1976 Monaco Grand Prix race report

Niki Lauda (Ferrari) at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.

Niki Lauda took his fourth win in six races

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Lauda wins for Ferrari

Monte Carlo, May 30th

If you can accept a scratch round-the-houses as a Grand Prix, the Monaco race is a great leveller, for everyone arrives on the Wednesday before the event on equal terms. There is no possibility of pre-practice testing or tyre-test sessions, or even the opportunity to drive round in a touring car, for in places the route used for the racing circuits is in opposition to the normal traffic flow, as in the Casino Square, for example. You could walk round the circuit beforehand but the perspective from eyes at 5 ft. 6 in. above ground level is very different from the eyes of a driver in a Formula One car where they are barely two feet off the ground. If you made a lap on your hands and knees, to get the correct view of everything, you’d probably be thrown in gaol before you could explain that you were not drunk, especially in Monte Carlo.


Consequently everyone was keen to get going on Thursday morning for the first session of one and a half hours, and Hans Stuck was the first away after lining up at the paddock exit before most of the others had got their engines warm. There were two modifications to the circuit since last year, in the form of artificial corners, though no-one seemed quite clear as to their purpose and no-one seemed to know who had planned them or even asked for them. There was a suspicion that they are a throw-back to the days of Stewart and Hulme, when they were shouting on behalf of the GPDA, and were things that did not get done at the time. Whoever thought up the ideas he was not at all popular with the 1976 crop of Formula One drivers, which is probably why he did not reveal himself. In the centre of the wide space at the apex of the fast right-hand sweep uphill at Saint Devote corner, a traffic-island had been constructed, with wide bevelled kerbs so that instead of passing the pits on the left of the road and taking a fast line through the right-hand bend and up the hill, you now had to keep to the right and brake heavily before turning slightly left and then take a right-hand hairpin, starting the hill almost from rest. It also meant that anyone leaving the pits stood a good chance of getting punted up the backside, and during the first hour there were some pretty hair-raising nearmisses. The other new corner was before the pits straight, where the cars leave the “Mickey Mouse” section on the harbour front and previously accelerated hard over a slight brow on a fast right-hand curve. Now they had to take a short piece of straight, turn tightly round a right-hand bend and then take a left-hander to join the road past the pits. As all the new corners were edged with FIA recommended wide-bevelled kerbs everyone was bouncing across them, which not only strained suspensions and drive-shafts and gearboxes but threw the cars off line in a most unruly fashion. Surprisingly few drivers seemed able or capable of placing their cars accurately enough to avoid bouncing over the kerbs, while some obviously drove over them deliberately.

From the word go it was very evident that certain drivers were out to win the 34th Monaco Grand Prix, by the way they got on with the job. Notable among these were Lauda, Laffite, Depailler and Hunt. There were others who were driving as hard as they knew how, but it obviously was not going to be enough to win, while some were clearly enjoying themselves, and there were one or two who were wondering why they were there. Of the 25 drivers accepted for practice only 20 were going to start the race, these being the fastest 20, and though some people can see a great “qualifying” battle taking place, or so they say, the battle is really only between the slowest half-dozen, to see who is the lucky one to be on last place on the starting grid. The first 15 or so are known before practice begins, their only problem being that of starting-grid order and which of them are to be on the front row. It didn’t take long to see that the six-wheeled Tyrrell cars were running well, the front ends glued to the road so that the drivers could put the power on visibly earlier than conventional cars, and their Cosworth V8 engines were obviously in good fettle judging by the great surge of instant power from the slow chicane at Saint Devote. It was not long before Lauda could be seen deliberately avoiding bouncing over the kerbs, while Jarier was driving as if they were not there. Peterson seemed to be thinking of something else on one lap and went the wrong side of the island, and Jones bounced right across it at one point. Amon was going round slowly, running in a new transmission, and Fittipaldi was delayed in the pits when a small petrol fire on top of his engine was doused with enough white powder to have put out a major conflagration.

