On Sunday July 18 1976 in England the Grand Prix of Great Britain is run, ninth test of the world championship of Formula 1. The classification still presents Niki Lauda at the top. On the eve of the Swedish Grand Prix Ferrari was still undefeated, but aware of the difficulties due to the characteristics of the Anderstorp circuit, a particular track with continuous radius curves all at ninety or even one hundred and eighty degrees, and only one very long straight. The defeat arrived more than honorable at the hands of the six wheel Tyrrell, but it did not give excessive worries because it is probably impossible to always win.
The troubles arrived in France on the very fast circuit of Le Castellet, a very modern plant structured in such a way as to bring to the exasperation engines and also mechanical parts. For the first time, the perfect twelve-cylinder Ferrari engines broke down, first the one driven by Lauda, then the one driven by Regazzoni, leaving the way clear for James Hunt and the McLaren, once again protagonists after the contested Spanish performance, in which the irregularity of the car cost the driver disqualification.
Hunt's elimination from the ranking of the Madrid race was examined shortly afterwards by the international commission. For everyone the disqualification was definitive and the appeal based on no new considerations. But on July 5, 1976, the day after the French Grand Prix, the FIA Appeals Tribunal decided to readmit James Hunt to the Spanish Grand Prix standings, converting the disqualification into a fine of $3.000. The same decision is also taken for Jacques Laffite. This is because the violations found on their single-seaters are considered minimal, compared to the regulations. Ferrari was irritated by the unfair decision, and worried about the technical failure. In the workshop, the disassembled engines would have denounced the breakage of the shaft probably due to a fusion defect, and if there are no different reasons kept hidden, the diagnosis should reassure enough.
At this point, however, it is clear that not being able to count on a review of the decision regarding the Spanish Grand Prix in appeal, and having lost a lot of the advantage gained, Ferrari's tactics must change. It is necessary to attack again in search of victories without the frenzy of success, because it is good to remember that, in spite of this last unlucky period, Ferrari is still the best car of the year and Lauda the strongest driver. Of course, as soon as the headwind blows, there are those who begin to shoot at zero, who raise the ball of the divorce between driver and brand, until the next denial. Perhaps to win serves more in order to crush these critics that in order to win a championship already very near.
In the meantime, on July 4, 1976, the day after the French Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone distanced himself from the contract drawn up on June 23, 1976 with Alfa Romeo, and asked Chiti and Autodelta for five more engines, to be added to the twelve agreed upon. For Autodelta it is obviously impossible to respond positively to the request of the British manager, given the social situation in Italy and the continuous strikes that are affecting the work. Two days later, on July 6, 1976 Bernie Ecclestone sends a letter to the Formula 1 team principals, inviting them to consider the possibility of taking an active role not only in the programming of the championship, but also in the journalistic aspect.
"I hope that in the last three years, and especially last year, you have been able to realize the changes that have taken place in Formula 1, and that they have been beneficial to everyone involved in Formula 1. However, I believe that there is a lack of pre-race advertising, and I am sure that this is due to the fact that your local or national newspapers are not oriented assiduously towards motorsport. Having to convert it a week before the race in an effort to drum up enthusiasm is not only difficult, but often unsatisfactory, because the journalists have no racing experience. I think the best thing is for the F.1.C.A. to establish its own press publicity department which, immediately after each race, can provide you with a report on the race, the lap counters and all news of human interest. However, every country that has a team or drivers racing, we can provide an additional report on what they did during practice and the race. If you make sure that local and national newspapers can have it, at least some of them may be interested in it, and maybe start a regular column that will obviously benefit your race. In due time, before your race, we will send you up-to-date photographs of the drivers, cars and profiles of each team, written by professionals, which can be condensed at your request, and also all the material you will require for your program. I also think it would be a good idea to provide you with six magnetic tapes containing interviews with drivers, team leaders and wives, with human interest topics that you could broadcast to local radio stations. We will make sure that drivers from your country are interviewed in their own language. On the circuit we can, if you want, provide you with an English-speaking speaker, who is at all the races and who can interview the drivers, and explain to the people what happens in the final stages of practice. He would, of course, liaise with your speaker and help him when needed. I'm sure if you give an agreement in principle, there will be many other things that we can do to help you. As you will imagine the putting this together would be quite expensive, and I feel that if you are prepared to pay $1.500 for years not only will this give you a considerable package of useful things, but it will cost less than you will have to spend on the spot. Since I need to have the answer from each Organizer very soon, and since I need to have 100% memberships before we embark on this adventure, I will be grateful if you would let me know if you are interested. I want to assure you that this is nothing more than a service in an effort to help you and indirectly to help ourselves. The annual fee I propose is only a partial contribution towards the costs. Personal regards, signed Bernie Ecclestone".
