In Part five of the top ten races we get a bit of a two for one today. The main race of the article is the Japanese Grand Prix of 1976 but we have to touch on the German race from the same year to keep with the back story that, although well known, is still amazing to read today.
It was already known at the time the teams arrived at the Nurburgring for the 1976 German Grand Prix that this would be the last race at the Nordschlife. We have already touched on the track itself in part three when Jackie Stewart schooled the field in the pouring rain but the track was a monster at 14.19 miles that snaked through the Eifel mountains, gaining it the nickname of ‘green hell’. The track was almost impossible to marshal correctly and the sheer length of it made emergency services if the worst happened hard to get to the crash site. The track’s length also meant that weather conditions could be very different from one part of the track to another. And in the weeks leading up to the race there was a fatal crash at the Flugplatz part of the track during a Formula Super-Vee practice session. This was documented as being the 131st fatality at the Nurburgring in its 49 year history.
This promoted world champion Niki Lauda to attempt at getting the race boycotted on safety grounds as it was also raining on race day. However the drivers voted against the boycott by one vote and the race would go ahead. What followed was almost fatal and fate chose the boycott leader Lauda.
The race started as normal with the drivers on wet tyres due to the rain, except for Jochan Mass who was using his experience of the venue to predict the weather drying up. By the end of lap one most drivers pitted as the majority of the track was dry and the wet tyres were burning out. Lauda was one such driver and was trying hard to make up the lost time. He approached the fast left hand kink before the Bergwerk corner when his Ferrari snapped right, straight into the barriers and the earth banking beyond the barrier as well. The car spun back onto the track, engulfed in flames. Guy Edwards was the next driver and avoided the burning Ferrari but Harald Erti and Brett Lunger both hit it. All three drivers had stopped to help Lauda, fully aware that emergency services were few and far between on a track of such length. It took time but they managed to get Lauda out the car due to the flames but they would manage.
Lauda had been wearing a modified helmet and this had come off during the crash, exposing him to the heat, flames and smoke of the fire. Lauda managed to stand with some assistance but would later lapse into a coma having suffered severe burns to his head, inhaling toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood. He would also lose most of his right ear, hair on his right side as well as eyebrows and eyelids. The extent of the internal injuries were so bad that he was given the last rites at the hospital. The Austrian would survive and not only survive but drive again just three races later at the Italian GP as he battled with James Hunt for the title.
This is where we come to Japan. The track in the shadow of Mount Fuji was the host of the first ever Japanese Grand Prix in F1 history. Hard to believe for such a staple on the current calendar. Coming into the event the championship was between Lauda and Hunt with the Austrian three points ahead of his English counterpart. The rivalry between the two all season had been well documented due to a number of issues during the season. Hunt had been excluded at the Spanish and British GP’s on technical protests with the Spanish win re instated upon appeal from Hunt’s McLaren team. Ferrari had seen this a favoritisim by the FIA of Hunt and McLaren and was part of the reason they refused to race at the Austrian GP although the crash Lauda suffered in Germany was the main reason. It meant that the full season was highly charged with much political input. But it had also meant the scene was set for a tense final battle.
Qualifying seen Mario Andretti take pole in his Lotus 77 with Hunt and Lauda second and third. It was race day where the championship would be won and lost and it was wet, very wet. In fact the track was also covered in fog and several parts of the track had running water coming across as the drainage struggled to cope with the amount of rain. There was a lot of debates in regards to whether the race should go ahead but eventually the organisers decided to go ahead, something the majority of drivers didn’t agree with. This group included Niki Lauda and indeed James Hunt who was quoted as saying “I would rather give Niki the title than race in these conditions”. Part of the reason behind the organisers choice was the investment to get the race up and running, over 80,000 in attendance that had paid well for the privilege. But the intensity of the championship battle meant that this race was breaking new ground with live coverage being beamed across the world. This was the start of F1 on TV as we know it.
The drivers took the start as normal and at the start Hunt took the lead with John Watson and Andretti behind. The spray was immense behind the McLaren in conditions more suited to boats than high powered racing cars. It didn’t take long for retirements, or withdrawls as it where, over the conditions to happen. And on lap two one such driver was Niki Lauda. He believed the track too dangerous and was heard stating “my life is worth more than a title.” It was a struggle for the Austrian as well with the damage to his face and eyes from the Nurburgring fire meaning he was also suffering from excessive watering of his eyes due to damage tear ducts. He was joined by others as Fittipalid and Pace. Lauda had thought there was an agreement from the drivers as well before hand.
“What actually happened was that we agreed with Bernie [Ecclestone] that we would do two laps and then all pull into the pits. That way we would have started the race and fulfilled obligations. I stopped, and so did Emerson and Carlos Pace and Larry Perkins in Bernie’s Brabhams, but once they started racing everyone else either forgot or ignored the agreement …” he would say in an interview years later.
Hunt was still out in front and controlling the race. On lap 21 Vittorio Brambilla made a move to pass the McLaren and spun. The March missed the red and white McLaren by inches. This was a close call but the playboy driver was still well ahead of the fourth place needed to secure the title. He now had team mate Jochen Mass behind him playing tail gunner until the 36th lap when Mass crashed out. This meant that Patrick Depallier was now second with Andretti third. It still seemed Hunt’s to lose.
Late in the race the track started to dry and with that Hunt started to lose places. Lap 62 saw both Depailler and Andretti go past but two laps later Depailler saw his left rear deflate and had to pit. Andretti took a lead he was to keep till the end but Hunt had to pit as well with a similar tyre issue. This led to confusion with Hunt now fifth and the title heading to Lauda and Ferrari. Hunt set off in pursuit of Depailler, Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni in the second Ferrari. Depailler took both Jones and Regazzoni on lap 70 with Hunt doing the same the next lap and thus the drivers title, much to his surprise. Hunt was sure he had not done enough due to mixed pit signals as confusion reigned but he had in fact finished in third, one place higher than required to win the title.
It was a chaotic end to what had been a chaotic season with multiple technical protests, infringements and disqualifications amongst it all. But the main story of Lauda and Hunt, two people that got on quite well off the track and couldn’t have been more different from each other as well but where the fiercest of rivals on it, was such a story that they made the film Rush. A story of intrigue, political involvement and near tragedy would turn into one of the most well known F1 seasons ever and always one that reminds us as fans why we love this sport as we do.
Photo Credits: Main Photo: Autosport
Lauda Crash: crankandpiston.com
Japan Start: youtube.com (image from video)
Lauda exits car: mediastorehouse.com