On Sunday 15 August 1976 the fight for the world title begins again: Hunt, Scheckter and Depailler are offered the chance to overtake Lauda in the standings. On the fast circuit of Zeltweg the Austrian Grand Prix opens, the eleventh episode of the Formula 1 World Championship, the post-Lauda and post-Ferrari.
It's as if the fight for the title began again, because before the Nurburgring accident and Ferrari's withdrawal, few would have bet on a success for James Hunt and McLaren in the challenge with the Lauda-Ferrari duo. On the eve of the dramatic German race, the reigning World Champion, back from four victories (Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco), three second places (US West, Spain, Great Britain) and a third place (Sweden), had 58 points in the world ranking, against Hunt's 35.
The Englishman had won three times (Spain, France and Great Britain), had won a second (South Africa) and a fifth (Sweden) place. Twenty-three points seemed an insurmountable gap, also because Ferrari was still the best car in Formula 1. And, instead, here was the twist of fate, the bitter game of fate. On Lauda and on Ferrari the dramatic story of the Nurburgring was grafted: the Austrian saved by a miracle after a terrible battle for life, Ferrari accused of imaginary faults by those who had an interest in covering up the shortcomings of an outdated circuit.
Now, therefore, we begin again.
While Lauda healed his wounds in Germany, in Ludwigshafen, and Ferrari refrained from participating in the World Championship, either with Clay Regazzoni alone or with some reinforcement drivers, the Formula 1 drivers returned to the track in Zeltweg in a race that, at first, seemed to have to be suspended. But the organizers, in spite of the foreseeable financial dip resulting from the absence of the idol Lauda and Ferrari, wanted at all costs to confirm the appointment, fearing that the Austrian government would withdraw, in the future, the authorization to hold the race.
Lauda's heirs are James Hunt, Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler. Hunt, winner also of the German Grand Prix, is now at forty-four and the duo driving the original six-wheel Tyrrell has, respectively, thirty-four and twenty-six points. If it is very difficult that Depailler can reach the otherwise blocked Lauda, the overtaking for Hunt and Scheckter is relatively easy, especially for the Englishman, who has a very competitive car. Hunt, moreover, is a less discontinuous and impetuous driver than the South African, whose six-wheel car, although valid, does not offer on all circuits the same high level of performance of the McLaren, which in Austria should make its new and efficient M26 model debut.
Just Hunt in the last few days has beaten with the McLaren M26 the unofficial record of Zeltweg, which Lauda had set in the past season during the official tests of the Austrian Grand Prix. Hunt, in private practice, turned in 1'34"46 while the reigning World Champion had obtained the pole position in 1'34"85. It must also be said that the circuit has undergone some changes in the Hella Licht curve (cost: 30,000,000 lire), where in 1975 the American Mark Donohue went off the track with the Penske and lost his life.
The aforementioned curve was re-profiled, widening the roadway by three meters (the length went down to 5,910 meters), adding a guard-rail on the outside and backing up the inside guard-rail by a few meters; a provisional solution, while waiting for the definitive work that would be carried out in the following months and that would lead to the creation - for the 1977 race - of a chicane that would lengthen the circuit to 5,942 meters.
Hunt, therefore, is the favorite, but in racing one can never say anything: who remembers what happened in 1975? Lauda and Hunt were in the first row, then a cloudburst broke out, Vittorio Brambilla found the right way under the water and won. Vittorio has never found again the inspiration of that day, and yet, he has the means to do it. He, Arturo Merzario - Lauda's brave savior in Germany - and Pesenti Rossi will be the only points of reference for Italian fans. But will they still come for this Grand Prix that, together with the one in Monaco, was considered an Italian Grand Prix abroad?
We will see. In the meantime, at Zeltweg, on Friday, August 13, 1976, the posters of the Austrian Grand Prix still show Niki Lauda's red Ferrari number one, and the Austrian driver's face appears on T-shirts and blousons in the thousands of small shops that have sprung up around the circuit. There is also that of Clay Regazzoni, together with drawings of the prancing horse, Italian and Swiss flags. But, unfortunately, there are neither Lauda nor Regazzoni nor Ferrari, and it is an absence that can be felt in this picturesque world of Formula 1. Vittorio Brambilla, who is a man of sharp and effective speech, sums up his impressions with an amusing comparison:
"It's like when you're playing billiards: if you have a strong opponent, maybe stronger than you, you pull out your nails to reach him, to beat him. You make shots that otherwise you wouldn't dare. Lauda and Ferrari were a point of reference that I miss now".
James Hunt is also sorry not to find the men from Maranello on his way. His, is not a hypocritical speech. Hunt is a guy used to straight talk:
"It's clear that the absence of Niki and Ferrari plays in my favor in the championship. However, for me winning a race doesn't only mean scoring points. There is much more pleasure in winning after beating a prestigious opponent, as Lauda and his car are. If I win the title, it won't be a complete title".
Hunt is surprised that Ferrari did not try to defend Lauda's championship lead:
"If I had been in the Commendatore's place, I would not only have let Regazzoni race, but I would have flanked him with two other drivers at least. Then yes, I would have had a hard time. I also believe that this interruption cannot be good for the team, which is as good as Niki and his car. The men will lose their rhythm a little bit".
