First blood

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The politics: part one

The battle off the track was as fierce as the one Hunt and Lauda were waging on it. Paul Fearnley unravels the tangled web of intrigue that was 1976

The war had yet to truly kick off that began in 1978 when Rumbustious Jean-Marie Balestre was elected President of the FIA’s sporting commission and moulded it into FISA — but the many skirmishes of ’76 marked a departure in the way Formula One’s battles were waged. Blind eyes were no longer always turned; contentious matters were no longer always silenced by a quiet word in yer shell-like. Bigger sponsors, bigger budgets, bigger pressures.

Compounding this, the English national press were over F1 like a rash. It wasn’t the first time — but this time it was personal. Private lives were no longer private. Tit-bits, snippets and minor technical infractions were suddenly big news. British public schoolboy and free wheeling playboyJames Hunt versus cool, calculating Germanic automaton Niki Lauda — it was too good to ignore. Racing drivers’ wives eloping with Hollywood megastars, near-death experiences, near-rioting British crowds — this one had everything.

The teams were dragged along and into this media mire. Paranoia set in. There had been tooth-and-claw title fights before in F1. But not like this one: lawyers, courts of appeal, half a centimetre here, an octane decimal point there. It was the spark that lit the fire that still rages between McLaren and Ferrari.

Without a shadow of doubt, the Italian outfit wielded more influence than the rest of the teams put together. But the other teams were getting together — as much as rival outfits can — in an attempt to put that right. Under the guise of the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association (FICA was dropped for FOCA when someone pointed out it meant something rude in Italian), streetwise Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone eta! began a slow erosion of the CSI, the FIA’s ailing sporting arm. It had already ceded its calendar-setting and sanctioning powers: now FICA turned their attention to the sporting regs. They were an easy target. The F1 rule book was unwieldy and, barring a bright yellow cover, distinctly grey. The teams wanted matters tightening up, they said, and to this end met with CSI representatives at Kyalami, scene of the year’s second grand prix, in March. New regulations were thrashed out, including the beheading of monstrous airboxes — remember Ligier’s ‘teapot’?

A keen air pervaded. But were FICA’s movers and shakers planning to sit back while an ineffectual governing body made a complete Horlicks of it, before muscling in to show how a championship should be organised and policed? Perhaps. What was sure was that the teams had to absorb several bumps and thumps in the short term. The ordure well and truly clogged the cooling apparatus at the Spanish GP in May CSI representatives arrived atJarama, at the behest of FICA, all bushy-tailed, ready to enforce the new-for-this-race regulations with unheard-of fastidiousness. Until they discovered the ruler handed them by the Royal Spanish Automobile Club proved too short. Ironically, FICA’s technical consultant, Peter Jowett, had a tape measure in his pocket, and it was with this thatJames Hunt’s McLaren M23 was discovered to be 1.8cm too broad across its rear track. Gordon Coppuck’s design was the widest in the field and so had been chosen as the yardstick beyond which no car could venture. And then Goodyear altered the profile of its slick, and the ‘balloon’ saw the car burst out of the specified box. Hunt’s victory was erased.

For now. Teddy Mayer, a sharp American lawyer, was McLaren’s team boss at the time: “Before then, if there was a small irregularity, you were simply told not to let it happen again. I think that’s a good system. Being a stickler for the rules is a good system too, as long as everyone knows that’s how it’s going to be. We didn’t know it was going to be like that in Spain. Plus it was all pretty crude the way things were done. James won that race fair and square.

The car was outside the regulations, but we didn’t gain advantage by it.” Where McLaren gained was in some neat loophole-threading. Rear wings could now extend no further than 80cm beyond the centre line of the rear wheels — eight inches further forward than in 1975. This was made an even bigger problem when airbox profiles had to be simultaneously reshaped, radically. These weren’t just ramming air into engines, they were channelling airflow over rear wings. And now they were gone. McLaren’s ‘solution’ was to extend the M23’s wheelbase — repositioned anti-roll bar, longer radius arms — by two inches, moving the wing into cleaner air. But perhaps their neatest touch was an organisational one. They turned up at Jarama with a third M23 in ‘old’ spec. The new rules did not come into force until 1 May — Friday practice was on 30 April. It was a small thing, a show of strength, indicative of the fact that no stone was being left unturned. Mayer: “There was a lot of needle out there.”

The next drama was played out at Paul Ricard in June, when Hunt won two GPs in one weekend. The first, the French, he secured on the road; the second, the Spanish, was recaptured in a French courtroom the following Monday. Just two days earlier, Lauda had been 43 points ahead of Hunt. Now his advantage was slashed to 26. Suddenly the impossible seemed possible. Brands Hatch was next, though. Surely a sense of order would be restored there… (continued page 41) THE POLITICS: PART TWO

The last word?

