Niki Lauda got married in great secrecy with Marlene Knaus, a tall and sexy photomodel that he had met in the house of the German actor Curd Jurgens, between one Grand Prix and another. Only in the first days of April it is discovered that the wedding has been celebrated Tuesday March 11 th 1976 in the town hall of Wiener Neustadt, to a thirty kilometers from Vienna. The news is taken at first for a joke, but a careful check at the civil status soon dispels any doubt. It was a flash marriage: in the winter the Austrian pilot had broken off his engagement to Mariella Reininghaus, a girl he had known for seven years and who belonged to a wealthy family of landowners and beer industrialists, later meeting Marlene.
"We liked each other right away."
Niki confesses, while regarding the breakup with Mariella he confesses:
"When I fell in love with her, I was 20 years old. The world was different for me. Sport has changed everything, for Mariella and for me. Formula 1 and the desire to succeed involve such a commitment that it doesn't leave much room for feelings. Tension kills private relationships. I found myself next to a woman who timed her times, but who wanted to stay far away from the kind of life I led. We decided to end it".
If Mariella, always elegant and sophisticated, with a sweetly impenetrable face, followed Lauda in every race, Marlene knew nothing about engines, single-seaters, Grand Prix and Formula 1. The new Mrs. Lauda doesn't even know how to hold one of those modern electronic chronometers that are now used to record the drivers' times on the track, and she saw the first race of her life on March 6 in Kyalami, South Africa.
"The marriage certificate doesn't change anything from before. The same was true for Marlene, she was indifferent about getting married or just living together. Only that I was tired of being spied on in the bedroom. If you ask me why I married Marlene, the answer is simple: I fell in love with her then, I still love her and I will love her tomorrow".
For reasons of confidentiality, only five people attended the wedding. Lauda borrowed the tie from his best man and the bride, who is twenty-six years old, two less than the Austrian driver, while Marlene managed with difficulty to get the rings:
"I don't know where."
Admits candidly Niki. Some malicious people advance the hypothesis that the couple is expecting a child, and that for this reason Lauda wanted to regularize the union but from Maranello, Enzo Ferrari, for whom Lauda has admiration and respect, comments on the event saying:
"I was aware of Lauda's marriage. If Niki has found a sentimental situation that is in harmony with his character and his profession, I am happy, and I wish him and his wife all the best".
While we find out about Lauda's wedding, in Italy on April 2, 1976 another newly born marriage begins to creak, as Bernie Ecclestone, Carlo Chiti and Alfa Romeo's managing director, Vincenzo Moro, meet in Milan, and the British manager indicates that he has no intention to take charge of the expenses related to the purchase of the engines, as these are not as competitive as expected.
Chiti retorts by saying that, because the new chassis was not ready before the autumn of 1975, Autodelta, which takes care of the design and construction of Alfa engines, did not know whether to decide to continue the collaboration or to interrupt it. But Ecclestone didn't get worried, and answered that Brabham would have prepared a new chassis by the end of the year, and that this one would have been designed both to host the Alfa engine and, eventually, the Cosworth engine, in case the negotiations didn't go well.
Having said that, Ecclestone not only indicated that he would not have accepted the terms they had talked about in March, but he added that the conditions for signing a new agreement would have stipulated that all expenses for supplies and engine overhauls would have had to be borne by Autodelta until they achieved their first victory. Only after the first race won, Brabham would have been responsible for the overhaul expenses, but only at a third of the cost of the previous proposal, and until 1978, adding that they would have probably won the world championship already in 1977. Obviously Moro answers negatively, but Ecclestone leaves Milan giving to the Alfa's managing director and to Chiti a week of time to answer. On April 7, 1976, during a confidential meeting, Moro asks Chiti to prepare a brief study of the costs and times for the realization of a Formula 1 car entirely made by Alfa Romeo.
In the meantime, on Thursday 8 April 1976, Niki Lauda tests at Jarama the new Ferrari 312 T2: the Austrian driver starts to run in the morning, with a temperature of 17° and a track in not ideal conditions as it is very dirty. Lauda completes 61 laps, stopping the chronometers on the time of 1'19"5, which significantly improves the track record that was 1'20"83. During the morning, an off-track had slowed down the work, as Lauda's foot was caught between the brake and the accelerator and the Austrian driver went off the track, but without causing any damage to himself or to the car. Niki resumed testing in the afternoon, with the same temperature and even worse track conditions, completing twenty-seven laps and setting a best time of 1'20"1.
Two days later, at Silverstone, on Saturday 10 April 1976, during the Graham Hill International Trophy, the first race of the European Grand Prix series, the Englishman James Hunt, on a McLaren, takes pole position for the third time this season, lowering by three seconds the official lap record that belongs to Clay Ragazzoni from the British Grand Prix last July.
Without Ferrari, which had to renounce the Silverstone race because of the air strikes, the fight in the race will be much more open: James Hunt will try to redeem the unfortunate test of Long Beach, and to confirm the success he obtained last month at Brands Hatch in the so-called Race of Champions. At his side will be in the front row Brambilla, who with his March won the second time of the day.
For Giancarlo Martini and for the Ferrari 312 T of the Everest team it is an auspicious day: after the big disappointment suffered a month before at Brands Hatch at his debut in Formula 1, the driver from Ravenna records a time of 1'20"2, only seven tenths of a second less than Ragazzoni's official record.
