#277 1976 Italian Grand Prix

2021-04-09 00:00

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#1976, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Susanna Fortolan,

#277 1976 Italian Grand Prix

Carlos Reutemann, who had left Brabham-Alfa Romeo, went to Maranello on Wednesday, September 1, 1976 to sign the contract that would commit him to Ferrari.


Carlos Reutemann, who had left Brabham-Alfa Romeo, goes to Maranello on Wednesday, September 1, 1976 to sign the contract that would commit him to Ferrari. The Argentinean would make his debut at Monza, alongside Clay Regazzoni, in the Italian Grand Prix on September 12, 1976. In this regard, Scuderia Ferrari issues a statement:


"The driver Carlos Reutemann, who became available today, has agreed with Ferrari his collaboration for the next Grands Prix, starting with Monza, while waiting for Lauda's return. The 1977 team line-up will be defined, together with the technical program, after Japan".


Reutemann arrived at Maranello at about 12:00 a.m. and has been immediately received by Enzo Ferrari. The conversation, during which the collaboration between the Argentinean driver and the Modenese company is agreed upon, goes on for a long time. At 4:45 p.m. Reutemann goes to the nearby Fiorano track, where he completed a few laps in a touring car to get acquainted with the track. Afterwards, the Argentinean climbs into the 312 T2, with which he runs about twenty laps, some of them at high speed, under the eyes of Ferrari. Carlos Reutemann returns to Ferrari. He is back, because he was already part of the Maranello team in 1973, at that time engaged in the World Championship for sports cars. Now his aim is only one: to help Niki Lauda in the fight against Hunt, showing at the same time that the season with Brabham was unlucky, above all for the technical deficiencies of the car. Ferrari's choice is happy, because the Argentinean is a very talented driver and a serious man. He is thirty-four years old, he is married, he has two girls and lives in a small town on the Costa Brava. He is of Italian origin: his father is Swiss, his mother is Piemontese, from Castellazzo Bormida, in the province of Alessandria. The Argentine driver is a true sportsman: he swims, plays tennis and soccer, and is a perfect horseman. He trains every day to keep fit. He is not superstitious. He is a very skilful test driver, which should be useful to Ferrari in this period of Lauda's absence.


On September 1, 1976 the drivers' market opens, and following the passage of Reutemann to Ferrari, the English wonder what will happen to Regazzoni when Lauda will return to racing. Clay is sought after by many English teams, such as Ensign, which is in sight at first with Amon and then, in Zandwoort, with lckx, whose accommodation is only temporary. At Monza Ensign will have as a sponsor, for the first time, a Swiss brand well known in the watchmaking field that, of course, would be interested in continuing its financial support if Regazzoni should become available. In London many believe that Mass will leave McLaren to move to Brabham-Alfa where, at least for the moment, Stommelen will replace Reutemann. But it is also said that Ronnie Peterson has tried in these days the Brabham-Alfa. On the other hand, it seems that the Swede - given in any case for sure departing from the March - is very interested in Tyrrell to replace Jody Scheckter, to which instead McLaren keeps a tender eye. In the meantime, on September 1, 1976, in front of 6.000 people, Ferrari starts at Monza the preparation tests for the Italian Grand Prix. Clay Regazzoni takes to the track and during the course of the day he covers a hundred laps, the best of which is a 1'44"87. This time does not allow comparisons with the past, as it is the first time that a Formula 1 test on the Monza track since the new variants has been introduced. Regazzoni is dissatisfied with the changes made to the track, as they distort what was the main characteristic of Monza: speed.


"The current tendency of the new drivers is to build a chicane before every fast curve, and in this way we end up having all the tracks the same. For example, at Monza there is only one challenging corner left, the parabolic one, because with the new variants the difficulties of the Lesmo and Curvone curves have been practically eliminated, but on the other hand three new braking points have been introduced before them, which are much more dangerous than the previous curves and with a greater possibility of accidents. The creation of these chicanes reminds me of the go-kart track where I used to drive when I was on holiday at Cervia".