A curious proposal, to which however the British manager will not get any follow-up. Ten days later the first tests for the British Grand Prix take place, on the improved Brands Hatch circuit, confirming the trends already noted in Sweden: an exceptional competitiveness of Hunt with the McLaren and a gradual return of various teams to a good level of performance. Ferrari of course is competitive, and Lauda doesn't struggle much to get the second best time, despite needing further tuning.
"The car is fine, but we need to make small tweaks to the suspension to experiment with different driving conditions. We can vary the effect of the stabilizer bars and we have three different types of tires to try at the front and two at the rear. The difference is in the carcass structure but not in the tread compounds; as for the engines, we believe that the Castellet's trouble will not be repeated".
Declares engineer Forghieri. The March drivers are very fast, Peterson and Merzario, while the six wheels Tyrrell don't show a great competitiveness, as instead it was legitimate to think: Scheckter even tries the old normal four wheels car, after having gone out of the road with the new one. The Brabhams improve the performances thanks to the excellent performance of the Alfa Romeo engines and to the fact that Autodelta has realized for them the six gears. Engineer Chiti says that Pace has an engine with 480 horsepower and an excellent torque at intermediate regimes, while on Reutemann's car an engine with 500 horsepower has been mounted and there is an even more powerful one. But Brabham was born heavy, and it has kept a traditional disposition of the masses with the water radiators in front and the oil radiators behind, so it is probably less agile on mixed circuits like this one, compared to Ferrari and other more modern English cars. A totally new chassis should cure these ills, and give Alfa and sponsor Martini the desired satisfaction.
As a curious fact it can be noted that two women try to qualify for the Grand Prix: Lella Lombardi, who returned to Formula 1 at the wheel of a Brabham BT 44 of the RAM team, after the hypothesis of a move to Ensign had been aired, where Chris Amon returned, having recovered from the Anderstorp accident (Bob Evans was hired to team up with her), who had been missing since the Grand Prix at Long Beach, where he had not qualified at the wheel of the Lotus), and the English Divina Galica, former Olympic skier, 29 years old with experience in touring cars and formula 5000, at the wheel of a Surtees TS 16 of the Shellsport team. Lella Lombardi does a little better with 1'27"25, while Divina Galica runs in 1'28"25 and it is likely that with this time she will not be able to classify herself.
However, there are still Saturday's tests that will be much more indicative for everyone. Wolf-Williams and Copersucar present only one car, the first for Jacky Ickx, the second for Emerson Fittipaldi. Mike Wilds completes the picture with a Shadow of the P.R. Reilly Team, replacing the Copersucar's Ingo Hoffman. The Briton makes his return to the Formula 1 world championship since the 1975 Brazilian Grand Prix, raced with the B.R.M. The other reserve is Australian Brian McGuire, entered in a Williams.
The track has been modified and slightly shortened to make room for the new pits and it also has a new road surface in various points; these changes naturally create some difficulties, especially because the settling road surface changes its characteristics from hour to hour. In addition, there is the unknown of the weather which, as is well known, has been on the clear and warm side for two months but threatens to change in the next few hours, which would be good for the parched English countryside but would increase the problems for the drivers. After a meeting between manufacturers and managers it is decided that in case of rain during the race it would be up to the race director to decide the neutralization for the time necessary to change the tires.
Sunday's race is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting since the beginning of the championship: of course we expect the confirmation of Ferrari's superiority, but also an extremely hard-fought race. In fact, ten drivers, with Lauda in the lead and Regazzoni very close, run with times that differ from each other by no more than a second. They all improve their times as they manage to fine-tune the suspension of their cars: this is because Brands Hatch is a circuit typically suited to highlight the positive characteristics of the chassis and the skills of the driver. Ferrari has the satisfaction of finding again the pole position, that is the best time in practice, which Lauda had been accustomed to in the past, and which had been missing for two races. The satisfaction of engineer Forghieri is evident, who declares:
"We had two days of trouble-free testing, and we proved to be competitive. We are not immune from failures, but we will do our best putting new engines and gearboxes for tomorrow's race".
