Alfa Romeo approached Formula 1 this year by supplying the twelve-cylinder boxer engines of the 33 TT12 World Champion, making car to the British team Brabham. The operation, sponsored by Martini and Rossi with a substantial financial support, was desired mainly for advertising and commercial reasons. It meant the abandonment by the Milanese House of the rally and sport program. After four races in Brazil, South Africa, the United States and Spain, the outcome of the initiative is decidedly disappointing, both in terms of results and in terms of the Brabham-Alfa Romeo agreement. The double placing of Reutemann and Pace at Jarama should not be misleading: the cars of the Argentinean and the Brazilian compete at a pace far inferior to that of Ferrari, McLaren or Nilsson's Lotus, and only the gradual withdrawal of numerous drivers allows the two Brabham-Alfa Romeo drivers to collect their first points for the world championship. A steady march, yes, but we are still far from an adequate level of competitiveness, from fighting with Ferrari and winning, as the president of Alfa Romeo himself, Cortesi, have already anticipated with reckless optimism in South Africa. Despite official denials, relations between Alfa Romeo and Brabham continue to be strained. Ecclestone, among the many services rendered to Alfa, whispered that the fault of the modest performance of his cars depends on the engine, that the Italian technicians are very confused, and that the twelve-cylinder boxer engine supplied to him didn’t reach three liters of displacement. Amenity, but very harmful: other than a positive advertising image for Alfa and, why not, for Martini. In Spain a rumour was picked up that testified to the state of unease and mistrust between Alfa Romeo and Brabham. The president of Autodelta would have imposed to Ecclestone to pay immediately invoices for 180 million for supplies and revisions of engines, but the British manager tries to take time, claiming that so far the Grand Prix have made him too little.
A situation to say the least painful, that maybe Martini will solve. Therefore, on Friday May 7, 1976, in Milan, a meeting is held with Vincenzo Moro and Mazzi for Alfa Romeo, Carlo Chiti for Autodelta, Bernie Ecclestone for Brabham and Nicolò di Suni for Martini&Rossi. The first to take the floor is Moro, who informs Ecclestone that the relationship between Brabham and Autodelta will be able to continue only if the British manager retracts what was written on April 15, 1976, adding that he will not admit that the actions of Autodelta are considered to have misled him. Ecclestone therefore apologizes, observing however that what was written has absolutely no meaning that it is attributed to him. And having obtained the clarification, he points out that the terms of collaboration has to be revised, asking for further financial aid. Moro and Chiti do not commit themselves to the British manager, but they take note of the requests, while Ecclestone, back in London the same evening, writes a letter in which he apologizes again; so, on May 10, 1976, Suni informs Moro and Chiti that the sponsorship of Martini&Rossi will continue also in 1977, and in order to facilitate the relationship between Brabham and Autodelta, he immediately pays the 100.000 dollars prize. Wednesday, May 12, 1976, at 10:00 a.m., Bernie Ecclestone calls Vincenzo Moro from London: the British manager states that he has to write a letter containing the reasons that has determined the production of the letter of April 15, 1975, but he adds that he prefer not to send it to foster the climate of harmony now created, especially following the efforts of Alfa Romeo and Autodelta in facing financial difficulties. Afterwards Ecclestone tried to propose changes to the contract stipulated on May 7, 1976, but Moro's refusal is followed by a letter written a few minutes later, in which the British manager stressed:
"If I had considered that we were only customers buying racing engines in the same way we could have bought a Ford DFV, not only I would have widely disapproved... since I had no doubt that our relations were different from those between normal customers and were instead in a light of collaboration".
