#279 1976 United States Grand Prix

2021-04-07 01:00

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#1976, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Maria Vitiello,

#279 1976 United States Grand Prix

On Monday 4 October 1976 the big buses of the teams engaged in the Formula 1 World Championship arrive in groups at the American circuit of Watkins Glen


On Monday 4 October 1976 the big buses of the teams engaged in the Formula 1 World Championship arrive in groups at the American circuit of Watkins Glen, which on Sunday 10 October 1976 will host the penultimate round of the long race that began in January at Interlagos. Once at Watkins Glen the Ferrari mechanics work without wasting a single second under the watchful eye of the technicians, the engineer Mauro Forghieri and the sporting director Daniele Audetto. Lauda and Ragazzoni are also there, ready to give their advice. In short, it's the atmosphere of decisive moments. The entire team has united around Lauda, in the hope of putting him in a position to win the challenge with James Hunt in five days' time. However, there is not much confidence in the air. The impression is that Ferrari is going through a moment of crisis. The fact of being far from Maranello, where usually at the end of each race the cars are brought back for a complete overhaul, is a big handicap. Hunt is sure that McLaren has now completely overcome the technological gap, that is, the inferiority in performance that it had at the beginning of the season, with Ferrari. Considering the results, the British driver seems to be right. Moreover, the Italian cars have always shown that they suffer from the transfer to North America, always finding new problems to solve. Engineer Forghieri is pressed by a stressful job and by the difficulties he is facing. We must add a situation within the Italian team that does not seem to be particularly calm; in fact, many people say that there are internal contrasts between the sporting director Audetto and Forghieri, which inevitably involves everyone, including the drivers. Precisely for this reason, the news bounce from Italy that Ferrari would not renew Audetto's contract at the end of the season, intending to replace him with engineer Nosetto, technical manager of the Sport Commission.


So there are many problems. Where does Clay Ragazzoni go? One of the reasons for the uncertainty that reigns at Ferrari in this moment is also determined by the situation of the drivers. We must not forget that Reutemann has already been hired and is in the waiting room. For Clay, there is a lot to talk about his probable passage to Brabham, alongside Carlos Pace. At Mosport, however, an episode happened that casts a shadow over the relationship between the Ticinese driver and the Anglo-Italian team (Alfa Romeo was also involved). As you will remember, Clay was hit by Pace on the penultimate lap. The marshals, having heard the two parties and explained the mechanics of the accident, completely absolved Ragazzoni of any responsibility. But Brabham presented a complaint against Regazzoni. The Swiss driver, however, should not have any problems with his engagement. In addition to Bhabham-Alfa, McLaren and March would also like him. But there is more: a Californian oilman would be willing to sign a blank check to Enzo Ferrari if the Modenese manufacturer would put one of his cars at the disposal of the Swiss driver. This financier in exchange would only want an American flag drawn on the car. On Wednesday, October 6, 1976, a free practice session will be held on the circuit starting at 9:00 am, in which all the teams will participate. This is a very important practice session because it will allow the technicians and drivers to get in touch with this difficult track, and to start setting up the cars. In this way, on Friday and Saturday, when the official tests, valid for the starting grid, will take place, it will be possible to aim at excellent performances without losing too much time. Niki Lauda, who has an eight-point lead over James Hunt in the world rankings, considers these tests decisive for a good performance in the US Grand Prix. Lauda, who arrived in Watkins Glen after a day dedicated to the visit of the Goodyear plants in Akron, Ohio, reiterates what he had already stated on Sunday, after the Canadian race:


"I am in good shape, now we have to take care of the car. This is not a very suitable circuit for Ferrari. For its characteristics it can be compared a bit to the Swedish one of Anderstorp. However, last year I won, so... Tomorrow I will try only with the T-Car: the experiences we will get will be transferred on my racing car".


Ferrari - as it is logical - will concentrate its efforts on Lauda and on the preparation of the Austrian's car. Regazzoni should limit himself to a few reconnaissance laps in the final stages. Hunt has also arrived at Watkins Glen, and there is also Patrick Depailler, who has quickly recovered from Sunday's bad adventure at Mosport. 