Regazzoni is also happy with his fourth time, which makes him start on the second row. For him it is important to be able to make a good start because....
"Here nobody gives anything away, and we are very close in performance; overtaking someone is extremely difficult".
Audetto, for his part, adds:
"The race will be very tough, but our drivers and our cars have shown what they can do in the same den as the great British rivals".
The big rivals are of course Hunt with his McLaren, who is second, the usual Tyrrell and an unrestrained Andretti who has brought the Lotus back in good light with his third place on the starting line. Merzario and Brambilla, with the March, are in an excellent situation to have a good race, being respectively ninth and tenth. Both are drivers with a strong sensitivity for tuning and therefore it is not surprising that, even without having the best engines of the Ford Cosworth, they were able to beat drivers like Mass, like Laffite, with the Matra Ligler, and like the Brabham-Alfa racers, Pace and Reutemann.
All is to see which cars will be able to keep up the pace: Brambilla is convinced he can do much better, because trivial problems with the electrical system prevented him from doing all the test laps and perfecting the set-up, but tomorrow he hopes to be able to defend himself well. Merzario, who found in the driver Mario Casoni a sponsor and a friend, is very satisfied with what he considers a good recovery in Formula 1. And it is likely that the Merzario operation will continue with the creation of an Italian team for the driver from Como, in order to avoid him having to depend on the English team, with all the advantages that would follow.
During the tests there is the usual choice of tires and an almost continuous variation of the set-up of the cars, looking for the best grip. Everyone keeps their secrets jealously, but Gordon Coppuck, the McLaren designer, admits that the development of the car started with the 1973 version, then modified in 1975 by simplifying the front suspensions. And this modification, along with other minor ones, made the car more valid. With an engine and a gearbox equal to the others, the car showed a consistent superiority over the other English cars. Less brilliant than expected the performance of the Tyrrell.
Lella Lombardi and Divina Galica will not be present, both excluded because they were not able to score a useful time to qualify for the race. Finally, some technical curiosities: Ferrari engines reach up to 12,500 rpm, Alfa and Matra engines reach 12,000 rpm, Ford engines reach a maximum of 11,000 rpm. McLaren and Alfa have six-speed gearboxes, all the others have five. The Ligier Matra is handicapped by its excessive size, clearly being the car with the largest cross section. The weather seems to continue on the good side, although cooler than on Friday.
Sunday, July 18, 1976 the paying spectators are 77.000 but in reality there are many more people present, judging by the compact crowd. After four hours from the end of the race it is still late to go out; they say that it was spent about half a billion liras to rebuild the pits, but with that amount of money you could also build a second exit and it would not be bad.
At 3:00 pm the start is given regularly, and the twenty-six cars rush up the slight slope that leads to the fast right-hand bend called Paddock Hill Bend. Lauda is in the lead, followed by Regazzoni, who is the author of a brilliant start and is already second, but only three hundred meters from the start there is a tangle of cars: Clay Regazzoni, who has passed James Hunt, hits Niki Lauda's car at the first curve. Subsequently his Ferrari, spinning, collides also with Hunt's car, and is hit by the car of the overcoming Jacques Laffite. In the collision the cars of Regazzoni, Hunt and Laffite are damaged, while Lauda's car suffers only a scratch to the right rear wheel, then replaced as a precaution.
The drivers take the main straight, where the marshals are waiting for them with the red flag that stops the race. Regazzoni manages to return to the finish line with his Ferrari, although damaged, while Hunt leaves the track at the Bottoni Bend, because he has bent steering and a broken suspension, and returns to the rear of the pits. This fact is decisive for the subsequent stages of the race. However, fortunately nobody is injured and a new start is about to be made. At this point, a regulatory confusion begins, even greater than that of the accident.