"I have been told that perhaps Lauda could resume in October, in time to take part in the last three Grands Prix of the season, those of Canada, the United States and Japan. That would be wonderful, we would have a fantastic end to the World Championship. For now, though, I'm just trying to get some points. I still have to catch up with Niki and I have to watch out for Scheckter and his six-wheel Tyrrell. Jody can hope for the title, too. I have to win".
An official opinion on this Grand Prix being run at Lauda's home, but without Lauda, is offered by Bernie Ecclestone, the Brabham-Alfa owner who is also the president of the Formula One Manufacturers Association.
"It is serious and painful that Ferrari is missing here. It is part of our family and let's not forget that it has done more for Formula 1 than any of us. The racing loses flavor. Today all teams want to beat the one from Maranello, all drivers Lauda. We hope Ferrari will return to racing soon. I respect his decisions and I add, on a personal level, that he is right for what happened in Spain. His protests about the decisions of the FIA appeals tribunal are legitimate. As manufacturers' association we will try to take some kind of action with the FIA so that events like this do not happen again. I would like to clarify one thing: in England we respect and love Ferrari, those who talk about a mafia-like coalition of British teams against Maranello are crazy".
If the absence of Ferrari displeases everyone in the Formula 1 Circus, even those who - like Hunt - should be happy, imagine the pain of those who prepare the Austrian Grand Prix and fear a hole in the budget for the lack of Italian and Swiss fans. There has been talk of a probable drop of thirty percent in the attendance at Zeltweg. It's too early, obviously, to talk about figures, but maybe due to a cold and rainy day, which makes the valley where the circuit is designed very sad, the stands are almost deserted and it's hard to understand how the organizers can claim that there are 17,000 spectators. Fritz Trailer, organizer of the race, explains:
"Our Grand Prix costs about 900,000,000 lire. Normally, between the proceeds from advertising, entrance fees and parking fees, as well as ground rent to the shop owners, we close with a slight profit. In previous years we had an average of 130,000 spectators, this time the withdrawal of Ferrari and Lauda's accident will cause a decrease in people's interest. To be on par, we should have between today, tomorrow and Sunday 90,000-100,000 people. Let's hope so".
The problem does not concern only the Grand Prix itself, but also the whole area of Zeltweg, a not-rich area that from the week of the race draws a turnover of over three and a half billion liras. But on Friday, unlike 1975, those who come to Austria and ask for a room to rent will find it without difficulty. In 1975 the all sold out had pushed many to sleep in the car or to make fifty kilometers of road to find a bed. One can understand how the organizers did everything they could to convince Ferrari to participate in the Austrian Grand Prix. Trailer reveals an interesting detail.
"On Wednesday I telephoned Lauda in the Ludwigshafen clinic, begging him to insist on Ferrari and push him to let Regazzoni race. But not even Niki succeeded".
Whoever comes to Zeltweg, therefore, must be content to see Lauda and Ferrari in the posters. But here we end up talking about Niki, Regazzoni, Ferrari and its plans for next year more than usual. In short, Ferrari is the protagonist even when it is not there. The absence is a serious and painful fact, and everyone shares the idea that it is necessary for him to return to racing as soon as possible. Also for a business matter: the more people talk about Formula 1, the more interesting the races are, the more exciting the show is and the more spectators, sponsors and money circulate. But when will Maranello's single-seaters be back on track? There are those who swear that already in Holland, in two weeks, we will see them again, and those who speculate at the Italian Grand Prix.
At Monza there will probably be only Regazzoni, called to represent Ferrari in the home race, in front of a public that does not deserve to lose the show of one of its drivers and one of its cars against very valid opponents. And then? Everything depends on Lauda's condition, who is in a clinic in Ludwigshafen to be treated for the burns he suffered in the dramatic accident at the Nurburgring. The Canadian Grand Prix, which follows the Italian one, is scheduled for the beginning of October, immediately followed by the American and Japanese ones.
If Lauda will be healed, if he will feel like taking the wheel of his Ferrari again, we could see the Austrian and Ragazzoni on the track again, and then Niki could still have some chance for the title. Especially if, between Zeltweg, Holland and Italy, the blond Hunt does not make a positive series. Of course, today we are dealing with hopes, doubts, while in Zeltweg we have a Hunt in great shape, supported by a car that has found the right way after the negative period following the Spanish Grand Prix.
"I want to win races and the world title, but I want to do it by beating Lauda and Ferrari, not fighting against ghosts."
In Austria, Hans Binder takes the place left by Chris Amon at Ensign; Binder is at his debut in the Formula 1 world championship, after a short gavetta in Formula 2. Besides Binder and Harald Ertl, one of Niki Lauda's saviors from the recent flames of the German circuit, two other Austrian drivers are entered in the race: Karl Oppitzhauser with a March of the Sports cars of Austria team and Otto Stuppacher, with the third Tyrrell. The two had participated in a race promoted by the same Austrian Automobile Club (ÖASC) that organized the Austrian Grand Prix, which allowed the first two classified to obtain a sum of money in order to participate in the Grand Prix. The latter, however, were considered too inexperienced and were not allowed to participate in the race.
