Niki Lauda leads the 1976 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. The event would be won by James Hunt, with Partick Depailier in second place.
1976 was the season to end all seasons in terms of political wranglings, with the results being decided as much by the rule books as on the circuits. Fortunately, it was also a season with plenty of close racing and several new cars to enliven the scene. The main feature of the year, on the circuits, was the terrific struggle between Hunt and Lauda. Hunt actually took the chequered flag first at seven races, in Spain, France, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Canada and at the US Grand Prix East at Watkins Glen. Lauda scored four first places, in Brazil, South Africa, Belgium and Monaco but the second half of his season was badly affected by his accident in Germany which almost cost him his life.
Five other drivers put themselves onto the list of winners in 1976, Regazzoni at the US Grand Prix West, Scheckter in Sweden, John Watson in Austria, Peterson in Italy and Mario Andretti at Mount Fuji in Japan where Hunt finally clinched his title. The season opened with three victories in succession for Ferrari; Lauda beat Depailler in Brazil and Hunt, by a mere 1.3 seconds, in South Africa; then Regazzoni made amends for his display in the last American race by winning the first US Grand Prix West at the newly laid out 'round the houses' circuit in Long Beach, California. Lauda was second there and Hunt was pushed out of the race by Patrick Depailler, driving the Tyrrell 007 while the six wheeler was being developed.
The protests started to flow after Hunt won the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama by 20.97 seconds from Lauda. Hunt's McLaren M23 was found after the race to be marginally over the maximum allowable width and, although the team protested that the discrepancy was due to manufacturing tolerances in the rear tyres, Hunt was excluded from the results. Laffite's Ligier-Matra JS 5 was also excluded from twelfth place for an alleged wing infringement; both teams appealed. Lauda went on to score two successive victories at Zolder and Monaco; at Zolder, he was followed home by Regazzoni and Laffite, and in Monaco by Scheckter.
The Swedish race was a historic one. After Mario Andretti, with the new Lotus 77, had started from the front row and led for the first 45 laps, unaware of a one minute penalty for a jumped start, his engine blew up allowing Scheckter and Depailler to coast home to an easy one-two finish with the two six-wheeled Tyrrell P34s; Lauda was third and Hunt was fifth. James Hunt 'won' two races within 24 hours at Paul Ricard in France. As well as beating Patrick Depailler on the road, he learned that his appeal over the Spanish result had been upheld and that he was reinstated as winner. To add to James's joy, Lauda failed to score in France, retiring with a broken engine. His satisfaction was to be short lived, however, and the British Grand Prix, at Brands Hatch, was to result in more wrangles.
After a first corner shunt caused by Regazzoni's over enthusiasm, the race was re-started, but it was contended that Hunt, among others, had not completed the first lap under his own power and should be excluded. He was allowed to restart and went on to win by almost a minute from Lauda's ailing Ferrari and Sheckter. The race was later taken away from Hunt after a series of appeals by Ferrari and the points awarded to Lauda which made Hunt's championship position look bleak both mathematically and psychologically. Although Hunt had troubles they were nothing compared to what awaited Lauda at the Nurburgring. The race was stopped after rain had swept the circuit to allow the drivers to change tyres if they wished.
After the restart, Lauda was quite far down the field and trying hard to catch the leaders. His Ferrari crashed in flames and he was fortunate that several following drivers stopped or were involved in the accident and were able to pull him from the blazing wreckage, which was some way from the nearest marshals. Even so, his life hung in the balance for a considerable time and his future looked bleak. With Lauda in hospital, no Ferraris were sent to Austria and John Watson won his first Grand Prix, after years of promise, with the Penske PC4. ' When it seemed that Lauda might make a miraculous comeback before the end of the season, Ferrari relented and sent Regazzoni to Holland where he finished under a second behind a very 'on form' Hunt; it was just one year since Hunt's first Grand Prix win at the same circuit with the Hesketh.
Italy saw Lauda make a miraculous return and, although Hunt was openly pleased that Niki was back to fight the title, he was barracked by the crowd and sent to the back of the grid, with Watson and Mass, for allegedly using fuel of more than the permitted octane ratings. It was a decision made on very dubious evidence and effectively robbed Huntof all chance of a good result. In his efforts to come to terms with the leaders, he crashed, without personal harm,on lap 12. The race was won by Ronnie Peterson who gave both himself and the March team a much needed morale booster. The circus now moved on to Canada and here in the United States, where Hunt knew he had to win to pull back some of the lead which Lauda still clung to.