It did not need much knowledge or foresight to see that Merzario, Pescarolo and Ertl were not going to be in the fastest 20, nor either of the Williams cars very probably. Near the end of this first session Scheckter braked very late for the Saint Devote chicane with Brambilla hard on his heels. While the Tyrrell scuttled round the March had no hope and went straight across the island, the bevelled kerb launching it into the air, and by sheer chance it missed hitting the Tyrrell amidships by mere inches as it bounced off the island and hit the guard rail. It was so close that the March must have passed under the Tyrrell’s rear aerofoil. Scheckter was on “tunnel-vision” and saw nothing of the whole incident, while Brambilla was in a cloud of flying sand, for the centre of the traffic-island was covered in sandbags. There was so much sand about that any further serious practice was over for the morning. Not surprisingly the drivers stirred things up and next day the sandbags were all removed and the bevelled kerb was removed from the apex of the island so that you could run into it without damage, but would have to bounce your way out the other side in emergency. A great pile of old motor tyres was dumped against the Armco barrier, where Brambilla’s March had landed, offering a rubber cushion for a wayward car, but reducing the road width a bit. A knowledgeable friend explained that they were not a pile of old worn-out motor-car tyres, they were a “passive impact resistor”—looked like old tyres to me!

On the far side of the circuit where the road runs down onto the harbour front there had been a corning together between Gunnar Nilsson’s Lotus 77 and Regazzoni’s Ferrari, the happy young Swede accepting full responsibility for what was a simple error of judgement. When he got back to the pits he was not so happy, for Team Lotus had no spare car and Colin Chapman and his team manager were not amused. The Ferrari team dusted off their spare car, while Regazzoni’s new one was straightened out, so while he was able to continue practice in the afternoon Nilsson could not, as new front suspension parts had to be flown out from England for the Lotus. Brambilla also had to miss the afternoon practice while the left front corner of the March monocoque was un-riveted and new parts made and fitted.

Niki Lauda (Ferrari) talks to James Hunt (McLaren) at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.

Lauda and James Hunt (right) confer during the weekend

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For anyone watching round the circuit the fact that the two Tyrrell six-wheelers were first and second fastest on practice times was no real surprise, though it was a surprise to most of the other teams who had been concentrating on their own cars. Lauda was only fractions of a second behind them, but behind them none-the-less, and Depailler’s time, which was fastest of the morning, was 1 min. 31.03 sec., compared to the previous fastest time of 1 min. 26.3 sec. set up by Lauda in practice in 1974. The official lap record of 1 min. 27.9 sec. stands to Peterson, made during the 1974 race, so the new chicanes had achieved their originators’ object of making the circuit slower and (hopefully!) safer, but that was a matter of opinion. Depailler, Scheckter and Lauda were the only drivers to record times in the 1 min. 31 sec. bracket and as they had only just begun to feel their way round, those who were not already keeping up began to feel a bit depressed.

After lunch there was another practice session, of one hour, and the pattern of things did not change materially except that Lauda asserted his position as World Champion and put his Ferrari at the top of the list with 1 min. 30.38 sec., but Scheckter was right behind him with Project 34/3 with 1 min. 30.58 sec.; these two being in a class of their own. Depailler’s efforts were frustrated by a broken 2nd gear in the Hewland gearbox, so while it was being attended to he went out in his old Tyrrell four-wheeler, 007/4, and was not all that much slower. It was interesting that he found it far less easy to drive than the six-wheeler, the most notable difference being that the steering on the 007 car needed “fighting” all the time, with a lot of gyroscopic kick-back taking place, whereas the Project 34 was much more restful. Regazzoni, in the spare Ferrari, and Hunt in the McLaren got into the 1 min. 31 sec. bracket, and were joined by Amon with the Red Ensign who was confounding people with his performance, because it was obvious that the past two or three seasons of messing about had not caused his driving ability to deteriorate, as with some drivers, and he was giving us a standard by which to judge comparative newcomers who either tell us how good they are, or have managers or media men who do it for them. Going back to Amon’s days with Ferrari and the V12 Matra he was always a “front-runner” though never a “top-ace”, and he was still in that position with Nunn’s latest Ensign, which is a rairly unsophisticated, though sound, basic design.

By the end of the Thursday practice the order was: Lauda (Ferrari), Scheckter (Tyrrell), Depailler (Tyrrell), Regazzoni (Ferrari), Amon (Ensign), followed by all those heroes whom we are told are so good. Right at the back, trying harder than most, were Perkins (Ensign), Merzario (March), Pescarolo (Surtees), Nilsson (Lotus) and Ertl (Hesketh), the five who were outside the select 20 on the grid. However, Nilsson’s position there was artificial and providing no more disasters intervened he was obviously capable of elevating himself into the 20, which meant that Ickx would be relegated.

A change in the Monaco format meant that there was no Formula One practice on Friday, for which some teams were grateful, while others just worried, but it was not a day of peace and quiet for the Monogasques for the place was seething in Renault-sponsored racing cars as prolific as Formula Ford in Great Britain.

