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#275 1976 Austrian Grand Prix

2021-04-11 00:00

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#1976, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Monica Bessi,

#275 1976 Austrian Grand Prix

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 sta

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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 is 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battle for life, Ferrari accused of imaginary faults by those who had an interest in covering up the shortcomings of an outdated circuit.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 organisers, 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 metres (the length went down to 5.910 metres), adding a guard-rail on the outside and backing up the inside guard-rail by a few metres; 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 metres. Hunt, therefore, is the favourite, 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 saviour 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".

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James Hunt is also sorry not to find the men from Maranello on his way. His speech is not hypocritical. Hunt is a guy used to straight talk:

 

"It's clear that the absence of Niki and Ferrari plays in my favour 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 Grand 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 flavour. 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 is hard to understand how the organisers can claim that there are 17.000 spectators. Fritz Trailer, organiser 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 kilometres of road to find a bed. One can understand how the organisers did everything they could to convince Ferrari to participate in the Austrian Grand Prix. 

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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 that they will be back 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 career in Formula 2. Besides Binder and Harald Ertl, one of Niki Lauda's saviours 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 organised 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 driver there are two quite serious injuries. Surtees refuses to be hospitalised and in the morning of Monday will leave from Klegenfurt to London. John Surtees himself, meanwhile, had to pay the tidy 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 was 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.

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This has given reason to Marko, condemning Surtees to pay the legal costs incurred by the Austrian driver, 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. While practice gets underway, Lotus mechanics are finishing off Andretti’s car, 77/R3, so the USAC driver is using 77/R1, and Tyrrell mechanics are putting the finishing touches to the brand-new six-wheeler P34/4, Scheckter and Depailler using their regular mounts. Although conditions are dry they are far from being settled and the grey skies are reflected in a strange grey atmosphere in the pits as everyone accepts that the Scuderia Ferrari really is not there, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone to beat. Those who have already been doing some pre-race testing are soon into the swing of things, though the overall pace is not as fast as it should be. There is a distinct air of lethargy about the place. In spite of this things still manage to go wrong, for the engine in Nilsson’s Lotus breaks, Brambilla has a mild excursion off the road, and John Surtees feels that the air is not going the right way into the ducts on the new fronts on his cars and adds some guide vanes. To appease some German rumblings behind Jochen Mass that McLaren’s are giving him a duff car, he is allowed out in Hunt’s spare car, but it doesn’t make much difference. Not surprisingly Hunt records the fastest lap of the morning at 1'35"02, with John Watson next with 1'35"84, no-one else being within sight of them. 

 

The Alfa Romeo are not coming up to expectations, the Tyrrells have not got into the six-wheeled groove, and the Marches have not sorted themselves out, though Peterson is third fastest overall. While everyone ruminates on the situation during the lunch break the rain starts and that is the end of the day as far as fast laps are concerned. The one-hour practice period in the afternoon shows a reluctance for anyone to do anything, even though it is obviously never going to get dry and the low grey clouds look as if they have come to the Zeltweg plain for good. Eventually Pace starts the ball rolling, going out in the Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT45/4 with the carbon-fibre brakes, the car fitted with Goodyear wet weather tyres. The rain has more or less stopped but the track is still very wet and Pace is not creeping round reconnoitring, he is finding out just how fast he can go in the wet. As he goes past the pits faster than some people go in the dry, one gets the feeling that he is serious, and Brambilla soon joins him, followed by Depailler, the mini front tyres of the Tyrrell throwing up double the spray from their wet-weather treads. Kessel goes out, having missed the morning practice while his car was being re-adjusted for him, and Andretti is out in the newer Lotus, while Nilsson takes the spare Lotus while his own is having an engine change. A few more joins in, some only doing single exploratory laps, which is why they do not have a lap time recorded, but the whole day ends on a very low key and a wet one at that.

 

"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 millimetres 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 rumours 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 is 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 favoured 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".

