Despite annual rumours that the race must be moved eventually owing to various local objections, legal sanctions or whatever, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza continues to be the final race in the European Formula One season. Over the years we saw the Milanese circuits change and evolve in many ways, going from road circuit to a combination of road and banked circuit and then, when the banking begun to deteriorate and prove too punishing for the frail Grand Prix cars of the early 1960s, it reverted to a pure road circuit once more. For more than ten seasons Monza has been a slipstreaming blind where the drivers’ iron nerves and reliable machinery have been more important than sheer skill; but that stopped in 1972 when two stupidly conceived chicanes were installed, one immediately after the pits and one at the Ascari curve. Fortunately, after a few years of silly spins, shunts and coming-togethers, the whole affair has been redesigned for 1976. There’s now all ess-bend at the Ascari Curve, and two relatively easy chicanes, one before Curva Grande and one before the Lesmo curves. Now the cars come rushing out of Parabolica, fan out across the wide start/finish straight and rocket away on full song. You could happily sit in the main grandstand today and imagine there were no chicanes at all for the Italian Grand Prix. Despite rumours that there might be a third Ferrari at Monza for the young American driver Eddie Cheever, the Maranello team brings along their usual trio of 312 transversales for Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann. It has been left to the Brabham team to pander to their Alfa Romeo engine suppliers by installing local hero Giorgio Francia in BT45/1B in the first practice session, even though team chief Ecclestone has assured everybody the previous week that he would be running only two cars in the Italian Grand Prix.
In fact, he has been right to the letter of his assurance, because Francia has been allowed only a handful of painfully slow laps before Stuck commandeered it after the clutch centre plate sheared on BT45/3B. Another local driver making his first appearance in Formula One at Monza is Lamberto Leoni, the Young Italian who recently won the Formula 2 Misano race in a Chevron-Ferrari V6, and he has been installed in the second works Surtees TS19, recently vacated by the disillusioned Schuppan. Similarly the McLaren team has given Formula 2 ace Bruno Giacomelli his Formula 1 debut in M23/8, in much the same way as they recruited Villeneuve for the British Grand Prix. at Silverstone. Using Ferrari 312/031 Lauda opens off the first session in fine style on Friday morning, the Austrian driver clearly keen to prove that he is the driving force behind the current level of the Ferrari team’s competitiveness. He ends up fastest after the first hour and a half with a 1'38"97 best. It is a reflection on the progress made on the tyre front since last year that the 1976 pole position time of 1'45"35 (established by Laffite’s Ligier-Matra JS5) was left behind very early on. Reutemann backs up his team-mate admirably with a 1'39"18 best and then comes Watson in Brabham-Alfa BT45/5B on 1'39"21, which leaves a lot of happy cheering faces in the spectator grandstands, as one can imagine. McLaren team leader James Hunt, for whom things simply don’t seem to have clicked in recent races, starts off practice with the built-in handicap of having sprained a ligament in his right foot while playing in a football match in Switzerland earlier in the week. For a couple of days there were fears that he would not be fit enough to race at Monza, but by Friday morning his foot is feeling much better and he is able to practise M26/2 as usual.