During the wait, on Lauda's car is replaced the rim of the left rear tire, damaged in the crash, while Hunt climbs on the mule and makes a full lap of the track to greet the public. Even Lauda decides to go back on the track even though he did not have permission, and for this reason both the Austrian and the British will be fined 100 pounds. Arriving at the starting line, race director Dean Delamont, exclaims:
"Hunt, Regazzoni and Laffite have to get out of the starting line-up that is forming again".
But as soon as the announcer pronounces this announcement, the public in the stands begins to make noise, so Delamont, talking to the Ferrari mechanics, confesses:
"How can I throw Hunt out with all this audience?"
The discussion continues, with Hunt deciding to get back into his car, urged on by the fans, despite the stewards telling him not to, as he would have been disqualified. The Briton replies that they could have easily acted against him, but he would have restarted with the repaired car, and not with the mule. In the meantime Niki Lauda says to Ermanno Cuoghi:
"Let me tell you until what time I have to wait for Hunt's convenience, because if it is still long, I will get out of the car".
At 3:45 pm the four McLaren mechanics push the meanwhile repaired car onto the track, and at 3:52 pm, without any warning from the loudspeaker, they hear:
"Three minutes to go".
Montezemolo, Forghieri and Audetto look at each other and say:
"Let's make a complaint".
According to international regulations, Hunt cannot be readmitted to the start, because he was not on the track when the race director had shown the red flag at the end of the first lap; the regulations state that only drivers who had finished the lap where the red flag had been shown can restart the race. It is clear, at this point, that the race is flawed, and that the new start, given at 15:55, would have started a legal issue. Both Hunt and Laffite, however, were forced to retire because of the accident at the start, while Regazzoni was the only one able to return to the pits, even though his car had an accident. So it is decided to restart, cancelling the first start, and to complete all the original seventy-six laps. Even the second start is characterized by a problem: the Lotus of Mario Andretti, who starts third, remains stationary on the grid for a technical problem, but it is dodged by all the overcoming cars.
In the second start Regazzoni, a bit shaken after the accident in the first one, prefers to run with caution: the race is now led by Niki Lauda, followed by James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Clay Regazzoni, Chris Amon, Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter, Patrick Depailler and Hans-Joachim Stuck. During the first lap Amon is passed by Peterson and Scheckter, while Depailler and Stuck come into contact: the German is forced to retire, while Depailler loses many positions. At the second lap Amon is passed also by Vittorio Brambilla. At the fourth lap Andretti stops with the engine blocked by an ignition failure, and Regazzoni passes to the third place. Then Brambilla, on the eighth lap, passes Peterson, while Arturo Merzario passes John Watson, moving up to eighth place.
But the Northern Irishman's car is damaged during the overtaking phase, so much so that Watson is forced to change the nose and start from the back. The following lap Amon retires for a water leak. After ten laps Lauda always leads ahead of Hunt, Regazzoni, Scheckter, Brambilla, Peterson, Merzario and Gunnar Nilsson. At the thirteenth lap Merzario conquers another position passing Peterson, in crisis with the tires, after having managed to avoid a contact with Brambilla. The Swedish driver of the March is forced to a pit stop to change the tires, which forces him to slip to the fifteenth place. At the fifteenth lap also Vittorio Brambilla is forced to a pit stop to change the tires, which will make him go out of the points zone.
These tire failures, caused by the detachment of pieces of tread as big as a hundred lire coin, throw all the teams into panic and they prepare for the worst, that is to change the tires on all the single-seaters. The Goodyear manager tries to calm everyone down, saying that Peterson's March had defective steering and that Brambilla's March had a suspension failure, and that these were the real causes of the abnormal consumption of the tires. Brambilla, in fact, retired due to the breakage of the lower triangle of the front left suspension, while Peterson, after countless other stops, gave up.
At the 26th lap the direction communicates the decision to disqualify Regazzoni (third) and Laffite (ninth) because they restarted with the mule, but leaving James Hunt on the track; at the 32nd lap the French driver is forced to retire because of a broken suspension, while at the 36th lap Regazzoni enters the pits with the engine off. Another broken crankshaft? This time no, but from the driver's gestures it is clear that the oil pressure is dropping rapidly and that the engine has melted. Regazzoni almost had tears in his eyes when he took off his helmet and locked himself in the Ferrari truck to let his anger pass. He certainly thought that if he didn't have the accident, and didn't have to change the car, he could probably get a good result this time.