RAM, after having seen its two cars seized in the German Grand Prix for a lawsuit promoted by Loris Kessel, returns to line up the Swiss driver, together with Lella Lombardi. The former RAM driver, the German Rolf Stommelen, who then moved to Brabham, was not confirmed by Bernie Ecclestone's team. Guy Edwards, registered by Hesketh, does not take part in the tests.
John Surtees is not present, who in the late evening when leaving the Osterreichring, perhaps dazzled by the lights of another car, skids in the rain and collides with a car coming in the opposite direction. In the impact the two cars are destroyed. But while Surtees gets away with a skull contusion, a wound to the lip and a hard blow to the right arm, on the other car there are two quite serious injuries. Surtees refuses to be hospitalized and in the morning of Monday will leave from Klegenfurt to London.
John Surtees himself, meanwhile, had to pay the handsome sum of 50,000 Austrian schillings to doktor Helmut Marko, a former Formula 1 driver, before he could set up his team's cars for the Grand Prix. The story goes back to 1971, when Marko asked to run the Austrian Grand Prix with a Surtees, but without using the car, which turned out to be in a bad shape. However, Surtees punctually requested the agreed price for the rental, that is 200,000 schillings, to which Marko opposed a decisive refusal. As a result, the case was taken to court and made its way to the Austrian Supreme Court. This has given reason to Marko, condemning Surtees to pay the legal costs incurred by the Austrian pilot, equal to 50,000 schillings. Now Marko had threatened to seize all of Surtees' cars and material, so he decided to pay all that was due. For the record, this was Marko's second victory against a British team, since some years earlier B.R.M. was the first victim.
On the first day of practice the best time was set by James Hunt in 1'35"02, more than eight tenths less than John Watson on Penske. The provisional second row is won by two Swedish drivers Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson.
"I won in Spain and Great Britain. I'm anxious in front of the others. I don't care about anything else, whether they give me points or take them away is not important to me. I won, the millimeters will be important for others. I don't know the regulations, and those who always bring them up should look at home first".
Hunt exclaims at the end of the qualifying, while Watson, who would be starting towards Ferrari, very honestly declares:
"Even last year there were rumors that I was a candidate for Ferrari, but I never knew anything about it. For next year I don't know, I think I will stay with Penske, no one has contacted me, and even less Ferrari. Then with the news that are coming, with Lauda asking to be in the race since the Italian Grand Prix and with Regazzoni, what would I do at Ferrari? Rather, I am happy to have fine tuned my car, we had tested it here in Zeltweg twenty days ago and this work had already favored us. We have a phenomenal setup and I am convinced that without the rain that prevented us from improving we could have closely challenged Hunt and his McLaren. However, even without the Ferrari star, it will be a race to be seen".
Saturday 14 August 1976, on the circuit of Zeltweg first it rains, then the sun comes out, but afterwards the sky gives space again to the rain. Crazy and boring weather for those on vacation, let alone for the Formula 1 Circus, which strives to find mathematical precision in the preparation of the cars and which in Zeltweg has to improvise under the sign of uncertainty.
And yet, last year Vittorio Brambilla got the winning number right in the Austrian Grand Prix, a Grand Prix that was supposed to feature a duel between James Hunt, then with Hesketh, and Niki Lauda, with Ferrari, and that instead turned into a whirlwind of twists and turns. All the conditions are in place for a repeat of that race, and here almost all the drivers are making an apology, thinking about the dangers of racing in the wet.
"Now people think I'm an ace under water, that I like to drive when it rains. Stories, you struggle and risk more. Last year, simply, everything went well for me, tomorrow maybe I turn in the first corner and good night. No, no, if I have to win, better in the dry".
Of course, the rain made this second day of practice, in which only one hour counted for qualifying times, almost useless. No one was able to improve their performance and the starting grid is drawn on the basis of what happened on Friday, so Hunt will start from the pole position with the McLaren and John Watson with the Penske, at his side and the duo Peterson-March and Nilsson-Lotus in the second row. Then, Lafitte and Pryce, Brambilla and Pace, Andretti and Scheckter. Jody Scheckter and teammate Patrick Depailler were the most disappointed.
"Our six-wheeled Tyrrell doesn't stay on the road, we needed work and instead, we ran in slow motion under the water. At the very least, rain tomorrow. If there is dry weather we won't even see Hunt and the McLaren".
It is a somewhat anachronistic starting grid, both for the position reached by Watson and for the difficulties in which Tyrrell finds itself, as well as for the lack of the Ferraris of Lauda and Regazzoni. Seeing it, one has the feeling that there is something wrong.
