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#277 1976 Italian Grand Prix

2021-04-09 00:00

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#277 1976 Italian Grand Prix

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Regarding Reutemann's passage to Ferrari, Regazzoni admits:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Regarding the Monza track, the Argentine admits:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

When do you think Lauda will return?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The doctors treating Lauda are satisfied with his condition. After 1,200 meters of racing his pulse rises to 160, but after three minutes it returns below 100. However, another Viennese newspaper, the socialist organ Arbeiter-Zeitung, warns the champion not to tempt fate at Monza, writing:

 

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

 

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

 

"Maybe I will come back in Canada".

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then, the real start will take place. All this to avoid that some drivers may find themselves with the car moving - with obvious advantages - at the start. Impressive security services: on the route will be deployed one hundred men, with nineteen fire trucks, and also every twenty meters there will be a fire extinguisher. For the first aid services, a helicopter, three mobile resuscitation centers, seven ambulances and thirty-six nurses will be available along the track. These are the timetables of the Italian Grand Prix: Friday, September 10, 1976, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. first round of qualifying; from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. second round of qualifying; Saturday, September 11, 1976, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. third round of non timed tests; from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. fourth round of qualifying. Sunday, September 12, 1976, from 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. free practice; and finally at 3:30 p.m. the Italian Grand Prix. The organization of the Grand Prix requires almost 3.000 people, including 1.500 for the management of public safety. The cost of the event is around 200 million lire, to which must be added 285.000 dollars for the engagement and prizes for the drivers. Part of these prizes will be distributed on the basis of the results obtained in the world championship, the other on the basis of the passages in the race on lap twelve, twenty-six, thirty-nine and fifty-one. The cost of the tickets will vary from 30.000 lire for the Box Stand on Sunday, to 3.000 for Friday. The Australian driver Larry Perkins arrives at the Monza circuit, while the Ligier-Matra with Jacques Laffite is expected on Tuesday. These teams can try as they are not part of the Manufacturers Association of Formula 1, which prohibits instead to its members the tests in the week before the race on the circuit that will be the scene of the event.

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On Tuesday, September 7, 1976, at the private Fiorano circuit, Niki Lauda gets back behind the wheel of a Formula 1 Ferrari one month and seven days after the Nurburgring accident. The Austrian asks himself permission to take part in the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday: if he can do so and if the doctors, in their turn, consider the Austrian able to face the physical and mental fatigue of this race, Lauda will have won in advance his longest and most terrible battle. Lauda, as he has admitted several times in recent days, will only make one attempt. He still has pain in his left ear, so much so that he has to have a special helmet made. An attempt that can be considered desperate, but that confirms the strength of character and the will of the reigning World Champion. At Ferrari, Lauda's gesture is obviously understood, but it also raises some perplexity. The risks of an early return are too serious and evident to be underestimated. This is confirmed by the communiqué issued the day before by Maranello, in which it is highlighted that it is Ferrari that accepts the request of its driver and that only the driver and the doctors at Monza will have the final decision. In the team, however, there is enthusiasm for Lauda's return, which demonstrates the Austrian's ability to recover and gives hope for the end of the season. Nobody, in the last month, would have even dreamed of such a quick recovery. The mechanics are at work with an admirable commitment. Three 312 T2 are ready and a fourth one - destined to play the role of mule in Monza - is in phase of preparation. Clay Ragazzoni and the new purchase Carlos Reutemann start to test around 9:00 a.m. On the wonderful Fiorano track, which takes the most difficult curves of some circuits, the Swiss and the Argentinian test their 312 T2.

 

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

 

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

 

Says Regazzoni, while Reutemann admits:

 

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

 

The gates of the Fiorano track remain closed to everyone and are guarded by about fifteen carabinieri, even commanded by a colonel. Outside, fans and journalists wait. The spectacle of the crowd is impressive: workers, kids on bicycles, engaged couples, men, women. Cars parked everywhere. People hoisted on the roofs of houses, on the pylons of high voltage lines. At 2:36 p.m. the public gets excited, the roar of an engine rises from the Fiorano pits. On the curve that closes the longest straight of the track, a red single-seater appears. A murmur of disappointment rises from the crowd: at the wheel there is only Clay Regazzoni. This is repeated at 2:49 p.m. and 3:04 p.m. At 3:28 p.m., finally here is another car: the number one is painted on the sides, Lauda is in the cockpit. It's almost a parade lap. The Austrian greets the fans with his right hand. There is a waving of handkerchiefs, applause rises, then an interval of about a quarter of an hour follows.

 

"What must have happened to him?"

 

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

 

"He must have been sick?"

 

Then, the Ferrari restarts at 3:38 p.m., but it is once again Regazzoni; only at 3:46 p.m. Lauda, to the delight of the public, returns to the track and makes two passes. Then, at 3:51 p.m. Lauda makes another thirteen laps, and the people around the circuit take times. The best? A 1'17"9 at the end. It seems to be already at Monza, or on one of the many circuits that have exalted the value of the Lauda-Ferrari duo. Then, the crowd pressing on the gates, sees the latter open at 16:26, to let Marlene pass on board a 131 Abarth driven by Hans Kemitinger, the pilot of Niki Lauda's private plane. Marlene Lauda confesses:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

"It's ninety percent yes".

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

 

"I thank you so much for the great interest shown to me. Today I have completed thirty laps and with satisfaction I have realized my future possibilities. Tomorrow I will be in Salzburg for a general medical control. Then I'll go to Monza and, after the regular medical check-up, I'll do the tests to make sure if I'll be able to participate to the Italian Grand Prix. Again thank you and please bring my grateful greetings to the Italian sportsmen".

 

Curiously enough, the best proof of the Austrian's good condition will be the fact that he was able to withstand this furious assault with ease. Niki, wearing blue jeans, a sporty checked shirt, a grey sweater and a cap on his head, gives the idea of not having changed at all. A cap protects his head and right ear, deformed; the face around the eyes bears the signs of burns; his hair is very short.

 

"I'm going to Monza, but not to win. It's my first Grand Prix after the Nurburgring accident. For me it will only be a training for the following ones, a way to regain the perfect shape. I feel one hundred percent ready, but it's a month that I haven't been in a Formula 1 car and I don't know what my performance can be. Today everything went well and I had no particular problems. I'm not so much worried about driving as I am about endurance".

 

Does it bother you to be seen in public?

 

"No, I have other problems that are more important than aesthetic ones".

 

Did you force yourself today?

 

"For goodness sake, I certainly didn't have to do a Grand Prix at Fiorano".

 

Lauda explains that in Monza he will turn slowly, trying little by little to increase the pace. Niki, however, is sure to run at Monza: the only possible obstacles to his participation are a negative outcome of the check-up in Salzburg, a no from the medical staff at Monza on Friday morning before the start of the tests, and a possible physical decline on Saturday evening or Sunday. Lauda, immediately after the mini conference, will fly back to Salzburg. Thursday afternoon he will arrive in Milan. In the meantime, however, we are amazed to think about the speed of his physical recovery and the strength of will that he shows to have.

 

"He's a miracle worker, who would have thought that we could see him back here today, behind the wheel of a Ferrari?"

 

Admits, Ferrari speaking to a group of friends. To a reporter who at Fiorano, after his first test asked him between the naive and the provocative:

 

"What need is there to start again so soon?"

 

Niki answers:

 

"Because I'm healed".

 

But the reporter insists:

 

"But aren't you afraid?"

 

And Lauda, in response, replies:

 

"You're not a sports journalist, are you? You don't hang out in the racers' environment. Good. This is not the time to explain why a Formula 1 racer does this job, but of course this is my job. You, after an illness, go back to your newspaper, I go back to racing".

 

Wednesday 8 September 1976 Niki Lauda passes positively the check-up to which he is subjected by the health staff in Salzburg, which takes place around 3:00 p.m. It is the Austrian driver himself to declare it around 6:10 p.m., through a press conference at Schloss Fuschl.

 

"I'd rather have my right foot than a pretty face...".

 

Having obtained the certificate of physical fitness, the World Champion will report to the Monza track on Friday, September 10, to begin training behind the wheel of the Ferrari. His participation in next Sunday's Grand Prix is, however, conditioned by the examination of the sports doctors of Monza, who could also deny him permission to take to the track, given that the visit will be carried out not before training, as initially planned, but at the end of the first two tests. In the meantime, in Erba, at 9:00 p.m., a club is born in honor of Arturo Merzario, who is present at the initiative. Marcello Sabbatini, director of Autosprint newspaper, gives Merzario a gift and a letter from Enzo Ferrari:

 

"Dear Merzario, I wanted to give you this memento in recognition of your act of courage at the Nurburgring. But on Friday I won't be able to be, as many other times, at the Italian Grand Prix. I asked my friend Marcello Sabbatini to bring you this memento from me. With cordial greetings also to his loved ones".