After this further letter, there will be a new confrontation, but however the season ends, one basic observation remains: in Milan there is no one who really knows how to set a wise sports policy. For Alfa Romeo and its fans this is a great handicap. No change in the situation is foreseen in view of the Belgian Grand Prix, scheduled for Sunday 16 May 1976, which will be run on the Zolder circuit, rich in curves and, therefore, particularly suitable for the characteristics of the Ferrari 312 T2, a global car, as Enzo Ferrari says, that is valid on every kind of racetrack, but certainly a bit more competitive on the winding tracks. An additional advantage for Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni, who will participate in this fifth round of the season with slightly different intentions. The reigning World Champion is first in the standings with thirty-three points, against Depailler's ten and Regazzoni's nine. It will be enough for Lauda - who perhaps is not yet perfectly in place - to run in defense, to look for a positive result, and not necessarily to aim for success. The Swiss driver, who in his heart doesn't give up any hope in the fight for the title, will have to attack, aiming for an encore of the United States Grand Prix. Lauda is back from two weeks of care and rest, having renounced, for example, the usual Fiorano tests on the cars destined for the Belgian race, necessary to recover from the strain of the Grand Prix run at Jarama. On the Madrid circuit, the Austrian has shown that he combines intelligence with a Tazio Nuvolari-like heart and courage, but he has subjected his body to terrible stress. The latest news is comforting, Niki is doing well, his ribs are fine, but there is still some numbness in his right arm. A Lauda, in short, at ninety percent. One thing is certain: Niki will not spare his commitment, his determination. The Austrian does not consider the game for the 1976 World Championship closed and, with him, for Ferrari as well.
"For heaven's sake, it is necessary to work as much and more than before. There are still too many races to run, to fall asleep on our laurels would be the most serious mistake".
Even other drivers do not believe that Lauda has already reached the world title; for example, Emerson Fittipaldi maintains that Niki has a good advantage, but that in Grand Prix, as in all races, nothing is ever defined in advance.
"In 1973 at this point in the year I was more or less in Lauda's situation. I had an ample margin over Stewart, as Niki has over Depailler and Regazzoni, and I could consider myself quite comfortable. Then the wind changed, three or four races went wrong and in the end the victory went to Jackie".
The world ranking is sub-judice due to the events in Madrid, but it is increasingly likely that it will remain so. In Spain James Hunt, with his McLaren, preceded Lauda's Ferrari, but was disqualified for technical irregularities. The Spanish Appeals Tribunal, made up of several technicians and authorities of Spanish motor racing, confirming the decision to exclude James Hunt and his McLaren from the Spanish Grand Prix standings. In spite of the hard work of the Spanish lawyer Garrigues, the case was lost from the beginning, since together with Hunt and Mayer he was not able to bring any evidence other than the declaration that the eighteen extra millimeters found in the maximum width of the car has no influence on the performance. Also heard during the debate were engineer Harvey Postlethwaite of Walter Wolff Racing, Peter Jowett of F.1.C.A., Alex Soler Roig, a former Spanish Formula 1 driver, and one of the engineers from Real Automovil Club de Espana who were present at the time of the measurements. Among the authorities and commissioners present were Count Villapadierna, president of the Spanish Automobile Sports Federation, Miguel Arnaun, vice-president, and Rafael Varcarcel, secretary. In the end, given the lost cause and in agreement with Teddy Mayer, the lawyer withdraws the lawsuit. At this point, if the British sporting authorities will give their consent, Mayer will still be able to turn to the Court of Appeal in Paris and appeal to the International Automobile Federation but, given that he himself had admitted that the car was not in order, it is not clear how he can hope for a reversal of the situation, even if the hypothesis that all the drivers who came after the British driver will be assigned only the points obtained due to their placement in the race, without taking into account the disqualification of the Englishman, appears.
Mayer, who to tell the truth has been disappointed by the disqualification, having however been careful about the details, asks his mechanics to fix the car again. So, the oil radiator, which has been placed next to the water radiator on the right side of the car following the new rules introduced from the Spanish Grand Prix, is put back in its original position, under the rear wing, between the first and second practice session on Friday. This, however, creates a huge difference compared to the past, since now the rear wing is only 2.54 centimeters from the oil radiator, creating imbalances that will not be understood in a short time by the McLaren mechanics. In the meantime it is since September of last year that Ferrari wins one Grand Prix after the other, Italy and USA in 1975, Brazil, South Africa, USA West and Spain in 1976. A sensational series, with Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni and the Maranello cars - first the 312 T and now the 312 T2 - as protagonists. In Brazil, South Africa and Spain Lauda won, in the USA West Regazzoni. Which of the two will be victorious on Sunday in the Belgian Grand Prix on the Zolder track? Lauda is recovering from the injuries sustained in the now famous accident with the tractor and from the terrible effort he underwent to race in Madrid, and is now close to his best physical form. He will run to win, as always, but without worries and with the serenity of those who can be satisfied with a placing. Regazzoni, on the other hand, needs a success: the Swiss driver alternates highs and lows, and who knows, in Zolder he may find himself again. At the base of the chances of both is the organization of the team and the 312 T2, a car that has shown on the Jarama circuit to be able to continue the tradition of victories of the previous version. The T2, as is well known, fully complies with the rules of the Formula 1 regulations that came into force in Spain, preserving the winning characteristics of the T.