During the evening of Wednesday, October 6, 1976 Niki Lauda and James Hunt meet at Watkins Glen, and this time, at least on a formal level, it is cheerful and quiet, to the point that the two pose together for some ritual photographs and take a tour of the circuit on the 131 that the American Fiat has lent to the Austrian for this stay. However, when Lauda is asked if he had made peace with Hunt, the Austrian replies:


"Only political relationship, for me he remains a jerk".


Nor must the Englishman have changed his judgement on his rival and on Ferrari, which is one of the most solicitous teams to take to the track for the unofficial practice session divided into two parts, one from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. in the morning, and the second from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Ferrari mechanics work hard around Lauda's T-Car, and every element is seen and revised: there is a strong desire on everyone's part to provide Niki with a valid weapon for the duel, perhaps decisive, on Sunday against Hunt in the US Grand Prix. Engineer Mauro Forghieri, who with Bussi and Rocchi (who is in the hospital in Reggio Emilia, hospitalized for a heart attack) forms the technical triad of Ferrari, arrives from Maranello to provide the contribution of his experience, is a bit polemic for certain judgments on the behavior of the Ferraris in the Canadian Grand Prix.


"But are we really sure we are doing so badly? Let's say that in Mosport the cars were not perfectly tuned, but let's not forget that Lauda wasn't himself on Friday and that certain problems only surfaced on Saturday. We would have needed one more day of testing. After all, you can't always be at your best. Look at McLaren itself: in Austria or in Monza it didn't shine. It is true, however, that we were a little behind in the development of the tire. We will see what to do".


In the first part of the session Lauda completes about forty laps and is the fastest, in 1'44"63. Watson, in the P.enske, laps in 1'44"82, and Pace, in the Brabham-Alfa Romeo, in 1'44"85. Hunt, who arrives at the circuit around noon, completes only three laps, in the best of which he scores a time of 1'47"07. These are unofficial times, granted by the Heuer timekeepers. Lauda experiments a whole series of solutions for aerodynamics and suspensions: a long and methodical work, maybe boring, but essential for the preparation of the car.


"For now I can't draw any particular balance. Last year I got the pole position, in 1'42"0, today we run in times too much higher. For the moment everything is fine, however. We will have, perhaps, to modify the ratios".


The Surtees, the Ensign and the March do not participate in the tests. The second practice session, after about an hour, is interrupted for a long time because Jacques Laffite, with the Ligier-Matra, goes off the track. The Frenchman's car, perhaps due to the failure of some mechanical organ, flies off the road in one of the circuit's chicanes, demolishing three rows of protection nets. Laffite gets out of the car unharmed, but the car is irrecoverable and on Sunday Jacques will have to run with the forklift. Afterwards Depailler and Andretti improve Lauda's time, respectively 1'43"95 and 1'44"04, while Niki goes down to 1'44"27 and Hunt to 1'45"54. Thursday, October 7, 1976 at Watkins Glen the landscape is sweet and pleasant, with the soft colors of autumn, Seneca Lake, on whose slopes rows of vines run as far as the eye can see, woods and farms. A provincial country lyric that ignores the convulsive rhythms of New York, almost four hundred kilometers away. Watkins Glen is a small country town with some tourist pretensions. In this quiet America, however, one of the most important Grand Prix of the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship is held, that of the United States. The Circus arrived at Watkins Glen with its men and its cars, with its problems and intrigues, but above all with an account still open between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Among farms and wooded hills there is a modern and rational racetrack, and it is here that on Sunday the two contenders for the title will face each other in a perhaps decisive challenge.