Needless to say that everyone is betting on the Hunt-McLaren combination: the Englishman, rain jokes permitting, should win easily. Lauda is in hospital and Regazzoni is on vacation, unfortunately. Meanwhile in Modena, Saturday, August 14, 1976 Enzo Ferrari sends a letter to the lawyer Carpi De Resmini, in response to the invitation exposed Wednesday, August 11, 1976 to resume the World Championship with the Italian Grand Prix:
"I have received your telegram of the current 11. I thank you for the comfort given to the Ferrari decision and I take note of your decisive attitude towards the FIA. The occasion allows me to specify that on July 31, on the eve of the Nurburgring, our sporting director Audetto, warned the Fiat president Mettermeli, the CSI president Ugeux, the deputy Von Hanstein, the secretary Leon, with the components Boeri and Ceard, that Ferrari would have abandoned the world championship if the appeal court had not reviewed the absurd sentence of the Spanish Grand Prix. Present at the statement were journalists Michele Fenu (La Stampa), Pietro Rizzo (Gazzetta dello Sport) and Johnny Rives (L'Equipe). It is clear that the decision taken by the CSI on this occasion did not take into account Ferrari's attitude. To your invitation to resume the World Championship from Monza, I must reply that as the suspension was decided in full agreement with the CEO, any eventual change will have to come from the board of directors. It is clear that the activity of the only real manufacturer currently directly involved in the world championship must be protected first of all by the respect of the sporting laws. The resumption cannot therefore represent a personal act of sporting dedication on my part, but the considered opportunity to defend the image of a car factory that belongs to the Fiat Group, as well as to the affection of Italian sportsmen. If then in the evolution of this modern racing world, barter, corruption and blackmail end up finding access, I believe that there will be no more place for me. Sincerely Enzo Ferrari".
Sunday, August 15, 1976, about half an hour before 14:00, rain starts to fall on the circuit. For this reason the race direction decides to postpone the start at 14:30. The first corner, the Hella-Licht, is still wet: John Watson takes advantage of this and takes the lead ahead of James Hunt, Ronnie Peterson, Gunnar Nilsson, Tom Pryce and Jacques Laffite. A few corners later Peterson also takes a position from Hunt.
During the second lap Jody Scheckter enters the points zone passing first Pace and then Pryce, who has already been passed by Laffite. Ahead, meanwhile, the duel for the first place is on fire, with Peterson able to pass Watson at the beginning of the third lap. Jochen Mass is gaining positions, so much so that he passes Pace, Andretti and Scheckter, taking the provisional sixth place.
The following lap Laffite is the protagonist of an excursion on the track, which makes him lose two positions in favor of Mass and Jody Scheckter. The South African then passes Mass again. After five laps, Peterson is in the lead, followed by Watson, Hunt, Nilsson, Scheckter, Mass, Laffite and Andretti.
The fight for the top positions is extremely close for several laps, with the first six drivers very close. Scheckter passes Nilsson, then Hunt and Watson, until, at the end of the tenth lap, he manages to pass Ronnie Peterson on the finish line. The two, however, already in the climb to the first curve, regain the first two positions. In the same lap Laffite takes a position from Jochen Mass.
At the twelfth lap, at the Texaco corner, Watson takes the lead passing the Swedish Lotus driver. Two laps later Scheckter suffers the breakage of the suspension of his car, always on the climb of the first curve. The car is destroyed against the guard-rail, but without consequences for the driver.
At the nineteenth lap Gunnar Nilsson takes the second place, after an overtake on his compatriot Ronnie Peterson. The fight between Nilsson, Peterson and Hunt lasts for several laps. During the twenty-sixth lap Jacques Laffite, taking advantage of a lapping, is able to pass Hunt.
Now the classification sees Watson in the lead, followed by Nilsson, Peterson, Laffite, Hunt and Mass. Mass, however, is penalized by a mixed set-up, which is not very competitive on a dry track. On lap 28 Mario Andretti passes Mass, entering the top six. At the thirty-third lap, after a good fight that lasted several laps, Laffite is able to pass Peterson, who is forced to give up a position also to Hunt in order not to end up off the track.
The leading positions remain the same until the forty-fifth lap, when Laffite passes Gunnar Nilsson. On the following lap Mario Andretti gains the fifth position to the detriment of Peterson, in crisis with the brakes. The 47th lap is characterized by an accident between Vittorio Brambilla and Emerson Fittipaldi, fighting for the eleventh place. The two cars end up off the track, but the two drivers remain unharmed.
John Watson wins his first Grand Prix, which is also the first and only one for Penske in Formula 1, exactly one year later, and on the same track where his driver Mark Donohue died. For the first time since the Eagle's first place at the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, an American car won a Formula 1 Grand Prix valid for the world championship. The podium was completed by Jacques Laffite and Gunnar Nilsson.
Confused and happy with the result, John Watson gets the champagne wrong, slips three Goodyear caps on top of each other, waves flowers in front of his face so photographers insult him, and finally, after disappearing into the truck, returns without a beard:
"I promised myself. The day I win a Grand Prix, I cut it off. Now it has come, and everyone here has reminded me of this bet because here I am in the winner's edition. On the race I have to say that I am very satisfied. I wasn't sure I could win, after the tests, but I still knew I had a chance to have a good race also because in last week's tests I had managed to set the car up really well. In the first laps I let Peterson and Scheckter go because they seemed a bit crazy to keep that pace in the wet. Then, when it dried a bit, I tried to push hard and I realized that I had a chance to win. In fact, once I took the lead, everything went smoothly. I only feared Hunt's comeback in the final part of the race, as I knew he had a car as good as mine, but Hunt evidently understood that if he wants to stay calm from tomorrow, since we are spending a week's vacation together, he shouldn't do something like that. How? To give him the pleasure I should give him the nine points for the world championship? No, friends yes, but not to this extent. And then what would Niki say?"