The second half of the 1976 season was even more contentious than the first. Hunt won the battle, but war was just around the corner, says Paul Fearnley

Luca Montezemolo turned up at Brands hatch. Ferrari’s Ace team manager of 1975 was driving a desk in ’76, but Ferrari felt they needed all their strength in FICA’s backyard. Even he, though, couldn’t prevent people-power from turning the British GP on its head.

It was Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni, though, who nearly tipped Hunt over. The Swiss made a superb start from the second row, only to tangle with team-mate Lauda at Paddock Bend. Chaos ensued. Hunt’s McLaren flew high, landing heavily, wrecking the steering. Red flags flew. Hunt said he saw these and, rather than drag his hobbled car for a whole lap, he parked up on Bottom Straight, behind the pits, from where his mechanics retrieved it.

And then it came, the PA announcement:James Hunt won’t be allowed to take the restart. The reasoning was that he’d not completed the red-flag lap, a fact that carried no truck with 77,000 so-called stoic Brits, who bellowed their disapproval and bombarded the tack with whatever came to hand.

While Regazzoni and Jacques Laffite (Ligier) lined up on the reformed grid in their spares-there was much argument whether this was allowed too McLaren’s mechanics fought against time to repair Hunt’s race car. Fortunately, the unrest gave them 50 minutes to complete the task. The stewards, meanwhile, were under intense pressure, and decided that, as Hunt was “moving in a forward direction” at the time of the red flags, he should be allowed to restart. Translation: let’s get on with it and sort it out later.

The crowd got what they wanted, a Hunt victory and went home happy. Ferrari did not, and went home unhappy. Their appeal to the stewards had been thrown out, but the precedent of Spain meant it wouldn’t end there. All this bickering was pulled sharply into focus by Lauda’s crash at the Nurburgring, but even that was used for political gain by his own team. Shorn of his number one on the eve of Austria’s race, Enzo announced he was sick of the politics and that he was withdrawing his team from the rest of the season. They missed Osterreichring, but it turned out to be an empty threat; they returned at Zandvoort and broke a gentleman’s agreement about only using tyres Goodyear nominated for each particular meeting.

Even so Hunt won, as he had in Germany. He’d finished second in Austria, too. This was a charge that spurred on Lauda’s superhuman return at Monza in September and sparked Italy’s powers-that-be into action. On Saturday, after the second qualifying session the first had been ruined by rain samples of fuel were taken from several cars. On the Sunday morning, at 11 am, it was announced that both of the McLarens and the lone Penske had been excluded because they’d exceeded the octane limit, the McLarens by 0.6. It was then decided they could keep their Friday times. Cheers. This meant they hadn’t qualified. They did all make the grid tail-enders Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards withdrew, and Otto Stuppacher, believing he’d failed to qualify, had left for Vienna but there was to be no fairy-tale ending for Hunt, who tangled with Tom Pryce’s Shadow. The amazing Lauda was fourth, and he embarked for Canada with a 17-point cushion. The pendulum had swung again. But not without a big shove from the CSI who, two weeks later, admitted their checking procedure was inadequate. And that James Hunt’s British win had been annulled. You can imagine Teddy Mayer’s mood: “That whole Monza thing was sheer Italian nonsense. The rule book stated the octane could be plus one over the five-star of the country of origin. But the Italian officials thought 100 was the highest octane rating you could get. It wasn’t.

“As for Brands Hatch, James won fair and square. That wasn’t justice.”

Hunt won in Canada and America to ensure more fun and games in Japan, where McLaren broke a gentleman’s agreement about not testing at Fuji. Touché. It was the weather that had the last laugh, though, monsoon conditions causing threats of a driver boycott. The race might not have happened had not the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association been disbanded at Kyalami; instead resolve weakened and it went ahead. But not for Lauda, who stopped after two laps and walked away from a championship. Hunt understood and supported his rival’s decision, but only after he had secured the most amazing world drivers’ title of them all. The jostling didn’t end there. The FIA, worried by the increasing commercial power of FICA, created World Championship Racing (WCR), a body meant to liaise between them and Formula One.

They immediately stuck in their oar and, by November, word was that the 1977 championship was in doubt. FICA insisted it did not intend to break away a la NASCAR; the CSI said it understood the need for WCR, but that it was nothing to do with them. Chaos. The 1977 season did go ahead, of course, and proved quietas if the sides were regroup ing. But out of the confusion of 1976 had sprung the modem F1 era. It was pivotal. It probably took Ecclestone longer than anticipated to take control Balestre was a fierce, unpredictable foebut he now knew the strengths and weaknesses of teams joined in a ‘united’ front, and the foibles of the Paris ‘Old Guard’. Most important of all, he now knew the huge pull that F1, with its new-found glamour and soap-opera plots, could exert on a global audience.

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