Regarding Reutemann's passage to Ferrari, Regazzoni admits:


"Carlos could certainly serve in this season finale to take away precious points from Hunt and protect Lauda. However, the real problem is when Niki will be able to resume".


Asked about his future with the Maranello team, the Swiss replies:


"With Ferrari I am the driver who has disputed more Grands Prix, so it means that they have some confidence in me. However, if I had to change team next year, I know where I have to go and knock on the door".


Tests end at 6:00 p.m. due to a slight engine failure. Engineer Mauro Forghieri specifies that tire, suspension and aileron tests have been carried out with satisfactory results. These tests will continue on September 2, 1976 with two cars: Regazzoni will be joined by Reutemann. Thursday, September 2, 1976 a typical autumn morning, cold and foggy, welcomes Carlos Reutemann at the Monza racetrack for his debut on the Ferrari. Then, the sun manages to break through the fog, the sky opens up and a beautiful late summer day comes out, which favours the tests of the Maranello cars. The tests are attended by an impressive crowd: about 12.000 people, and twice will be necessary to interrupt the training for invasion of the track by the fans. Before starting with the single-seater, Reutemann and Regazzoni drive a few laps of the track in a touring car, in order to learn where the driver from Ticino changes gears. Then the tests with the Formula 1 single-seaters begin, and while Clay Regazzoni immediately goes fast, the Argentinean drives with the intention of getting used to both the car and the track. The bulk of the work is done in the afternoon and the two drivers test different types of tires, springs and ailerons. Regazzoni completes ninety-one laps, many of which on the foot of 1'43"9. Reutemann, for his part, covers eighty-three laps, the best of which in 1'44"55. The tires, which as usual represent one of the most difficult points in the development of the car, give more satisfactory results and at the end the best compromise is to mount tires with the compound 66 front and 57 rear. In Ferrari's meticulous tests, where everything is recorded, including humidity, wind speed, etc., it can be seen that the 312 T2s speed by at a speed of about 256 km/h in front of the pits and reach a top speed of about 280 km/h before the new chicane. At the end of the tests Regazzoni declares himself satisfied with the results obtained. Visibly happy Carlos Reutemann. These are his impressions after the first day of work with Ferrari:


"I am very happy to finally be at Ferrari. The car is excellent, very well balanced, with excellent brakes and an exceptional gearbox. The Ferrari engine is different from the Alfa Romeo engine I used on the Brabhams because it is stronger, more competitive and has more torque".


Regarding the Monza track, the Argentine admits:


"I meet some difficulties at the first chicane because it is difficult to find the right braking point, while at the second one I go better. With these variants the circuit is very slow. Anyway, Monza is always one of the most beautiful tracks, also for the wonderful environment in which it is set. The debut at Monza will be very difficult because everyone expects a lot from me. I will try to do my best and I hope to be able to help Lauda. I'm happy to be with Clay, because he is a driver who has a lot of experience and has been with Ferrari for many years, so he will be able to help me in different things".


Also present at Monza there is the Ferrari's sporting director, Daniele Audetto, whom we asked for his impressions of these tests and of the new driver.


"The tests are useful because there is always the possibility to learn new things. Reutemann is an excellent driver who is certainly not to be discovered; at Ferrari we know him very well because he has already raced with us in the sports and because last year he was one of our most valid opponents. As a man he is very calm and has a good team spirit, so much so that he immediately got on well with everyone. We will do our best to help him. Tomorrow, in the morning, we will continue the tests with Reutemann only, in order to allow him to test our car further".


When do you think Lauda will return?


"Niki is doing better and is pressing to return to racing. In this case, in all probability, we will line up three cars, and even if this involves a considerable effort, with Niki we will bear it".