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The object is a precious pin representing the Prancing Horse, that Merzario puts on his wife's jacket. The next day, Thursday, September 9, 1976, the Monza racetrack is already boiling, collecting money at everyday bargain prices and not yet at hyperbolic figures such as those expected for the Grand Prix. The atmosphere is typical, and fortunately unique in the racing world, hostile and violent in an attempt to reduce Italian permissiveness to order. The enclosure of the garages, the one defended like a bunker, is momentarily empty. There are only the big vans of the various teams, a few mechanics hanging around, a couple of racers, the unknown Swiss Kessel, who put together an old Williams, and Clay Regazzoni.

 

"There were always two of us on the day of the eve, however, tomorrow Niki will also be here. He'll be there too".

 

Dressed in a biker suit, Clay struts around on a Kawasaki. He is as extroverted as ever, but seems a little saddened, almost as if he senses a decline in the air, if, as seems certain, Ferrari will dismiss him at the end of the season. Certainly, the renouncement to the Austrian Grand Prix and the second place in Zandvoort, welcomed as a defeat, have affected his morale, perhaps because he has limited reserves inside, he is not a rock like Niki, whom he likes to define a slightly more virile Corleone. Clay talks for a moment about the chicanes, which he judges in colorful and negative jargon, then he puts on his multipurpose helmet and rides off on the Kawasaki that roars through the crowd of outcasts beyond the nets. There's Brambilla in the corner, who has more details about the technical problem with the new chicanes:

 

"They're too narrow, the edges too high, and there' s the usual and even greater risk of everyone ending up bunched up on top of each other. For the cars, on the other hand, it's more wear and tear: two downshifts and braking, then two more accelerations. Let's say that the chances of not finishing the race increase by twenty percent".

 

All around are the dogs of the paratroopers kept on a leash, which are frightening because of their defiant attitude and the potential violence they express. By dint of teasing them, one dog ends up biting someone he shouldn't, namely a mechanic, and suffers an even crueler punishment of belting. The environment is not one of the best, the color of the next few days will perhaps save it, but now it's really unbearable. In the hotel where the Ferrari team is staying, however, a corner of peace can be glimpsed, despite the noise of the articulated vehicles passing along the state road in the distance. No dogs, no barriers, at least until the crowd finds out. Niki arrived here directly from Linate. Intelligently, he told Ghedini, who had gone to welcome him in Bologna two days earlier:

 

"Not at Monza, no, better at the hotel right away. It's too messy down there".

 

Niki hit the nail on the head, above all because of the morbid curiosity that was triggered around him. The Austrian driver may be suffering from it, but certainly those close to him, such as Marlene, who has experienced months of tension and more than ever before in her life, are suffering more. What saves him is his concentration on the race, his incredible ability to return to the character of the driver who only cares about his car. On the contrary, being able to play his role puts him in a good mood, the imminence of the test excites him, stimulates him to do more: two hours of early morning footwork, taking care not to sweat too much, then a session with the now famous Dungl, a masseur who prides himself on toning the muscles and not putting them to sleep. Here is Niki the driver, who only smiles when he is told that the impossible dream of Monza has come true.

 

"Did you have any doubt?"

 

He retorts, and then it comes to mind that first agency news, when, reading the lines reported by Kurler, the first comment was:

 

"He's so crazy that he's really racing".

 

Now Niki is in Monza, and he is also asked to account for what he would have said, according to an agency, about Reutemann.

 

"I am Reutemann's enemy? Nonsense. Reutemann in Monza is fine, because there is new contract, he tried, Monza is in Italy. Ferrari powerful can give many mechanics".

 

He speaks just like that, in Italian.

 

"It's in Canada that I say best run two cars, so two older contracts, very distant, complication per car, me in the race to win, not just to race like here".

 

All clear and precise, as it is in the character, stupendously identical to his usual self. Then, perfect administrator of himself, Niki goes to sleep early. On Friday he will be on the track at Monza and there is nothing to joke about. A test under his own responsibility, which is worth more than any medical examination. After so much controversy, so many doubts and questions, it's time for the facts. In the meantime, on Thursday, September 9, 1976, a new collaboration contract was signed between Bernie Ecclestone, representing Brabham, and Vincenzo Moro, representing Alfa Romeo, almost three months earlier than initially planned (November 30, 1976). The new contract contains a clause, desired by Bernie Ecclestone, whereby Alfa Romeo undertakes not to participate in Formula 1 races until its expiry date, i.e. until the end of the 1977 championship. Friday, September 10, 1976, on the track of the old Monza racetrack, Formula 1 drivers and cars appear for the first day of official testing ahead of the Italian Grand Prix, the twelfth and fourth last race of the world championship. The central issue of the Italian Grand Prix remains, of course, the challenge between Ferrari and McLaren. On one side Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni and Carlos Reutemann with the 312 T2, on the other side James Hunt and Jochen Mass with the M23s powered by the eight-cylinder Ford Cosworth. Niki Lauda, only forty days after the terrible accident at the Nurburgring, returns to the track. His sudden return to Monza surprises everyone, and in the circus more than one voice is raised to ask what are the real health conditions of the Austrian champion. The response of the sports doctors should have cleared up any doubts, however it seems interesting to hear the opinion of the other drivers and some of the characters in the environment, starting with James Hunt, Lauda's friend and direct rival in the World Championship:

 

"I am happy with Niki's return. This means that he has recovered. Moreover, I confess that winning without him was not satisfying. With Niki, it will be more difficult to assert oneself, but success will have another value".

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Vittorio Brambilla:

 

"Lauda has returned and he has done well. He has a championship, a prestige and interests to defend. He won't be okay aesthetically, but to race, that doesn't matter".

 

Jean-Pierre Jarier:

 

"I am very happy that Niki is back to racing, because this is a sign that he is perfectly healed and that he has also overcome any psychological obstacles".

 

Hans Stuck:

 

"Lauda is back too soon. In my opinion, Niki returned because Ferrari hired Reutemann".

 

Ronnie Peterson:

 

"He's great. Good luck".

 

Alan Jones:

 

"It's just fabulous".

 

Emerson Fittipaldi:

 

"This return for Niki is very important. A week after the accident I knew he would return to Monza, because he has a great will that has allowed him a miraculous recovery".

 

Jacques Laffite:

 

"If Niki is back, it means that he is prepared both physically and psychologically. I am sure that in these last races, he will also return to victory".

 

Brett Lunger:

 

"I'm happy, it's a very good thing that he is back".

 

John Watson:

 

"It's great, unbelievable".

 

Loris Kessler:

 

"He's got a lot of courage, because I think after such an accident, to come back to racing in such a short time is almost impossible".

 

Jody Scheckter:

 

"He's very good. If he will make it we will only know after the Grand Prix; however, if his car is okay, he can take points away from Hunt".

 

Mario Andretti:

 

"I am very pleased to see that Niki has recovered so soon. He is a colleague I respect a lot".

 

It is never very clear who instigates the changes to circuits, but the reasons are usually in the interests of safety though more attention could be paid to racing car design and manufacture, to say nothing of closer inspection of components. Teaching some drivers to drive more carefully could also add its quota to making motor racing safer. This year the Monza Autodromo has undergone some major changes in the interests of safety and the best thing that has happened is the total elimination of the stupid artificial chicane just beyond the end of the pits. Much further on, at the very beginning of the Curva Grande a new complex of two ess-bends joined by a short straight has been built. At the end of the main straight, instead of setting the car up for the challenging high-speed right-hand curve, you now brake really hard for a sharp left/right ess-bend, This is followed by a quick squirt to another left/right ess-bend and then you accelerate round what is left of the Curva Grande. This double-ess has been properly constructed with bevelled kerbs and grass verges and has been blended into the circuit remarkably well. If you overdo it on initial braking you can run straight on into a great sea of fine gravel in which even a Formula One car would sink to some depth. To retrieve cars from this over-shoot area there is a permanent mechanical winch and hawser to one side with a grappling hook always at the ready. On the outside of this new double-ess five grandstands have been built, giving spectators a fine view of the track. From the Curva Grande the cars get back up to a fair turn of speed on the run down to the Lesmo corners. To stop anyone going into these corners too fast another permanent left/right ess-bend has been built just before the original braking area. On leaving this ess-bend there is barely time to accelerate before arriving at the first of the Lesmo corners.