In the race, on 11 April 1976 the Graham Hill International Trophy is won in record time by James Hunt, who with his McLaren M 23 C repeats the success he achieved two years earlier with a Hesketh 308. At the start Hunt immediately takes the lead, not to give it up during the entire race. The only one to threaten the role of leader is Vittorio Brambilla, who, after being in the wake of his rival until the end of the race, is delayed during two overtaking maneuvers and loses more ground due to some vibrations to the front left wheel of the March 761 that he had borrowed from the German Stuck. Brambilla cannot dispose of his car because it has to be modified according to the new regulation for Formula 1, which will come into force in May.
The Italian driver however gives life to an excellent performance, reaching the finish line eleven seconds behind the winner. The race, rather modest in terms of interest, is however conducted at very high speed, and ten competitors lower the lap record. Not Brabham, which took part in the race with only Carlos Pace and did not go beyond the ninth place in the ranking. Regarding the poor performance of Brabham-Alfa Romeo, a few days later, exactly Thursday, April 15, 1976, the Italian journalist Enrico Benzing rails against the British team, saying:
"Suddenly these men don't know how to build a winning chassis anymore and they propose a bulky car, excessively heavy and of poor global efficiency. Brabham should have prepared a chassis for the installation of an Alfa Romeo engine during the summer of 1975. The delays were unwarranted and unjustifiable. In Brazil the two Brabhams weighed six hundred and sixty-nine kilos, that is ninety-four kilos more than the limit, and now Chiti realizes that he had made enormous efforts to reduce the weight of the engine by twenty kilos without any correspondence for the chassis. It is superfluous to accuse Alfa Romeo of a bad choice. A year ago Brabham was at the top of Formula 1. We could accuse it more generically of having associated with one of these English chassis teams".
And finally, the journalist launches an appeal to the president of Alfa Romeo, Gaetano Cortesi:
"Now, Dr. Cortesi, a decision has to be made: let's not wait for the cars not to qualify in Monte Carlo. The name and prestige of Alfa Romeo are at stake. There is the possibility of cancelling the generous agreement".
In order to avoid an unnecessary clash with Ecclestone, before the British manager could read what was written in the Italian newspaper, Martini&Rossi, sponsor of Brabham-Alfa Romeo, issued a press release on the same day to defuse the tension:
"We are convinced that we are getting closer to solving the complicated problems that the Brabham-Alfa Romeo marriage has raised".
Still on April 15, however, Ecclestone sent a missive to Moro, in which he complained about the letter sent to him on April 7 by Chiti, which presented a counterproposal to the British manager's requests in which the five engines supplied in 1975 would be granted free of charge, but would have to be returned at the end of the season, while the seven engines of 1976 would have to be paid for. What infuriates Ecclestone, however, is the closing of the letter, which ends with a warning:
"Should this proposal not meet with your approval, the contract of January 2, 1975 will remain in effect."
Ecclestone did not stand for this, and therefore wrote to Moro:
"Had I understood that we were nothing more than mere customers purchasing racing engines exactly as it was the case when I was purchasing Ford DFV engines, not only would I have complained bitterly, but I would have most likely filed a lawsuit against Autodelta for inducing my company to sign a contract based on false information about the product they were selling me. Over the past year, at press conferences and with me personally, President Cortesi has always said that we should be considered as part of the family. For this reason I am surprised by the ultimatum contained in the last paragraph of engineer Chiti's letter".
Five days later, on Tuesday 20 April 1976, Moro called a sports meeting in which the president of Alfa Romeo, Gaetano Cortesi, also participated. Chiti admitted that the engine produced was indeed the heaviest in Formula 1, but added that its power was equal, if not greater, than that of Ferrari, except for about twenty more horsepower that the Maranello engine would have when it reached 7,000 rpm.
Chiti also adds that the development of the engine is conditioned by the union strikes and the excessive demands of Ecclestone, who demands more units than are used by other teams. Therefore Cortesi asks that Ecclestone can agree to a greater possibility of technical intervention by the Italian technicians, and to carry out tests of the car by Autodelta. After the meeting, on Friday, April 23, 1976, Moro replied to the letter of accusation that Ecclestone had sent him previously, on April 15, and he did so through a telegram, in which he wrote:
"It is my duty to request, before any other discussion or decision regarding the relations between Autodelta and Brabham, that you kindly indicate to me, as soon as it is possible, the evidence you have in hand to support these accusations".
The telegram concludes with a direct warning to Ecclestone:
"I will inform Count Rossi of this message".
While in Italy there are discussions about the relationship between Alfa Romeo and Brabham, on Monday April 19, 1976 Niki Lauda crashes with the tractor he is driving on a slope adjacent to his new villa, near Salzburg. Result: a fractured rib and the fear of some internal injury. The accident takes place at around 18:00 hours.
Niki is finishing the construction of the magnificent villa he has erected in a green and hilly area, and is enjoying his contribution. With a tractor he was ploughing a piece of land to clear it and make it gentler, but at a certain moment the vehicle overturned, perhaps due to a pothole or excessive inclination, and the Ferrari champion had just enough time to throw himself to the side.
"I was very lucky, because I could have been crushed."
One of the tractor's mudguards, however, hit Lauda in the chest, who remained half unconscious on the ground. Immediately rescued, the Austrian driver was taken to a hospital in Salzburg, where doctors examined him, then left him free to return home.
