The organising body of the German Grand Prix were split down the middle; the businessmen wanted to run the race at the compact Hockenheim Ring stadium, where everything was safe and clinical and organisational problems were few, while 100,000 paying customers in the arena was money guaranteed straight into their pockets. The Sportsmen were completely opposed to this, they wanted to retain the Grand Prix on the 14-mile Nurburgring, with all its attendant problems and its opposition from sensation-seeking newspapers and antipathy from certain drivers. Even if a lot of the 250,000 spectators got in without paying, such a crowd always guaranteed a respectable profit at the end. More important, however, the sportsmen who had grown up with motor racing and respected those who had gone before them, felt it was an act of treachery to the very name of motor racing to remove the Grosser Preis von Deutschland from Europe’s most famous circuit. It was undermining everything that the sporting world had been built upon since the dawn of motor racing.
A decision was made. The German Grand Prix would opt out of the World Championship series and all the FIA rules and be run on the Nurburgring as a Grand Prix in its own right. As the sportsmen reasoned, “the Automobile Club of the West in France has done it with the Le Mans 24-Hour race, and it is still a huge financial and sporting success. They turned their back on the FIA World Championship series and all its rules and regulations, and the race is still the most famous 24-Hour event in the World”. Someone else also pointed out that USAC had done the same thing over Indianapolis. The Americans had told the FIA what they could do with World Championship status many years ago; they run their 500 Mile race to their own rules and it stands alone, strong on its own merit. The German businessmen went away to consult the word-books and to organise a Formula One event in the Hockenhelm Stadium, while the sportsmen prepared for the German Grand Prix on the Nurburgring.
All around the Eifel district and even further afield, the commercial interests supported the idea of the German Grand Prix being out of the World Championship series, to be an event big enough to stand on its own. The Nurburgring was certainly big enough to stand alone. Entries were invited and starting money was offered in the old-fashioned way of what a driver or car was worth to the organisers as an attraction to the paying spectators, while prize money was announced loud and clear in Deutschmarks, not in the usual secret method of the Constructors’ Union, involving Swiss Francs. All the various trade associations in the Eifel district gave financial support to the race, the hoteliers, the restaurants, the petrol stations, the souvenir shops, the food shops, the beer halls, the ice-cream vendors, the newspaper sellers, the photograph shops, in fact every trader whose income soared during Grand Prix week, supported the Club, with the result that starting money was available that made some of the regular Formula One businessmen blink their eyes.
The entry was as strong as you could wish for, with Jochen Mass and Hans Stuck heading the list. Mass was delighted for he reckoned he could use James Hunt’s McLaren M26, which his friends always told him was the better of the two works cars, as Hunt would not want to take part in a non-Championship event. However, he was quite wrong for James could not get up from Spain quick enough. “Miss a chance of racing on the Nurburgring, where the real challenge is for the driver and not the car—no way,” was the World Champion’s reaction, so the two McLaren drivers had their usual cars. Team Manager Mayer had not actually committed his team to an entry, but it was out of his hands. Ken Tyrrell said “It’s not democratic, we shall not enter,” but what he really meant was that his six-wheelers were in such a technical mess that the team would be better off sitting at home and thinking about it. Jackie Stewart offered to test the cars at the Nurburgring to try and sort out their handling problems, but Ken declined the offer on behalf of Helen and the boys. Mario Andretti said he was prepared to race anything, anywhere, anytime, providing the money was right, and Gunnar Nilsson said he just liked driving racing cars. Colin Chapman’s comment was, “we’ve always raced at the Nurburgring.”