Roger Penske is approached by several people, who flock to congratulate him on his first Formula 1 victory as a manufacturer:
"Finally, it was great for me, for the mechanics, for the sponsors, for Mark himself. John is a great guy, the work he has done for this car cannot be told. Of course, if someone had told me a year ago that here in Zeltweg I would have won my first Formula 1 Grand Prix, I would not have believed it. I wouldn't have believed it two years ago either, when we decided to commit ourselves fully to European racing, also because it took us four years to win at Indianapolis".
"However, I must say that if we took this satisfaction away after only two years, it was also because here in Austria there was no Ferrari. This year, with the Commendatore's cars on the track, I don't know if things could have gone as well for us and for everyone else. In any case, it is useless to think about it. When you win you are always happy. Now for John and for us there are very good chances to do well in the future. In fact the boy has already signed last year a three-year contract with us and First National has guaranteed us the money for next year, so it is conceivable that this first victory will be followed by many others".
In the meantime Nilsson is chased by the Lotus mechanics, who ask him why he did not bring the car to the parc fermé. In fact, the Swedish driver crossed the finish line but on the next lap he walked in front of the pits:
"My engine broke after the finish line, I had been fighting with the oil pressure for several laps, luckily I was able to pull very carefully to the end. It's a pity that the asphalt dried out, otherwise I could have won. I had an exceptional car".
At the end of the Austrian Grand Prix, Niki Lauda is still leading the Formula 1 World Championship. James Hunt has taken only three points from him, finishing fourth. Jody Scheckter, another candidate for the title after the accident that removed Lauda from contention for the time being, ended up off the track, like many other drivers, fortunately without consequences.
It should have been Hunt's race, launched in pursuit of Lauda, but instead it was Watson and Penske's race. For the bearded Irish driver and the American team sponsored by a major bank, this is the first victory in a Grand Prix.
An important victory, because we are at the end of the season and it's time to renew contracts. Watson had to work hard in the initial phase of the race to break the resistance of Ronnie Peterson and Scheckter, while Hunt, Nilsson and Laffite proceeded behind them.
Laffite, author of a beautiful race, had to make two comebacks, having lost positions after colliding once with Scheckter and once with Hunt.
"This morning I was angry, and when I feel like that I have a good race. In fact I didn't deny myself. Now I'm happy not only for me but also for the Ligier guys. With these points we earned our ticket to Canada, the United States and Japan on the Formula 1 Association plane. If I hadn't lost time at the beginning, maybe I could have even attacked Watson. Unfortunately, after I managed to get out of the fray in the wet, Scheckter spun in front of me. I don't know how I managed to pass without touching the side of the Tyrrell and anyway besides the mud in my face this also made me lose contact with the first ones. I didn't have much trouble passing Hunt and Nilsson, but fortunately not as much in the corners and under braking, so after a while I managed to pass them".
The lap counter gives the measure of this fight: Watson in the lead in the first two laps, then Peterson from the third to the ninth, then Scheckter for a pass, Peterson again in the next one, finally Watson in the lead from lap 12 onwards. Twelve laps of battle, of breathtaking braking, of wheel-to-wheel duels on a track still wet from the rain that fell until a few moments before the start, delayed for this reason by almost half an hour with the usual work of the mechanics around the wet and dry tires.
Watson was favored by the gradual decline of Peterson's March, which had to decrease its pace due to brake and road holding problems, and by Scheckter's exit from the track. The South African driver flew out at the Hella-Licht corner, at the end of the grandstands and pits straight, due to the sudden failure of the front right suspension.
"I could have been killed."
He muttered later to his patron, Ken Tyrrell. Also Patrick Depailler, with the other Tyrrell, ended up in the protection nets that fence the circuit, and for the same reason. A serious fact, which certainly does not help in favour of the reliability of this much celebrated British single-seater.
But Watson has also taken advantage of the colorless test of Hunt and the McLaren. The Englishman remained out of the heat of the battle, limiting himself to controlling the situation, and at one point he even found himself in fifth position. It seemed that his McLaren was missing something. And on this something, a series of hypotheses began, some of which were not very nice for the blond son of Albion (James likes to say that he runs for England) and his team manager, Teddy Mayer (in reality it will be discovered that probably a stone hit the front left wing from below, altering its incidence). There is talk of special fuels, and therefore of an offence, but Hunt explains his modest performance in somewhat confused terms:
"Watson got off to a great start, but I found myself in the midst of drivers who drove in a strange way. That Laffite, for example... Then, there were some tire problems. The car was too oversteery. I was satisfied, getting three points was enough for me".
Ferrari was absent, the few Italian fans hoped for Brabham-Alfa Romeo, for Brambilla, for Merzario, and asked Pesenti Rossi and Lombardi for some miracle. The disappointment was complete: Pesenti Rossi was eleventh, Lombardi twelfth and last at four laps from Watson. Merzario went off the track in the early stages and damaged his Williams.
While, at the end of the Grand Prix, the clash continued between Vittorio Brambilla and the brothers Emerson and Wilson Fittipaldi. Brambilla, during the second passage, had run into the Texaco chicane and Depailler, passing, had removed the nose of the March. The Italian driver, late in the race, had continued and then stopped at the box after about twenty laps in order to have another nose mounted. After starting eighteenth, Brambilla was able to progressively recover, thanks to his own merit and to others' withdrawals, up to twelfth place.
