stuck in a tire, while Brambilla is forced to a pit stop for a puncture, thus leaving the points zone.
In the course of the last laps, while Fittipaldi, who is ninth, retires (but he will be classified at the seventeenth place), and Brambilla stops at the box, between Lauda and Hunt the gap gets thinner and thinner. The two cars are one at the tail of the other, and in the Ferrari box the tension is almost unbearable.
It is just in this juncture that the World Champion shows all his class and his grit: despite his 312 T was almost undriveable and Hunt pushed the McLaren to the limit, Lauda manages, by performing stunts, committing himself to the maximum, to keep the minimum margin that allows him to impose himself. In the last laps, you can clearly see the driver's effort in the curves to control the car: very few of his colleagues would be able to perform such an exploit.
At the end, Niki Lauda finishes victorious by just 1'3 seconds, and the Maranello mechanics explode in scenes of uncontainable joy, having obtained their 60th victory. Enthusiasm also among the spectators: thousands of Italians living in South Africa had come to watch the race.
Mass completes the podium, ahead of Jody Scheckter and two drivers in American cars: John Watson in a Penske and Mario Andretti in a Parnelli. The national anthem was sung, while tricolors and flags with Ferrari written on them multiplied.
Niki Lauda and Ferrari conquer another triumph: after winning the first race of the season, the Brazilian one, the Austrian beats James Hunt and Jochen Mass, both on McLaren-Ford. The other Ferrari driver, Clay Regazzoni, retires because of an engine failure. Once again the Swiss driver is unlucky and, as in Brazil, cannot gain even one point for the world championship. The Ferrari driver, who started from the fifth row, therefore rather backward in the starting grid, shortly after the middle of the race manages to get to the fourth position, but the twelve-cylinder boxer of his 312 T blocks.
The same fate befell the two Brabham-Alfa Romeo drivers, both betrayed by the twelve-cylinder boxer of the Milanese company, who also hoped in South Africa not to repeat the modest test in Brazil. But at Kyalami, things were even worse for the Anglo-Italian team. The two drivers, after a colorless start, were forced to retire, respectively on the eighteenth (Reutemann) and twenty-second lap (Pace) for oil leaks and various engine problems, while Vittorio Brambilla lost his fifth place in the final stages of the race, due to a pit stop to refuel his March.
Even Emerson Fittipaldi, with the Copersucar, is unable to join the fight for the first positions. Starting from the eleventh row, forced to struggle wheel to wheel with cars and drivers that in the past years he did not even see, the Brazilian gave up on the seventieth lap due to the failure of the eight-cylinder engine of his car. But the problem is not so much in the engine, as in the general behavior of the car, far from an acceptable level of competitiveness.
The world championship 1976 is just at the beginning, but it is already assuming a precise physiognomy: the march of Niki Lauda and the Ferrari seems unstoppable and, at the present moment, it is not clear who can contrast it. The Austrian won in Brazil, and in South Africa he now has 18 points in the standings, accumulating a twelve-point lead over Depallier and Hunt.
Precious points, which will perhaps be decisive in the following stages of the season: Lauda and Ferrari, if they are forced by circumstances, will have room to play defense, while the others will be forced to attack, always.
It is significant that the World Champion and his red single-seater have established themselves on the track of Kyalami, given that for years this circuit situated at an altitude of almost two thousand meters has been considered Ferrari's black beast: the height and the heat have often played tricks on the Maranello engines, which here, in any case, have performed less well. Moreover, Hunt, with the McLaren, on the eve of the Grand Prix, had conquered the pole position, which had triggered a thousand inferences and doubts about the competitiveness of Lauda and his 312 T, which had debuted in Kyalami in 1975, obtaining the fifth place.
It has become an imperative for the Austrian and Ferrari to do better than everyone else, and when this does not happen, in Italy there are always those who are outraged, or doubtful, or scandalised, or who looks for fantastic backstage stories, as if it were forbidden for man and machine not to perform everywhere in the same way, as if losing a race was a capital sin.
"I won the race at the start, immediately taking the lead and leaving my opponents to deal with each other. I was a bit scared around lap 20, when I felt something wrong with the front end: I thought a tire was sagging, then I saw that I could still control the car, even if I worked a bit more, and so I arrived at the end. Now, after two victories, I should be calm, but it's not like that. It's still too early, the championship is long, and this is a type of race where surprises are never lacking. But, at least, this year Ferrari has started off on the right foot".
Lauda, however, settles any discussion: the success over Hunt, with the difficulties that accompanied his race in the final, is a confirmation of his value as a driver. While, by contrast, Emerson Fittipaldi is in extreme difficulty: when the car is not working, the Brazilian does what he can. Ferrari, therefore, continues on its way, and the 312 T, as Enzo Ferrari underlines, continues to have a certain margin of advantage over the competition. Enzo Ferrari himself, who has known many drivers, weighed up and evaluated them in fifty years of life in the racing world, says about Niki Lauda:
"He is a man with clear ideas, who knows what he wants and applies himself with fierce determination to achieve what he has set out to do. This gives him an advantage over others."
In South Africa, on the Kyalami circuit, on the hills between Johannesburg and Pretoria, where gold was once sought, Lauda beats James Hunt and his McLaren, and he does so running for half the race with a rear tire that slowly sags due to an imperceptible puncture.
Controlling the Ferrari on the corners, driving down the straights at almost 270 km/h, observing the signals from the pits that indicate Hunt's inevitable comeback must not be an easy task. But it is precisely in such cases that the class of a champion emerges: strength of character must be accompanied by ability. Lauda, therefore, proved himself worthy of his title of World Champion of Formula 1, the most prestigious among those of motorsport. He won it on Sunday, September 7, 1975 at Monza; it had been eleven years since Ferrari had achieved it.