On Saturday morning the really big noise started up again, and if you have not heard Grand Prix cars blasting through the Casino Square you haven’t really heard proper noise. In conformity with the 1976 ideas of the Formula One Constructors Association, the hour and a half of Saturday morning practice was not timed officially and was meant for doing “full-tank testing” and for scrubbing-in tyres ready for race day, but some teams, like Lotus and March “A” team, were wishing the idea had not been thought of, for Nilsson and Brambilla were more or less starting all over again as far as grid positions were concerned, and McLaren Racing were not too happy either as Hunt and Mass were not as near the front as they should have been. This untimed session meant that there would only be the hour after lunch in which to make a good lap time either to improve your grid position or to get on the grid at all. Regazzoni was back in his new car, the Lotus was repaired, as was Brambilla’s March, and Depailler was back in his six-wheeler. The Ecclestone team seemed unsure about their air intakes and their six-speed gearboxes on the Alfa Romeo engines, Reutemann running with experimental unpainted fibre-glass air scoops and Pace having no air scoops at all, his engine breathing from open top boxes. While Pace was happy to use five out of the six speeds in his gearbox, treating 1st as an emergency starting gear, Reutemann found it all too confusing and preferred to use four speeds out of the normal Hewland five speeds, and this was the arrangement they settled on for the race. Jochen Mass had his McLaren fitted with the secondary aerofoil under the gearbox and Nilsson was running the Lotus without an airbox, relying on ducts alongside the cockpit to deflect cold air towards the engine.

Bearing in mind that this session of practice was untimed the standard of “pressing on” was impressively high and in some cases the driving bordered on the desperate. In all this frenzy Merzario crashed heavily, when the rear suspension broke, escaping uninjured, but wrecking his March beyond immediate repair. One gets tired of reporting that something broke on the March! During the lunch hour the tempo rose visibly and for the final hour everyone gave it all they had got, aiming to get higher up the grid or avoid being in the last five. In an almost arrogant fashion, with no kerb-bouncing or desperate measures, Lauda got well below the 1 min. 30 sec. barrier, with a time of 1 min. 29.65 sec., and as few drivers were getting below 1 min. 31 sec. he sat back and watched the fun. His swarthy team-mate from Lugano, whom we are still being told is no good, joined Lauda with 1 min. 29.91 sec., which consolidated the two red cars on the front row. The six-wheeled boys were still challenging hard, and Stuck got his March among the elite. Then Peterson surprised and pleased a lot of people by clocking 1 min. 30.08 sec., which gave him third fastest overall and fastest of the non-Ferrari drivers. James Hunt, who should have been up with the front-runners, was suffering in silence, as he did in the last hour of the Belgian GP practice. This time it was his gearbox that was playing up, one of the selectors jamming, which meant removing the back of the gearbox, after removing the rear aerofoil, and flicking the selector free with a screwdriver. Three times this happened, so it was not surprising that he ended up so far down the grid as to be unmentionable. Another driver who was having gearbox trouble was Nilsson, the Lotus continually jumping out of 2nd gear. Rather than waste time trying to find the trouble he learnt to live without 2nd gear and strove to ensure himself a place on the grid. Perkins lost all hope of qualifying when the Boro-Ensign had a front-wheel nut come undone, allowing the wheel to move off its driving pegs and then break off completely, rolling away down the hill from Casino Square, leaving the three-wheeled car derelict.

Probably one of the happiest teams at the end of the final hour was the Copersucar-sponsored Fittipaldi family, for the kid-brother had got everything together and qualified seventh, earning an A-for-effort and bringing a happy smile to his elder brother’s brown features.

When the noise and confusion had subsided it was found that Ickx, Pescarolo, Perkins, Ertl and Merzario were the unlucky ones who were not going to start the race, and of the successful 20 the Ferrari team were beaming. Everyone was happy to see Peterson back to his old form, though some wondered if it would last, and Derek Gardner was quietly satisfied with his two six-wheeled cars, and Tyrrell was happy with his drivers. Since being “caught out” by the regulations in Spain the McLaren team seemed to have gone all to pieces and become second-rate, though some unkind people suggested that perhaps they really had been cheating in Spain! The only other anomaly on the grid line-up was Reutemann on the back row with Alan Jones, the swarthy Argentinian never really getting to grips with this “scratching-round-the-houses” business.