In both races, he did everything that was necessary to score two superb victories and go to the final round, in Japan, with a reasonable chance of winning the title. Lauda had scored a courageous fourth place in his comeback at Monza and, despite obvious problems, he was a magnificent third at the Glen. It seemed that he was not going to give up the championship without a fight. As things turned out, that assumption was wrong and, as the rain swept Mount Fuji circuit where Japan was hosting it's first Grand Prix and getting a thrilling finale for the money, Lauda made one of the most courageous decisions of his life in deciding not to race. After a few brief moments of exploring the circuit, Niki came to the conclusion that the conditions were simply not fit for him to race under, troubled as he was by problems with his eyelids, burned at Nurburgring.
As Lauda climbed from his car, the race went on in truly appalling conditions which were tailor made for a huge accident. The accident did not come, though, and the circuit even began to dry a little. Hunt, who had charged away into a commanding lead - intent on winning the title in style - tried desperately to preserve his wet-weather tyres but with only five laps to go and having lost the lead to Mario Andretti his left front tire deflated. He rushed into the pits where the McLaren mechanics changed all four wheels with amazing rapidity and stormed out again knowing only that he had to make up several places.
Those last few laps saw Hunt give the performance of his life to pull back to third place behind Andretti and Depailler and to take the title by a single point from Lauda. It was quite some time before James could be convinced that he was really World Champion. It was a remarkable ending to a season which would have been dismissed as incredible had it been written as a film script but then motor racing sometimes can be much larger than life.
Before the end of the 1975 season, Tyrrell dropped a bombshell when he revealed his new car - known then as Project 34 - to a disbelieving world; Project 34 had six wheels. Far from being the publicity grabber that many dubbed it, P34 was developed over the closed season and the early part of 1976 to be among the top three competitors. Gardner's thinking in providing the car with four mini-sized front wheels was to maintain - or even improve - the tire contact area and consequently braking and steering power, with a reduction in frontal area to give a higher top speed. When early brake-cooling and setting-up problems had been overcome the car showed that its major advantage was that the narrow front track allowed the drivers to go much deeper into the corners before turning in, allowing them to brake a little later and harder.
Perspex windows in the cockpit sides, to allow the drivers to see the tiny wheels, also let spectators in on the fact that the six-wheeler was something of a handful to drive. Whether P34 would have been quicker than a newly developed conventional Tyrrell is a matter for conjecture but several other teams were rumoured to be thinking along similar lines. A departure from then current F1 design came from March whose 1977 car featured four small rear wheels, all driven. The advantage was again supposed to be aerodynamic, aimed at producing a smooth airflow underneath the rear wing, as well as above. Even without the six-wheelers, 1976 was a year with plenty of interest on the machinery front. Ferrari brought a de Dion suspension system back into racing for the first time since the mid fifties, on the rear of their 31ZT cars.
A de Dion front end was tried, too, but not raced. Colin Chapman's interest had turned towards building a fully adjustable car that could be changed quite dramatically in track and wheelbase to suit various circuits. The car originally had a complex front suspension system with the brake calipers in the air stream between the wheels and the body and acting as an intermediate suspension upright. During the season the car was gradually simplified and became competitive, winning the final race of the season to restore some faith in Lotus's flagging fortunes. Two 'new' engines made their bow with Brabham introducing the BT 45, designed around the Alfa Romeo flat-12 unit, and the Ligier team making an impressive debut with their Matra engined car.
The Ligier-Matra JS5 was originally dubbed the 'Flying Teapot' because of its enormously high airbox but that soon disappeared in deference to the new regulations and the car proved extremely quick. The Alfa-engined Brabham was less successful, occasional bursts of speed being wasted by a notorious lack of reliability. New cars abounded during the season but all the others were very ordinary offerings which were rewarded with varying degrees of success. The four-wheeled Marches were very quick and very unreliable; the new Copersucar did not reward Emerson's faith with any speed; and the new Surtees TS19 was disappointing after an extremely promising early showing.
One high spot was Mo Nunn's showing with his shoestring-budgeted Ensign team who ran a very economical and simple chassis with results that often embarrassed the bigger teams. A sign of things to come may also have been seen at the final round of the championship at Mount Fuji where James Hunt clinched the title with his McLaren MZ3, leaving the Mz6 to make its real debut in 1977: among the quicker cars at Fuji were local entries - promising to be back. Formula One now by 1976 was such a crowded calendar that making real changes to the cars in mid season was a thing of the past, steady development was all that could be undertaken.
In spite of regular rumours, the day of the big manufacturer was over and the face of motor racing was very different from the earliest days. In spite of its early introduction, protracted testing and use of aircraft inspired honeycomb chassis materials, the Mz6 was a late developer. Hunt put the MZ3 (latterly fitted with driver adjustable rear anti-roll bars) on pole three times before the Mz6 made its race debut in Spain. The car's main problem was in the steering, which was heavy and.inclined to severe understeer. By mid-season, suspension changes and a switch to front radiators made the Mz6 a formidable weapon in Hunt's hands.