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These two modifications to Monza have removed all the challenge from the Curva Grande and the Lesmo and reduced them to the lowest common driving denominator, just as the chicane has decimated the once challenging Woodcote Corner at Silverstone. On the back leg of Monza the permanent ess-bend at Viatone corner remains unchanged, as does the Curva Sud or Parabolica. Whether all these alterations make Monza better, worse or safer, is a matter of opinion, but they certainly make it different and in the face of a lot of opposition to motor racing it is better to have a different Monza than no Monza at all. Whatever else may be thought of the modifications their construction would appear to be faultless, the rear road surface being excellent and its blending into the old surface is a lesson to all circuit builders. The effect of all this stopping and starting is to add some ten seconds to the lap time and reduce the average speed from around 138 km/h to well under 130 km/h; still a respectable average speed but a shadow of former days when Monza was lapped at over 150 km/h. However, on Friday morning when practice is due to start the rain is pouring down. Only three drivers brave the floods, these being Brambilla, Perkins and Stommelen, the orange March splashing round for quite a number of laps and recording the fastest at just under 80 km/h. The Australian in the Dutch-owned Ensign demonstrates aquaplaning to the assembled company huddles in the pits, by spinning on the straight and the German driver tries to settle himself into his new position in the Ecclestone Alfa-Romeo team where he is replacing Reutemann.

 

The swarthy Argentinian terminated his contract with Ecclestone immediately after the Dutch GP and joined the Ferrari team alongside Lauda, who made a brave return to racing sooner than anyone expected, and Regazzoni. Although the torrential rain eases off towards mid-day it does not really stop, and the clouds are almost down on the ground, but as conditions are obviously not going to improve everyone decides to get on with it. Brake air scoops and ducts are taped over, ignition systems and sparking plugs are waterproofed, cockpit air vents are covered up, rain tyres fit all round and everyone knows exactly what they are in for. Reutemann sets the ball rolling and when Lauda appears everyone cheers and claps to welcome him back. Apart from obvious signs of burns around the ears he looks pretty fit, and though he does not indulge in any heroics in the wet conditions he is greeted with enthusiasm all round the circuit. In contrast Hunt is greeted with whistles and cat-calls every time he appears anywhere and especially as he sets off on his opening lap. He does not complete the lap, spinning off on the last corner and damaging the nose cowling. It is not serious, but he takes the spare McLaren while the damage is put right. After some cautionary laps of investigation some of the drivers really get stuck into the job of rain driving, notably Stuck, lckx, Fittipaldi, Edwards, Andretti, Peterson and Laffite and at times you can think the track is dry by the way Stuck is flinging the white March through the new double-ess. He is even seen to overtake slower cars between the two ess-bends.

 

As far as achieving anything the whole day is an absolute dead-loss, but there is no sign that the weather is going to improve so some sort of performance has to be registered and Stuck and Peterson are on their own with laps at just over two minutes. Not surprisingly Jacky lckx is third fastest with the dark blue Ensign, though his driving has not looked at all spectacular; he has achieved his speed by finesse rather than bravado. Shortly before it was all over both Stuck and Regazzoni had excursions off the track, but neither was serious. To complicate, however, this return to Monza of Lauda there is the rain: the water flows like a river on the track and the roads are flooded; the old plant of Monza saddens between mists and vapors and shows all its time. The people who fill the stands get soaked, the cold extinguishes ardor and suspense. The firemen try to clean up some parts of the semi-submerged circuit, the drivers stay in the pits. Two and a half hours wasted. In the first hour and a half only four daring drivers try their luck, while in the final hour all of them make timid sorties: the cars have to be prepared for the wet, even if the weather forecast is fair. Spins, turns and exits from the track multiply: good Perkins starts, who with his Ensign manages to make a sort of incredible dance in the straight in front of the pits, and even Hunt goes on with the McLaren, Stommelen with the Brabham-Alfa, Stuck with the March, and Clay Regazzoni with the Ferrari. Nothing serious, the most injured is Hunt, who has to leave his car for the mule, and Regazzoni, whose car has damage to the nose.

 

"My brakes locked up as I was about to enter at 50 km/h the chicane before the Lesmo curves. I ended up on the sand and then in the row of protective nets. The wet sand did not slow my car down and this is a very bad thing. The nets wrapped me up like a cocoon and I couldn't get out of the cockpit. The marshals had to free me. I prefer not to think about what could have happened in case of fire".

 

Regazzoni is the fastest of the trio of Ferrari drivers. Clay gets the seventh time in 2'10"85, against the eleventh of Reutemann in 2'14"59, and the nineteenth of Niki Lauda in 2'35"5. The best is the German Hans Stuck, who navigates in the water of Monza in 2'02"79 at the average speed of 170 km/h, not exactly a record. The technical commissioners will revolutionize this classification after the verifications of the cars, declaring irregular the Lotus of Andretti, the March of Peterson, the Ensign of Lekx and the Williams of Merzario for the air intakes too high, and the Ferrari of Regazzoni, that in addition to having the air intakes too high, has a rear wing overhang of a millimeter higher than allowed. Lauda, who appeared serene, cheerful, much more relaxed and fit, drove with great caution and attention, and certainly not because he did not feel at ease or was disturbed by any pain.

 

"It was impossible to control the car; too much water on the track, too much fog at Lesmo. My health had nothing to do with it".

 

The bad weather also unnerved James Hunt.

 

"Ferrari has been testing at Monza for the past few days, and they were able to prepare the cars properly. These two and a half hours are a handicap for me and an advantage for Lauda and his colleagues. And I absolutely have to win on Sunday, because I need to score points and go to Canada with a bit of an advantage over Niki. I am not worried about racing against three Ferraris. You know, it's Enzo Ferrari who has to worry; managing three cars and three drivers is not easy".

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It's raining with progressive severity and it won't stop until late afternoon. Niki is in the back of the pits without arousing too much curiosity, disguised as he is in a raincoat that conceals his appearance. He wants to stay in peace in the caravan behind the pits, until he decides to sortie towards the track. From this moment on, all attention shifts to him: legitimate and morbid curiosity, TVs one after the other, photographers all the time, many questions - few of them intelligent - from journalists and intruders. For Niki, the Grand Prix of words lasts a long time and at the end of the day he wins it clearly, in shape as never before with his immediate, brilliant banter, even with this Italian that is sometimes difficult for him. In the Ferrari pits everyone is dressed the same, with yellow Agip raincoats, drivers, mechanics, technicians, even Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Niki speaks in front of six microphones in order, alternating between German, English and Italian, starting to talk about the medical examination, of which he says:

 

"Only a doctor who hates those with their teeth out would fail me".

 

Is he happy to be in Monza?

 

"I'm happy to be in the world".

 

What are his limitations?

 

"I don't know, I do the Grand Prix to find out. If they were the usual ones, I might even win".

 

Reutemann and Regazzoni, Ferrari's other two drivers, play their roles as supporting players well, always available for photographs, for the family image. Clay is the same as the day before, his face a little frowned upon; unusually serious, almost sad. Carlos, or Lole as he is nicknamed, has a gloomy look, he stands aside almost as if he didn't want to disturb, he tries to blend in, clearly shocked by this mass of people crowding the Ferrari pits and ignoring everything else. Montezemolo confirms:

 

"He's bloody scared, he looks like he has to give his maturity".

 

He keeps more to the generals:

 

"It's a difficult step what I'm doing, and then maybe I didn't choose the best moment. Racing with a Ferrari in the Italian Grand Prix...so much responsibility".

 

Clay, on the other hand, has hiring problems on the other side, he knows he is out of the Ferrari team and keeps the discussion open with several teams. First of all, Martini could see as a publicity shot the engagement of the Swiss driver but Italian in language and affections, to place him on his Alfa Romeo. From the rain at the racetrack, we move on to the rain in the city, where the Festival dell'Unità wrings out its clothes in order to resume its role as an extra-peasant festival in this big town that is Milan. Between a record by Casadei and an announcement of Edmonda Aldini's cantatas in the evening, Niki Lauda slips into the cellars of the Arena, which acts as a backdrop to the Festival stage. He is not on an archaeological visit nor does he express a political adhesion that he probably does not feel, but he fulfills the formality of the medical examination. Professor Rovelli, who had already visited Lauda at Fiorano and found him very weak, decided to subject him to a medical examination after the first two training sessions.

 

"I'm a professional, not a kid looking for excitement. If my doctor and the Austrian ones said I can race it's a sign that both they and I know what we're doing. It's really humiliating to have to do this other visit, however they can run all the tests they want on me, I'm not afraid".

 

Niki does not want to attend the examination, but in spite of these declarations, at the end he convinces himself and crosses the threshold of the Regional Center of Sports Medicine in the Arena of Milan, to undergo the examination, accompanied by Ghedini and Dungl. The medical board composed of Rovelli, Basile and Carrù, after half an hour of examination releases Niki's authorization to run at Monza.

 

"Niki Lauda has been declared fit to drive. We subjected him to a general clinical examination, then to specific neurological, orthopedic, ophthalmological, respiratory tests, we recorded an electrocardiogram, etc...".