The track, which takes up the legacy of a road circuit born in 1948 and closed in 1952 after a serious accident, was opened in 1956 and since 1961 has regularly hosted the United States Grand Prix. Six years ago it was improved with the help of a computer from Cornell University, which established the radii of the curves and the length of the straights. Other changes were introduced in 1974: after the death of Francois Cevert, a chicane was created in the section that follows the curve that closes the straight of the stands and the pits. It is a fast track, with elevated curves that complicate the tuning of the cars. It's a track that tends to level out the performances, without exalting the skills of a driver or highlighting the characteristics of a single-seater rather than another. After fourteen races the Austrian is leading the classification with 64 points, the Englishman is second with 56. The first could be World Champion for the second time in a row on Sunday, the second could overtake his rival and take the lead: in this case the Japanese Grand Prix, scheduled for October 24, 1976 on Mount Fuji, would become the race of truth. It is a situation that has been created for many reasons and that hardly at the half of the championship would have been conceivable when Lauda and Ferrari had a considerable advantage on every rival and their final victory was not doubted by anyone. Then, the regulatory problems that poisoned the atmosphere of the Circus and Niki's drama at the Nurburgring, allowed Hunt to reduce the gap. Lastly, the improvement of McLaren and a certain stagnation of Ferrari. The technical argument is in this moment the most interesting: in the very recent Canadian Grand Prix Lauda and Regazzoni were delayed by suspension problems, nor today it is legitimate to doubt the physical conditions of the reigning World Champion, who, after the uncertainties of the first day of practice in Mosport, has recovered very well and appears to be in excellent shape. On Wednesday, for example, it was possible to observe the Austrian driver concentrated and attentive in the unofficial training for Sunday's race; tests that ended with Hunt and Lauda at the top of the ranking, respectively in 1'42"64 and 1'43"08. At the end of the tests, Lauda admitted:


"I am quite happy, the private tests allowed me to balance the car and to find a good compromise for this circuit. I realized that the wing used in Canada was not suitable for Watkins Glen, and I put back the old type we had abandoned after Monza. The car should be faster. At the end I also pulled a bit to feel how my Ferrari reacted. The verdict is positive and I'm especially happy to have saved time".


Dealing with the subject with the engineer Mauro Forghieri, who has been working for sixteen years at Ferrari for the realisation of competition cars, and that the English consider one of the best designers of the sector, the first question that comes naturally is: what has happened to the Ferraris? Has their performance dropped?


"No. All the cars have alternated more or less good performances this year. Let's take a look at  McLaren too: modest in Austria, good in Holland, non-existent in Italy, brilliant in Canada. And so what? There is only one reality: first, there are circuits that are adapted to a greater or lesser extent to the basic characteristics of the cars; second, the technical preparation of the cars can sometimes be deficient, whether due to human error or for contingent reasons, for example, the engines that broke down in the French Grand Prix. Watkins Glen is a neutral type of circuit, which should not favour any car. There is the problem of making the car as little understeering as possible: yesterday's tests helped us. We can be quite satisfied and if Lauda didn't match Hunt's performance it's only because he set his training on preparation and didn't look for the time, like the Englishman. Of course, this is McLaren's track. They have a lot of friends here. Nor is it a place where overtaking is easy. Niki will have to be careful".


Forghieri concludes:


"We want Lauda to have a perfect car on Sunday, he must be able to defend himself, he must be able to stay ahead of Hunt. This is the important thing. I only tremble at the thought of the trifle that could ruin any effort. Yesterday in practice a spring broke in the safety device that cuts off the current to the electrical system, something to laugh at, but in the race Lauda would have retired".


Hunt also appears calm:


"Now I have a great chance to win the title. The McLaren is very good and here it should offer an excellent performance. In the unofficial tests I immediately tried to drive at a high pace: it is the only way to evaluate how the car is going and to be able to fine tune it. I've heard that the Ferrari people claim I snubbed the first part of practice. It's not true. The truth is simple. I suffer from an illness common to tennis players, i.e. an inflammation of the tendons of the left elbow, and I try to spare myself".


The challenge between Lauda and Hunt absorbs the general attention, but it would not be a surprise if at the end another driver would be the winner, especially if it will continue to rain. At Watkins Glen, where there are two fast elevated bends, the six-wheel Tyrrell of Depailler and Scheckter should behave very well, not to mention the March of Peterson and Brambilla or the Penske of Watson. Let's not forget Clay Regazzoni, in these days left aside by Ferrari. On Friday, October 8, 1976, like the French sovereigns of a bygone era, James Hunt received three Italian journalists in his bedroom, in the Glen Motor Inn that in Watkins Glen hosts almost all the drivers of the Formula 1 Circus. The blond English driver, always very informal in his attitudes, lies down on the bed after taking off his worn-out sandals, and with his head on the pillow he gives his somewhat ironic attention to the Italian press, which has been a bit nasty to him so far. A few months earlier he was left by his beautiful wife, who preferred Richard Burton, but Hunt did not worry for long and immediately found consolers equally pleasing. He had himself photographed for a men-only magazine with two nude models, smoked about ten cigarettes a day, drank beer and wine, and enjoyed Big Amon, a game reminiscent of checkers and very popular with the English. He claims to run for England but lives in Marbella, Spain, where taxes are less heavy, with a shepherd dog and a German girl. Anyway, in London he has his brother who takes care of his business. Hunt says he studied trumpet and piano, is not ashamed to pay taxes in Spain and has never voted in his country, England, of which he says he is a good citizen.