Monza is to be Regazzoni’s 100th Grand Prix race and he is anxious to do well, so he feel cautiously optimistic with a 1'40"70 best in a car that hasn’t been unduly noted for its straight line performance throughout the season. Slightly faster than Regazzoni have been both Vittorio Brambilla, uncharacteristically under control in his Surtees TS 19/06, and Jacques Laffite in his Ligier-Matra JS7/03, while both the Tyrrells have managed times in the mid-1'40"0 bracket although neither Depailler nor Peterson can interpret these performances with any air of optimism. One gets the impression, both from the overall demeanour of the drivers and from the team, that the six-wheeler project is virtually over and everybody is simply marking time until the 1978 season arrives with a new car and at least one new driver. In the Shadow team Jones has a hectic time on Friday, recording 1'40"63, before spinning off into the sand at one of the chicanes and sustaining suspension damage on his race car as the marshals pull it out at the end of the session. He uses the spare DN8 briefly before returning to his regular machine in the afternoon only to clip a chicane kerb and bends a suspension rocker arm. Patrese, the young Italian anxious to do well on home soil, records a 1'41"87 best before ignition failure leaves him stranded somewhere out on the circuit for much of the second session. After the success of the team in Austria, first Zandvoort and now Monza haven't seemed to be going the same way. Down at the tail of the field there are all the regular hopefuls camped out on the grass at the far end of the pit lane, the poor relations of Formula One who are so far down the pecking order that they don’t get a proper pit or garage provided. The Monza pits were built in the days when there were far fewer entries for World Championships Grands Prix, and their instigators could hardly have envised the number of cars we are seeing this year.
Saturday morning’s untimed session is brought to an early stop after a short while when Tambay’s Ensign MN08 is involved in a huge accident coming round the first Lesmo curve. At a point where the French driver is just changing from third to fourth gear, the Ensign suddenly whips sideways, hits the guard rail and flips over onto its rollover bar, skating down the circuit for some distance in a shower of sparks. Most cars trickle into the pits, fearing the worst, and some stop at the scene of the accident to lend assistance. Fortunately the Ensign is a stoutly built car (what else would you expect from a place like Walsall?) and Tambay crawls out, unhurt, from the wreckage almost before the marshals reach the hint. Looking remarkably nonplussed about the whole affair, Tambay returns to the pits on foot and the Ensign team begin fitting him out in Regazzoni’s spare MN06 for the afternoon session. Later in the morning Lauda goofs while trying out a set of special Goodyears, spinning his Ferrari into the barrier coming out of Parabolica and returning to the pits on foot to report minor rear end damage. The rear suspension of 030 has been thus grafted onto the back of 031 for the final hour of practice, Reutemann switching to 312/029 for business on Saturday. The final hour proves to be a tremendously exciting battle with the two Ferraris trying desperately to protect their front row grid positions from the combined assaults of Andretti’s Lotus, Scheckter’s Wolf and Hunt’s McLaren. Down tumbled the times into the low 1'39"0 bracket, then past Lauda’s Friday best and into the low 1'38"0 bracket. Within ten minutes of the end of the session it seems certain that Reutemann will take pole position with 1'38"15. But Hunt slips in a tremendous 1'38"08 to take pole position in the dying moments of practice, which prompts a great deal of smiling in the McLaren pit after their shameful treatment at the hands of the Italian organisers at last year’s Grand Prix.
On Sunday morning the usual vast crowd pours into Monza from an early hour, banners in the public enclosures and grandstands obviously proclaiming allegiance to the Ferrari team with at least one begging Lauda not to leave Maranello to join the Brabham-Alfa set-up. Brambilla has written off TS19/06 in the morning warm up at the first chicane, but as Leoni hasn’t qualified he has taken over TS19/07 for the race, while one spectator was killed and several injured when an advertising hoarding they were spectating from collapsed under the strain of too many people. Eventually, almost half an hour prior to the half-past-three start, the cars trickle out onto their grid and Hunt definitely takes up pole position, refusing to be ruffled by the catcalls and jeers from the crowd. Slowly they depart on their pace lap and, bang on time the starting light turns to green to unleash the field. Hunt and Reutemann find themselves swallowed up by Andretti and Lauda as they sprint down to the first chicane with Regazzoni bursting through to take a brief second place. Out of the chicane it is Scheckter’s Wolf in the lead, the young South African ace not messing about or waiting for anybody and extending his lead all the way round the first lap, emerging from Parabolica with a huge advantage over Hunt’s McLaren. Andretti dives past Regazzoni at Parabolica and is third ahead of the Ensign, Reutemann, Lauda, Mass, Brambilla, Watson, Stuck, Patrese, Depailler, Peterson, Jones, Jarier, Giacomelli, Nilsson, Jabouille, Tambay, Keegan, Lunger, Ian Scheckter and Neve. Laffite’s Ligier has overheated on the grid and then stalled, so the French car has been late away after attention at the side of the track, while the Renault has bashed its left nose spoiler against somebody’s rear wheel and this is now sticking up in the air. Laffite has stopped at the end of his first lap for more water to be added, but the Ligier continues at the back of the field and races on without any further problems all the way to the finish.