But Lauda and Regazzoni are certainly not resting on their laurels. They know very well that the British teams want to do anything to impose themselves and break this magical series. By the way, Mauro Forghieri is not present in Zolder, since the person in charge of Ferrari's experience department has left for Apulia, Italy, and more precisely to Nardò, where there is the very fast Fiat ring and where Ferrari carries out some tests to fine tune the 312 T2 that should make the De Dion bridge usable not only on the rear but also on the front. If Goodyear will supply within the special tires promised, it is not excluded that the T2 with integral De Dion could make its debut soon. Hunt, Depailler with the six-wheel Tyrrell, and Brambilla with the March, are the most prominent rivals, while the rejuvenated Lotus, Ligier and Brabham-Alfa Romeo appear. The risk of cheating or errors of judgment should be diminished after the events of Madrid and the disqualification of Hunt and McLaren. On Friday, May 14, 1976 the technical checks are scheduled, followed by the first two and a half hours of official practice for the Grand Prix. The commissioners of the International Sporting Commission promise severity in the controls, with the intention of taking back in hand a sector that was heading towards a dangerous road and in which only Ferrari continued to offer an example of loyalty. Meanwhile in Zolder, on the first day of practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, the fifth round of the World Championship, Clay Regazzoni is the fastest in 1'26"60, ahead of Niki Lauda, 1'26"73. He is followed by Hunt with the McLaren, who set the third fastest time of 1'26"74, Depalller - with the increasingly competitive six-wheel Tyrrel - with a time of 1'26"91, and Brambilla, the best of the March, in fifth position with 1'26"93. Regazzoni found his smile again: he likes the circuit, the car is running well and everything seems to be going well.
"It's to see that on Sunday I will repeat the success of Long Beach".
Muttered the Swiss driver, who in his heart retains some hope for the world title.
"I also showed Mr. Hunt how to thread the curve after the pit straight. I passed him once on the braking, and he just stood there and watched me".
More painful, from all points of view, is the day of Lauda, whose felt better than in the Spanish Grand Prix, but who has not yet fully recovered from the consequences of the accident with the tractor.
"Let's say that in Madrid I was at seventy percent, and here I'm at eighty-five percent. I hope to finally be okay for Monte Carlo, where you need to be in perfect physical shape to withstand the strain imposed by the circuit. I still feel some pain in my ribs in the left-hand turns. Tomorrow my friend Willy Dungl will arrive from Vienna for the usual massages. If everything is ok on Sunday I'll race to win, otherwise to bring home some points. Many people say that the World Championship is already over, that I have no more rivals. It is not true, it is necessary to have the mathematical certainty, the rest is just talk".
Lauda begin the tests by fine-tuning his Ferrari with his usual meticulous care: set-up, aerodynamics, tires, but after three quarters of an hour he find out a bitter surprise. The functioning of the engine becomes irregular and the reigning World Champion is forced to get on the spare car, on which he had to redo all the preparation. What's more, this mule, an old 312 T that has been adapted, proves to be really recalcitrant and Lauda and the Maranello technicians work miracles to tame it, eliminating, above all, an excess of oversteer. They succeed in the end, so much so that Niki obtains his best time in the last five minutes of training. It is clear that Lauda will take back his car on which, in the meantime, the mechanics replace the engine, but the Austrian's exploit deserves to be underlined, as Daniele Audetto, Ferrari's sport director, admits:
"Niki is really a champion. And for us it is doubly pleasing to see how well Regazzoni did as well. The problem with the twelve-cylinder engine of Lauda's car arose for a trivial reason. The protective grill of an intake horn came off and some dirt particles got into a cylinder".
