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James Hunt Appreciation Page

1976 Season Review
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This page is an in-depth look at the season that James beat Niki Lauda and won
At McLaren in early November 1975, team boss Teddy Mayer recieved some bad news. His lead driver, Emerson Fittipaldi had decided to leave the team, and move to Copersucar. Mayer was not happy. Fittipaldi had won the championship in 1974, and had finished second in 1975. Clearly, McLaren would not be so much of a force without him, particularly as there were very few top drivers left to take his place.

Over at Hesketh, Lord Alexander Hesketh had reached the deadline for getting sponsorship for his team. No sponsor signed in the time, so Hesketh had to fold up, leaving driver James Hunt without a drive in 1976. But late one evening in early November, Hunt's telephone rang. Teddy Mayer explained that Fittipaldi had left, and there was a drive available. Would Hunt like to drive for McLaren?

James signed a contract the day after the phone call, but his first tests with McLaren did not go well. James was too big to fit in the McLaren M23 cockpit.

Over at Ferrari, reigning World Champion Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni stayed with the team, and the new car, the 312T2, a development of the all conquering 1975 car, looked like the car to beat in the new season.

Lotus did further work modifying the Lotus 72 to make it as comeptitive as possible against the competiton. The Lotus 76 had proved to be a complete faliure, so the venerable 72 was again pressed into service. Colin Chapman had ideas for a car that would become legendary, but the 'wing car' Lotus 78 wouldn't be ready until at least the last quarter of the season or early 1977, leaving Mario Andretti and Gunnar Nilsson to drive the 72.

Brabham had bought Alfa-Romeo engines, that were very powerful, but needed developing. Carlos Reutermann and Carlos Pace stayed with the team to drive the new BT45.

Tyrrell stunned the racing world by announcing a 6 wheeled car called the P34. When it was launched the cover was peeled away from the back of the car forward, and the collective gasps from the world's press said it all. Tyrrell had hopes that the new car would bring them great success after two pretty ordinary years. Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler signed up for another year.

Penske signed John Watson, the Irishman, while a new team, Ligier would be a 1 car team, with Jacques Laffite as driver. March signed talented Swede Ronnie Petersen, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Vittorio Brambilla as drivers. March were the only 3 car team on the grid.

The Surtees team caused a stir, by announcing that they were going to be sponsored by Durex. at first the BBC refused to show any races if the Durex sponsorship wasn't removed, but after a while, the BBC relaxed and showed the races.

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The season got started in Brazil, as Argentina had cancelled it's race because of politics. Lauda started off as he'd finished in 1975, with an easy win, while Hunt, who had taken pole had engine problems.

The second race of the season was in Long Beach California, a new street race, on a tight and twisty track around the city. Clay Regazzoni won from Lauda, while Hunt and Depailler crashed into each other. James wasn't pleased, and stood on a corner, shaking his fist at the little Frenchman, and after the race had finished got into a shouting match with him.

In South Africa, there was a lot of attention on the new McLaren M23D, which had rubber skirts on the bottom of it's sidepods. Hunt again had pole, but made a bad start and had to give best to Lauda in the race, but managed to finish second. Lauda had car problems, but was able to hold Hunt off.

The European season started in Spain, with Hunt needing to win. This race was the first race under new technical rules which banned the tall air boxes that had started to come in, limited the width and the length of the cars and introduced new crash test legislation. About a week before the race, Lauda had rolled over in a tractor on his farm, and cracked two ribs, so was in a lot of pain. The race started on a very hot Day with Luada leading for the first 32 laps, until James overtook Niki for the lead, and pulled away to win his first race of the season.

But in the scruitineering bay, the McLaren was found to be a centimetre too wide and James was disqualified. The McLaren team made an appeal against the ruling, but the result wouldn't be heard until later in the season, so the McLaren team had to change the set-up of the car to make it legal. But the work they did made the car undriveable.
Hunt struggled to third on the grid in Belgium, and retired with gearbox faliure. Lauda won yet again, with Regazzoni chasing hard in second and Scheckter in the 6 wheeler third.

The McLarens were both in trouble at Monaco. Saddled with a bad handling car, Hunt managed 13th on the grid, while Jochen Mass managed 15th. Hunt's engine failed in the race, causing four other cars to retire, while Regazzoni smacked a barrier on the last lap, costing Ferrari a 1-2 finish. Lauda won for the third time running (he had been handed Hunt's win in Spain) and was now 41 points clear.