"I know many people consider me a hippy or a not-so-professional driver. But what is a hippy? If, as I think, it is simply people who live naturally, without artificial schemes, well I am one. I like to enjoy life. My father wanted me to be a doctor, but at a certain point I got bored. I was more interested in racing. I gave up my studies and I don't regret it".


Then he continues:


"And what does professional racing mean? I am like Lauda, I just do things differently, also because my team allows it. I started racing by buying old car parts from wreckers and I built myself one. I've always loved to make my own way. Well, I would say that means one thing. I'm a good mechanic, I know how cars are made. With McLaren I carry out all the tests necessary for the tuning of the cars and for their improvement, when I'm at the wheel of my single-seater, I don't think about anything else: in that moment James Hunt is one hundred percent concentrated in his work. But what should I do afterwards? Just think about that? No, for heaven's sake, I'm a normal person, which also satisfies my backers, who wouldn't know what to do with a robot".


Hunt smiles, crosses his legs, looks for a more comfortable position, then underlines, perhaps in the fear that someone could misunderstand him:


"Let me be clear that I don't mean to imply that someone like Niki is a robot or a computer, as they have dubbed him. He is a normal man, with his own problems and hopes. We talked about it together. Lauda just chose a team that has its own methods, a certain programming. It's good for him, not for me. To be honest, I would love to drive a Ferrari, but I would like it to be run by McLaren. I'm sure I'd win every Grand Prix. What an engine those cars have".


The journalists then ask what it takes for a man to be a good driver, to be able to aspire to the world title.


"Nothing in particular, it's a cocktail: reflexes, intelligence, willpower, above all willpower. It takes a lot of willpower to stand out. I managed to do it quickly, but I'm not the only one: look at Lauda or Stewart or Clark. If you have quality and you have the luck or the ability to be in a good team, it's impossible not to stand out".


Willpower: you have to use it also to drive away fear, to close your eyes in front of the accident. What did Hunt feel on Sunday, August 1, 1976, as he drove his McLaren past the smoking wreckage of Lauda's Ferrari?


"Fear...there's no time to be afraid. When I'm driving I'm so focused on the manoeuvres and the race that I don't think about the risks I'm taking. If I did it would be better for me to stop. Nor can you think about an accident like Niki's. I don't have the right to do that, at least as long as I'm paid to go out on the track. I do it later, at home, alone. Anyway, I don't want to be a racing driver for much longer, it's a profession where you wear out quickly. I'm a sportsman, I play tennis and golf. If I had been a footballer, I would have retired at thirty. That's not possible in a car".


Hunt sighs, then massages his left elbow.


"It hurts, I have a tennis ailment, inflammation of the tendon. In Canada, before the race, I had to take a cortisone injection, but then only Peterson tried to test my positions. And I answered him properly. On Wednesday I gave up the first part of free practice so as not to strain my arm too much. Between Niki and me we make a good couple".


In the English driver's speech, Lauda's name and Ferrari's name continuously come up. But what is your opinion on the controversial events of this World Championship?


"Niki is an excellent driver and I have no reason to be angry with him. Ferrari, instead, tried to beat us with the regulations. Let's not talk about the British Grand Prix, where Ferrari managed to push the International Automobile Federation and the CSI against McLaren, let's talk about Spain: yes, we were wrong, the irregularity was there, but it was not the result of a trick nor did it produce an improvement in performance. Ferrari has chosen the path of rules are rules, but then what should we say about that gearbox oil radiator placed in an illegal position? Should we ask the FIA to invalidate all the Grand Prix in which Lauda and Regazzoni have participated so far? I know very well that that radiator does not affect the competitiveness of the cars and I am glad that no action has been taken. I have the impression that Ferrari has been badly advised. In any case, I hope that in 1977 our relations will become friendly again, otherwise people will end up being fed up with us and with Formula 1".