Naturally, Hans Stuck had entered without worrying about whether Bernie Ecclestone would let him have a Brabham-Alfa Romeo, but when Bernie heard how much starting money was being offered he said “Eh!—wait a minute, I must talk to Max.” However, Max Mosley was far too busy to talk to Bernie, for he was scratching around the March stores at Bicester digging out old monocoques in order to build up four more March 761 cars. He had already signed up Rolf Stommelen, Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx and Tim Schenken and had done a deal with the organisers for a mass entry with the two works cars of Ribiero and Ian Scheckter thrown in as make-weight. Bernie Ecclestone wanted to be democratic like Ken Tyrrell, but “business is business” though he was worried about the legality of the whole affair, because he never got involved with anything that was illegal. Almost reluctantly the two Brabham-Alfas were entered for Stuck and Watson. Carlo Chiti looked non-plussed about the whole matter, for Alfa Romeo had always raced at the Nurburgring, so he could not see what the fuss was about. While Max Mosley was assembling as many March 761s as he could, in case anyone like Dieter Quester decided to come out of retirement, he had a phone call from Stirling Moss asking if there was a spare car available. “The historic race is the weekend after,” said Max, but all the same wondering if Stirling had meant for the Grand Prix. Robin Herd came out of his dark corner and confused Max’s plans a bit by suggesting they took the March 2-4-0 six-wheeler for Ian Scheckter to drive. As the Nurburgring is so long, Robin thought it might be a good idea to take a couple of spare wheels along in case of a puncture or two.
From Maranello there came a single entry in a plain red van, with the team personnel trying to converse in Spanish. Carlos Reutemann had entered a 312T2 Ferrari and said “Of course the Nurburgring is dangerous, all racing circuits are dangerous, to different degrees. I like very much to drive on the Nurburgring.” Just outside Salzburg Niki Lauda was mowing his lawns, for nobody had told him what was happening.
The Renault team would have liked to have entered, to see if they could have got a Renault-turbo beyond the second corner, but they declined the invitation saying “… we ‘ave problems …” The Shadow team were down to one car, for Aussie Alan Jones, who said he was prepared to race anywhere. Their new star Riccardo Patrese could not attend as he was presenting the prizes for the Italian Kart Championship at Vallelunga. Allan Rees offered the second Shadow to Chris Amon, but the New Zealander said he had definitely retired from active driving, and anyway he had quietly, but determinedly made his personal point about the Nurburgring before the restart of the 1976 race. Team Surtees had no problems, for Brambilla thought the German Grand Prix always was going to be held at the Nurburgring, and Vern Schuppan was so new to the team that he didn’t really know where they were going. Jody Scheckter looked down from his penthouse in Monte Carlo and expressed the opinion that if there were no Championship points to race for, what was the point in racing. This pleased team manager Peter Warr, for he hadn’t got the Nurburgring on his wall-chart, and to add it in to the schedules would have made a mess of the whole thing. Later Scheckter heard how much starting money his brother was getting with the six-wheeled March, and nearly fell off the balcony of his penthouse.
Morris Nunn had no problems, in fact Regazzoni was already entered and waiting while Mo was having another cup of tea, and Patrick Tambay could not wait to have another drive in Teddy Yip’s new Ensign. Jacques Laffite and the Ligier-Matra team were early entries as can be imagined, but the Hesketh team had only one entry, for Harald Ertl who had borrowed some money for the occasion.
Rupert Keegan had opted out as he didn’t really understand what it was all about and felt that a 14-mile circuit was a bit too much for his stamina, preferring circuits like the short Brands Hatch. Emerson Fittipaldi would have liked to have taken part, but his team were too busy “testing”. When David Purley heard about the race he said “Oh ——–! and me lying in hospital.” The German ATS wheel company entered both of the Penske PC4 cars, hoping that they could persuade Jean-Pierre Janet to run with one on each foot, while Villota and Neve both turned up but were not too sure why. The BRM team were out in force, recalling old successes at the Nurburgring, and entered Guy Edwards and Brian Henton in the two P207 cars, and private owner-drivers Lunger and Merzario “just had to be there”.