Also Hunt had some problems with the gearbox and the ratios, and in fact he didn't run very much, while his teammate Mass was disqualified almost immediately because of the engine failure. Depailler runs long and well, testing in particular the braking system, the weak point of the Tyrrell (and Zolder is a circuit that exploits a lot the brakes), while Scheckter tries for the first time the six wheels, obtaining a flattering eighth time. Hardly decent the performance of the Brabham with Alfa Romeo engine of Reutemann and Pace, that after running out of gasoline goes out of the track destroying the car, but remaining miraculously unharmed. Before the start of the tests, the local marshals check - even if hastily - the cars, finding them all in order, including the McLaren that in the meantime has been adapted to the new rules after what happened in Spain, advised by engineer Pandolfo of Csai, present as a delegate. Precise police dispositions, determined by a new law with an ecological background, make the pits curiously silent in the nights between Friday and Saturday and between Saturday and Sunday: according to the new Belgian law, in fact, it is not allowed to make any noise after 6:00 p.m. and before 9:00 a.m. Therefore, on Friday evening, around 7:00 p.m., the Ferrari mechanics, who would like to check that there are no leaks, they start the engine without knowing anything about the provision, but two minutes later they are surrounded by four marshals and a policeman, who order the engine to be turned off.
Ferrari's monopoly also extends to Saturday, when at the end of the qualifying the two Maranello cars confirm the conquest of the first row in the Belgian Grand Prix. But with a novelty: Niki Lauda, author of a superb performance, overtakes Clay Regazzoni, conquering the pole position. It is the first time in this season that the Austrian manages to conquer the pole, offering an indisputable sign of his newfound physical form. Lauda, in the only hour of training valid for qualifying, runs on the Zolder track, gradually improving his times, up to an exceptional 1'26"55. Niki, who has returned to his race car after driving the mule, manages to complete the set-up of the car in the morning, in the hour and a half of free practice. Regazzoni, on the other hand, stops practicing almost immediately to allow the mechanics to replace an overused engine - the operation is carried out by Giulio Borsari's team in the record time of an hour and a half - and so, in the decisive sixty minutes, he finds himself with a somewhat capricious 312 T2, perhaps because of the type of tires used, perhaps because of the different conditions of the ground, dirty and full of oil; the fact is that the Swiss driver remains with the time obtained on the first day. But none of the strongest rivals of the duo from Maranello makes particular exploits: neither Hunt, who runs into problems of set-up and goes off the road remaining unharmed but slightly damaging his McLaren; neither Depailler with the six wheels Tyrrell; nor Brambilla, since the latter cannot push the March to the end because of the irregular functioning of the engine.
"Now I'm really well and tomorrow I'm racing to win. It's certain. Ferrari, after all, pays me just for this".
Says Lauda, who then adds, with a smirk spreading across his face:
"My masseur Dungl arrived from Vienna and immediately put me right with some electrotherapy. After one application I don't feel the slightest pain for at least five hours. I am only afraid of the heat. My most dangerous opponents should be Regazzoni and Depailler. It will count in remarkable way the departure: in this circuit it is not easy to overtake".
"We play the race at the start. The important thing, for me, is to be on the front row. I swear that at the first curve I have an advantage of fifty meters. I'm happy with the results we got in practice: I'd say we have something more than the others. Look at Hunt: in the practice sessions of the other Grands Prix he was almost always ahead of Niki and me. Then we beat him in the race. If so much gives me so much, tomorrow...".