 

Lauda is patient and professional as always, he withstands the assault of a group of journalists looking for the scoop and the doctors' snobbery, and finally he leaves with good courtesy. Saturday's trials, if the rain does not spoil the spectacle of the dress rehearsal and alter the face of the Italian Grand Prix, will establish the starting positions, will reveal the real possibilities of the drivers who aspire to win the race. The following day, with the sun, it was Jacques Laffite who took pole position, the first for him and for Ligier. For the engine manufacturer, Matra, this is the third pole, the first since the 1972 French Grand Prix with Chris Amon. The Frenchman is just three hundredths ahead of Jody Scheckter on Tyrrell, and eighteen Carlos Pace on Brabham-Alfa. Niki Lauda finishes fifth while James Hunt, the most direct rival of the Austrian in the race for the iris, finishes ninth, complaining of excessive oversteer. At Monza the Penske of F&S Properties is not seen, while Otto Stuppacher, who was excluded from the Austrian Grand Prix because of his lack of experience in the car, enters the race. RAM decides not to participate in the race because of the usual judicial diatribes with Loris Kessel; the Swiss driver takes part in the tests with a private Williams. On the Hesketh Guy Edwards returns, and also Brett Lunger takes the wheel again at Surtees, in place of Conny Andersson. Lunger, born in a well-to-do family, being one of the owners of the chemical company DuPont, manages to find again a team willing to give him a car thanks to the sponsorship of Chesterfield, which helps him because as a young marine in Vietnam he had saved the life of the son of one of the directors.

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The circuit of Monza, also in its current version, slower because of the presence of three variants, is always a sieve that divides the fastest cars from the others: it is not a case that among the first five there are three drivers with cars equipped with a twelve-cylinder engine, and the two Tyrrell drivers with six wheels, but with a Ford Cosworth engine. Power and aerodynamics count substantially, as well as braking of course, which must be exceptional to allow violent slowing down three times a lap. For this reason Pace's Brabham uses new brakes with carbon seals both for the pads and for the discs, thanks to which they can withstand very high temperatures without any inconvenience. But also Ligier and Ferrari have a good combination of power and braking. Very efficient the Tyrrell with six wheels: these cars have, obviously, six brakes and six points of contact with the track, and therefore they brake very well; moreover the low and narrow line of the bodywork decreases the aerodynamic resistance; the designer Gardner makes an interesting experiment, because he presents two different cars having modified the rear geometry of Scheckter's car and lengthened sensibly, about 150 millimeters, the wheelbase of Depailler's one. But, as has always been the case for some years now, the fundamental role is played by the tires, with their behavior and their adaptability to the track: it can be said by now that the combination of driver and designer who first discovers how each set of tires reacts on a given track, and knows the rules to improve this behavior, already has part of the success assured.

 

"Did you see that? I'm not a fool. I continue in my program: first slowly, then harder, in stages. I still don't brake to the limit, I don't take corners at full throttle. Who cares? I'm sorry that qualifying was concentrated in one hour, but to be able to do more I would need four or five more days".

 

Declares Niki lauda, who at the end of qualifying is fifth. But what happened to Clay Regazzoni who doesn't go beyond the ninth time?

 

"I didn't find a good set of tires. It means that tomorrow it will take me a little longer to take the lead and win".

 

In fact, during the minutes of the qualifying Regazzoni tries to qualify with the tires used the previous week, so used, and when he asks for new ones, Tomaini replies:

 

"There are no more".

 

Lauda, about the tire problem, is sincere and states:

 

"I was stopped for more than a month, I skipped the Austrian and Dutch Grands Prix. I didn't work, I didn't follow the technical developments of our car and tires. Now I don't understand them well, but I'm not too worried: is my Ferrari understeering? It means I will have to work a little bit harder".

 

Niki explains that everything is ok, that he is not tired after fifty-eight laps, that the helmet does not hurt him, that the Ferrari fans, with their applause, give him the emotional charge. And he polemicizes with the doctors who examined him the previous day in Milan.

 

"I don't know what to do that doctor there. He expert in footballers told me. He say that valid to eighty percent. How does he do it? Only I know how I was before the accident and now. He has to take all twenty-six drivers of the Grand Prix and do check-ups. After that, he can establish Lauda's level, right?"

 

The speech is clear.

 

"If you were to win tomorrow would you be surprised?"

 

Niki looks at the journalist who exposes him this question a little puzzled, then answers:

 

"It depends. I'll try my best tomorrow, but I don't know what my best will be. Good for tenth place or first? For first it's a little difficult, easier for tenth, but if the other nine drop out, I win. Normal".

 

Not so normal, just as it is not very normal to see here again, with his red overalls, aquiline nose and protruding teeth, this man who just over a month before seemed lost. And in the race, this fearless man with a will of steel will once again lead the Ferrari's ride. Incredible and exciting. During the tests the pits and the Ferrari's influence zones are stormed by the fans, but the latter are repelled by the order service regulated by financial officers strong in body but courteous in their manners, who manage to mediate conflicting needs with tact and intelligence, so as to avoid the embarrassments accumulated in past years. The only ones who are surprised by this discreet and efficient sanitary cordon are some guests, not even too welcomed. Among them a certain Galli, with a spirited look, dressed in a jacket with a tricolor badge to give a semblance of officialdom, who tries to act on his own, first by breaking a telephoto lens to an unsuspecting Scottish professional, then by pushing into the crowd. As chance would have it, in the confusion, he runs into the Shadow's box and trips over a jack, dragging a signal board into the fall, to end up crashing into the car's wing. A two-meter tall mechanic takes him by force, removes him from the packaging and throws him three meters further away, while he thanks him with servility. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo is present at the Ferrari pits, and Clay Regazzoni takes the opportunity to ask for the reasons for which in the newspapers he has been reading for days that he would have been ousted from the Ferrari for the 1977 season. But the lawyer replies:

 

"Don't worry, the team for 1977 remains. We took Reutemann to help Niki".

 

Just in these hours, Regazzoni had been approached by Ecclestone, who would like him in Brabham, but the Swiss, receiving these reassurances, refuses the offer of the British manager. On Saturday the oil company Fina Italia delivers, through its managing director engineer Galletti, a gold medal to Merzario. The only big absentee is Lauda, although not far from him. Then, in the afternoon, Lauda gives Lunger, Edwards and Ertl the bronze horse sent to them out of gratitude by Enzo Ferrari.

 

"I was feeling my best, only the doctors didn't agree. They summoned me, did a lot of tests, told me not to be smart, gave the impression they didn't trust me. They put enormous pressure on me, I was confused, and this made me make the biggest mistake of my life. I never said thank you to Merzario for saving my life, I never went to him to shake his hand in person, to hug him. It's something I still regret now, a wound that burns more than the scars I have".

 

Meanwhile, at the Texaco-Marlboro-McLaren pit, James Hunt is in the car's cockpit while the mechanics put different tires under. From under his helmet, the Briton pulls out a plug, hooks it to the corresponding one hanging from a wire and starts to speak in a very low voice. On the other side of the wire is the earpiece of Teddy Mayer, the manager. He is sitting affectionately on the edge of the car, snooty in his task but careful to hide a slight corpulence from the photographers, while Mass, joking, says:

 

"I second class driver, no radio, only crank gramophone".

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Jochen is always cheerful, the opposite of what you expect from a German, not satisfied but not even unhappy at having to endure the British nationalism that wants an all-island driver for possible success. At first, on his return from California, in the boredom of an airplane trip that never ends, Mass explained to journalists the need to be a full-fledged professional, even in accepting to lose when you know you can do better, but now he says:

 

"We won't put them straight this time unless there's a miracle. Ours are beautiful cars, James' one always has a good engine, but as soon as there is something different, and here are the chicanes, we sink".

 

Once the interview is over, Hunt looks around and looks for the journalists' microphones to make an aseptic statement:

 

"The car is oversteering, that's why we couldn't set great times. I am convinced that we will be able to make the necessary changes during the night, in time for tomorrow's race".

 

Among the many questions posed to the British driver there are some provocative ones, such as: why did you do that Playboy shoot with car, accessories and girls?

 

"My manager made the contract, he thinks it's good for me to gain Playboy fame".

 

Then he laughs with satisfaction at the joke, but realizes that he is alone. The people in front make a grimace, so the British driver desists. Then they point out that since his divorce, his performance has gone up, but James replies:

 

"But it is my wife who wanted to divorce, not me, so there is no relation between the two facts".

 

Later Hunt finds himself gathered with other drivers, including Regazzoni, Pesenti-Rossi, etc., in the Ferodo booth, to celebrate the champions born under the sign of the Virgo zodiac.

 

"This time you have a couple of Ferraris in front of you".

 

Regazzoni exclaims, joking with Hunt, who replies sympathetically:

 

"But there are others in front of the Ferraris".