In Sweden, Ferrari did not dominate. Andretti had sorted the Lotus 77 to his liking and was on pole, with Scheckter beside him. The Anderstorp track, with it's long corners seemed to suit the setup of the Lotus and Andretti, used to oval racing was confident for the race. But on raceday, Mario jumped the start, and was given a 1 minute time penalty. He drove as fast as possible, but his engine blew up, leaving the way clear for Scheckter and Depailler to finish first and second. Scheckter went into the history books as the first man to win a race with a 6 wheeled car. Lauda finished third, but even after a moderate race, he had built up a huge 43 point lead in the championship before the halfway point in the season.

McLaren heard the result of the Spanish GP appeal the week before the French GP, in Hunt's favour. Colin Chapman argued the case for the team, citing the fact that the McLaren was the widest car on the grid, and when the new rules were drawn up, the McLaren was the standard maximum width. How could the FIA now claim the car was too wide? Mayer also asked if the scuitneer had used the same measuring instrument under the same conditions to measure the car the second time. When the scruitneer answered 'no', Mayer and Chapman asked how could the result be right. Not surprisingly, the FIA overturned the decision and James' win was reinstated. Hunt got his 9 points back, but Enzo Ferrari was furious, and demanded that Lauda beat Hunt in all the races to come.

McLaren changed the set-up of the car back to it's original layout, and the car was competitive again. Hunt won the French GP, ater both Ferraris retired with engine faliure. Petersen and Watson followed him home.

Hunt went to the British GP at Brands Hatch. Lauda was on pole, and at the start, the two Ferraris crashed into each other at the first corner, starting a multiple pile-up, which Hunt was involved in.

The race was stopped, and Hunt went back to the pits to have his suspension fixed. His McLaren had hit Regazzoni, and had been launched into the air. Then came the announcement that the race would re-start in a few minutes time, but without 3 drivers; Clay Regazzoni, Jacques Laffitte and James Hunt.

At the mention of James, the English fans started a riot. There were yells of anger at the officials, and the fans started throwing things onto the track. It was clear the only way to have the race start was to allow all three cars to restart.

Hunt won a brilliant race after beating Lauda fair and square in a straight fight, but the second the race ended, the protests began again, with Ferrari, in typical two-faced fashion, claiming that Hunt should not have been allowed to restart. McLaren protested that Regazzoni shouldn't have been allowed to restart either, and the matter was sent to the FIA to be sorted out.

In the meantime, Hunt had 35 points to Lauda's 58, as they went to Germany and the fearsome Nurburgring. Lauda had said that the circuit-which was more than 14 miles long and had seen some of the greatest races of all time-was far too long and was not safe enough for modern F1 cars. The press had a field day, and headlines like 'Two Mile An Hour Lauda' appeared.

Race day was wet and miserable, so everyone except Jochen Mass started on wet tyres. At the end of the first lap Mass led by a mile-literally from Hunt and Pace, but behind there was no sign of any cars, and just an eerie silence, and a plume of smoke from somewhere out the back of the circuit. Then there was an announcement that there had been a serious accident and the race was stopped.

Niki Lauda had been fighting his way through the pack of cars, when the rear suspension on the Ferrari collapsed. He slammed into an earth bank and bounced back onto the track, where he was hit by 2 other cars. The Ferrari blew up with an unconcious Lauda trapped inside. He was pulled out by Arturio Mezario and Guy Edwards and taken to hospital. He had severe burns, broken bones and had breathed toxic fumes from the burning car. He was given the Last Rites and was close to death.

Hunt won the restarted German GP, but when he heard of Lauda's condition, he arranged to pay the hospital fees.


Ferrari decided not to take part in Austria, because of McLaren's 'cheating'. James only managed a fourth place finish after handling problems. The race was won by Watson, with Nilsson and Laffitte second and third.

In Holland, Ferrari entered just 1 car for Regazzoni, but had signed Reutermann from Brabham to replace Lauda. Lauda by now was making a great recovery, and was not amused by Ferrari's signing of Reutermann. Reutermann and Lauda quickly took an instant dislike to each other.

Hunt lead for 30 laps, with Watson in the Penske trying to get past. James would come down the straight with Watson right behind, and then pull off every trick to stop Wattie from getting past. Then on lap 47, the Penske slowed dramatically. Watson's gearbox had failed, and a great scrap was over. Hunt won the Dutch GP from Regazzoni and Andretti, his win putting him on 56 points, just 2 behind Niki.

 

 

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Then in Italy, Lauda returned, just six weeks after his horrible crash. He was still in great pain, but did very well and finished fourth. Petersen won, from Regazzoni and Laffite, but Hunt retired. The McLarens had been forced to start from the back of the grid, because the fuel had been tested and had been found, according to the Italian authorities to be 'illegal'. The fuel was legal, as tests proved, but it was too late for James, and Lauda opened up his points lead again.