Clay doesn't conclude the speech, but the sense is clear. A single shadow veils the prospects: Lauda ended the tests five minutes early because of an engine problem similar to the one encountered on Friday, so it can be assumed that the double trouble originated in the twelve-cylinder engine and it was not caused by external causes. It must also be said that the engines used by the Austrian have been prepared for training, while those for the race are less performing but more profitable in the long run. In race the two Ferrari drivers should dominate the Belgian Grand Prix. And in this regard, as on other occasions, a concern arises: will Lauda and Regazzoni go to war and risk compromising the success of the Maranello team? Will some tactic be adopted? Daniele Audetto, also inspired by a phone call with Enzo Ferrari, reports:
"I told the drivers not to forget who they are racing for. Ferrari invited me to remind them and I did it. Tomorrow, above all, a Ferrari must win. After all, Niki and Clay are too intelligent professionals to forget that. It will be the start, it will be the first events of the race to establish a ranking between the two. For sure, Lauda and Regazzoni will not hinder each other".
The reigning World Champion concludes:
"If I take the lead and then I realize that Clay is faster than me, no problem: I let him pass. So if he goes in front, and then I have a higher pace, I try to overtake him. It seems logical to me. We both want to win, and we both have a competitive car".
The English watch and hope, of course; those who can no longer hope are Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacky Ickx, who didn't even manage to qualify, along with the almost unknown Edward. A melancholic sunset for two champions forced to drive very modest cars such as the Coupersucar and the Williams. On the other hand, the Belgian Patrick Nève qualified, making his debut in Formula 1 with a Brabham-Ford Cosworth of the RAM Racing team, replacing Emilio de Villota. And also the English Guy Edwards, who has been missing since the 1974 German Grand Prix, on the second Hesketh with which he has already raced the BRDC International Trophy, qualifies with a car that is much admired because of the curious sponsor that he shows in full view, relating to a men's club and portraying a girl, while the Swiss driver Antonio Bernardo, signed up by Ensign, does not take part in the tests. Indirectly the prestige of Ferrari is still increased, which in Zolder amazes everyone by presenting a new gigantic Fiat 170 articulated lorry for the transport of the single-seaters. Sunday 16 May 1976, when the whirling-round eventually subsides and the timekeepers sort out all their facts and figures Lauda and Regazzoni are on the front row of the grid, with the World Champion in pole position, and Hunt and Depailler are behind them. Hunt’s original car M23/8 is slightly crinkled so M23/6 is given a new engine and prepared for the race, taking its place on the second row thanks to the time recorded by M23/8. The hard-trying Depailler is alongside with the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34/2 and in row three are Laffite with the Ligier-Matra V12 and Brambilla with the orange March. It is beginning to look as if the orthodox British kit-car is finished and if you did not have 12 cylinders then you needed an innovation to add to your Cosworth-Hewland kit-car to make it competitive, such as six wheels or six speeds in the gearbox. Ecclestone’s Brabham team are giving the others encouragement by showing that even with 12 cylinders you can not guarantee to be competitive.
On the fourth row of the grid is Amon with the neat and unobtrusive Ensign, illustrating perhaps that if all the factors are above average, with no weak points and, equally, no strong points, you can be well placed without too much drama or expense. In contrast the Walter Wolf-financed Williams team are showing that sheer expense is no short cut to success, for they scraped one car on to the last row of the grid, driven by Leclère, while Ickx did not qualify. A very dejected Emerson Fittipaldi is also a non qualifier which is a surprise, unless you have noticed the way the car has been handling during practice, for it never Seems to go where the driver wants it to go or even thought it is going to go. The other nonqualifier is Guy Edwards with the Rent-a-Drive Hesketh, but that is no surprise to anyone, except perhaps the people who have paid for the car. The race is not due to start until 3 p.m. on Sunday so a quick 20-minute whizz-round in the morning gives everyone time for lunch before the serious business begins. Behind the main grandstands some 70 road-going Ferraris are arriving, from a Ferrari Clubs gathering, all the owners smiling happily when they see the starting order for the race with Lauda and Regazzoni on the front row. An equally large number of First National City Bank Travellers Cheques guests are also arriving and the Penske team are relieved that their car is on the grid, even if it is difficult to pick out down in row nine. The Brazilian media men are sitting around gloomily, wondering how they are going to explain the demise of the Copersucar-backed ex-World Champion, who has packed up and gone home in despair. Jacky Ickx is in the paddock trying to keep a brave face in front of newshounds who can not understand why he is not in his own National Grand Prix and as 3:00 p.m. approached the skies are clear, a breeze is blowing as a headwind on the pits straight and all is set for a great race, providing you are a Ferrari enthusiast. The distance is 70 laps, which sounded a lot, but in fact will only represent 1 1/2 hours of racing, and well on schedule Lauda and Regazzoni led the field forward to the grid.