"The doctors told me that the rib fracture takes four to six weeks to heal, but that the pain disappears after a couple of weeks. We'll see. For now, I don't know if I will be able to participate in the Spanish Grand Prix. I could only take to the track if I could drive to 100 percent of my ability. To sit in my Ferrari and drive at fifty percent, as I could do now, would make no sense."
After the accident, Lauda - who has a lump in his face between his right cheekbone and temple - immediately contacts Enzo Ferrari and then barricades himself in the villa, which is already habitable: the telephone is not yet working and his wife Marlene, with the help of some relatives, defends the privacy of the Austrian champion.
During the night of Tuesday 20 April 1976, Ferrari sends Sante Ghedini, assistant of the Maranello team, to Salzburg. The latter, as soon as he arrives, forcefully removes the journalists present in front of Niki's villa, and in the following days he informs Ferrari about the state of health of the Austrian driver, while the workers resume work in the house that is still a building site, and therefore poorly defensible from the importunate.
Wednesday 21 April Lauda undergoes further checks at the Salzburg hospital, as some concern is caused by a sharp pain he feels in his chest, obviously due to the broken rib - the tenth right one, to be exact - and problems urinating. On the other hand, the right kidney has taken the blow, and some sediment in the urine remains, not so much to worry about, but just enough to require treatment and a new check-up within four or five days. Obviously, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who is a great friend of Lauda's, also learned of what had happened with great alarm:
"This is an accident that was not wanted, neither for Niki nor for Maranello. It is absurd to be forced to give away points to our many rivals. However, I am reassured by the presence of Clay Regazzoni, who is in great form, and by the exceptional quality of his mechanical equipment. Lauda's rivals will have to deal with the Swiss driver and with the 312 T2. Clay constitutes an alternative at a very high level, and he could bring points to Ferrari on one side and on the other side take them away from the drivers of the English teams".
On the rest period that Lauda will have to observe, Montezemolo does not pronounce himself:
"We are waiting for the outcome of the last tests that Niki has to do. If he will have to give up the Spanish Grand Prix the damage will be limited, otherwise the fact would become very serious. But for now I don't want to think about it".
At the same time, in Italy, the newspapers never miss an opportunity to advise Enzo Ferrari to hire the young driver Maurizio Flammini to replace Niki Lauda, until the latter recovered his health, something that sent the Austrian champion into a rage. Years later, Daniele Audetto recounts:
"We decided to invite Maurizio Flammini for a test at Fiorano, a driver of great hopes, already a winner in Formula 2. Should it be necessary to replace Niki for a race, we preferred to do it with a driver who was free from other Formula 1 teams; and we didn't mind the idea of giving an Italian a chance. But as soon as Niki hears about it, he doesn't even want to hear about it. In Spain, he assures, he will race".
Having learned of the test after a morning phone call with Montezemolo, after lunch, with coffee to sip, on Wednesday, April 21, 1976, in English, Niki begins very formally to vent his feelings towards the Italian press:
"I am fed up with the attacks of certain people. They can't always take advantage when one is sick, or can't answer because prudence or public role advise him to keep quiet. They want an Italian driver on my car and they ask Ferrari. I don't have any problem with Ferrari, he knows that if I can make it I will race in Spain, but if I don't feel up to it I will stay put rather than compromise the whole season. And they started to say: give the car to the Italian driver, they blow on the words, they inflate them. They are the same ones who wrote that Ferrari won the world championship but not Lauda, they are the ones who do not understand anything, and nothing they know about how the team works".
Niki is launched and would not stop even with a cork in his mouth, while Sante Ghedini looks at him amused.
"At Long Beach Regazzoni wins, and they don't even suspect that Clay is the one going fast, but they know that Ferrari has changed the team orders, that Audetto supports Regazzoni, just as Montezemolo used to push Lauda, who is now an orphan, poor thing. They are stupid and also liars. Look at the matter of my marriage: I am getting married and it is because I have to have a child by Marlene. Nothing wrong with that if it were true, but it's not. So why insinuate with malice? Because they put malice into it, and plenty of it".
Then he continues:
"On a technical level there is no hypothesis of giving the car to someone else. The Italians aren't there, let's face it, I won a world title and a certain number of Grand Prix. They are the race of the parish. We are on two different levels, when we are closer I will accept the challenge, now I don't, I don't care. I'll make a more real hypothesis: let's put the car in the hands of a real driver, let's say Ickx, who is the only one with a vague contract, and he needs three or four races just to understand the car, assuming that it is so easy to win with a Ferrari. No, it's stupid, I'm sick and it sticks."
Would Lauda expect some understanding?
"No, I don't want understanding, I ask for some objectivity and not the backbiting from the living room. Then I'll defend myself on the track: it's a bit ridiculous that in Italy not even a World Champion gets respect, that specialization means factiousness and gossip. It is especially strange when compared to the English style. Listen to the text of the telegram sent by Marlboro to Niki: Too many horses in the tractor. Safety campaign requires reduction. Indispensable to install guardrails around the pool and nets under balconies. Take care, we'll be waiting for you in pole position at Jarama".
Then Niki closes the topic:
"I've been quiet for six months, now I've let off steam and can fill up for as many."
Moving onto practical ground, Niki returns to the more usual, precise and calibrated one:
"In five days, the second check-up: if the kidney is fine, I'm happy, if not, I'll take some pills and that's it. Five days should be enough for the beating. The rib remains, and that won't be fixed for three weeks. If everything else goes well, on Monday or Tuesday I can go to Bologna to see the professor, and we'll see if he can wrap me up well enough to stay in the car".