Practice went off with the usual alarms and excursions, with engines failing, gearboxes breaking, suspensions collapsing and one or two drivers momentarily losing their way. The six-wheeled March went down the pit road like a train but was never seen again, for Ian Scheckter could not get it round the Sudkerve and it careered straight on down the South Circuit and into the haunted woods. Surprise of practice was the fact that John Watson failed to qualify, not because he was not fast enough, but simply that he could not bring himself to set off round the full 14-mile circuit. He spent the whole of practice circulating round the pits-loop, arguing with the “little people” as he came up the straight behind the pits, but winning the argument every time. Instead of peeling off left and over the bridge to start the full circuit, he turned right back onto the pit area, to go round again and have another think. Other non-qualifiers were Villota, who had become so brain-washed into thinking he should not be there that he gave up trying, and Alex Ribiero who was a bit relieved, as he thought he was going to have to make his racing debut on this arduous circuit.
As can be seen from the starting grid, the twenty-two starters were arranged in rows of 3-2-3 in complete violation of the Formula One Constructors’ Safety Code, but as the event was non-Championship the organisers put in a special clause in the supplementary regulations. They were hoping that Stommelen Would qualify third fastest behind Mass and Stuck, but unfortunately one or two “stars” upset this plan. Jochen Mass was on pole position, and in deference to historical form we append the starting grid in the old-fashioned way, without race numbers or lap times, and cars are just cars and not mechanical assemblages.
When the German flag fell (no cold, efficient starting lights in this race) it was Stuck who shot into the lead, with Hunt and Mass close behind as they led the pack down into the South Curve. As the lanky German driver led the race on the opening lap the cheers of the crowds could be heard all round the Eifel mountains, and when the red Brabham-Alfa burst back onto the starting plateau with 200 yards lead the roar from the huge crowd shook the vast grandstands. The two McLarens were still in hot pursuit, followed by Andretti (Lotus), Ickx (March), Stommelen (March), Nilsson (Lotus) and Laffite (Matra): There was already quite a gap before Derek Bell (March) appeared, leading the rest, but only twenty-one of the twenty-three starters went off on the second lap. Edwards (BRM) had retired at the Flugplatz with a blown up engine, and long after the field had passed Henton (BRM) drew into the pits to see if it was possible to change to his private March 761. As he explained later, if he was going to be last he might as well enjoy the drive!
On lap 2 Stuck was still leading as he breasted the rise at Flugplatz, and was really flying, pulling away from the two McLarens. The electric scoreboard on the Dunlop tower showed him still leading at Breidscheid, and even further ahead at the Karuessel, but then another great roar came from the crowd as it was seen that Hunt was in the lead at Pflanzgarten, Mass second, Andretti third, Ickx fourth, Stommelen fifth and Nilsson sixth. No sign of Stuck. Eventually news came through that the Brabham-Alfa had flown so high over the jump at Brunchen that Stuck had lost all steering way, cleared the Armco and landed in the middle of a camp site, the Brabham draped in tents and sleeping bags. Fortunately everyone was at the rails watching these opening laps, so there were no casualties apart from broken beer bottles. Stuck climbed out of the wreckage, found an unbroken bottle of beer and quenched his thirst while apologising to the tent owners for the damage.
Meanwhile Hunt was leading the race, with “Herman the German” breathing his exhaust fumes, but the McLaren pits signalled to them to “Hold position” and they looked to have the German GP well in hand. Andretti was losing ground in the Lotus, as every time it aviated over the jumps the air under the car became confused and blew instead of sucked, so that the Lotus 78 resembled a kangaroo until it settled down. Even Andretti’s skill and determination could not cope with this phenomenon and while losing ground on the two McLarens Ickx and Stommelen were closing on him rapidly. Nilsson was in similar aero-dynamic trouble and was passed by Laffite. Among the back-markers Lunger and Neve were having a splendid dice together, pressing Ertl and Schuppan, but Merzario had gone way ahead of them and was scrapping with Schenken. In midfield Reutemann had asserted himself and got ahead of Regazzoni and Bell, while Jones was keeping up with them.