The field heads into Saint Devote at the start at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.

The field heads into Saint Devote at the start

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The 78-lap race was not due to start until three-thirty on Sunday afternoon but there was plenty to keep the crowds interested throughout the morning and the lunch hour, with a test-session or warm-up period for the Formula One cars, a Formula Renault race, parades of old cars and publicity caravans, a continual flow of yachts and motor cruisers entering the harbour, warm sunshine and the anticipation of a pretty heated race after all the practice excitement. Shortly before the start was due Prince Rainier, accompanied by Princess Grace, drove round the circuit in a drophead Mercedes-Benz and then the 20 Grand Prix cars did a warm-up lap and lined up on the grid in staggered formation, effectively forming a 1 x 1 grid. The starting signal was given by some impersonal coloured lights, shining red for 10 seconds, then these went out and a set of green ones lit up. Not a very dramatic starting arrangement for a dramatic race, but typical of the “Social Security” mentality of the Formula One contestants of today.

As is becoming a habit, Lauda was gone, while Peterson made a superb start and beat Regazzoni to the Saint Devote chicane, so up the hill on the opening lap it was Lauda (Ferrari), Peterson (March), Regazzoni (Ferrari), Depailler (Tyrrell six-wheeler), Scheckter (Tyrrell six-wheeler), Fittipaldi and almost all the rest. Reutemann and Jones had collided at the chicane, the Surtees limping round to the pits to retire with damaged suspension, the Brabham-Alfa Romeo stopping at the chicane with a bent front end. Next time round there was no change, for making changes in race positions at Monaco is pretty difficult due to a lack of space, so it’s more a question of follow-my-leader and hope the chap in front makes a small mistake which will allow you to get by and move up a place. In fact there were 17 drivers who would clearly have liked to be able to “follow-my-leader” but Lauda was not interested in waiting for them, and his lead by the end of lap 3 was either staggering, embarrassing or plain ludicrous, depending on your particular bias. Needless to say there was a pretty good percentage of Ferrari enthusiasts among the Monaco spectators and had Lauda had time to look he would have had no doubts as to where they were. Win or lose, it seems that a Ferrari enthusiast is proud of the fact and is not ashamed to let everyone know.

By five laps a pattern had formed, which was interesting and pleasing to see, for Lauda was away on his own, driving with a visibly neat precision that many of the others could have benefited from watching. Then came Peterson with most of his old fire, but no doubt wondering which part of his March was going to break, with Regazzoni and the Tyrrell twins in hot pursuit. There was already a slight gap before Emerson Fittipaldi appeared, with Stuck, Laflite and Brambilla looking so desperate behind the. Brazilian’s car that he must have been holding them up. Another gap had appeared before the two unhappy McLaren drivers arrived, Hunt wishing his team-mate would let him by, and Jarier and Pace were just behind them. More dead time and then came Amon who had hurt his Zolder-injured wrist during the morning test-session and was not feeling too good. He was followed by Pryce, clearly disenchanted with the struggling Shadow team, Nilsson. Watson and Leclere The way Lauda was gaining half a second a lap from Peterson was beginning to get embarrassing, even for a Ferrari enthusiast, but it was pure fact and he was looking neat and tidy with it; no desperate scratching to open up an early lead, just forceful and relentless hard driving. Hunt made a boob down on the harbour front and dropped to the back of the field on lap 8, and on the next lap Brambilla was all over the place at the Rascasse and retired instantly from the fray. I hardly like to say it again, but something broke on the March Suspension.

Sitting in third place behind Peterson the rugged Regazzoni was beginning to look as though he was getting a bit “ratty”at not being able to get by, as were the duo behind Fittipaldi, but there is not much you can do about it at Monaco. Hunt found the same frustration when he caught up with the “red light” of the race, which was Ledere’s Williams, though he did manage to get by, which put him behind Watson, but passing the bearded Irishman in the Penske was another story. At 15 laps the right rear wheel of Depailler’s Tyrrell looked as though it was leaning inwards an undue amount, and as Scheckter had gone ahead, there was obviously something wrong. The inner mounting of the right-hand top link had broken and the wheel really was leaning inwards, but the little Frenchman was making allowances and still holding fifth place. With eight seconds lead over Peterson, and in today’s close racing one second is reckoned to be night and day, Lauda held the gap steady, pacing himself by those behind, and that was the scene at 25 laps, except that at that moment Hunt’s Nicholson-McLaren Cosworth engine blew up at the harbour chicane and Regazzoni skated up the escape road on the oil, allowing the two Tyrrells to go by before he could gather it all up. On lap 28 Peterson crashed at the new Tabac corner on the lower harbour front and this time nothing broke on the Marcia. The Swede reckoned he spun on oil spread along the course from tyres running through Hunt’s spilt oil. No one else suffered from this problem.

Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell) is followed by Vittorio Brambilla (March) at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.

Patrick Depailler is followed by Vittorio Brambilla into Loews

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Reviewing the situation at 30 laps found Lauda looking as smooth and confident as ever, the Ferrari flat-12 sounding perfect and looking perfect, Scheckter and Depailler in second and third places, inherited b other drivers’ misfortunes, Regazzoni in fourth place, striving to make amends, and then a very long gap before Laffite arrived with the Ligier, having found an opportunity to get by Fittipaldi who was in sixth place, with Stuck and Mass pressing him hard. Then came Jarier, having a lonely drive in his Shadow, and a while later Pace was striving desperately to keep his Brabham-Alfa Romeo ahead of Amon, Pryce, Nilsson and Watson. Already lapped by Lauda was Leclerc in the lone Wolf Williams. With Peterson dropping out and his spin delaying the Tyrrells, Lauda now had 16 sec. lead and providing nothing untoward happened the result of the race was a foregone conclusion, though the situation behind him was still fluid. As Lauda came up to lap Pace, Anton, Pryce, Nilsson and Watson, who were scrapping nose-to-tail, it looked as if the Ferrari might be held up, but it went through them in the space of three laps, leaving Scheckter to worry about the problem next. Studs and Mass wore Fittipaldi down, and moved ahead by lap 40, and Amon had to give up his fight behind Pace as the pain in his right wrist was so bad that he could no longer find the strength to change gear properly. He tried reaching across with his left-hand to change gear, but after one or two hectic moments getting his arms crossed up with the car sliding he dropped the idea and settled for cruising round using as few gears as possible, just to try and finish. Regazzoni was making up ground on the Tyrrells and with the odd handling of Project 34/2 Depailler was not going to be able to fend off the Ferrari attack.

Almost unnoticed Nilsson disappeared from the race when the Cosworth engine in his Lotus blew up, and by lap 50 Stuck was trying hard to catch Laffite and take fifth place, but was about to be lapped by the leader. Then the Ligier broke its first gear and Laflite could no longer stay ahead of the white March, and it was the French car that got lapped by the leading Ferrari, on lap 54.

However, two laps later and the March was a lap behind the leader and Lauda now had a very clear road in front of him. It was only a matter of time before Regazzoni caught and passed the ailing Tyrrell of Depailler, which he did on lap 64, and then a few spots of rain began to fall; not enough to dampen the road surface but sufficient to show up on the drivers’ visors and cause a few hearts to flutter. One driver that hesitated was Jarier, and immediately his team-mate Pryce nipped by, but the rain did not develop so the final outcome was not really affected. On lap 71, with only seven more to go, Lauda lapped Watson in the Penske for the second time, and while Depailler cased off and concentrated on getting his six-wheeled Tyrrell to the finish, safe in fourth place, Regazzoni attacked Scheckter to try and regain his rightful second place. With only four laps to go he overdid things in the “Mickey Mouse” section guard-rail alley by the swimming pool and wrote the nose off the Ferrari against the steel barriers. This meant that only Scheckter and Depailler remained on the same lap as the leader and as Lauda continued his dominant way round Monte Carlo for the last time in the 34th Grand Prix through the city, Laffite lost fifth place when the Ligier spun due to a soft tyre, and as he gathered it up he was punted into the barrier by the McLaren of Jochen Mass and a smashed wheel prevented him from getting the chequered flag. Lauda made no mistake about acknowledging the chequered flat and for the second year running graciously kissed the hand of Princess Grace of Monaco as he received the winner’s cup, while a smiling Prince Rainier looked on benevolently.

Niki Lauda stands on the podium after emerging victorious at the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix.

Niki Lauda stands on the podium after emerging victorious

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With the two six-wheeled Tyrrells in second and third places, and the only cars to stay on the same lap as. the winner, ELF undoubtedly felt very happy about their sponsorship of Team Tyrrell. March at last broke their record by finishing one car out of four, even if the other three. were wrecked, and the Fittipaldi team in finishing sixth really feel they have got over their doldrums.—D.S.J.