In the meantime Emerson Fittipaldi navigates with the modest Copersucar in eleventh position, until the two drivers collide during the forty-third passage, near the entrance of the Bosch curve; a 240 km/h point. Brambilla crashes into Fittipaldi, so that the March and the Copersucar turn around: the first one stays on the track, the second one ends up in the safety net.
"We shouldn't have been allowed to start in those track conditions, but everything happens here, even if nobody intervenes to suspend Brambilla's license. The Italian is really crazy. I was going very slowly, so in one esse, when I saw him arriving with the same enthusiasm as Watson, who had to win the Grand Prix, I went to the right side and raised my hand to signal him to pass, but I didn't even have time to put my hand back in that Vittorio hit me full on, slamming me against the guardrail. He hit me from behind, as if he hadn't even seen me, and to say that I had let many others pass before him. I'm sorry, but in Formula 1 certain things should not happen between professionals".
But Vittorio Brambilla defends himself, saying:
"I also apologized to Fittipaldi. Ok, he has been World Champion, but on the track these things happen, also because I hit him but, to be honest, first he made me the sign to pass, then he closed me. In any case, for me it was bad right from the first lap, when I spun and Depailler passed me and took the nose off".
A few minutes after Vittorio and Emerson had returned to their pits, Wilson Fittipaldi, six feet tall and with the physique of a maciste, swooped down like a fury among the March men and shouted:
"Vittorio, you're crazy, you don't have the brains to drive a Formula 1 car. You leave the track at every race and this time you almost killed Emerson. Be careful, because I'll kill you".
And down came other insults and threats, with Brambilla dazed by this crazy giant, who lost control of his nerves. Afterwards, Brambilla and Emerson Fittipaldi talk at length in the Copersucar truck. The Brazilian is visibly shaken and worried about the damage done to his car.
Mario Andretti also complains about Brambilla's impetuous driving, and in a report by the stewards it is claimed that the Italian driver had lost control of the March while braking, thus hitting the Copersucar.
And the Brabhams with Alfa Romeo engines? It couldn't have been worse, with engineer Carlo Chiti following the tests of his twelve-cylinder engines with almost paternal love, biting his nails in the shadow of the pit. Carlos Reutemann was betrayed by the clutch on the starting line and covered only three hundred meters, Carlos Pace, after a rather slow start, flew off the road at 290 km/h due to a brake failure.
"When I realized that I couldn't brake and that I was a hundred meters from a curve, I put the car sideways to slow it down a bit and not end up pointing into the nets, then I closed my eyes. Now I have a few more white hairs".
In the hours following the Grand Prix in Formula 1, as mentioned, there is talk again of doping gasoline, of special fuels used by some teams, in particular by McLaren. On Monday morning, an Austrian newspaper writes:
"Niki Lauda was beaten by jet drivers?"
Making a bit of a fuss, the paper in question swaps out the fuel used in jets, which is plain petroleum, for special methanol-based blends, but the argument doesn't change. Certainly, it would not be the first time in Formula 1 that a possible doping of gasoline is mentioned, with the purpose of significantly increasing (from seven to fifteen percent) the power of an engine. They talked about it in 1969 in relation to an extraordinary performance of Beltoise and Matra in Clermont Ferrand, in 1970 for some inexplicable exploits of Lotus, in 1971 about the successes of the couple Stewart-Tyrrell, and in this regard were taken after the Grand Prix of France fuel samples to the Tyrrell of Stewart and Cevert, to the Lotus of Fittipaldi, to the B.R.M. of Siffert and to the Matra of Amon, but the tests were negative.
McLaren is accused of putting in the tanks not so much some phantom additive, as a certain percentage (from ten to twenty percent) of methyl alcohol or a mixture of alcohol or even isooctane, a hydrocarbon with very high resistance to detonation, so as to bring the octane number of the fuel to one hundred and ten or more. The benefit would be substantial, and Teddy Mayer's reaction to such accusations is predictable:
"It's not true, it's just obviously not true. I'm upset, because this is simply malicious rumors being put out there by people who are trying to create agitation. It is not technically possible, you would have to convert the engine to a large extent, the fuel cells would break down, anyone with experience and knowledge of the trade would find that out. Those people are just trying to find an explanation for why McLaren's cars perform so well".
It seems that Mayer's explanation is slightly convoluted, in that it reads as if he is referring to the use of pure alcohol fuel, whereas it appears that the actual claims are simply about an additive of nitro-methane alcohol. However, in addition to sounding somewhat absurd, this accusation, which sparks a heated defense, has the independent support of another team director:
"I simply cannot align myself with these ridiculous rumors, if only because McLaren receives its fuel from Texaco, an important international company, which cannot afford to be involved in such matters. Rumors like this are always invented when someone has a series of victories, while before it was not going too well. From a technical point of view, if McLaren had started to put methanol in the gasoline, they would have had to make a lot of changes, the pumps, etc.. You have to put a lot of methanol in it for it to be useful and therefore you would have to increase the fuel load a lot, and the maximum tank capacity of any Cosworth-engined car that I know of is only two hundred liters for a race like the German Grand Prix only takes about 175 liters. No, I guess these are just rumors born from envy, even if it were technically possible - in my opinion it is not, too many complications - it would be too easy to find out".