A bit of band-aid and a corset may be enough to get around and drive a race car, but doing so for three consecutive days imposes greater problems.
"I'll go and try if I feel good, otherwise I'll stay here and rest directly for Belgium. In Spain then I run only if I am able to win, so not to be dangerous to myself and others".
In the meantime, four different nuisances arrive at the destination, among which the first one confronts Ghedini saying:
"I am sent by the press office of Ferrari".
The second is an amateur filmmaker, the third a professional photographer who, having set foot on a cardboard step, lands miserably at the bottom of the stairs. The fourth is a quiet gentleman who comes to ask Lauda for suggestions on how to design a universal cab for tractors that is rollover-proof, and propose the launch with his name on it.
In the following days Niki relies on an Austrian specialist, author of miraculous interventions on the skiers of the national team, Willy Dungl, sent by the reporter of the Salzburg radio, Klettner. At first, Dungl shows up at Lauda's house, where the Austrian is resting on his bed. The doctor barely mutters a good morning, looks at the driver, then exclaims:
"I can't do anything here at all. If you want to use me, take the trouble to come to Vienna".
Accompanied by doctors, Lauda goes to Vienna to be examined by the traumatologist Poigenfurst and by Dungl, who tells the Austrian driver that having driven the distance from his home to the city of Vienna qualifies him for his care. Lauda, therefore, renounces the hospitalization in a famous institute in Bologna, and undergoes a series of special treatments to accelerate the recovery and contain the painful consequences of the fracture. Thursday 29 April 1976, after many fears and apprehensions the Lauda case seems to be resolved in a positive way. The World Champion decided to travel to Spain and try to participate in the Formula 1 Grand Prix, the fourth round of the championship and the first in Europe, scheduled for Sunday, May 2, 1976 on the Jarama circuit.
Already on Wednesday 28 April 1976 Lauda had dissolved all reservations by communicating to Enzo Ferrari that he was considered fit to participate in the Spanish Grand Prix, and in this sense the attending physician signed a certificate that freed Ferrari from any moral responsibility. A factor that is also important for insurance purposes.
The Austrian driver, therefore, leaves Salzburg in the morning with his plane to Madrid while the rest of the team, including Clay Ragazzoni, leaves from Milan on a scheduled flight. However, the fact that Lauda is going to Madrid does not mean that his participation in the Grand Prix is 100% certain. This is already a positive element, but Niki will have to evaluate his condition on Friday, on the first day of practice.
The doctor has given a positive opinion, but it will be necessary that also the response of the track is such. Wanting to run at all costs could be dangerous, and the Austrian does not have the absolute necessity to do so. He can also afford the luxury of skipping a race: a gift to the opponents that could be useful, because in May there are two more Grand Prix and Niki needs to participate in them in great shape. It is better to miss one and then be fully fit than to be on track in Jarama with further negative consequences in a period full of commitments. This is a reasoning that many have made in these days in Maranello, but that no one has tried to impose on Lauda.
Ferrari, basically, is simply accommodating Lauda's wishes, and it must also be said that the Modenese manufacturer has a lot of confidence in the sense of responsibility of its driver, who on several occasions has demonstrated both his attachment to Maranello and his intelligence.
"If Niki decides to race in Spain, it means that he is in a condition to do so".
It is clear that Niki believes he has recovered the fullness of his physical form, given that the Jarama circuit is one of the least restful in the world championship, with its tight turns and ups and downs. Drivers and cars are subjected to constant acceleration and deceleration, and there is only one short straight - the final part of which allows daring overtaking on braking - to take a moment's breath.
Crew-neck sweater and blue jeans, his face calm and smiling, Niki Lauda looks like a student on vacation. You certainly wouldn't guess that he's been through days filled with anxiety and fear, or that he's about to make a major decision.
"I am ready. I'm fine, I don't feel pain anymore. That's why I decided to come here and participate in the trials tomorrow. However, I will only run on Sunday if I am sure I can do it. And I have to be one hundred percent sure: if I have a doubt, I'll let it go".
Niki says in the large hotel at Madrid airport, home to the Formula 1 circus, after arriving there in a small private jet. A two-hour flight, just enough time to distract himself and have a quiet chat with his wife Marlene, his brother-in-law and Willy Dungel, the physiotherapy specialist of the Austrian ski jumping team, a magician of his kind. Dungel prepared a special corset for the pilot and in these days implemented a series of special treatments, including massages and electrotherapy. And the device for such applications has traveled with Lauda's helmet and suit.
"The one with the tractor was a stupid accident. They say I'm a computer, but an affair like that shows that I'm a man like everyone, who makes mistakes. Now I hope I can race, because it's my profession and because I feel good. It's simple way, isn't it? I don't do point calculations, I don't think about the World Championship. And in fact, if tomorrow I will realize in the tests that I can't drive my Ferrari in the usual way, I will give up the Spanish Grand Prix. Patience".
Disembarking from the plane in Madrid, Lauda went straight to the Jarama circuit to check out the 312 T2 he is expected to bring to his Championship debut.
"This is not one of the most restful circuits. It's already hard under normal conditions because there are a lot of corners and you're constantly accelerating and braking. In the car, the vibrations are intense. But I try, with the precaution of starting very slowly".
The Austrian driver begs the mechanics of Maranello to make a small modification to the driving seat: so, a part of the backrest, in correspondence of the fractured rib, is removed and replaced with other softer and yielding material.
"In these days I have not been able to train at Fiorano, so I have to regain confidence with the 312 T2".