 

Hunt's mood will change at the end of the tests, towards the evening, because at Monza they start to make really serious controls on the cars: for the first time during the 1976 championship the sampling of gasoline is made on the cars of Lauda (Ferrari), Watson (Penske), Hunt (McLaren), Scheckter and Depailler (Tyrrell), Andretti and Nilsson (Lotus) and Laffite (Ligier). The operation is carried out by a group of specialists from Snam-Agip who arrive at the circuit with two vans loaded with equipment. The technicians go to the track with a series of drums and take four liters of petrol for each car directly from the special containers used by the teams for refuelling. Each sample is divided into two containers, countersigned by a team manager. The first is used for testing, the second is set aside for possible analysis in case of dispute, to be carried out at a neutral institute, since Snam-Agip is still part of the Formula 1 circus as a supplier to Ferrari. A smart move to parry any insinuations. Snam-Agip technicians work for a few hours in the two vans loaded with delicate electronic equipment capable, among other things, of highlighting the presence in the fuel of prohibited super additives, such as nitromethane, which was much talked about in Zeltweg. Part of the fuel is also sent to the company's central laboratories to check the octane number, which is impossible to verify at Monza. The results were not long in coming: according to the sporting regulations in force in the host country, in Italy the fuel used by the single-seaters must not exceed 100 octane, but Watson (Penske) and Hunt (McLaren) were found to be irregular: the samples taken indicated a fuel richer in octane, 109 and 101.75 respectively.

 

This is not necessarily an excessive advantage for the McLaren and Penske engines, but the stewards, after hearing the opinion of the technical ones, would like to penalize the McLaren and Watson drivers, or even exclude them from the race. The results of the analysis of the controls are communicated at about 12:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 12, 1976, during a chaotic and crowded conference held in the press building of the racetrack, which reveals the innocence of Ferrari (98.6 octane), Tyrrell (100.7 octane), Lotus (99.7 octane), Ligier of Lafitte (98.6 octane). Only the Penske of Watson and the McLarens of Hunt and Mass are guilty. Consequently, the times obtained by the three drivers are not considered valid. Therefore, the Irishman, the Englishman and the German find themselves with Friday's times of 2'13"95, 2'28"76 and 2'11"06, respectively, which lead to automatic exclusion from the race, as they are higher than the minimum time of 1'51"56 set for qualifying. However, since Friday's times had been very high due to the rain, the stewards decided not to consider this barrier and to admit Hunt, Watson and Mass, who, of course, found themselves at the bottom of the ranking, preceded by Lunger (Surtess), Merzario (Williams) and Stuppacher (Tyrrell). Since only twenty-six out of twenty-nine drivers are admitted to the Italian Grand Prix, the three culprits would still be out of the race, but Merzario and Stuppacher give up the competition, and obviously they are replaced by Hunt and Mass, with Watson as reserve. Also Watson, finally, participates in the race because Guy Edwards prefers not to run because his Hesketh is not in order. Engineer Alberto Rogano, president of the Italian Motor Sports Commission, who has at his side Pierre Ugeaux, president of the International Sports Commission, provides all the answers to this case, stating:

 

"The gasoline of Watson's Penske and that of Hunt and Mass' McLarens had an octane number higher than the maximum established by the regulations, i.e. 101.6 and 105.7 against 101. This limit derives from the average octane rating of fuel sold in Italy, France, Germany and Great Britain. The fact that in other countries, such as the USA, gasoline with a higher octane number is used is irrelevant".

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The mention refers to Penske defending itself by claiming that fuel brought to Monza is traded in the United States.

 

"Penske has appealed to the Italian national court, but this appeal cannot suspend the effects of the decision".

 

But McLaren also tries to justify itself by talking about the British oil market:

 

"Apart from the fact that in England there are no gasolines above 101 octane on the market, this limit is impassable".

 

What measures does the international authority intend to take against Penske and McLaren? Rogano replies:

 

"We cannot take any, we are not in football, where the player expelled from the game is subsequently disqualified. A possible sanction can be applied only by the national federation".

 

These are the inconsistencies of the motoring regulations, which it is hoped to cancel in the near future, as promised by Ugeaux, who intervenes harshly to point out certain questionable episodes of the season, with particular reference to what happened to Ferrari in Spain and England.

 

"It is necessary to bring back order and cleanliness in the environment, it is necessary that everyone commits to respect the rules and that they are strictly enforced".

 

Ugeaux recalls, in that circumstance, how at the Nurburgring the CSI bureau decided to change the procedure of appeals to the tribunal.

 

"On September 24, the FIA tribunal will meet in Paris to examine Ferrari's appeal regarding the events of the British Grand Prix and the relative sentence issued by the English. In this circumstance, Maranello's petition regarding the FIA's verdict on the re-qualification of Hunt and McLaren in Spain will also be considered".

 

The petrol case arouses a great clamor among insiders. Watson, Penske driver, punished for irregularities, declares:

 

"I'm not a fuel technician and I don't know what to say. I think the fuel used in my car is from a normal pump, at least that's what I've been told".

 

Mass, a McLaren driver who was also irregular at the checkpoint, will say:

 

"You pull the rope for too long and then it breaks. We pay for all the controversies of the year and logically here we are in Italy, in the lair of the Ferrari that hammer us in the head".

 

Stuck, Mass's German compatriot and official March driver, said:

 

"For me it's fair. If they have established one hundred octane, I don't see why they have to use 102 or more".

 

Brambilla, also a March driver, admits:

 

"If they hadn't let them start, it would have been fairer. Those who are not in compliance have no right to participate".

 

Bernie Ecclestone, manager of Brabham-Alfa, and leader of the constructors, confesses:

 

"We gave the CSI membership for the greater severity. If they are irregular it's right they will take action. The things they did here at the Italian Grand Prix were perfect".

 

While Max Mosley, manager of the March, points out:

 

"I certainly don't think it's possible to have petrol from the same pump, but this cannot authorize the use of irregular fuels".

 

Frank Williams, on the other hand, is upset about what happened and exclaims:

 

"I don't understand how you can analyze gasoline in a meadow near Milan, in such a short time. You mean Snam? Then it is certainly not an impartial control. Snam, i.e. Agip, supplies gasoline to Ferrari, as is well known".

 

This thesis is obviously supported by Teddy Mayer:

 

"The CSI regulations state that the gasoline that can be used must correspond in octane to the gasoline normally sold in Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany, with a tolerance of one octane. Texaco guaranteed me that the gasoline on the market in England has 101 octane and that the one they supplied us with is 101.2. So, the octane tolerance is there. I am formally protesting and appealing against the interpretation of the regulation".

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Although it is true that the gasoline supplied by Texaco to McLaren is irregular, what makes everything rather peculiar is the fact that the Texaco technicians, a few days earlier, had been inexplicably stopped at the Italian customs for several hours before getting the go-ahead to reach Monza. Mayer, in charge of McLaren appealed to the Fia tribunal and Penske did the same, underlining that the commission in charge of the control was formed by Agip technicians, Ferrari's sponsor, who would not have carefully analyzed the fuel of Lauda, Regazzoni and Reutemann, and that the Maranello cars would have used 101.9 octane fuel. On Saturday morning the scene is still pretty grey, but at least it is fine and dry. With the new arrangement of practice, tried in Holland, of settling the grid positions in the morning and having the afternoon free for testing, everyone has to get off the mark very promptly. It really is a very good practice session for not only are they all driving hard to get in a good lap time, but there is a lot of racing practice going on with drivers out-braking each other into corners, going past slower cars in some desperate manoeuvres, scratching round the corners on the limit of adhesion and enjoying the whole business. This new-look attitude of racing is fun became first apparent in Austria and seems to have caught on, even among some of the top money-earners who cannot afford to take any chances. Stuck, Peterson, Pace, Scheckter, Depailler, Laffite, and Regazzoni are all obviously out to win. Lauda is quietly demonstrating that he has lost none of his touch, Ickx is up there with them all, but Hunt just does not seem to get in the game, nor does Brambilla.

 

One driver who is embarrassing a lot of people is the be-spectacled Australian Larry Perkins, running his whole show himself, and recording a time that could have given him a double-A for effort in anyone’s book, for he splits the two works Lotus drivers on the final grid. Admittedly Andretti is in trouble with the final-drive unit on 77/R3 going wrong and he has to use his spare car, but even so the Lotus team are not really in the picture. Another car to have trouble is the new McLaren M26, which seizes the left-rear hub bearings so badly that the steel hub turns blue with the heat! This puts a stop to the progress of Mass, and he has to use the spare car. In view of the disastrous previous day the one hour on Saturday morning is all too short, but the result produces a most interesting starting grid. Laffite has got the Ligier-Matra V12 on pole position, with Scheckter alongside him, and behind them are Carlos Pace and Depailler. Standing out in row three is Niki Lauda, fastest of the three Ferraris, with Stuck alongside him. So in the first six we have a French V12 engine, two Italian flat-12 engines, two six-wheeled cars and one conventional British Kit-Car. With the Matra V12 and an Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine ahead of the first Ferrari, the telephone line to Modena is getting pretty hot! For no very obvious reason Hunt is down in ninth place, but during the morning scratch it is noticeable that he does not mix it in with the others. At one point he gets embroiled with a bunch of chargers but immediately pulls into the pits. Since the Brands Hatch farce (called the British GP) the Italian papers have been antagonising Hunt and the McLaren team, suggesting they are protected by the British Formula One Mafia and also making allegations about McLaren engines running on illegal petrol.