Alessandro Pesenti-Rossi is also testing on the Monza track, complaining of tire and set-up problems. On Friday, September 3, Ferrari's tests end, in view of the Italian Grand Prix. The tests, in which only Reutemann participates, are carried out in order to give the Argentinean driver more confidence with the 312 T2, but he covers a total of twenty laps, half of which with wet tires because, shortly after the start of the tests, it starts to drizzle on the Monza circuit. Reutemann took the opportunity to test the single-seater also in the new environmental situation, but at 11:00 a.m. the intensity of the rain increased, forcing the technicians to end the tests prematurely. Reutemann declares himself completely satisfied with the behavior of the car even in the wet. The final testing of the cars will take place on Monday and Tuesday of the next week, on the Fiorano track. In the meantime, on Wednesday, September 1, 1976 in Vienna, one month after the Nurburgring accident, Niki Lauda receives for the first time a journalist who can write a detailed report on his physical condition and anticipate the news of his sensational comeback in the Italian Grand Prix. Before giving the interview, when he sees the journalist waiting for him, Niki at first quickly withdraws, and only comes out into the open when he is assured that there are no photographers lurking about. Helmut Zwickl, a correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Kurier, talks to Niki Lauda in his villa at the end of a training run that the Austrian is doing in the balmy air of the forest. His wife, Marlene, sits nearby, intent on sewing advertising labels on two of her husband's new suits. Lauda now appears completely devoid of hair and eyebrows, but confesses that he has decided to get back into contention after the victory of James Hunt, who he assiduously hears on the phone as friends and who on the previous Sunday has further improved his position in the standings, bringing him to two points from Lauda's fifty-eight. The Ferrari champion declares that on Tuesday, September 7, 1976, he will perform a test at Fiorano from which will depend his final decision to appear at Monza, on September 12. As for Regazzoni, Lauda admits:


"I will hardly be able to keep Regazzoni in the team. Enzo Ferrari will engage Reutemann, but this all in all does not concern me. If I want to be the fastest I have to beat everyone, even a Reutemann in a Ferrari".


Asked about the causes of his accident, Lauda confessed to the Kurier reporter that he is not yet able to understand if it was due to a mechanical failure or to a driving error.


"Now however I don't want to think about it anymore, I still have to recover, train more, be more careful, rethink everything and perfect everything".


The doctors treating Lauda are satisfied with his condition. After 1.200 meters of racing his pulse rises to 160, but after three minutes it returns below 100. 


However, another Viennese newspaper, the socialist organ Arbeiter-Zeitung, warns the champion not to tempt fate at Monza, writing:


"If it is true that during a Formula 1 race even the slightest physical ailment can ruin everything, the decision to race at Monza can present, for Lauda, the risk of his life".


The champion, in fact, apart from his good physical appearance, still has some ailments, precisely in his left ear in which only a piece of cartilage has remained. In this regard, Niki is having a special helmet made containing a kind of hearing aid, as an additional precaution. The special helmet should also protect well the skin, which on the right side of the skull is still covered with blood crusts. According to the Kurier reporter, the right wrist is quite well, despite the third-degree burns, and Lauda can move it easily. The blood circulation has returned to normal and the lungs are working well, as if they has not passed any danger from the fumes sucked in at the Nurburgring. Niki Lauda, on the whole, appears to be in excellent physical shape; the Kurier reporter can see that the transplant skin has now welded itself to the scalp, which had been compromised for a good third of its surface. The signs of the transplant are only visible under the eyes. Niki Lauda therefore continues to astound, given that on the eve of the Dutch Grand Prix, hinting at his plans, he has ruled out being able to return for Monza.


"Maybe I will come back in Canada".