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On 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 is 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 are 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".

 

On Sunday morning, August 15, 1976, the skies are blue and the sun is shining but it is too late to encourage a large crowd, but even so the 60-70.000 is big by British standards even if it is only half of what has been budgeted for a month ago.

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From 10:40 a.m. to 11:00 a.m, there is a final test session and with a dry track and bright sunshine the whole Austrian GP suddenly comes alive. The animation, excitement, vigour and enthusiasm in that twenty minutes is more than in the previous two days in total. A whole list of drivers and teams become aware that there is a race to be won. There is no Lauda and Ferrari on the front row, only Hunt and the McLaren. He is beatable surely, and alongside him is Watson with the Penske and everyone knows that that does not represent serious opposition, though the quiet bearded Ulsterman thinks differently. It is his big chance and he is not going to throw it away, nor are Roger Penske and his men, and the car gleams and sparks as never before, with everything checked and re-checked and set to perfection. Previously the best has been good enough, now it is only just good enough, it all has to be better than the best. Drivers like Peterson, Andretti, Nilsson, Pace, Stuck, Scheckter, Depailler, Laffite and Brambilla are all getting really charged-up in the warm sunshine and this is going to be one hell of a race or they would want to know the reason why. By mid-day there are some grey clouds appearing behind the mountainous back-drop to the Zeltweg plain, and valuable sunny weather is being wasted on a race for Alfa-Spud saloons, circus acts, comedy acts, flying displays and other irrelevancies for the Austrian Grand Prix is not due to start until 2:00 p.m. At 1:00 p.m. the Grand Prix cars and drivers slink out of the paddock in a typically furtive fashion completely devoid of any pride or showmanship and the air has become ominously cool. By 1:30 p.m. the first rain spots begin to fall and all those involved in making decisions do not make any. By 2:00 p.m. there is still a spattering of rain but not enough to really dampen the track and it is announced that the race will start in ten minutes if the rain spots do not develop. The race does not start at the end of the ten minutes, even though everyone is in position on the dummy-grid. The start line is a valley of indecision as specialists from this faction and that faction natter away, and various people go round the circuit in one of the official Porsches to see how wet or dry it is. All the cars are on dry-weather tyres and the classic announcement is made that the track is too wet for dry tyres and not wet enough for wet tyres. A facetious voice is heard to mutter, why don’t they run on the rims and get on with it. Someone else looks to the west and murmurs that at Le Mans they start the 24-hour race at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, rain or shine or storm or tempest. At least you know where you stand. 

 

The sad thing about all this is that the charge put into everyone during the morning sunshine is beginning to run down. At 2:25 p.m. a decision is made, the race is classified dry which means it can be stopped if heavy rain develops, visible spray from the tyres determining the state of wetness. The 5-minute signal is given, everyone gets ready and at 30 seconds the whole field moves forward and inhibitions are cast aside. The GPDA union official seems to be interfering with the man with the Austrian flag, but nonetheless the start is given and 25 clutches are engaged in a glorious surge of power. Wheel-to-wheel, hub-to-hub, eyeball-to-eyeball, Hunt and Watson lead the pack away on a superb start. The McLaren and the Penske are absolutely evenly matched as they go up the hill, neither driver flinching or giving an inch. Into the fast right-hander they go locked together, Watson determined not to give in and Hunt certain that the Ulsterman would. They are much too engrossed to worry about the screaming mob behind, and an unruly mob it is, led by Peterson. That first corner is John Watson’s moment of truth and he grasps it with both hands and comes out in front. Peterson goes through and as the cars appear in silhouette on the top straight the order is Penske, March, McLaren, Lotus. That first half lap is so enthralling that everyone forgets that rain spots are still falling, enough to dampen the track but not make it wet. The way they all come out of the last bend and hurtle down between the pits and the grandstands you might be thinking the sun is shining. The order is Watson (Penske), Peterson (March), Hunt (McLaren), Nilsson (Lotus), Laffite (Ligier), Pryce (Shadow), Pace (Brabham), Scheckter (Tyrrell), Andretti (Lotus) all going like hell and proving that you can drive on a damp track on slick tyres. Twenty-four cars go by, for Reutemann has subsided on the hill after the start with a useless clutch. On the second lap Brambilla gets all crossed up and wipes off his complete nose cowling, continuing at unabated pace as if he hasn’t noticed it has gone. Scheckter storms through into sixth place and there is a lot of motor racing going on, not the usual GPDA-inspired procession. At the end of lap 3, Watson and Peterson are side-by-side as they cross the line, it is just like racing used to be at Monza before Stewart and Fittipaldi ruined the circuit with chicanes. 