 

All this and the continual whistling and booing can be enough to unbalance the most lethargic mind. Another driver who does not seem to get into the groove is Brambilla, there being nothing wrong with the orange March, nor are there any team problems, but he ends the practice hack amongst the Shadow cars. The 1 1/2-hour test-session in the afternoon takes on a significant note for few of the teams reached their peak during the morning and adjustments and juggling with the variables continues after lunch. A lot of drivers improves on their morning times, but only by private hand-timing, for the official clocks have been switched off. During this period Mass is out in the repaired McLaren M26, Scheckter tries the latest P34 Tyrrell with the new rear aerofoil, Peterson tries the spare March and decides he prefers it to the one he set his grid time with, Mass decides to race the spare McLaren instead of the M26 and both works Surtees drivers spin off at the Lesmo chicane. Everything eventually wound down and the mechanics set to and change engines, check gearboxes, fit new clutches and generally tear all the cars apart to prepare them ready for the brief test-session on Sunday morning and the race in the afternoon. The technical committee of the Automobile Club of Italy takes samples of the petrol being used by number of competitors and the cars are scrutinized pretty closely on vital measurements. On Sunday, September 12, 1976, after the morning practice, the afternoon of Monza begins with rain. During the morning, at about 11:00 a.m., Lauda is at the pits, with a stopwatch in his hand, and waits for the arrival of Ermanno Cuoghi, who shows up at the pits thirty seconds late. The mechanic apologizes to Niki, but the Austrian retorts:

 

"In my condition, I would have rested a bit more, but my duty is to be on time even when I don't want to be".

 

A little later on, Mauro Forghieri, technical director of the Maranello team, has the tires set up for the wet conditions while there is still about half an hour to go. In the meantime, Reutemann, Lauda and Regazzoni settle into the cockpits of their single-seaters and immediately afterwards they go out onto the track for a reconnaissance lap. Starting, Reutemann hits a carriage with the nose, but Bellentani, chief mechanic of his car, straightens the spoiler with his hands. At the end of the lap, while the others are on the starting grid, Regazzoni returns to replace the two rear tires. From the crowd whistles start to address Hunt, who is made to go back in the line-up. The English, after the controversy about the fuel, do not enjoy the favors of the public. Campiche, Heuer's timekeeper for Ferrari, has his work cut out for him to dry the electronic instruments that are not in the pits, but on the little wall overlooking the track, while Marlene hides her nervousness by chatting with Willy Dungl, the physiotherapist who treated Lauda after the accident. In the box next door, Mariapia, Clay Regazzoni's wife, exchanges a few words with Mimicha, Reutemann's wife. Reutemann's wife will be absent for the entire race. Near the pit stop there are six traffic policemen sent by the City of Modena to Monza to keep the Ferrari working area clear. The line-up of cars occupies the entire straight in front of the pits, while at the back the two McLarens are one step behind the normal line-up; Penske is even isolated, far from all of them. There is a lot of confusion, trolleys of tires ready to be replaced, too many people on the track, the Marlboro girls busy showing that by now the Grand Prix are dedicated to the tobacco market. The starting procedure is changed, but nothing works as expected. The reconnaissance lap, started at 3:29 p.m., should be led by the car in pole position, and instead there are the two Tyrrell cars in front, even trying (Scheckter alone) a couple of drifts to test the grip of the wet asphalt. Then there is the new alignment and the time to check that everyone is lined up. While all this political business uproar is going on the cars are being prepared for the 3.30 p.m. start and a lot of people completely forgets about lunch in the general uproar.

 

One or two teams, who appear to be blameless in all the squabbles this season, are looking sideways, at the McLaren team and thinking that perhaps it doesn’t pay to invoke the wrath of Enzo Ferrari, while others are tracing the root-cause back to Brands Hatch 1974 when the RAC really fell foul of Ferrari over the pit-lane nonsense on the last lap of the British GP. Some people even go so far as to suggest that Ferrari has the Pope on his side! Whatever the reasons, the outcome is that the 26 cars lined up on the grid with the two McLarens on the back row. The Marlboro cigarette firm has laid on some start-line publicity with a troupe of dolly-birds, which all go a bit flat with the publicity at the front of the grid and the team cars at the back of the grid. As the cars have set off from the pits to drive round to the start line Lauda has received a terrific ovation, Regazzoni is equally popular, while the mass of spectators does not seem to understand Reutemann in the third Ferrari. The more wealthy spectators who have seats in the Main grandstand cheer and wave Hunt as he sets off, but the hoy-poloy around the circuit booes and whistles, and there are some 80,000 of them. The new system of starting procedure is employed, whereby everyone lines up on the starting-grid and then sets off on a warm-up lap in formation, lead by the poleposition car. The weather is cord and grey as Laffite takes them round the track, but it is dry and everyone draws up in position to start the 52 lap race. With the last minute substitution of Watson for Edwards a gap is left in the penultimate row where the Hesketh should have been and Watson is positioned all alone at the back behind Hunt. Suddenly the usual flag is missing, but at 3:31 p.m. the traffic light goes off while the last ones still have the cars in motion and are overtaking. We all knew it, and yet everyone is surprised, including the drivers, and, very human, even the infallible Niki, who remains with the neutral gear engaged and has to engage the first gear losing precious fractions, while everyone starts skating more or less on a slippery asphalt.

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The funnel created by the first chicane makes you breathless, but incredibly the twenty-six cars all fit in somehow and continue for this first crowded and chaotic lap; from this moment on the most beautiful race of the season begins, perhaps only because it is unpredictable, certainly because it is perfectly directed and alive until the end. Jody Scheckter takes the lead with his Tyrrell, followed by Jacques Laffite, Carlos Pace, Patrick Depailler, Carlos Reutemann, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Ronnie Peterson. In the meantime, the mechanics of the three Ferraris hurry back to the pits, anxiously scrutinizing the exit of the parabolica, where the competitors will come out for the first pass. A little later Forghieri looks at the sky with concern and Borsari, Cuoghi, and Bellentani, responsible respectively for the cars of Clay, Niki and Carlos, consult for a possible replacement of the tires. During the first lap Depailler passes Pace, followed by the recovery of Peterson who finishes fourth, overtaking Stuck, Reutemann and Pace. Niki Lauda remains instead blocked in the back, and he is fourteenth. Next time round there is no change among the leading group but Reutemann has lost contact with the first four and Regazzoni is closing on him. Pace is dropping back but Lauda is moving up, and Mass draws into the pits with trouble in the ignition distributor and that is the end of his sprint from the back. At the third lap, taking advantage of Depailler's attack on Laffite, Peterson approaches the French couple and manages to overtake them. Clay Regazzoni is also recovering from the back of the field and he is fifth after passing Reutemann. Also Lauda is recovering positions: at the ninth lap he is at the seventh place, after having passed Reutemann. The classification sees Scheckter in the lead, followed by Peterson, Depailler, Laffite, Regazzoni, Brambilla, Lauda and Reutemann. After ten minutes of the race some drops of rain fall again and Regazzoni loses contact. Forghieri exclaims:

 

"Everyone with cold tires and Clay is on par, then those of the others warm up and he slows down".

 

On the next lap Depailler passes Laffite for third place and Regazzoni takes fifth place from Reutemann. Lauda is now in fourth place, Watson fourteenth and Hunt fifteenth. Nilsson draws into the pits with the nose cone rubbing on the ground and a new one is fitted, but the stop drops him right to the back of the field. Pace has stopped out on the circuit on lap 3. By six laps a pattern is forming, Scheckter leads from Peterson, Depailler, Laffite and Regazzoni, a bare four seconds covering the five cars, then come Reutemann, Stuck, Brambilla and Lauda, the reigning World Champion having passed Andretti and having his sights on the orange March ahead of him. The Lotus team leader is all on his own and then comes a tight bunch comprising Ickx, Pryce, Watson and Hunt. Leading the rest is Alan Jones, closely followed by Perkins with Pescarolo right at the back, apart from Nilsson who has made a pit stop. At eight laps the two six-wheeled Tyrrells and the red, white and blue March begin to pull out a gap from the Ligier-Matra and Regazzoni looks ready to do some overtaking. Stuck has a moment and drops back behind Brambilla and Lauda, and Hunt gets past Watson. By the end of lap 9 Peterson is closing visibly on Scheckter and poor Perkins goes out in a spectacular cloud of smoke as his Cosworth engine blows up opposite the pits, a disaster he can ill-afford. On the tenth lap Peterson is taking aim at the leading six-wheeler, while Regazzoni does likewise with the Ligier-Matra.