We can see that Lauda has a strong desire to be on track on Sunday but, at the same time, he does not want to commit imprudences. In this regard, Daniele Audetto reiterates Ferrari's intention not to influence Lauda's decisions:
"Niki surprised us with his rested and serene appearance. We repeated to him that he is his own best judge. It's up to him alone to quietly determine what to do".
Who does not know whether to be selfishly pleased or worried about a possible absence of Lauda in the Grand Prix of Spain, is Regazzoni. The Austrian has 24 points in the world ranking, against Depailler's 10 and Clay's 9. The Swiss says:
"If Niki is not there, it's a big advantage for me. I could considerably reduce the gap: I'm aiming at the title, like him. On the other hand, racing alone would be a considerable responsibility for Ferrari. I would have to double my efforts and I couldn't afford the slightest mistake. Moreover, in practice and in the race, Lauda is a point of reference for me. If I were in Niki's shoes, I would try to race. He's right to try. It's also a matter of character. Personally, I would never give up".
Starting with the Spanish Grand Prix, the new regulations, issued by the CSI to promote safety, come into force. The regulations - which Ferrari defines as a praiseworthy attempt, adding, however, that there is much more to propose - have forced manufacturers to modify their single-seaters or to create original ones, as in the case of the Ferrari 312 T2 or the six-wheel Tyrrell, so that the dominance of the Maranello company could be subjected to more valid attacks than in the past.
In Brazil, South Africa and in the United States, the same single-seaters as in 1975 have competed, but from Friday, renewed or completely new cars will take to the track, made on the basis of the 1976 regulations, designed to increase safety in competitions. The rules are numerous and complicated, and they lend themselves to various interpretations, so that controversy is expected between the various teams and the International Sporting Commission. The main points are these:
- Rear overhang reduced from 100 to 80 centimeters;
- Front overhang limited to 120 inches, while before it was free;
- Width of wheels, including tires, not exceeding 21 inches;
- Rim diameter not to exceed 13 inches;
- Maximum width not to exceed 215 centimeters;
- Deformable structures and second roll cage;
- Maximum height of the air intake opening for the engine not to exceed 80 centimeters.
At first sight it seemed that the elimination of the high air intakes and the reduction of the overhang should reduce performance, even considerably. On the contrary, the times of the first day of official tests are not very far from the times of two years before. Concerning the new air intakes of the engines, at Jarama you can see the most varied solutions: there is the very well studied one of Ferrari with almost perfect naca openings in the front part of the body, and then there are those a little bit of fantasy like the Tyrrell horn air intake.
The biggest problem for some technicians is caused by Goodyear's decision to supply only one type of tire, as it is very difficult in some cases to adapt the car to it. And it is perhaps the tires that are most responsible for the, albeit slight, decrease in performance. Goodyear will supply for everyone a type of front tires that Ferrari's technicians had discarded, while those of McLaren and Tyrrell liked them very much.
Today the single-seaters are understeering, that is they do not turn enough in the first part of the curves; however, Goodyear develops only for Tyrrell a special type of tyre with the excuse that this car has four front wheels, therefore it brings to Madrid a model of rubber that Maranello had discarded. And this is not the only problem for Ferrari, since on Friday evening, at the end of the first day of practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, Niki Lauda has not yet decided if on Sunday he will drive the new Ferrari 312 T2 on the Jarama circuit.
The fact that Niki did not give up after the first few laps is already a positive indication, reinforced by another important element: the Austrian, although in imperfect physical condition, achieved the second best time. Only the usual James Hunt, with the McLaren, is faster than the Austrian, 1'18"52 against 1'18"84, leaving behind Regazzoni (1'19"15) with the other Ferrari, Brambilla (1'19"27) with the March, Mass (1'19"30) with the McLaren, and Depalller (1'19"32) with the impressive six wheels Tyrrel.
The tests are divided into two rounds of an hour and a half and an hour, with a short interval. Niki, who before getting into the car is conscientiously massaged by Willy Dungel, faces the test with great serenity, wearing under the suit a special bustier. After the first few laps at a leisurely pace, both to assess his own condition and to regain confidence with the car, which he had not driven for twenty days, Lauda gradually improved, stopping at the pits only for the usual tuning operations. And so it was also in the second round, with a total of sixty-seven laps and - as mentioned - the second best time.
"At the end of the first hour and a half I felt a little bit down. I had some pain in my fractured rib and I was afraid it would get worse. Instead, it didn't get worse in the final part, and I can be quite optimistic. I'm really hoping to race on Sunday. Today, in particular, I had pain in braking, because the seat belts were pressing on the body, and in the left turns, because all the weight was pressing on the painful area, compressed against the driver's seat. My Ferrari performed well and for sure, in normal conditions I could have been faster. However, in these circumstances I can also be happy with my performance".
Says Lauda, and Dungel is also pleased with the Austrian driver's grip:
"Time works for Lauda. I am convinced that tomorrow he will be better than today and, in any case, we might as well see now if Niki can face the fatigue of the Grand Prix on Sunday. For me, he is fine".
And Lauda echoes him:
"Tomorrow I will continue in the tests. I'll try to improve, maybe go up on the concrete kerbs of the track to check my physical condition even in the hardest points. Of course, there is still the problem of covering seventy-five laps on a difficult circuit, and against strong opponents".