Then came the news that Ferrari's appeal over the British GP result had been won in Lauda's favour. Niki got James' 9 points, and James was now 17 points behind, with 3 races left.

A furious James went out with a vengeance and won the Canadian GP from Depailler and Andretti, after Niki, in a dramatic role reversal from earlier in the season was disqualified from third after the Ferrari was found to be 3 kilograms underweight. Enzo Ferrari was livid and tried to have the ruling personally overturned but the FIA held firm, causing Ferrari to say he would withdraw the team permanently from F1 unless the rules were re-written. Meanwhile, James kept going, and won at Watkins Glen in the USA after a fierce battle with Scheckter. This time Lauda did finish third, so Hunt went to the final race with 65 points to Lauda's 68.


The first ever Japanese GP was held at Mount Fuji. Hunt had to finish fourth or higher, and hope that Lauda didn't finish higher than 5th. Andretti was on pole, with Hunt next to him, then Lauda, Mass, the Tyrrell drivers, Petersen, and then Pace.

The weather on race day was awful. Heavy rain and mist covered the track, and there was talk of the race being postponed. But the Japanese officials were desperate for the race to start, so at 3 o'clock the race began. Hunt took the lead on the waterlogged track, but Lauda, who had still not recovered from his injuries fully, couldn't see. He did two laps, and then drove into the pits. He got out of the car and said, ''My life is more important than the world championship.'' Ferrari tried to say a mechanical faliure was to blame, but Lauda insisted on the truth, and perhaps he was the bravest person at Fuji that weekend. The Italian press, who had hailed him as their battle scarred hero just weeks before, now called him a coward, and had yet another field day, and Enzo Ferrari never forgave Niki for 'giving up on my championship.'

Hunt led, but was under attack from Brambilla, and Alan Jones, two wet weather specialists. Brambilla spun off, and Jones went into the pits for fresh tyres.

The rain had stopped, and the circuit was drying out. James' tyres were wearing out badly, and he was overtaken by Depailler. But then the Tyrrell swerved as it came onto the start finish straight. It had a puncture. Depailler had driven his tyres too hard, and he had to pit. James had noticed his tyres were wearing out, but in the days before car to pit radios, he couldn't talk to his team for advice, and was waving frantically at his front tyres every time he drove past the pits. Alistair Caldwell, the race team manager responded by hanging out a pitboard with a large question mark on it, which when he saw it, made James start to fume. Andretti now came into Hunt's mirrors. Mario had been saving his tyres by cleverly driving through puddles, and he took the lead. Then with just 5 laps left, as he came onto the main straight, the McLaren suddenly started dragging on the ground and sparks flew out of the back. Hunt had a double puncture, he managed to wrestled the car into the pits and stopped at his garage.

The pitstop went wrong. The mechanics couldn't get the jack under the McLaren, and had to lift the car by hand. Then the front left wheel nut stuck, and there was a struggle to change the tyres. After 47 agonising seconds in the pits, an outraged James drove back out into the race, convinced that his team had cost him the championship. He had 5 laps left to do something, so he charged as hard as ever. The McLaren men on the pitwall were giving him mixed pitboard signals, because they didn't know what position he was in, which made James even angrier. With two laps left, James passed Regazzoni. Then on the last lap Jones's Surtees ran out of petrol and he rolled to a stop.

James, desperately trying to catch the Tyrrell and the Lotus ahead didn't notice the unlucky Australian climb from his car, so had no idea he was now running third. Ahead, the Lotus and the Tyrrell flashed across the finish line, Andretti actually ahead of Depailler and Hunt by a lap.

Unsure as to where he'd finished, James crawled down the pitlane, jumped out of the car and started shouting and swearing at his pitcrew, convinced he'd lost the title, and accusing them of being incompetant. Teddy Mayer and Barry Sheene tried to convince him he'd won, but he was only convinced of his win, when a member of the pitcrew pulled the number 11 off the front of the car, ripped in in half, and waved one of the '1's in front of James' face. James then realised that he'd done just enough and finished third. He was the new World Champion. He announced his intention to get 'absolutely legless' and he immediately went off to party the night away, and he'd won the world championship by just 1 point from Lauda.



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Final standings 1976

Championship Results-1976

Position
Driver
Points
1
James Hunt GBR
69
2
Niki Lauda AUT
68
3
Jody Scheckter ZA
49
4
Patrick Depailler FRA
37
5
Clay Regazzoni SWI
31

6

Mario Andretti USA

26

Position
Team
Points
1
Scuderia Ferrari SpA SEFAC
99
2
Marlboro McLaren Ford
89
3
Elf Tyrrell Ford
86
4
John Player Special Lotus Ford
37
5
Beta March Engineering Ford
30

6

First National City Penske Ford

22