"It's a happy moment, but this title doesn't mean anything in particular. It only shows that I have achieved the result I had set myself. A nice and pleasant result for me and for Ferrari, but normal, because it's the logical result of the work done. Everything will continue as before, maybe I'll have more commitments, maybe I'll earn a little more money".
Serene words, perhaps too much for the Italian Ferrari fans and for a certain journalism that has created around Lauda the myth of the driver-computer, a definition that Niki has always refused.
"At the very least it's inaccurate. I am not a machine, no one has programmed me, I have freely set my plans and chosen a path, with all the sacrifices that entails. I am just a person who has dedicated himself with commitment to a certain work, and who tries to do it in the best way. In order to be comfortable, it is enough for me to be convinced that I have done everything possible, regardless of the result."
Lauda began planning his life after his first races, after realizing that he had natural talent that could be improved with experience. Born in Vienna on February 22, 1949, Niki learned to drive on the estates of his father, owner of several paper mills.
A good family, with a lot of means, introduced in the best circles of the capital, the Lauda's decidedly opposed the sporting career of the scion, for whom they dreamed of a career as manager.
But the young man was not convinced, broke with his family, asked for money on loan, and finally landed in the world of Formula 1 Grand Prix. He made his mark and in 1974, he was hired by Enzo Ferrari to participate, together with Clay Regazzoni, in the redemption of the Italian company. Hours, days, months of training, testing and trials followed. The contribution of Lauda, who has an exceptional sensitivity, was decisive, and Ferrari resumed beating rival teams.
"It was a good job."
Lauda says when talking about that period. The Austrian driver always uses this word, work, because for him racing is neither a hobby nor a recreation, but a job, although he enjoys it.
"In driving there is the fun side, but also a lot of effort and concentration. There is no time to get excited or distracted. At the most there is the pleasure of driving a car perfectly in the most difficult conditions. It's not a profession for everyone. You have to know how to calculate the smallest detail, inspiration and imagination count for nothing. I value risk above all. I go as far as I know I can go. And if it's true that racing is dangerous, knowing that is already an advantage".
For Lauda, the fun stuff lies outside of Grand Prix racing. Lauda's real passion is aircraft, so much so that he recently received his pilot's license and owns his own plane that he uses to travel around Europe. He does not drink alcohol, he smokes, he sleeps ten hours a night, he likes tortellini. Every day he does at least twenty minutes of jogging so as not to exceed sixty-five kilos in weight, but before going to South Africa - the race is more tiring than the others because the Kyalami track is located at an altitude of almost two thousand meters - he has intensified his training under the guidance of German specialist Gunther Traub: running, gymnastics, cross-country skiing, weightlifting, ski descents, swimming and yoga.
"Lauda has very quick reflexes, a highly developed spirit of adaptation and intelligent reactions. He is not robust, but controls his physical condition very well. Niki is a man who thinks ten times before taking a step".
But even a man like Lauda can be unpredictable in his sentimental life. He was engaged to Mariella Reininghaus: she and Niki seemed inseparable, and there was already talk of marriage. And, instead, the Austrian broke up with Mariella, who left Salzburg and the splendid villa that should have welcomed them, after having found the company of Marlene Sneider, a model of Chilean origin, tall, beautiful and very sexy, launched into the international scene by an adventure with the actor Curd Jurgens.
As for Clay Regazzoni, it is clear that he has to resign himself to be Lauda's sidekick: the Swiss driver was unlucky, no doubt, but the points in the standings count more than any other consideration, at least in this Formula 1 championship that requires so much technical and financial commitment, and that has so many advertising implications all over the world.
On the other hand, Brabham-Alfa Romeo has gone from bad to worse: from the modest results of the Brazilian Grand Prix to this very hard retreat in South Africa. It takes time, it takes patience and it is a mistake for certain managers, even at the highest level, to promise great successes right away. Nor does it help the team, where harmony does not reign supreme, who, with an easy pen, extols modest progress, given that the races, then, re-establish reality and the disappointment for his fans is stronger.
But, perhaps, on one side there is who has to justify the money spent and who, to the court of the Biscione, has to sprinkle of honey the bitter pills, to justify himself. On Sunday, March 7, 1976, on arriving at Fiumicino airport, Niki Lauda returned to talk about the Grand Prix he had run the previous day at Kyalami:
"I knew that in order to win it was necessary to have a scorching start that would allow me to take an immediate lead. It went well for me. I would say that once I solved this problem I knew I could do it. I was a bit scared after about twenty laps, when I realized that one of the tires had started to deflate: in addition to the fact that the car moved slightly in the corners, I was afraid that I would have to stop at the pits to change the tire. However, I thought that as long as it held up, we had to go on".
Referring to the advantage gained in the championship with his two victories in Brazil and South Africa, Lauda goes on to say:
"In truth, I am still not at all calm. Undoubtedly the work done last year has brought the car to an almost perfect level, and in my opinion there is no doubt that Ferrari is currently the best Formula 1 car. But there are still too many races to be able to talk about winning the world championship. One thing that can be said, to our credit, however, is that this time, contrary to many other past editions, Ferrari got off on the right foot right away".
At Fiumicino, Lauda meets the pilot of his personal plane to reach Salzburg in the afternoon. On Tuesday, he will be back in Maranello to carry out tests ahead of the Race of Champions which will be held at Brands Hatch, and the third official appointment which will take place in the United States, at Long Beach.
"The one in Long Beach will be an absolutely new circuit, I have never seen it. I know it will be raced on city streets, so much so that Americans are already talking about it as the Monte Carlo of California. However, it is not a circuit that worries me, on the contrary: these are our favorites".