The recovery of the champion in these days must have been exceptional if now, anticipating the times, he thinks he will be able to test on Tuesday, September 7, 1976 at Fiorano and run on September 12 in the Italian Grand Prix. Of course, it is not yet certain that Lauda will be able to go on track at Monza together with Clay Regazzoni and Carlos Reutemann, and in this regard there are difficulties in preparing three single-seaters plus a possible mule, since the current regulations in Italy prevent metalworking companies - and Ferrari is one - from working overtime. Everything will depend on the Fiorano test: Niki certainly cannot hope to compete in the Italian Grand Prix if his condition is not at least good, and it even seems that at Maranello this early return is viewed with affectionate concern. In the following days Niki Lauda entrusts to the sun of the Balearic Islands the hope of being able to get back behind the wheel of the Ferrari in Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. From Thursday, the Austrian driver moved to Ibiza, on the beautiful Spanish island where his in-laws own a villa perched near Santa Eulalia, a charming town of about 3.000 inhabitants located about twenty kilometers north of Ibiza. Lauda, as mentioned, still bears the traces of the terrible accident at the Nurburgring, but his morale, incredibly high, documents his exceptional temperament as a champion. The air of the Balearic Islands, recommended by specialists, helped his physique to such an extent that he believed he would not be able to miss the appointment in Monza, from which only eight days separated him. The World Champion has succeeded in infecting his wife Marlene with his optimism, but not enough to prevent her from fearing that, by letting himself be carried away by the desire to return to racing, Niki may, in the current circumstances, reason more with his heart than with his brain. According to Lauda's plans, him staying in Ibiza will last until Monday. On Tuesday morning, with his plane, the Austrian will move to Bologna and then to Maranello, where he will meet Enzo Ferrari and carry out a first series of tests on the Fiorano private track. During the afternoon of Sunday, September 5, 1976, the Spanish television viewers have the confirmation of his intention to return to racing on the occasion of the upcoming Italian Grand Prix. Lauda appears slimmed down, but with a lively look and a resolute appearance. The Nurburgring, for him, is only the memory of a great escaped danger, of which he sensed the gravity only when he was given the extreme unction:


"But I've always been convinced that I could make it".


In addition to his hope to return to racing at Monza, the Austrian spoke about his possible further competitive activity.


"I need to do two races, and then I will be the Lauda of before".


The slight lead over Hunt in the championship does not allow him to look with excessive optimism at the battle for the title, but Niki has not yet resigned himself to consider himself defeated. This was revealed by Marlene, according to whom the wonderful climate found in Ibiza was a prodigious medicine also on the psychological level.


"In the few days spent on this island, Niki has made truly amazing progress. Now I also believe that I should not exclude his participation in the Italian Grand Prix, which only a week ago seemed a chimera".


After the test Lauda will fly to Salzburg, where he will undergo a very accurate medical check-up: only if this will be positive, Niki will communicate to Ferrari his intention to participate in the Italian Grand Prix.


"I still don't know if I will be able to race in Monza or not, but I think it's worth trying".


Monday, September 6, 1976 the 47th Italian Grand Prix is presented in Milan. The Monza race, the thirteenth act of the Formula 1 World Drivers Championship, will be held on the track of the Monza Autodrome, to which were made - as recalled by Count Giovanni Lurani at the press conference - the new changes imposed by the drivers, made after the consent to the project by the competent authorities. Emerson Fittipaldi, representing the drivers themselves, gave his favourable opinion after the work was completed. With the new chicanes, the Monza road circuit now has a length of 5800 meters. At the Italian Grand Prix, which will take place on the distance of fifty-two laps, thirty-one competitors are enrolled, but those admitted to the start selected by the test times will be twenty-six. In particular, it should be noted that Ferrari has entered three cars: the number 2 with Clay Regazzoni, the number 35 with Carlos Reutemann, while for the number 1, according to the regulations, the Maranello Company will have to dissolve the option on the name of the driver to whom it will entrust the car forty-eight hours before the beginning of the official practice, that is within 10:30 am on Wednesday, 8 September 1976. The start will take place, as Ottorino Maffezzoli, head of the sport office of the Automobile Club of Milan, specifies, with the same method used in Zandvoort on the occasion of the last Formula 1 race. There will be no more pre-grid, the cars will be lined up on the actual starting position, then they will make a reconnaissance lap without relay, and the pace will be made by the car in pole position. At the end of this lap, the cars will move to the starting grid: then, when the cars will be all stopped, a red light will be turned on to indicate that ten minutes are missing to the start. Then, the real start will take place. 