Ferrari's men follow with trepidation the test of the reigning World Champion, and at the end Daniele Audetto summarizes and reiterates everyone's thoughts:
"Niki has performed magnificently, and the chances that he can race on Sunday are increasing. But, let's be clear, we did not and will not put any pressure on him: it will be him and only him who will decide tomorrow night if he will take part in the Spanish Grand Prix".
Friday's trials brought the usual names to the fore. During the morning, before the tests, the technical commissioners of the CSI were supposed to check the thirty single-seaters entered for the Spanish Grand Prix to make sure that they were in compliance with the new rules, but the check turns into a farce, just to confirm the shortcomings of this international car body.
They even lack the right tools, and most of the commissioners seem bored with having to work. If Roberto Nosetto had not intervened to prod his colleagues, not even a modest and appreciated examination of the various cars would have been seen. The March of Brambilla, Stuck and Peterson are not in place as far as the height of the rear roll-bar is concerned, and it is decided that they will have to increase it, and many doubts arise from the Ligier.
On Saturday only the second session of tests is valid for the line-up, because the first one is dedicated to the best attainment of the single-seater configuration. The first two in the ranking, Hunt and Lauda, do not improve their performance, and so the British driver conquers the third pole of the season. On the second row is Hunt's teammate, Jochen Mass, and Patrick Depailler with the six-wheel Tyrrell P34.
Parnelli does not take part in the tests, in the meantime he has abandoned the World Championship, this time definitively: therefore Mario Andretti finds again a job at Lotus, to replace Bob Evans. On the other hand the Dutch Boro debuts, born from a judicial dispute between Ensign and one of its sponsors, HB Bewaking.
In payment to the sponsoring company is given an Ensign car of 1975, renamed Boro 001; as a driver is chosen the Australian Larry Perkins, who had tried to qualify in the Grand Prix of Germany 1974, aboard an Amon. Boro also bought the equipment of Embassy Hill, which was dissolved after the plane crash in which Graham Hill perished, in order to participate in the championship.
The private team RAM enters two Brabham BT44B-Ford Cosworth for two drivers at their debut, the Swiss Loris Kessel, who had already disputed the two races not valid for the championship between March and April in England, and the Spanish Emilio de Villota. RAM buys the cars at the end of 1975, together with the engines and the spare parts; the Brabham's owner Bernie Ecclestone pushes so that on the cars can be lined up two drivers chosen among Kessel, Maurizio Flammini and Patrick Nève. Also Emilio Zapico, a local driver, makes his debut in Formula 1 driving a Williams of the Mapfre team, while the Canadian tycoon Walter Wolf decides to officially rename the Frank Williams Racing Cars as Walter Wolf Racing.
The new sporting regulation provides that only drivers with certain requirements can take part in the world championship races, unless they were entered directly by the manufacturers, but above all, with the rule of discards only twenty-four drivers can take part in the Grand Prix, therefore Brett Lunger, Loris Kessel, Emilio Zapico, Harald Ertl, Emilio de Villota and Ingo Hoffmann are excluded at the end of the qualifications.
Sunday May 2, 1976, before the start the McLarens are considered illegal because of the oil pipes that protrude more than allowed, 65 centimeters against the regulation 60, and for the position of the radiators. On the second point it is decided to postpone the matter to June, while on the first point the commissioners decide to allow the cars to start, as this violation - in their opinion - does not affect their performance. This decision, however, provokes the reaction of Daniele Audetto, Scuderia Ferrari's sporting director, who threatens not to let his cars start if the McLarens are allowed to start.
"But how, we were forced to increase the radiators because the new arrangement of the pipes made the temperature of the lubricant increase by about 10°, and they claim that there is no consequence?"
Almost dramatic moments follow, then Ugeaux falls back on a rather questionable compromise: away the same to the McLarens, but publicly declaring that the two cars are irregular. So, at 16:00 the race is started. At the start Niki Lauda, who before the start was given a shot of novocaine to calm the pain, is the quickest and overtakes James Hunt; in third place Vittorio Brambilla is placed thanks to an excellent start, preceding Patrick Depailler, Jochen Mass and Jacques Laffite. Clay Regazzoni, on the other hand, is the author of a slow start, which puts him in tenth position.
Brambilla is overtaken in the first laps both by Depailler and Mass, and is then passed on lap 12 by Laffite, before having to retire due to an off-track situation on lap 21. In the central part of the race Laffite is forced to lose two laps in the pits because of a problem with the gearbox, while Patrick Depailler, who has a problem with his brakes, is passed by Mass, before going off the track on lap 25.
The next round the classification sees Lauda still in the lead, followed by James Hunt, Jochen Mass, Gunnar Nilsson, Mario Andretti and Clay Regazzoni, who is forced, already due to an unfortunate start - because of Nilsson - and excessive understeer, to a modest navigation.
But to be honest, the race of Regazzoni and the other drivers is not followed with so much attention because Lauda, who runs on the track ahead of Hunt and Mass, arouses respectful admiration. The Austrian driver behaves as if his health is normal, as if he is not forced to drive with his right shoulder leaning on a hump of the seat, to decrease the strain on his side.
"I was in pain, a damn pain. I was struggling to breathe, I was having painful twinges, especially on left-hand bends. At one point, my performance dropped and Hunt came up. He tried to pass me on the right, in a difficult stretch. He caught me by surprise and, in reaction, I swerved and ended up with my wheels over the concrete curb at the edge of the track. A terrible blow. I felt myself failing and was afraid I had to stop. So I let Mass overtake me and I pushed on. I was calm, I had a good lead over Nilsson, who was about twenty seconds behind me in fourth place".