Hunt is having to work extremely hard to keep up and, when Jarier’s Penske appears in the way they finish their 11th lap, Reutemann attempts to squeeze out the McLaren against the Frenchman as they come up to lap him. There isn’t room for James to go through, so he spins off. The two Ferraris go through in third and fourth places, leaving Hunt to resume in eighth place behind team-mate Mass. He quickly passes the German driver, but then spins again before coming into the pits to have the front end of the car examined. Mechanics jack up the M26, closely examining the brake pads and steering, before returning Hunt to the fray many laps down. He does just one flying lap before the brakes “go funny” and he spins again, this time not rejoining. Monza certainly still shows up mechanical fragility, and engine failures come fast and furious. Lunger’s McLaren is out, its engine almost cut in two by a wayward connecting rod, on the fifth lap; Brambilla comes in with overheating after picking up debris from Watson’s moment on lap 6, and Tambay’s Ensign has succumbed on lap 19. Hans Stuck is doing his best for the Brabham-Alfa team and has got up to fifth place, pursued by Jones’ Shadow which has come through well from its lowly grid position, while Patrese has dropped right back in amongst the mid-field runners after a peculiar moment out on the circuit when has found himself in neutral and taken a few seconds to select any sort of gear. On lap 23 the Renault finally stops with engine failure, while any realistic pressure on Andretti evaporates next time round as Scheckter stops the Wolf with engine failure out on the circuit. That leaves Andretti comfortably ahead of the two Ferraris, cruising smoothly round in confident style and hoping that his newly installed Cosworth development DFV won't let him down on this occasion. he Alfa Romeo challenge ends on lap 31 when Stuck’s Brabham blows its engine, but not before the press-on Alan Jones moves his Shadow through into what is now fourth place.
Fifth and sixth at this stage are Mass and Regazzoni ahead of Peterson, making the most of things with his Tyrrell. A few laps later Reutemann’s engine starts to sound a little rough, the result of a cracked exhaust pipe, so Lauda takes second place from his team-mate but the Argentinian hangs on and keeps close station behind. On lap 39 the last major incident of the race occurs when Giacomelli’s McLaren blows its engine as it crosses the start/finish line. The little Italian driver continues down to the first chicane, leaving a swathe of oil in his wake before spinning on his own lubricant as he comes out of the tight chicane. The two Ferraris are coming up to lap Giacomelli at this point and while Lauda sees the oil and moves to one side, Reutemann doesn’t and spins quickly off the circuit into the sand. A few seconds later he is followed off the circuit by Patrese’s Shadow, which spins in exactly the same place, the DN8 striking a marshal but not injuring him seriously. From this point onwards any vestige of racing is over. Andretti reels off the remaining 13 laps in superbly confident style to score a personally gratifying victory in front of a crowd that he considers to be made up of his compatriots. It is the fifth victory for Colin Chapman’s Lotus 78 (including Nilsson’s win at Zolder), an endorsement of the fact that Team Lotus are back in business in the best possible way. Lauda finishes a steady second, to the accompaniment of cheers from the crowd, while Jones is a deserved third after a lot of hard work. Mass, Regazzoni and Peterson trail across the line in the next three places while Neve is seventh, Laffite a hard-charging eighth and Keegan ninth and last after spinning his Hesketh a couple of times and making a pit stop as well. Not a great race by any means, but, to judge from the reaction of the crowd as they swarm across the circuit on the slowing down lap, a very popular victory indeed.