All this to avoid that some drivers may find themselves with the car moving - with obvious advantages - at the start. Impressive security services: on the route will be deployed one hundred men, with nineteen fire trucks, and also every twenty meters there will be a fire extinguisher. For the first aid services, a helicopter, three mobile resuscitation centers, seven ambulances and thirty-six nurses will be available along the track. These are the timetables of the Italian Grand Prix: Friday, September 10, 1976, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. first round of qualifying; from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. second round of qualifying; Saturday, September 11, 1976, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. third round of non timed tests; from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. fourth round of qualifying. Sunday, September 12, 1976, from 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. free practice; and finally at 3:30 p.m. the Italian Grand Prix. The organization of the Grand Prix requires almost 3.000 people, including 1.500 for the management of public safety. The cost of the event is around 200 million lire, to which must be added 285.000 dollars for the engagement and prizes for the drivers. Part of these prizes will be distributed on the basis of the results obtained in the world championship, the other on the basis of the passages in the race on lap twelve, twenty-six, thirty-nine and fifty-one. The cost of the tickets will vary from 30.000 lire for the Box Stand on Sunday, to 3.000 for Friday. 


The Australian driver Larry Perkins arrives at the Monza circuit, while the Ligier-Matra with Jacques Laffite is expected on Tuesday. These teams can try as they are not part of the Manufacturers Association of Formula 1, which prohibits instead to its members the tests in the week before the race on the circuit that will be the scene of the event. On Tuesday, September 7, 1976, at the private Fiorano circuit, Niki Lauda gets back behind the wheel of a Formula 1 Ferrari one month and seven days after the Nurburgring accident. The Austrian asks himself permission to take part in the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday: if he can do so and if the doctors, in their turn, consider the Austrian able to face the physical and mental fatigue of this race, Lauda will have won in advance his longest and most terrible battle. Lauda, as he has admitted several times in recent days, will only make one attempt. He still has pain in his left ear, so much so that he has to have a special helmet made. An attempt that can be considered desperate, but that confirms the strength of character and the will of the reigning World Champion. At Ferrari, Lauda's gesture is obviously understood, but it also raises some perplexity. The risks of an early return are too serious and evident to be underestimated. This is confirmed by the communiqué issued the day before by Maranello, in which it is highlighted that it is Ferrari that accepts the request of its driver and that only the driver and the doctors at Monza will have the final decision. In the team, however, there is enthusiasm for Lauda's return, which demonstrates the Austrian's ability to recover and gives hope for the end of the season. Nobody, in the last month, would have even dreamed of such a quick recovery. The mechanics are at work with an admirable commitment. Three 312 T2 are ready and a fourth one - destined to play the role of mule in Monza - is in phase of preparation. Clay Ragazzoni and the new purchase Carlos Reutemann start to test around 9:00 a.m..


On the wonderful Fiorano track, which takes the most difficult curves of some circuits, the Swiss and the Argentinian test their 312 T2. In the afternoon, as already mentioned, follows the test of Lauda, who completes thirty laps with a more and more decisive and sure attitude among the enthusiasm of a thousand of fans lined up around the fencing of the plant. At the end, when the first shadows of the evening fall, Lauda, in an improvised and chaotic conference, declares that he feels ready for Monza and for the Italian Grand Prix. Lauda had left Ibiza at dawn with his wife Marlene, physiotherapist Willy Dungl, who has already assisted him at the time of the accident with the tractor and the two fractured ribs, and the pilot of his private plane. A flight of about four hours to Bologna Borgo Panigale, where the small aircraft of the Austrian champion landed at about 11:00 a.m. Niki, a flying enthusiast, was almost always at the controls. In Bologna, the group was expected by Sante Ghedini, Ferrari's factotum, who drove his 131 Abarth into the parking lot. Very quick police customs checks, a bouquet of red roses offered by a group of workers and the car heads towards Maranello, leaving Bologna after 11:00 a.m., dribbling through the crowd that invades the airport hoping to see Lauda. In Maranello another slalom to avoid the curiosity of the people. Lauda enters the Fiorano track shortly after 12:00 a.m. from a secondary gate; Enzo Ferrari is waiting for him in the beautiful renovated farmhouse that is the center of the facility. The meeting is long and affectionate. It is well known that Ferrari has sympathy and consideration for Niki, and that the latter has esteem and respectful admiration for his boss. The two, joined by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, have lunch together, while Carlos Reutemann and Clay Regazzoni, who see their colleague for the first time after the Nurburgring, go to the restaurant in front of the Ferrari gates. And the first considerations about Lauda are expressed precisely by them.