The starter waits for the tail-enders to sort themselves out and then presses his button! A rather undramatic set of red lights glow on the bridge ahead of the start-line and after ten seconds they disappear and a green set glows and Lauda is gone. Hunt makes a good start from the second row and is alongside Regazzoni as they race for the first corner, which Hunt takes from the inside and is into second place behind the World Champion. All 26 cars get away well and strung out round the big loop before reappearing up the back straight in the order Lauda, Hunt, Regazzoni, Laffite, Brambilla, Depailler, Amon with a jostling crowd behind them. To the joy of the Ferrari enthusiasts Niki Lauda waited for no-one and before the dust of the start had settled he is already pulling out a visible lead. From his pole position he has only one objective-and that is to win the race, for himself and for the Ferrari, which means Enzo Ferrari, Mauro Forghieri, his chief mechanic Ermano Cuoghi, all the team members at the race and all those people back in Maranello who keep the team ping. As he draws steadily away driving smoothly and without flurry one is reminded of the great Ferrari era of Alberto Ascari, the opposition just melts away in his rear-view mirrors. If anyone is thinking that Lauda is unfit and would not stand the pace, they would have to think again. Uncomfortable he may still be, but not unfit, physically or mentally. Behind him Hunt is doing a good job leading Regazzoni in the second Ferrari, Laffite in the screaming Ligier-Matra, Depailler in a sixwheeled Tyrrell, Scheckter in a similar car. Amon in the works Ensign, the two Brabham-Alfas of Pace and Reutemann, then Peterson in the blue and yellow March, the black Shadow of Janet, the black and gold Lotus of Andretti, the white March of Stuck and the orange one of Brambilla. The Italian has been in fifth place in the opening rush but he gets all crossed-up on lap 4 and drops back to fourteenth place.
Two-and-a-half laps later a rear hub shaft shears as he is going into the chicane behind the paddock and he is off the track in a cloud of sand and out of the race. A short while later Nilsson stops just before the pits with his throttle slides jammed shut with dirt after an excursion into the rough stuff, unfortunately parking the car on the opposite side of the track from any possible help from his mechanics. Just as this is happening Regazzoni decides he ought to support the flying Lauda, and took second place from Hunt and that is the end of anyone else getting a look in, the two Ferraris powered away into an unassailable lead. Hunt’s car is nothing like on form and he is having trouble keeping ahead of Depailler who has got past the Ligier. At 10 laps the order is Lauda, Regazzoni, Hunt, Depailler, Laffite, Scheckter and Amon, the queue for third place being nose-to-tail behind the McLaren. Then comes Andretti, having passed Peterson, Reutemann and Pace and moving up into this group are Alan Jones and Jochen Mass. The Lotus disappears into the pits five laps later with dust and dirt in the fuel injection and two laps later Reutemann’s Alfa Romeo engine lost all its oil pressure and as he slows violently Peterson dodged to the wrong side and found himself having a private accident among the catch-fences! It is March A-team two down and the B-team with one to go, as Merzario is on his way out with a sick engine. Laffite forces his way by Hunt on lap 17 and collected a big black tyre mark on the right of the Ligier cockpit from the McLaren’s front wheel, for Hunt is not going to let a frog go by that easily, but on the next lap Depailler gets his six-wheeler past the McLaren. We now have a flat-12-cylinder Italian car in the lead, another in second place, a V12-cylinder French car in third place and a six-wheeled British car in fourth place. and people think all Formula 1 cars are the same.