 

Hunt passes Tom Pryce but is not closing on lckx, and is in twelfth position. At the eleventh lap Ronnie Peterson takes the lead of the race, passing Scheckter at the first chicane, and during the same lap Regazzoni recovers a position on Laffite, while James Hunt, Lauda's direct rival for the title, after an accident with Tom Pryce, while he is fighting for the twelfth position is forced to retire. Hunt, after ten laps is twelfth, then he passes Pryce even if the latter is faster on the straight. Subsequently Hunt tries to pass Ickx, in vain, so Pryce gets closer, and by taking advantage of Hunt's mistake in changing a gear, he gets close to the British car, delaying the braking. Hunt, who had already struggled to pass him, tries to maintain his position, but he forces too much and ends up in the sand at the chicane that precedes the Lesmo curves. Hunt asks for help to the race commissioners to disengage the car but is not granted. Then he gets out of the car to verify the possible damages to the car, then he decides to go back inside the cockpit, but he is stopped by the race commissioners. Hunt has no choice but to go back to the pits with a pale face because of his anger, among the whistles and the insults of the public, who softens only when the British driver turns suddenly, almost as if he wanted to challenge them. It's 3:55 p.m. when a huge scream rises from the crowd. Hunt has not passed. Cuoghi squeezes Forghieri's arm, but he says:

 

"Sté calm (Stay calm), we'll talk about it when it's over".

 

Then he turns to Daniele Audetto and two smiles cross, while Marlene asks about Hunt; an explanation is followed by a smile.

 

"Everyone applauds Niki, it's great to be at Monza, the Italians are formidable".

 

At the twelfth lap Scheckter loses another position, this time passed by his teammate Patrick Depailler. At the fourteenth lap Niki Lauda enters the points zone, passing Vittorio Brambilla at the Roggia variant. When Lauda passes in front of the pits, more applause is heard, and Cuoghi exclaims:

 

"What a great guy he is. He has strength, but great strength. It's a great satisfaction".

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From this moment on, Lauda becomes the absolute protagonist. At the end of lap 13 Lauda passes the grandstands to wild cheering as he is alongside Brambilla and about to take sixth place, which he does as they head for the first chicane while Depailler passed Scheckter, whose engine is losing its fine edge and then everything settles down for a hit. The average speed has started off at 194 km/h and has climbed to 200 km/h  (124 km/h) by lap 17. Pescarolo stops to change a tyre on lap 20 and Andretti is attacking Stuck for ninth place. This Lotus-March battle goes on for a number of laps and at 22 laps a dejected Hunt comes walking back down the track to cheers from his supporters and whistles from his opponents. On lap 23 Clay Regazzoni rises to third place passing Scheckter, while the fight between Peterson and Depailler for the first place continues. The South African of Tyrrell loses another position the following lap, this time passed by Jacques Laffite. The Andretti-Stuck battle comes to a sudden end at the first chicane when they have a misunderstanding and both spin off the course after a slight collision. Andretti is prepared to restart the Lotus, but the compressed air starter fails to work. The March has dented the left side of the Lotus and under the cowling the air bottle is located. By sheer chance the March wheel has broken the valve off the top of the bottle and let all the air escape, so Andretti is unable to restart. At 4:10 p.m. it starts raining again, therefore Audetto goes to Bellentani to find out if the wet weather tires are ready.

 

All eyes are focused on the parabolica, Audetto jumps from Campiche to the signallers who have a lot of work, since there are three cars on the track. The race director, Gianni Restelli, decides to show the black flag accompanied by a sign with a white cross, to order the drivers to return to the pits at reduced speed because the race is suspended to allow the mechanics to change the tires with more peace of mind. In reality only two drivers, Emerson Fittipaldi and Alan Jones, decide to stop at the pits, before being allowed to restart. In the meantime, the other drivers continue the race, perhaps slowing down in places where visibility is less. Why didn't they stop? Simply because only Fittipaldi and Jones recognize the stop order in the signal displayed. All the others interpreted the signal as a warning for other signals, or more simply as an indication of accidents. All this happened because the code used at Monza was recently introduced by the FIA: the official Grand Prix regulations mention it in Article 13, paragraph C, but practically no driver showed any knowledge of the new regulations. Fortunately, after two laps the rain stopped and only Fittipaldi, always faithful to the rules, lost precious seconds. However, with elegance, at the end of the race, after an explanation with the race director, he decides not to complain. Not seeing the drivers stop, the race director even threateningly grabs the checkered flag for an early closure of the race, but is neutralized and taken away with good words, so that the race continues regularly, albeit with the deleterious influence of rain. They soon shoot back into the fray while team managers yell and shout and there is a rare old shemozzle at race control. Out on the track everything settles down again, except that Laffite can not recover his fourth place from Scheckter.

 

At the front Depailler is trying all he knows to harass Peterson and for a brief moment on lap 31 actually gets his six-wheels ahead of the March, but not long enough to lead across the line. Laffite is making up ground on Scheckter and Lauda is gaining on them little by little. Down among the also-rans Stommelen has to stop when his Alfa Romeo engine goes sick, but after two pit stops he struggles on, and Lauda is actually racing Fittipaldi for sixteenth place. By 40 laps Laffite has regained his rightful fourth place and now Lauda has the six-wheeler in view. With the slight dampness the race average has dropped to 198.9 km/h and there is a stalemate between Peterson and Depailler and it begins to look as if the March might keep going. Laffite is now pressing Regazzoni and the two of them are closing on Depailler. The Ferrari tire compound loses temperature and these strange relationships between chemistry and sport are defined by the cars moving backwards, not in the positions but in the gaps. In other words, what was a progressive comeback turns into a defense. The water remains the protagonist for a short time. Then a breeze comes up and dries the asphalt and everything returns to normal. In the meantime Marlene sat down but the nail of the thumb of her right hand is now all gnawed; then she lets out a sigh while the photographers' lenses are constantly pointed at her. If you put the photos below you could probably follow Niki Lauda's race from his expressions moment by moment. On the track the hard battle between Peterson and Depailler continues, with Regazzoni ready to get closer to the leading duo. At the thirty-eighth lap Jacques Laffite passes Scheckter again, taking advantage of a back marker, returning to fourth place. At 4:35 p.m. it is raining again. Forghieri curses:

 

"In the wet Clay loses. If he stayed dry, even Lauda would come under".

 

But on lap 41 Lauda passes Scheckter. Marlene jumps for joy, the mechanics raise their arms, Forghieri shakes his fists:

 

"If only it would stop raining a little".

 

The classification sees Peterson ahead of Patrick Depailler, Clay Regazzoni, Jacques Laffite, Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter. On lap 46 Patrick Depailler, penalized by an electrical problem that had already distanced him from Peterson, is first passed by Regazzoni at the first chicane, then by Laffite at the Parabolica. At the 47th lap Depailler is also passed by Lauda, and Marlene does not hold back her happiness anymore, improvising a dance on a little wall of the box. Forghieri, leaning on his umbrella, is calm:

 

"Now Niki is holding his position, he's going slower because before he pulled it like crazy".

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With the end in sight Peterson is keeping his fingers crossed that the March does not let him down, and his lead is a very bare three seconds. As they lap some of the slower cars in the closing laps Regazzoni reduces the gap to under two seconds, but it is only temporary and Peterson and the March hold together to win the Italian GP by less than two and a half seconds at an average speed of 199.749 k.p.h. Regazzoni and Laffite are second and third, both feeling that they could have been able to win if the muddle of the black flag had not occurred. Poor Depailler pops and bangs round for the last two laps, Lauda and Scheckter both overtaking him, and from a secure second place he has to be content with sixth place. Peterson wins for the third time at Monza, after the triumphs of 1973 and 1974, resisting the last assaults of Regazzoni and Laffite. For the March it is the third victory in the Formula 1 World Championship. Niki Lauda, still suffering from the aftermath of the accident in the German Grand Prix, comes in fourth, followed by Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler. The year before, the old Monza racetrack had welcomed the triumph of Clay Regazzoni and the conquest of the world motor racing title by Niki Lauda and Ferrari. Now Ronnie Peterson wins with the March and Regazzoni obtains only the second place, but the enthusiasm of the spectators - 80.000 people in the official figures - is unleashed all the same for Lauda, who succeeded in an exceptional feat, concluding the Italian Grand Prix in fourth position, while James Hunt, was forced to retire with his McLaren because of a track exit. The race closes with an unchanged order of arrival and people going crazy, convinced that the Swedish driver ended up in front just by chance, while the heroes are Regazzoni and Lauda. The confusion is absolute, people are everywhere. The attendants try to get five squatters to come down from a tree. The dogs of the French paratroopers rush in, but they are unable to climb the tree. Then the Carabinieri on horseback arrive, and the dogs pounce on the horses. At the end of the race, hugs and handshakes follow in the Ferrari box: Regazzoni, Lauda and Reutemanni, all at the finish line. Today Ferrari could not have done better. But the great feat still belongs to Niki. In the FIAT bus, behind the Ferrari pits, Lauda clearly shows his joy for his fourth place, while Carlos Reutemann says:

 

"I would have liked to give more, but with the rain I didn't want to risk it. Moreover, the car was slightly understeering".