Of course, Texaco remains firm on the point that the fuel was in compliance with the regulations. Beyond that, it must be noted that McLaren is far from being the most popular team in racing, so no one would ever let an opportunity like this pass them by without protesting loudly. So it would be rather unlikely that McLaren would take such a risk, at least not to the extent of using non-normal fuel in such quantities that could create a real difference in the performance of their cars.
However, there is a suspicion in the minds of some people, and it will remain there until the true facts behind these claims are known. If indeed evidence, facts, do come to light, this will naturally lead to the biggest furor of the season. But until the facts are made public, most people will simply have suspicions that this is just another baseless story of this strange season.
Perhaps, born also as a result of a statement made by McLaren's sporting director, Alistair Caldwell, to the British magazine Motor, in which - before the Austrian Grand Prix - he had said:
"Not only was the McLaren, and by a negligible amount, irregular at the Spanish Grand Prix, at Jarama, but the Ferraris were also irregular, and even dangerous. In fact, the fuel pressure gauge was installed with a line going into the cockpit, which is forbidden by the regulations. When the hose on Regazzoni's car broke during the race, Clay was hit by the spray of gasoline".
In reality, at Jarama, Regazzoni was hit by a spray of gasoline not because the hose broke, but because the pressure gauge itself broke, located in the dashboard in front of the driver. To be more precise, the control coil of the indicator needle broke. In addition, the pipe was covered with fireproof plastic as prescribed by Article 253 of Annex J for pipes that run outside the body or in the cockpit.
It seems strange, moreover, in this unpleasant bickering of accusations and counter-accusations, that the McLaren technicians do not now remember to accuse Ferrari of not having the bodywork built according to the rules, something that had very briefly come up during the pre-race technical verification at the French Grand Prix at Castellet. On that occasion, there were those who accused the 312 T2 of lacking the non-deformable structure in the central part of the sides. Now it is the turn of the Hunt-McLaren duo, indeed there are those who explain the modest test of the Englishman with the fact that in the race he could not use the usual very special fuel.
"I don't know what happened, I had the impression that the nose wasn't fixed properly, both because I could see it moving and because the behaviour of the car changed at every corner. Anyway, I got three points and even though the championship is not closed yet, I am not worried. With Holland I'll close it now".
This attitude was probably the result of a phone call from Italy to the organizers the week before the Grand Prix, in which an Italian would have urged the organizers to cancel the event, leveraging national pride and the fact that Lauda was not present. Obviously, James Hunt and the McLaren team, present on the circuit to carry out tests, are informed of this phone call.
Meanwhile, however, there are those who insinuate that McLaren would not have used this expedient because Mayer would have been frightened by the rumors circulating in the pits and because at the end of Friday's tests the organizers would have warned McLaren not to use particular gasoline, given that the Formula 1 regulations require that the single-seaters use fuel available on the market. No one makes official statements, but the subject is often discussed in face-to-face conversations. For example, during the weekend, engineer Carlo Chiti asked Bernie Ecclestone, owner of Brabham-Alfa Romeo, about the matter:
"Bernie, but would anyone really use special gasoline?"
And Ecclestone would answer:
"Sure. Look at Hunt going slow today. Watson, on the other hand, is going very fast, don't you think?"
So Carlo Chiti would retort:
"Then there's no point in racing".
But Ecclestone would close, saying:
"Many things will have to be changed for next year".
And the CSI and the FIA? As always, they are conspicuous by their absence. These rumors are unpleasant, it would be a case of clarifying certain situations, and it could be done in a very simple way: checking the cars. It would be possible to take petrol samples on the starting line, before the start, or to oblige everyone (a proposal launched by Enzo Ferrari during the 1971 controversy) to fill up at the same pump.
But at Zeltweg the technical commissioners check the first six cars, limiting themselves to examining dimensions and weights (as was done, for example, in Spain). No fuel checks, also because - while the authoritative members of the various commissions eat cookies and drink champagne under the furious eye of two Italian representatives, who try in vain to stimulate their colleagues - there is a lack of equipment for the operation.
What is certain is that the Formula 1 Circus must regard Ferrari with great respect: in Zeltweg, the Austrian Grand Prix took place in front of 50,000 spectators, while in previous years there had been an average of 130,000:
"For the first time, our race ended in a loss."
Admits Fritz Trailer, responsible for the organization of the Grand Prix, which costs the organizers about 900,000,000 lire. It is calculated that in the green valley where the racetrack is hosted, there were 5,000 Italians against 30,000 in 1975. The enthusiasm of past years was missing, the joy of Lauda and Clay Regazzoni's fans was only a memory.
The show was cold, and this on an important day for the Formula 1 Circus: for the first time a show was broadcast live in Eastern Europe. USSR, Hungary, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia were connected with Zeltweg. But there was not the only name known even in countries that have never hosted a Grand Prix and where the spread of the automobile is still in its infancy.
"The drop in spectators has exceeded our most pessimistic predictions. I believe that sixty percent did not come because of Ferrari's absence and the rest because of Niki Lauda's".
And it is no coincidence that on Monday, August 16, 1976, the Viennese newspaper Kurier opens its reports on the Grand Prix with a big headline:
"Zeltweg empty without Lauda".