Hunt is optimistic about the fate of the championship, believes that on Sunday he can achieve another success, and says that at Watkins Glen McLaren should perform well.


"I will do everything to win the title".


He proclaims, looking reporters in the eye, hard. Then, he laughs amused. Reporters ask if to become champion is willing to sign a contract with the devil, like a certain Dr. Faust.


"Send it to me, then we'll talk".


He exclaims sympathetically, jumping out of bed and leading the journalists to the door, showing himself much less disliked than those in Maranello would like to portray him. But perhaps, the sporting antipathy is also born because on Friday 8 October 1976 James Hunt is the fastest on the first day of practice for the United States Grand Prix, while Niki Lauda gets the fifth time: between the two there is a difference of six tenths of a second. Lauda twisted his face into a grimace and hoped on Saturday, in the last hour of practice, to improve his performance in order to gain a better place in the starting grid.


"I did pretty well, but not as well as I would have liked. All the fault of the bad weather. We started under water, then the track dried, but not entirely: the chicane area, for example, was very wet. It was difficult to fine-tune the car. In the last laps, when I could have pushed harder, I was slowed down by other competitors and my Ferrari started to behave in a strange way, understeering or oversteering depending on the direction of the curve".


Mauro Forghieri, sent by Maranello to Watkins Glen to help the team in these decisive hours, explains the mystery:


"Probably the right rear wheel was not in the picture. In any case, Friday was a lottery, as always happens when you race in wet or dry conditions. The track conditions were changing all the time and, in the same way, the ranking of the best drivers. I would have hoped that Niki would get the third or fourth place, but even so I'm satisfied. On Saturday, if the fog and the rain will allow us, we could do something more".


Due to the bad weather, only a small handful of drivers attempted to race: when Austrian Otto Stuppacher was the first to take to the track, in an attempt to snatch the qualification from him in Canada, the track was almost impracticable due to the water. Seeing this, sarcastically, Teddy Mayer comments that the drivers get a qualifying position that is in inverse proportion to their IQ. The rain stops falling on the circuit just before the start of Friday's afternoon session, and after fifteen minutes in which the track remains damp the drivers begin to opt for slick tires, and times drop rapidly. The best time was set by Hunt, in 1'43"622, ahead of Jody Scheckter and Ronnie Peterson. Mario Andretti (hoping for a win in his home Grand Prix), Patrick Depailler and John Watson are all bracketed between 1'43"0 and 1'44"0 in Lotus, Tyrrell and Penske respectively, while Jacques Laffite is next in the all-French Ligier-Matra. Unfortunately this patriotic little team faces a major set-back when Laffite crashes the chassis JS5/02 during this testing session and although the little Frenchman isn’t injured, the car is badly damaged to put it out of action for the rest of the week. Accordingly, Laffite is forced to use the team’s original car (JS5/01) for official practice and the race. Another surprise is seen in the form of Tyrrell driver Jody Scheckter having a sneak preview of the Walter Wolf financed team (for whom he’s signed to drive in 1977) by trying one of the Williams FW05s with the permission of Ken Tyrrell. Despite not fitting comfortably in the car, Scheckter lapses in a very respectable 1'45"0, which certainly put into perspective the efforts of the experienced Arturo Merzario. While nobody’s trying to pretend the FWO5 is the best Formula 1 car in the world, it’s amazing what a get-up-and-go driver can do in place of all the whining and moaning that the team’s previous drivers have regaled us with for most of the season. The circuit opens for the first session and everybody edges out on to the circuit to feel their way cautiously around. One of two of the aces are taking things a little easily to start with, not wanting to risk their cars on a saturated track during the first hour and a half, as it is almost certain to clear up for the subsequent sessions. But Hans Stuck takes to the wet like the proverbial duck to water and roars his March 761 round in a cloud of spray to record 1'57"751, which looks as though it would stand as fastest in that session until Tom Pryce set a 1'56"807 best on his very last timed lap in the Shadow DN8. Other good times come from Niki Lauda (1'58"998) but the whole affair is rather unrepresentative and the pattern completely changes once the circuit begins to dry-out midway through the afternoon’s hour-long session.


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