 

Who does not hide his satisfaction is Regazzoni.

 

"I pulled right from the start, but the tires were not up to temperature so I could not do more. At the variants I went out with the rear tyres skating while at Lesmo, where I was running in fourth gear, I was faster than the others. I was also caught off guard by the sudden start when I was waiting ten seconds. In the dry I was going well, but the rain created a few problems. Just before the end I had to struggle to overtake the lapped drivers. It seems unbelievable: when I was close to Peterson, an Italian driver got in my way. I found Pesenti-Rossi twice: the first time at Lesmo, the second at the chicane. He was going much slower also because he had mounted rain tires and could have made my job easier".

 

"Anyway, I'm not complaining, it went well. Starting from the back did not affect me. I had already said yesterday that it would have taken me a little longer to be among the firsts. The car was going well, so it couldn't have been any other way".

 

Niki Lauda wins at Monza the decisive battle of his daring challenge. Having passed unscathed the test of an hour and a half of torturous racing, he conquers an exciting third place which brings precious points to his ranking as leader of the World Championship. If before Monza the reconquest of the title was a hope, now it can also be a certainty. In forty days the Austrian defeats medical logic, he rebuilds a face partly destroyed by fire and also a personality, now more human, which erases the computer label stuck on him when every race, every gesture and every thought seemed to come out of the perfect programming of an electronic brain. But above all, Lauda dismantles the general distrust that arose at the decision to anticipate his return to the track. The fact that Lauda was not crazy and that his monstrous will to recover had made him foresee everything, or rather, above all, the dangers he was facing, was demonstrated in the eyes of a huge crowd that came to Monza especially for him. A crowd that in the final laps of the Grand Prix was overwhelmed by euphoria. At the end Niki bears the signs of his calculated risk: the points burnt in the accident in Germany are reddened, the transplanted skin on his face is sprinkled with white bubbles. From now on Lauda will go on the road to definitive recovery, accentuating the characters and times of his miraculous rebirth, as a man and as a champion. Ferrari says it has found its driver, but it is above all Lauda who has found himself, racing with impressive lucidity. The Austrian did not let himself get involved in the usual initial tussle, but kept himself in a waiting position, close to the leading group until the rows thinned out, then he left quietly when he saw the car of his direct rival, James Hunt, buried at the second chicane. Finally, in the last fifteen laps, he gradually increased his pace, lapping in times lower than those of Peterson who was leading the race. Niki got off to a bad start - "it was my fault, I got bottled up at the start" - but made a sure-fire comeback, so much so that for a moment there was a wild speculation of his success.

 

"We've found our driver".

 

Enzo Ferrari admitted after watching the Italian Grand Prix on television. In fact, the fourth place in Monza, the behaviour in the race and the relative freshness at the end of the fifty-two laps of the race, constitute a guarantee for the future, also because in the circumstance James Hunt left the track. Lauda has gained three points, so that the gap between the two has risen from two to five points, when there are still three races left in Canada, USA and Japan, at the end of the championship. Lauda, therefore, can still win the title for many reasons: first, because he is back to his old self and in Canada, in three weeks time, he will be in perfect physical conditions, certainly better than in Monza; second, because his Ferrari, apart from the problems created by the tires, is still at the top of Formula 1; third, because it is very likely that the Fia appeals tribunal will give him back the Spanish and English GPs. In Canada, in three weeks' time, Lauda will be in better physical condition than in Monza, while Ferrari, apart from the problems created by the tires, remains at the top of the category. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, happy with his friend's performance, emphasizes:

 

"Niki also proved to be a fighter. He did a wonderful race of attack, with very happy overtaking. And to think that it was believed that he was able to impose himself only because he started in front of everyone or had the best car".

 

And even James Hunt, several years later, will admit:

 

"Niki's race spoke for itself. To finish fourth in a Grand Prix three weeks after you've virtually risen from the grave is a phenomenal achievement, especially if you haven't had much time for practice. He just got in the car and drove off. Just outstanding. And he ran a typical Lauda-like race, focused, measured, staying within his new limits to gain confidence for the big battle ahead. He knew I had retired and had no reason to push from that point of view. He wanted to rack up some points even before the duel got serious. He did a superb job".

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What about Regazzoni and Reutemann? The Swiss driver put in another generous performance, like the one in Holland, and did his best. He could not have done more. It's a shame that an unfortunate start and tire problems prevented him from beating Peterson. Reutemann was sensible and it would be ridiculous to judge him from this race. His car was less perfect than those of Lauda and Regazzoni. Moreover, it must be remembered that Carlos, due to the bad weather, had driven at Monza less than expected. Finally, it must be added that the track conditions invited the Argentinean to be very careful, as he had arrived at Ferrari at a difficult time and had not yet fully mastered the 312 T2. In the day of Lauda's triumph McLaren and Hunt were not as lucky. Apart from the race, the disqualification following the fuel irregularity shows that this team is always on the limit in its technical decisions. The intervention of the sporting authorities and the checks carried out in Monza materialize the rumors about the fuel already recorded in mid-August in Austria. Finally, Peterson and the March. The blond Swede is a classy driver, one of the fastest in the world. He has been unlucky, because he has not been able to marry with a car that is not only competitive in terms of performance but also reliable. In the last races Peterson had given the feeling of being able to impose himself, but he had been betrayed by the fragility of his single-seater. In 1977 he will race with the six wheels Tyrrell: a combination that will scare everyone.

 

"To be honest it was perhaps very easy at the beginning, but then in the rain to stay in the lead was not a joke. The upper part of my visor blew off and so all the rain was in my face".

 

And about his arrival at Ferrari....

 

"Years ago at March Niki and I were friends, because he knew that the strongest was me. Then he was lucky and found the way to the top very easily and quickly. Now it's right for him to worry about staying there without having competitors right at home".

 

Even at the end of the Italian Grand Prix, the technical commissioners on duty at Monza continued to carry out a series of checks with the same rigidity shown in the previous days in order to bring back, as hoped by the CSI president, Pierre Ugeaux, order in the motorsport environment and restore credibility to the international sporting regulations, which have been misrepresented several times in this troubled season. At the end of the race, the single-seaters are conveyed to a special enclosure created behind the pits, and in order to avoid any tampering no one is allowed inside, except for authorized personnel. The area is guarded by wardens and wolfdogs. The stewards check the dimensions and the weights of the first six classified cars and they are in order. In addition, petrol samples are taken from the cars of the first four classified teams, namely those of Ronnie Peterson (March), Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari), Jacques Lafitte (Ligier) and Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell). The fuel canisters are then sent to the Snam-Agip laboratories for composition analysis and octane number determination. In order to remove any doubt and to demonstrate that, if they wanted to, things could be done well, the commissioners decided to verify the displacement of the engines of Peterson's March, Regazzoni's Ferrari and Lafitte's Ligier. To this end, the engines (a Cosworth eight-cylinder, a Ferrari twelve-cylinder and a Matra twelve-cylinder) are painted and plumbed. As Csai's technical manager, Galmanlni, explains:

 

"The check will be carried out in the presence of a Csai representative at the respective workshops of origin".

 

As for Ferrari, the check will be carried out on Tuesday, September 14, 1976 in Maranello by the Csai delegate to the Italian Grand Prix, Lanfranco Caneschi, and the check will confirm the regularity of the boxer used on the Swiss driver's 312 T2. As it is known, according to Formula 1 rules, it is not possible to use engines with a displacement higher than 3000 cc. Daniele Audetto, Ferrari's sporting director, admits:

 

"Ferrari was delighted with this examination. We have always been available for any verification. We are just pleased that serious controls are finally being carried out. We have never had nor do we have any reason to be afraid. At Maranello we work with extreme fairness, and it is a shame to see that others do not behave in the same way. One has the feeling of being taken for a ride".

 

The checks on the March and Ligier will take place this week, as Caneschi must wait for the cars and engines to return from Monza to England and France. Meanwhile, with the single-seaters still on the track Alastair Caldwell and the British team director, lawyer Teddy Mayer, frantically consult the regulations and discover that there is nothing to prohibit them from immediately sending a single-seater to America to test at the circuits that will host the next two Grands Prix. Therefore, they consult a courier present at the circuit and entrust him with Hunt's McLaren as soon as it is recovered from the gravel, after the race is over, and have it shipped to Canada where it will be raced on Sunday, October 3, 1976, at Mosport, seven days before the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. The move succeeds, almost in secret to all the other teams who - Ferrari included - send the single-seaters back to headquarters for the necessary technical recovery and then, as planned, on their way across the Atlantic on schedule. Caldwell's idea is critical in allowing McLaren to move forward with more testing, but more importantly for Hunt to relax on a long North American vacation, away from the tensions mounted in Europe in anticipation of the season finale.

 

Anthony Quartey

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