The one that got away
Jochen Mass 1976 German Grand Prix
With the chance of glory in his home Grand Prix, plus the need to beat his new team-mate, it was time for a gamble… by Adam Cooper
In the 30 years that separated the death of Wolfgang von Trips and the arrival of Michael Schumacher, Germany had just one grand prix winner. Or rather half a grand prix winner, for Jochen Mass’s place in the history books as victor of the aborted 1975 Spanish GP is forever tarnished by the accident that injured Rolf Stommelen and killed four people. But the following year Jochen had a chance to win not only a full-length race, but also his home event at the Nürburgring. It would have made him a national hero.
“To me, in my head, Spain was a non-event,” says Jochen candidly. “It’s good to be there in the statistics, and I was the only one disciplined enough to drive with caution, but one of the guys who was badly injured was a good friend. So winning at the Nürburgring would have meant a lot, because I would have been the first German to win the German Grand Prix since the war, and that would have been nice.”
It would also have strengthened his position at McLaren, a team that was increasingly dominated by James Hunt. In 1975, Jochen had held his own against Emerson Fittipaldi, but from early in ’76 newcomer Hunt had the edge.
“I could cope with Emerson reasonably well, and in some races I was certainly slightly quicker than him. I knew James from before, I knew he was strong and I knew he was a Brit and that it was a British team, so I didn’t think that I would have a particularly marked advantage. Naturally, I settled in to see what would develop. And what did develop was exactly what I had feared, because he was very quick!
“But you mustn’t forget that in those days we did have different engines, which we only learned about much later. I think I would have found it more difficult than 1975 in any case, but I don’t think I would have looked as daft had we been given the same equipment”
Give or take a disqualification or two, Hunt had won at Jarama, Paul Ricard and Brands Hatch. At the ‘Ring, Mass saw his chance to strike back.
“I felt I could have won the 1975 grand prix at the Nürburgring had my tyre not blown near the Foxhole. And in ’76, I also felt that I could do it.
“To drive an F1 car around the Nordschleife was fantastic, because it was nimble and light relative to the sportscars I drove there, which were more of a handful. In a single-seater it was magic, and the McLaren was a good car that handled well there. It was wonderful.”
It rained on race day morning, but it stopped before the start. Nevertheless, no-one on the damp grid was brave enough to fit slicks — except Mass.
“We were all on jacks with no wheels on, and everybody was looking at what everybody else was going to do. Then I called over Herbert Linge, the chief of the safety crews, who had just come back from a reconnaissance lap.
“I asked him, ‘How wet is it? Is it like here, wet but no puddles?’ He said, ‘it’s like this, except at the Foxhole, where water is running down the road.’ I asked, ‘Where is it completely dry?’ and he said from Hohe Acht — that’s exactly halfway. So I told the guys to put the slicks on. They sort of shrugged and said, ‘let him do what he wants to do.’ They had no idea. They didn’t know any more than anyone else, so they had to live with it.
“We did a warm-up lap round the little loop — the first bend, the opposite straight, and then this little concrete stretch and round again to the start…”
In the early stages of the first lap, Mass was just about able to keep up.
“We didn’t have heated tyres then, so on cold slicks it was very exciting! It was difficult for anyone to overtake me, though, and I was reasonably quick until we got to the Foxhole, where it started to float, but luckily it didn’t do too much. So I kept it on the road and then got it straight again on the way up the hill.”
Once he got to the dry stuff, he picked off the cars ahead one by one and, at the end of the lap, only Ronnie Peterson’s March lay ahead.
“I followed Ronnie past the pits. I saw that I could keep up with him, and my tyres were warm by then. I caught up with him very quickly in the dry bit, so I had no worries. I was just taking it easy.”
He slipped ahead of the Swede, and at the end of the second lap had a huge advantage over everybody else. But then this race was aborted, too.
“I only knew that the red flags were out. I had no idea what had happened, I just saw them going up the hill round the back towards the Karussell. I had no idea why; my first thought was they’d stopped it because I had an unfair advantage!”
It was, of course, much more serious than that. Niki Lauda had crashed and the track was completely blocked.
“Niki was a long way back because he’d stopped to change tyres. So he was on cold rubber. He had only a narrow line to drive on with his cold slicks. It was very tricky because, once you got out of shape, they gave you violent kickback, and then you could not control it. I think that’s exactly what happened.
He went over the kerb a little too high, so he bounced to one side and came violently back to the other side and turned into the barrier. I heard from Linge and his guys that Niki was okay, but that he had a lot of stuff in his lungs and was on the way to hospital in Mannheim.”
After a delay a new race was declared and Mass went back to his original grid position, ninth. And this time everyone started on slicks. His chance was gone.
“The restart was so frustrating. Coming out of the Karussell, Andretti missed a gear in the Lotus and I pulled alongside. We were side by side, bumping, up towards Hohe Acht. And I was the one who spun around. I didn’t hit anything, but quite a few cars went past me.”
Jochen eventually recovered to finish third, behind Hunt and Jody Scheckter, but that was small reward for a gamble that could have earned him so much more.
“It was particularly frustrating that I didn’t win it, the last GP on the Nordschleife. It irked me no end, but what can you do? What a pity that it had to happen to me.”
Would achieving a success there have boosted his confidence?
“One thing leads to another, absolutely. Once you liberate yourself by winning one, two or three races, then it leads to more. It’s such a big thing to win a grand prix. Once it happens, it’s easy.”