On lap 31, Lauda was overtaken by Hunt and on lap 34 by Mass. On lap 35, Mario Andretti is forced to retire due to a gearbox problem. Same fate at the fifty-fourth lap for Scheckter, due to a failure of the oil pump. Now, behind the McLaren duo, there are Lauda, Nilsson, Regazzoni, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Carlos Reutemann. In the following laps Mass, while respecting the indications of the team, closely follows Hunt, with the hope of overtaking him if the British driver had made a wrong gear.
The positions that Regazzoni gained with the gradual withdrawal of those in front, are lost in one fell swoop for a pit stop caused by the breakage of the fuel gauge, placed on the dashboard. The fuel dangerously sprayed the helmet and suit, and Clay stopped during the fifty-eighth lap. The Swiss driver thus loses three laps in the pits. At the 61st lap an electrical problem costs Jarier, of the Shadow, to retire.
On lap 65 it is Mass' turn to retire, with a big smoke coming out of the radiators. Lauda returns to second place, amidst the enthusiasm of the Ferrari clan, from Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who for one Sunday has abandoned Turin, Fiat and the high positions he holds there, to Mauro Forghieri and Franco Rocchi, the Maranello technicians, from Daniele Audetto to the very attentive group of mechanics. There are now ten laps left to the end of the race: Lauda holds on, while Hunt does not commit himself anymore and Nilsson, almost rookie in Formula 1, is already satisfied with his placement. Behind them follow Reutemann with the Brabham-Alfa, the revived Amon with the Enslgn, Pace with the other Brabham-Alfa, also these all in all happy with their test.
Hunt wins with relative ease, while Lauda has to suffer a lot to reach the finish line, given his not optimal physical conditions. Gunnar Nilsson, third, conquers his first world podium. Thanks to Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pace, Alfa Romeo finally reaches the top six, since the 1951 Spanish Grand Prix, while the fifth place is conquered by Chris Amon.
Hunt crosses the finish line first, but the applause and the arriba go to the Austrian driver:
"It was the hardest race of my life, and I certainly hope I never have to do another one like it again. After that damned accident in Salzburg, I made a real effort of will to be able to race here. I'm glad. Only by making a quick start you can recover quickly. For the next race, the one in Belgium, I will be perfectly fine."
"Although you can never tell, I'm sure that under normal conditions Hunt would never have been able to overtake me. I took the lead and only lost it because I was too sick. My Ferrari was perfect. At a certain moment it started to understeer a bit, because of the front tires, but nothing serious, nothing that a Lauda at one hundred percent couldn't dominate".
"Before the start I asked Niki if he was trying to win: I don't think so, he replied, you'll have to be content with second place. However things ended up, it seems to me that Lauda was exceptional. It is necessary to have confidence in him, in Regazzoni, in the team and in this 312 T2 that has proved to be a very good car, and in compliance with the new Formula 1 rules".
And Regazzoni comments:
"Niki has done a truly courageous feat".
And James Hunt thinks the same:
"Lauda was very good. However, I knew that he could not have resisted for long and I did not want to take unnecessary risks. I overtook him when I realized that he was dropping slightly. But today, at least, on this circuit, I would have passed him even if he had been in top form".
A statement that, in light of what will happen later in the technical checks, will take on an equivocal aspect, given that a little later the new Formula 1 regulations will immediately claim their first two victims: James Hunt, who won the Spanish Grand Prix with his McLaren, and Jacques Laffite, twelfth with his Ligier-Matra.
But on the ranking hangs an appeal by Teddy Mayer, manager of the English team, against the decision of the sporting commissioners; this appeal will be discussed within a month by the CSI. What happened depends mainly on two reasons:
- The presence, in the association of Formula 1 constructors, of some teams that do not care about anything in order to win, and therefore to make money;
- The power vacuum determined in recent years in the sport of motor racing, and in particular in the Formula 1, for the shortcomings of the International Sports Commission.
Hunt's McLaren is disqualified because the total width of the car, measured from rear wheel to wheel, is 1.8 centimeters greater than the regulation width, 216.8 against 215, due to a bulge in the Goodyear rubber profile, while on Laffite's Ligier the overhang from the wing is 83 centimeters on the left side and 81.3 on the right, but according to the regulation the maximum overhang must be 80 centimeters.
This is the official statement with which the organizers of the Spanish Grand Prix exclude from the race James Hunt (McLaren) and Jacques Laffite (Ligier):
"At 9:00 p.m. the sporting commissioners of the Formula 1 Spanish Grand Prix, after receiving the report of the technical commissioners, excluded the drivers James Hunt and Jacques Laffite from the classification because their cars, McLaren and Ligier, did not comply with the new Formula 1 techniques that came into force in the Spanish Grand Prix."
Niki Lauda, author with the new Ferrari 313 T2 of an exceptional race, after having conquered the second place on the field, is proclaimed winner of the Spanish Grand Prix, considerably reinforcing his position as leader of the World Championship.
The Austrian now has 33 points against the 10 of Depailler, forced to retire due to a malfunction of the brakes of his six-wheel Tyrrell, and the 9 of Regazzoni; this means a margin of 23-24 points, more than enough to face the rest of the championship with serenity.
It is a pity for Hunt, warned by a journalist while he is relaxing at the motorhome of Marlboro, that he has disputed a brilliant test and that he has seen at the end cancelled the success that he had pursued with so much effort.