Perhaps not even Enzo Ferrari fully understood the value of his name, the strength that came from fifty years of activity in the world of racing, from a prestige grown and nourished by successes, from the continuity of his action, from the fact that he really did produce cars. A name that ends up ennobling even those who are not noble, and who can find refuge in that association of Formula 1 manufacturers of which Ferrari is also a member.
Ferrari can continue with serene firmness in its action of breaking certain patterns that have gradually transformed and corroded the world of Formula 1: on one hand, a sporting authority that, due to incapacity, no longer knows how to administer power, allowing improvisation to become the law; on the other hand, the organizers of the Grand Prix, who buy the show sight unseen and care nothing about what the actors do; on the other hand, again, the manufacturers, united with sponsors who are not linked to the car and for whom - except for rare exceptions - only a victory that directly or indirectly advertises that product counts.
Now Ferrari's withdrawal can provoke a series of chain reactions, because if this absence determines a drop in public interest, and therefore affects the business of Formula 1, it is very likely that many people will become agitated. And this regardless of the reasons stated by Enzo Ferrari in his communiqués, which are not meant to be understood only by those who have no interest in them. It is now clear that Formula 1, as it is structured today, can no longer go on. The Grand Prix are losing credibility, while shadows and suspicions are gathering on many characters.
As the weekend drew to a close, local newspapers indicated that once again the Austrian Grand Prix had become the Grand Prix of beer: although reduced compared to past years, spectators kept the police busy full time. In the night between Saturday and Sunday, two pitched battles took place inside as many beer tents. According to officers, in one case it all started at the hands of a Swiss group. Police dogs were needed to clear out.
The Portuguese were also present, but the search effort paid off and several fines were issued to spectators caught without a ticket. The police were particularly appreciative of the ban on selling bottled beer, which left the troublemakers without ammunition. According to the authorities, all those arrested are between eighteen and twenty-five years old. On Saturday night, the theft of two pigs from a local farmer caused quite a stir. The commissioner on duty confesses, with sarcastic realism:
"We are already scouring the territory in search of the bones".
After the Grand Prix, on Monday, August 16, 1976, Niki Lauda returns to his home in Hof, near Salzburg. The Austrian driver leaves during the morning the Ludwigshafen clinic, where he had been hospitalized after the serious accident occurred two weeks before on the Nurburgring circuit. Accompanied by his wife Marlene, Lauda leaves the German city to reach Salzburg on board his private plane.
"I am satisfied with my stay in Ludwigshafen: I will have to return to the clinic for a check-up next week, but not to undergo another operation."
The first two face transplants were successful.
"The idea to anticipate going home came to me Sunday night after the race. Now I have to live in absolute quiet and stay under treatment. If I can sleep, if I'm not disturbed, if no one looks for me, everything will be fine. For now I have to stay in bed."
Says Lauda, who then exclaims about the Austrian Grand Prix:
"Some friends phoned me up to the time Pace retired, but I don't think anything else happened after that. I am happy because it is not bad with Hunt taking only three points. Of course it's not like it changes for the better, but seen from my side it's better this way."
Niki doesn't want to make predictions about Hunt's chances to close the gap that divides him in the world ranking.
"At Zeltweg Hunt was my favorite before the race. Now it would be premature to make predictions. We have to see what will happen in the next races."
Does this make Niki want to come back?
"Sure, I've already said that as soon as I can I'll be back racing. The accident certainly hasn't changed the way I think about sports and racing. My line is still the same as before."
So will he be on track in Canada?
"It's a hard decision to make because it's not a matter of setting a date. If I was okay I would already race in Holland, of course if Ferrari would give me the car. Instead, the problem is to arrive at the track completely in good shape and ready to give my best again. When I'll feel safe at one hundred percent of my physical possibilities, then I'll go back to racing. I repeat, it could be in Monza, like in Canada, like next year, but it's silly to anticipate it because even I don't know exactly".
Then Niki adds:
"I had my first facial surgery on Friday. It hurt a little bit at the beginning, but now I'm fine. At first it looked like I would have to stay here three weeks, but today the doctors told me that since things are going so well, in ten days I can go back to my home. By the way, I want to let people know that the plastic surgeries will only be on my face. In fact, someone said that my hands are burnt too, but it's not true, my hands are fine. I'll talk to Maranello again tomorrow. However, in the past week I have often heard from Audetto and Ghedini, so I know everything about what the commendatore has done. I still don't know everything in detail, however as a personal opinion I can only say that for me it was a good thing and I would have done the same in the Ferrari's shoes".
The duel continues: a strange duel between two drivers, one of which is fighting to get back behind the wheel of his single-seater soon and the other is taking to the track to win and to decrease the disadvantage that separates him from his rival in the World Championship standings.
Lauda is winning the challenge with himself: the recovery of the World Champion is prodigious. The Austrian driver is not yet well, as he has to stay in bed and will have to face other operations on his face, but by now he has overcome the worst. And now he is already thinking about racing, about the possibility of being able to drive his Ferrari again. The reigning World Champion has the intention of starting again, and in fact nothing forbids it; if there is a doubt, it is psychological, certainly not physical.
But knowing Niki, his iron character, his will, we are convinced that he will succeed in his undertaking, maybe soon, maybe in October, when the last three Grand Prix of the championship will be held.