As Depailler goes by the pits to start lap 29 his engine makes an awful noise and that is the last we see of him, the Cosworth V8 rout is complete. The two Ferraris and the LigierMatra sing their 12-cylindered way round the circuit, reeling off the laps with complete reliability, while behind them the British cars fall apart or fail to keep up. Hunt’s gearbox is losing oil and it is only a matter of’ time before his race is over, Scheckter’s rear suspension has a broken link-mounting due to a blow from a kerb that stepped out or a passing car, and Amon is in a worthy fifth place with the Ensign until the left-rear wheel comes adrift on lap 52 and he crashes spectacularly but the strong roll-over bar saves him from serious injury. Andretti rejoins the race for a while, until a drive-shaft joint breaks up, Stuck goes out with damaged rear suspension, and Ertl’s Cosworth engine breaks in the white Hesketh. Pace’s Alfa Romeo engine dies on him with electrical failure as he passes the pits, and Lunger’s Surtees sets itself on fire when the ignition rotor breaks up and ignites a fuel leak in the injection system. All this time Jones has been circulating regularly, and moves up into fifth place, Mass has worked his way up into sixth and Perkins has battled his way past both the Shadows to take eighth place behind Watson. Although the gaps between the first three cars varies now and then due to back-markers holding things up as they are lapped, the three 12-cylinder cars never miss a beat and has the race been another couple of laps longer the CosworthKit-Car annihilation will have been complete, for Lauda will have lapped Scheckter’s Tyrrell, which crosses the line to all intents and purposes a lap in arrears on the Ferraris, its pace slowed by the excessive lean-in of the right rear wheel. Scheckter has done well to finish.
Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni dominated the Belgian Grand Prix, repeating - with inverted positions - the double win of Long Beach, in the United States. Niki first and Clay second. A Ferrari should have won, that would have been enough, but instead the success turned into a triumph, since the English teams are annihilated, with Hunt eliminated by the gearbox failure and Depailler by the engine failure. The third place went to Laffite, with the Ligier-Matra, while Brabham-Alfa Romeo went missing from the party: the cars driven by Reutemann and Pace are still disappointing, both retiring without ever having offered any particular point of interest. It is necessary to underline how the little shadows of the eve of the race - the engines in crisis on Lauda's Ferrari and the questions about the behaviour of the Austrian and Regazzoni, who started side by side on the first row - immediately vanished in the climate of an electrifying Grand Prix for Ferrari. Niki jumped to the lead with a superb start, pushing Regazzoni away, who was also surprised by Hunt. The Swiss driver, however, recovered with lightning speed and overtook the Englishman during the seventh lap. From this moment on, the race never changed its character. The two Maranello single-seaters in the lead, unreachable, and the others behind, hopeless. The success in these cases is not only of whoever crosses the finish line first, but of the entire team. Every element worked to perfection.
Lauda, still slightly sore, withstood the stress of the race and did not lose control of the situation even for a moment, Regazzoni followed the team's orders, refraining from attacking his teammate, managers and technicians - especially in the delicate moment of signalling to the two drivers - did their job with skill, and the 312 T2s of the two drivers raced on the Zolder track without missing a beat. A wonderful demonstration of competitiveness and sturdiness, the happy confirmation of a technical school that is inflicting humiliating defeats on the British rivals. For example, Scheckter, fourth with the Tyrrell, finished the race with a broken chassis, while Vittorio Brambilla left the track with the March because of a broken driveshaft. Only Jacques Laffite, with the Ligier-Matra, created a moment of suspense by managing, on the thirty-eighth lap, to get to within four seconds of Regazzoni. The Frenchman, however, paid for his impetuous attack with a frightening spin at the exit of the variant that leads to the straight of the grandstands. The Ligier darted on the track, remaining miraculously on the carriageway, and Jacques lost eight seconds and every ambition, settling for a third place that however deservedly rewards the progress of the French team.
"I had to drive for half the race with the steering wheel crooked because of the collision with Hunt, who unbalanced my front wheel. Then, when I was approaching Regazzoni, Andretti lapped in front of me and forced me into a spin to avoid him, so at that point at the pits they preferred me to stay in third place, but to get to the finish line".
Guy Ligier comes on, saying:
"I believe it, to throw away a placement like that on our fourth and fifth race I just didn't feel like it. I preferred Jacques to stay where he was, because we knew about his problems at the wheel and sending him to attack Regazzoni could mean taking some risks. But think about it, with the little money we are forced to spend, we are in a few months behind Ferrari that in terms of budget and experience is second to none".