"We hugged each other. He's lost weight, but he's still him. In his place, I would race at Monza".


Says Regazzoni, while Reutemann admits:


"He is a man of great courage and determination. And then, believe me, the fight for a world title is a formidable stimulus".


The gates of the Fiorano track remain closed to everyone and are guarded by about fifteen carabinieri, even commanded by a colonel. Outside, fans and journalists wait. The spectacle of the crowd is impressive: workers, kids on bicycles, engaged couples, men, women. 


Cars parked everywhere. People hoisted on the roofs of houses, on the pylons of high voltage lines. At 2:36 p.m. the public gets excited, the roar of an engine rises from the Fiorano pits. On the curve that closes the longest straight of the track, a red single-seater appears. A murmur of disappointment rises from the crowd: at the wheel there is only Clay Regazzoni. This is repeated at 2:49 p.m. and 3:04 p.m. At 3:28 p.m., finally here is another car: the number one is painted on the sides, Lauda is in the cockpit. It's almost a parade lap. The Austrian greets the fans with his right hand. There is a waving of handkerchiefs, applause rises, then an interval of about a quarter of an hour follows.


"What must have happened to him?"


Murmurs an old farmer, while a blonde girl, dressed in jeans, exclaims:


"He must have been sick?"


Then, the Ferrari restarts at 3:38 p.m., but it is once again Regazzoni; only at 3:46 p.m. Lauda, to the delight of the public, returns to the track and makes two passes. Then, at 3:51 p.m. Lauda makes another thirteen laps, and the people around the circuit take times. The best? A 1'17"9 at the end. It seems to be already at Monza, or on one of the many circuits that have exalted the value of the Lauda-Ferrari duo. Then, the crowd pressing on the gates, sees the latter open at 4:26 p.m., to let Marlene pass on board a 131 Abarth driven by Hans Kemitinger, the pilot of Niki Lauda's private plane. Marlene Lauda confesses:


"I am happy, everything is going well. Niki is not tired at all".


At 4:32 p.m., a bus with the entire Modena soccer team arrives at Fiorano, asking to be allowed on the track, in vain. At 4:51 p.m. Reutemann comes out, comforting the crowd by saying that Niki is fine, and at 4:59 p.m. Franco Gozzi comes out to confess to those present that Lauda has asked to run another thirty laps before deciding whether to run at Monza. In the meantime we also learn that the track is rather dirty and that Lauda is driving an old 312 T adapted to 1976 regulations, normally used as a mule, complaining about the imperfect carburetion of the engine and asking Gino Amisano, the owner of the Agv helmet company, to modify the interior of the one brought to him at Fiorano.


"I dug two niches in the padding so that Niki's ears wouldn't press against the plastic material, so that he wouldn't feel pain".


On the track the powerful voice of Lauda's Ferrari echoes again: the World Champion completes another fourteen laps, then returns to the pit. At 5:04 p.m. Montezemolo, who is on board a red 131 Abarth leaving the Fiorano circuit, does not stop to talk to the crowd and the journalists, but only makes a fleeting comment:


"It's ninety percent yes".


At 5:40 p.m. finally Lauda comes out with Gozzi in the courtyard of the Fiorano track, and between the screams of photographers and cameramen looking for the most valid shot, he declares:


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