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Watson refuses to give in to the Swede that time, but on lap 5 Peterson does it and takes the lead, but it is a precarious one and Scheckter is really under way, passing Nilsson on lap 6 and Hunt and Watson on lap 7. The rain spots are finally gone and a kerfuffle at the race control among the shop-stewards has subsided so all is well. Someone has seen spray off the tyres on a television screen and there have been panic measures to stop the race, but common sense or lurk has prevailed and the workers are left to get on with the very fine job they are doing. At 10 laps Scheckter gets the six-wheeled Tyrrell into the lead and a wild, struggling mob consisting of the Tyrrell, the March, the Penske, Nilsson’s Lotus, Hunt’s McLaren and Laffite’s Ligier engulfed Jarier’s Shadow on all sides as they lap him. They have already lapped Lombardi’s Brabham. The outcome of the next exciting lap is that Peterson is back in the lead, Scheckter is down to fourth place, Watson is second and Nilsson third, and on the next lap Watson and Peterson change places. Have they all gone mad? is the query from one who thinks that Formula One is organised entertainment. No, comes the reply, the GPDA is dead and they’ve all realised that Grand Prix racing is fun. Everyone watching is certainly enjoying it, though the man from the First National City Bank Travellers Cheques is bemoaning his luck. For the first time none of the hierarchy or guests from the sponsors are at the race, and there is the Citibank-sponsored Penske in first place and the Citibank-sponsored March in second place, and Roger Penske and Max Mosley are eyeing each other. Twelve laps have gone before it is possible to take stock of the situation. Watson (Penske) leads from Peterson (March), hotly pursued by Nilsson (Lotus), Scheckter (Tyrrell), Hunt (McLaren), Laffite (Ligier) and Mass (McLaren). In the opening scramble Andretti (Lotus) has been left behind, but is now making up ground, with Stuck (March) and Pace (Brabham) having to watch him disappear into the distance. Depailler (Tyrrell) is next, having failed to get into the opening lap fighting, and Pryce (Shadow) has been elbowed down to his normal position in a race. Brambilla is still charging along without a nose cowling, and impossible handling if the aerodynamic specialists are to be believed, while Hunt is unable to challenge the leaders because something has moved the left-hand fin on the nose a degree or two and this has upset the handling of the car - if the aerodynamic specialists are to be believed. 

 