Laffite interrupts him in the meantime:
"Don't worry, before the end of the year if we go on like this we can also stay ahead of Ferrari".
Among the many retired drivers, Peterson is the only one who has the curiosity to see the end of the race, without fleeing immediately to the hotel like the various Brambilla, Merzario, Hunt, Pace, Reutemann.
"I was going quite well, when on the fast curve after the straight Reutemann in front of me slowed down suddenly. To avoid him I had to jump on the grass and then damaged the front end of my March and had to retire".
Chris Amon, after a thrilling race that brought him back to the top of the charts together with his Ensign, ended up off the track at over 200 km/h.
"I don't know what happened, I was on the fast turn at the end of the circuit when the car suddenly started and turned around, completely destroying itself. It's a pity, because I was having a good race and without the accident I had a very good chance to overtake Scheckter who was in front of me".
Says the New Zealand driver who has a sore right hand due to a blow taken in the big flight, while the South African confirms his words.
"I had a problem with the rear suspension at the end of the race, so I could hardly keep up with Chris for much longer. However, apart from that I'm satisfied with the behaviour of my six-wheeler. The brake problems showed up but they weren't as worrying as I feared. On the other hand, with the braking at the limit that I had to do to pass Hunt, it was logical that the brakes would fail a bit. James really went out of his way today not to let me pass".
Lauda also gave the Ferrari men a moment of fear, when on the fiftieth lap he was in the lead with almost ten seconds on Clay, but on the next lap the gap had dropped to just over five seconds. Was there a problem with the car, a physical decline? No, simply the reigning World Champion has run into an oil slick and his 312 T2 suddenly become oversteered. Lauda feared something happened and slowed down, then resumed full throttle and lapped at a pace of 1'25"0. With this success, the fourth in five races and the seventh consecutive for Ferrari, Lauda is more than ever at the top of the Formula 1 World Championship, in which Regazzoni has moved into second place. Niki has 42 points and Clay 15: twenty-seven points of difference, a lot, even if the Austrian insists on affirming that he will be sure of an encore only when he will have a mathematically unbridgeable advantage and the Swiss expresses some hope, while all the other drivers are behind the Maranello duo. Depailler, for example, who remained at 10 points, has even thirty-two points from Niki.
"Everything went very well. My friend Dungl gave me a massage before starting the race, and I hardly felt any pain. The car never gave me the slightest problem and in the rear view mirrors I never saw any opponents. It seems to me that Ligier is starting to go well, but we always have something more than everyone else. Tomorrow Ferrari goes to Brands Hatch for tire tests ahead of the British Grand Prix, but I prefer to go to Salzburg and rest. I want to be really good for Monte Carlo. I intend to win more races, maybe break the record for Grand Prix wins in a season".
Admits Niki Lauda, while Clay Regazzoni explains what happened at the start:
"I skated a little bit at the start and Lauda got away. It's a pity, because if I had made a good start I could have been able to assert myself. I was under the box's orders: maintain positions. Of course, if Lauda wasn't in front, I would have risked to reach and overtake the leader, but it wasn't worth it. Besides, my car was slightly understeering. We realized before the race that one of the front tires was dechapping: we replaced both of them and I didn't have time to adjust the car properly. Anyway, I'm very happy and I'm already thinking about the Monaco Grand Prix: I've been hoping to win it for years, this time it could be the right one".
Among the things to remember in this Grand Prix, the very modest figure of McLaren: the changes made to the rear axle of the car in order to comply with the Csi regulations, violated in Spain, have probably influenced negatively on the performance; the impetuous behavior of Hunt, who also touched himself with Laffite; the terrible flight off the track of Chris Amon with the Ensign for the failure of a suspension; the withdrawal of Brabham (Reutemann because of the oil pump and Pace of the electrical system), still too far from an appreciable level of performance. At the end of the Belgian Grand Prix the technical checks are carried out again for all the competitors. This time the checks are accurate - weight, dimensions, limit measurements of the cars - and every car was found to be in order, offering an example of sport and loyalty that illuminates the Formula 1 circus.