On Monday, May 3, 1976, Salzburg returned to being a normal city, while the day before, the motorcycle racing program had been brought forward almost in silence to allow everyone to line up in front of the many small televisions scattered everywhere and to intuit, rather than see, from six or seven meters, what was happening among the thousand curves of the Grand Prix of Spain.
It's the next day for Niki, too, who has returned to Salzburg in the night, tired, undone: the few kilometers from the airport to home are harder than those he ran on the track at Jarama.
On Monday everything is different, despite an intense schedule that has to be respected in detail in order to get everything done: the workshop, a chat with business partners, the plane to be prepared - but the pilot takes care of it - to fly to Vienna and resume treatment at a slower pace in order to heal completely. At Hof there is only Marlene, to whom Niki has left a few phone numbers.
Marlene receives her mail, a bundle of letters and telegrams, from a friendly letter carrier dressed in black and red like a postman: for the first time, she is alone in this villa that has made considerable progress since last week, though it remains a noisy construction site.
Niki is more fatigued than a week before: pale, even pulled in the face, almost as if, having reached the goal, having achieved this impossible success, all his nervous energy had suddenly given out.
"Yesterday when he arrived at the finish line he didn't want to see anyone. He asked please that they leave him alone."
Says Marlene, while Niki reiterates:
"I felt sick from the first minute, in fact it was three days that it hurt like hell, since I started rehearsals. So I doubled my concentration during the race: it's simple, the more you think about driving and only about driving, the more the pain remains something far away, forgotten. Then, at the end, the evil is felt, but also a sense of endless fatigue. This will be the week of the crisis, because I have to get back to normal: no more massages, no more vitamins, no more everything. I have to heal like an accountant, not like a runner who has no time".
Niki spoke little - or rather nothing, he says - with journalists in the days before. But how did others, fellow racers, greet him when they saw that on the first day of practice he got second?
"Some people are still convinced that I did everything to get some publicity. They would say to me: that's not true Niki, and I didn't say anything back to leave them with some uncertainty, the doubt that I could knock them out whenever I wanted. Hunt patted me on the back, I smiled. I would have killed him right then".
Then, talking about the race, Niki confesses that it wasn't....
"Nothing in particular, except for that heightened tension. No, there was a bad moment, when Hunt passed me on the braking, he went in where he couldn't and I had to swerve sharply to the left to avoid the collision. That movement maybe cost me an extra week to heal. It was a strong twinge and my body was stuck in the seat, but my head was moving, and the muscle bundles went all the way down my back to my ribs...".
Also present in Salzburg was Gino Amisano, the grand patron of the Agv helmets that Lauda wears. An amusing character, nicknamed Mr. Lingotto for his undoubted financial possibilities, but also passionate about his product, helmets, which he looks after with filial love.
Hearing talk of heads, and therefore of helmets, Amisano wakes up from his reserve and pulls out, as if he were a magician, a brand new model for Niki, super light, super safe, which he is forced to model. The helmet comes down in front of him while he is eating his steak.
Gino works on the helmet to adapt it, putting it on from time to time for new measures; everything is work, just as it is business to conclude here the new contract, valid for one year, another sponsor to put on the suit.
"You're the World Champion one more time."
But going back to talking about the race, is it an important success for Niki?
"Of course it's important, I say even deserved, I think I had a good race with second place on the track, and I silenced everyone. The House had to defend its chances and, look, you could feel Montezemolo's presence right away, tough and tenacious against these CSI knuckleheads. The rules are made to be respected, there is no reason otherwise: we make the engine of 5000 cubic capacity and then at the end we say sorry and we win in carriage. On a technical level, the matter of the oil pipes in the radiators is transformed into greater cooling of the oil itself, let's say from 12° to 15°, and therefore into an increase in power, 25-30 more horsepower, just enough to pass at the end of a straight or to go faster out of a curve. Plus throw in the tires at the end of the race. Laffite's may have been an unintentional infraction, the McLarens' was not. They tried it and luckily it didn't go well".
Says Niki, who goes on to say:
"For the world championship this win is important. I don't think we can say that everything is solved, but we have taken a step forward on the day when we had to take it back. This is a lot, also psychologically, towards the others".
In the days following the Grand Prix, Niki goes to Vienna to complete a check-up without putting a time limit on the doctors. Dungl has completed his task, now it's Niki's turn to heal. If everything is in order, on Friday the Austrian makes contact with Ferrari (Audetto or Ghedini) and confirms the test session at Fiorano for Monday, May 10. Before that, however, on Wednesday May 5, when the medical examination is over, he will resume business.
Do you remember the person with the tractors who came to the house the day after the accident? The little man hit the jackpot, and on Tuesday, May 4, Niki signed a contract with the company in question for rollover-proof cabs. In any case, once again the CSI came out very badly from an affair in which it had a relevant part. For too many years, automobile sports managers have abdicated their rights and duties, leaving room for new forces too closely tied to specific interests. The pre-race checks had started in a ridiculous way, and so they would have continued without the intervention of Nosetto and Rogano, in their turn rightly stimulated by Ferrari.
The president Pierre Ugeaux admitted with the Ferrari representatives the responsibilities of the Csi, even making then distribute the sentence of the sport commissioners in which the McLaren case was examined. The disqualification was exemplary, but woe betide if it were to be reduced to an isolated, merely punitive episode. It would be necessary to set a new policy, bringing the world of Formula 1 back to the laws of sport.