Bearded Harald Ertl is leading all the lesser lights, but Binder is doing a good job in the hired Ensign, sitting just behind the white Hesketh. Jones, Merzario and Fittipaldi follow, the rest already being lapped. These comprise Pescarolo, Lunger, Rossi, Jarier, Lombardi and Kessel. The last-named has actually stopped just beyond the pits and is fixing a loose fuel union. As Pryce drives his Shadow into the pits with the brakes not feeling nice on lap fifteen, the sun comes out and conditions look to be set fair. Watson is opening up a gap on Peterson for the March brakes have suffered in that opening bout, but the Swede is still a strong second. Going round the flat-out right-hand bend at the top of the hill after the pits, the suspension holding up the middle wheel on the right side of Scheckter’s Tyrrell breaks and the car veers across the track into the barrier and bounces back across to the other side. As it goes off it throws up a great wall of mud and water and Hunt and Laffite are covered in it as they narrowly miss the wayward Tyrrell. Scheckter steps out somewhat shaken. This causes the McLaren and the Ligier to lose all contact with the leaders, but they still retain fourth and fifth places, respectively. Spurred on by the sight of Sweden’s number one driver ahead of him Gunnar Nilsson keeps at it and on lap 19 he gets by into second place, but by now Watson has pulled out a five-second gap and is beginning to run at his own pace, the Penske running perfectly and all systems are in 100 per cent order. Hunt and Laffite now have their sights on Peterson, while behind them Andretti has his sights on Mass. Still on the same lap as Watson are Pace, Stuck and Depailler, but the Tyrrell driver is not there for long as he also has a front suspension failure and subsides off the track less dramatically than Scheckter has. While lapping the slower cars Laffite takes advantage of the traffic and gets past Hunt and sets out to catch Peterson. It is more a case of the March falling back into the clutches of the Ligier, which it does on lap 28, to be passed on lap 29, but Peterson refuses to accept defeat and gets back in front again on lap 30. The March, the Ligier and the McLaren are in a very tight bunch, and from being at the head of it on lap 30 Peterson finds himself at the back of it on lap 31. Almost unnoticed, except by those close at hand, Alan Jones goes off the road and hits a safety net pole sideways, wrecking the monocoque of the Surtees and down among the lesser men Fittipaldi is overtaken by Lunger and is soon to be lapped for the second time by Watson. 

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On lap 36, clouds obscure the sun but it is quite harmless and there is nothing to stop Watson’s dominating drive and he has more than twelve seconds lead over Nilsson. The young Swede is rather worried because the oil pressure of his Cosworth engine is down to 60 p.s.i. from its more normal 80-85 p.s.i. and it is still falling. Laffite is right behind him and is screwing the Matra V12 engine up harder and harder, ready to get past the Lotus. Starting the forty-third lap the Ligier is side-by-side with the Lotus, but Nilsson sits it out with the Frenchman and a chastened Laffite realises he has to try another tactic to dislodge the Swede from second place. Two laps later he is ready for another attack, this time out on the back of the circuit, and this time it succeeds. With nine laps to go and the oil pressure down to 40 p.s.i. Nilsson settles for third place with his fingers crossed. Hunt is in fourth place, nursing his in-built excuse for not winning, and Andretti has displaced poor Peterson from fifth place. Brambilla has been persuaded to stop and has a new nose cowling fitted, but he now gets tangled up with Fittipaldi and the two of them end up off the road without injury but with bent motor cars. With only five laps left to run the unfortunate Hans Binder finds the Ensign dying on him with no connection between the accelerator pedal and the engine, as a split pin has fallen out and the clevis pin at the end of the cable has dropped out of its fork. He cannot get back to the pits and has no way of effecting a repair. Others have fallen by the wayside, some notices and some not; some heavily and some lightly. 

 

The carbon-fibre brakes on Pace’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo have boiled the fluid and the Brazilian has gone off the track at high speed, writing off the monocoque, but escaping injury. Stuck’s March has succumbed quietly with no fuel pressure and Jarier’s Shadow has gone out with a defective fuel pump. With one lap to go Lunger’s Surtees suddenly loses all its brake pressure and the American slides off the track and out of the race, but is considered a finisher. Looking extremely confident and completely cool and relaxed John Watson chalks up his first Grand Prix win and the first for the Penske team, the car looking as immaculate at the finish as it has done at the start. Almost at the end of his slowing-down lap Nilsson has his engine go bang, and he thumbs a lift on the side of the McLaren of Jochen Mass, to arrive to take a joyous third place on the victors’ rostrum alongside Watson and Laffite. 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 realised 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".

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He continues:

 

"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 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 is 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 favoured 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".

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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 colourless 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 licence. 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 apologised 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 a 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 colossus, 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".


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