The situation will be made even more confusing by a statement released by the stewards halfway through the race: it is said in this statement that the reserve cars could not be considered regulation and therefore they would be disqualified; however, since at that time cars 2 and 26 (Regazzoni's Ferrari and Laffite's Ligier) were already out of the race due to breakdowns, the measure was no longer in force. After the retirement of the Ticinese driver, behind the couple Lauda-Hunt there are Jody Scheckter, Arturo Merzario, Gunnar Nilsson, Tom Pryce and Alan Jones, while from the back of the grid the Penske of Watson is recovering and, after an overtaking on Brett Lunger, is ninth. At the thirty-ninth lap Merzario is forced to retire because of a broken driveshaft, after many laps he had been able to challenge the Tyrrell of Jody Scheckter.
On lap 45 James Hunt, who had started with a car curiously set up with more pressure in the rear tire to ensure that the car had a rightward slope to improve grip in the right turns, which are more numerous at Brands Hatch, takes the lead after passing Lauda, who has gearbox problems. One lap later Watson also passes Jones, thus entering the points zone. At the sixty-fourth lap Watson passes Tom Pryce, on whose car there are problems with the engine and, four laps later, also Gunnar Nilsson. The race is won by James Hunt, who crosses the finish line first ahead of Niki Lauda, Jody Scheckter, John Watson, Tom Pryce, Alan Jones and Emerson Fittipaldi.
However, while the last laps were being run, the lawyer Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, on behalf of Ferrari, was already intent on drawing up the complaint on the basis of Article 23 paragraphs B and F of the International Sporting Code, motivating it precisely on the matter of principle that the regulations must be respected. Luca Montezemolo, at the end of the race, while going to the race director to deliver the complaint, says:
"We are very satisfied with Lauda's second place, who thus obtains another set of points for the championship; but we cannot compromise on the question of principle regarding the regulations, which had to be enforced. So we forward the complaint against the participation of Hunt's McLaren car, which was also presented by other teams".
This complaint is then presented in a similar way also by the Tyrrell and Copersucar teams, demonstrating that this is not an unrealistic move on the part of Ferrari that wants to have the first instead of the second place. So, now the ranking is only provisional, waiting for a decision on this new regulatory glitch created by the lack of experience of those who should make the management of races a profession, as they do all the others, from manufacturers to drivers to journalists. The score of the championship is still pending, but with an advantage for Lauda that is always considerable and will be even greater if the complaint will be accepted.
A storm is brewing over the head of Dean Delamont, director of motor sport at the Royal Automobile Club and race director for the British Grand Prix. Delamont is a former journalist and broadcaster, once a passionate motor racer and since 1954 the sporting director of the RAC, as well as a member of the FIA's International Sports Commission. Dean Delamont openly admits that there has been much confusion because international regulations too frequently lend themselves to different interpretations, or are not sufficiently explicit. According to Delamont's statement, the initial decision to suspend the race, which then gave rise to a long sequence of contradictory events, was taken on the initiative of the duty sports commissioner at the first corner after the start.
"I trusted him completely. Like the other seven special marshals stationed along the Brands Hatch track, all of whom were linked by radio, he is a person of great experience in such emergency situations. One car, Laffite's Ligier-Matra, had been stationary sideways after the collision. In addition, the roadway had to be cleared of debris and rocks that could have caused other accidents, or even tire punctures, had the race continued. In less than five seconds from the moment the accident was reported, I gave the order to suspend the race for safety reasons. In accordance with international sporting regulations, the red flag was waved from the start-finish line, and simultaneously, with two crossed flags, from the seven positions along the route linked by radio".
Delamont categorically denied that only drivers who had completed the initial lap could be allowed back into the race after the forced suspension.
"The regulations only specify that those competitors who remained in the race at the time of the suspension are allowed to make the second start" he said. "After the accident Hunt got back on the bike but having damaged the front suspension he could not travel at more than ten kilometers per hour. When he reached the third curve that leads to the straight on the opposite side of the box, he saw the two crossed flags waving and realized that the Grand Prix had been suspended. Therefore he went directly to the pits without completing the lap. The stewards confirmed that at the time of the race stop Hunt's car was still running along the track, although very slowly, so the racer was running styles, as required by the rules".