For lap after lap the two McLarens ruled the scene, running nose-to-tail in team order, though people were wondering when Teddy Mayer was going to let Mass through into the lead of his own Grand Prix. It seemed inconceivable that he was going to let Hunt win, even though the Englishman could have pulled away from his team-mate at any time he wanted to. Half-distance came and still Hunt led Mass, recalling shades of the 1955 British GP at Aintree when Fangio led Moss in a race that inevitably had to go to the British driver. Now the position was reversed, and if Hunt was any sort of Britisher he would presumably let Jochen Mass by on the last lap, regardless of any signals from the pits.
Behind the two McLarens the scene had changed dramatically, for Andretti was being passed by everyone in turn as the Lotus blew instead of sucked, and even though the wily USAC man eased his pace over the jumps to prevent the phenomenon happening, it meant that he then was not going quickly enough to fend off his pursuers. Nilsson’s troubles were solved by a big bang in his Cosworth engine and he coasted to a stop right beside a coachload of Swedish enthusiasts that Keine Wissell had brought down from Stockholm, so he climbed the fence and they all sat back and enjoyed themselves, recalling the great days of Jo Bonnier, Eric Carlsson and Ronnie Peterson, urging Gunnar to continue the good work. Stommelen had slid onto the grass in a shower of sparks as his March suspension collapsed, and Jarier had crashed the ATS-Penske, and though he returned to the pits on a motorcycle the organisers would not let him continue in the spare car, as he had not come back via the circuit, had but ridden across country. Regazzoni and Bell had been so busy eyeing each other with apprehension that they failed completely to see Reutemann as he whisked the Ferrari past them coming out of the Fuchsrohre. The order now was Hunt, Mass, Ickx, Laflite, Reutemann, Bell and Regazzoni, with Jones and Tambay leading the rest.
With only two laps to go a great roar could be heard from the 25,000 spectators at the Karussel, for it was Mass who appeared in the lead, with Hunt, limping along with a flat front tyre. The roar from the crowd went all round the circuit as the number 2 McLaren led the race. In the Start area the grandstands shook once more as 50,000 German voices urged their hero on. While poor Hunt limped along, hoping to make it back to the pits, car after car overtook him and he slipped right back from the lead. Further back Jones was also in trouble, his gearbox jamming in third gear, so that he too was slipping back, while similar trouble eliminated Schenken and Neve. Almost unnoticed in the general excitement over the change of leader, Jacky Ickx disappeared from a fine third place when the second-hand Cosworth engine in this March blew up.
Hunt made it back to the pits, a new wheel and tyre were fitted and he went back into the race like a scalded cat, even though he was now in last place. While Jochen Mass cruised round the final lap acknowledging the plaudits of the vast crowd, Hunt was setting a new outright lap record, passing Schuppan and Jones in the process, to finish a lowly ninth, but at least satisfied with having lapped the infamous Nurburgring at over 125 m.p.h. average speed.
To say that it was a popular victory would be the understatement of the year. Most of the 250,000 spectators went home happy in the knowledge that they had seen their own countryman win the Grosser Preis von Deutschland, while Hunt was everyone’s hero and the moral victor. Andretti was heard to remark to Colin Chapman that, “… maybe we shou’da gone to Hockenheim.” Patrick Tambay was almost delirious with delight at having finished sixth on this first Grand Prix visit to the Nurburgring, and Derek Bell said he thought this Grand Prix lark was good fun. Reutemann and Regazzoni were wearing dark-brown looks and Saying “… we ‘ave done our best,” while Teddy Mayer was explaining how he was just about to make a team decision about the finishing order, when James did it for him.—D.S.J.
NB.—When it was all over someone pointed out that Vittorio Brambilla had not been seen since Friday afternoon. John Surtees had been so busy looking after his new driver, Vern Schuppan, that he hadn’t noticed and had assumed that Vitt was “just getting on with it and not complaining.” A search on Monday morning found the Beta Surtees down at the bottom of a ravine, virtually undamaged and a note from “Brambles” saying he had gone home as he could not see any way of retrieving the car.