According to what we later learn from the race director, Tyrrell withdrew its protest after receiving further explanations of the case, while Copersucar did not express its intention to appeal the validation ruling regarding the order of arrival. Instead, the complaint against Hunt presented by Ferrari is rejected, while Regazzoni and the French Jacques Laffite, involved in the collision with his Matra-Ligier, are removed from the race. Now Ferrari will turn to the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain, the organizer of the Grand Prix, and if it is rejected, the Italian team will have the right to appeal in the second instance to the sporting commission of its national motoring body, which in turn will have to decide whether to forward the file to the international sporting commission, repeating the same procedure that Hunt's McLaren had to follow after the disqualification received in the Spanish Grand Prix. Lauda, for his part, is always laconic and hasty, and about it he says:
"It's right to make the complaint, otherwise what are the regulations for? However, if things continue to go on like this, it is no longer fun to race. As for Delamont, he makes me sick to my stomach".
Regarding the incident on the first lap....
"I was doing my line. What the others did, I don't know. I know I was bumped, but I was able to continue anyway".
On the problem that prevented him from being first at the finish line, Niki then offered precise explanations.
"The gearbox control went crazy from the very first laps, forcing me to search for gears that no longer engaged safely. Towards the end of the race the gearbox control was so hard that I was losing precious tenths of a second at each gear change, losses that added up and gave a gap of three or four seconds a lap over Hunt".
The winners, of course, are elated. Mayer, the head of McLaren, when asked what he thought of the complaint, replies:
"I don't care about it. The important thing is that we won".
More concise is the designer Gordon Coppuck, who when asked the same question replies:
"It's all bullshit".
James Hunt at the end of the lap of honor together with Scheckter, while Lauda is absent, is more colorful in his comment:
"I don't give a damn about the regulations later. I won then let them do what they want...".
When they ask James Hunt if he knew that Tyrrell and Coopersucar have also filed a complaint, the Briton replies:
"Coopersucar who is he? I don't know him. Ferrari should think about it before complaining, because if what happened was the fault of the two Ferrari drivers who triggered the accident. Among other things, I ended up on Clay, who was fighting with Lauda, because someone also bumped into me from behind. I can guarantee that I tried to bring my car back to the pits when on the other side of the track, in the distance, I saw the red flag waving on the finish line tower. That's why I left the track. At that point, however, the race had already been suspended and I could do whatever I wanted. Anyway I can only say one thing, the crowd helped me a lot to win here and if I won it was only because of this enthusiastic English crowd. This week I will test the new car, I don't think I can already run at the Nurburgring".
"I didn't have any problems, my car was perfect in spite of the flight over Regazzoni's head that had touched with Lauda. I was cautiously behind Lauda, also to see if my car had suffered any other damage, then I increased the pace and at the same time I saw Lauda's performance drop, I don't know the reason. I approached him and after studying him I passed him easily. Now I am leaving for Italy because on Monday and Tuesday I am going to a Marlboro meeting with young people in Rimini".
Regazzoni, locked in the Ferrari truck, still mumbles:
"Of course, if he hadn't cut me off, I would have been able to continue without any damage".
When asked the name of the person responsible for the accident, who squeezed him until he left the track, thus damaging the car, Clay does not want to say anything, but it is certain that the only person in front of him was Lauda. Lauda's Ferrari for the English race was brand new, just arrived from Maranello, but it had suffered some problems with the lubrication system during the free practice on Sunday morning; then the gearbox failure deprived the Austrian of a new victory that would have eliminated many controversies. The third place of the Tyrrell of Scheckter is deserved, and it rewards a constructor that has had the courage to revolutionize the concept of car with four wheels making it six.
The day was hot in all senses, both for the temperature and for the events. With regard to the latter, the situation repeated in England - which perhaps only pleased the public, with the double start and the final victory of a home driver - does not allow a quiet future for the sport of driving. All this, however, did not matter to James Hunt, who, after all, only wanted to make the paying public happy and was disappointed when Lauda did not try to regain the first position, preferring to keep the second because of gearbox problems. Once the race is over, in the course of the evening James reaches his friends in the parking lot to participate in a barbecue, who had arrived with tents and motorhomes. The party will go on until midnight, when the parking lot will begin to empty.