The 1976 Formula 1 season is the stuff of legend. This was the season James Hunt beat Niki Lauda in the championship by a single point, where Lauda had his horrific crash, where motorsport history was made. While the whole season has been the subject of many works, including the 2013 film Rush starring Chris Hemsworth, there is one race that highlighted the politics and race craft that is exemplary of the sport, the 1976 British Grand Prix.
To set the scene, Niki Lauda in the Ferrari took pole at Silverstone with a 1:19.35, while Hunt sat alongside him on the front row with a 1:19.41. This was the ninth round in an increasingly intense season.
Hunt had crashed in the first race at Brazil and lost to Lauda in both South Africa and the U.S. Once Round 4 began in Spain, Hunt took home his first win of the season, but was unfortunately disqualified. His McLaren was initially deemed too wide according to the regulations, but McLaren successfully appealed the decision, reinstating Hunt’s win two months later.
Lauda won at both Belgium and Monaco, giving him a 33-point lead over Hunt. while neither he nor Hunt won in Sweden. Once Round 8 came around in France, things began to turn around for Hunt as both Ferrari’s DNFd due to engine failures.
Lauda still led the championship with 55 points to Hunt’s 24 points. Hunt knew he would have to drive like a man possessed to recover this season.
And it’s here, in Silverstone, where we lay our scene.
Round 9: The British Grand Prix
When the lights went out, It was Lauda who made the better start, but it was his teammate, Clay Regazzoni, who started best from P4. He tried to take the lead from Lauda into Turn 1, where the pair made contact.
Lauda’s rear wheel was broken, and Regazzoni spun before being hit by several cars from behind including Hunt who was launched into the air.
“For I suppose half a second, because it was wonderful, extremely funny, for me to see two Ferrari drivers take each other off the road,” Hunt wrote in Against All Odds.
McLaren, Ferrari, and Ligier all began to prepare spare cars for their drivers believing they couldn’t repair the original cars in time for the restart.
McLaren boss, Alastair Caldwell, recalled the moment: “James came running up the hill and found me. I said, ‘What’s the car like?’ and he replied, ‘It’s awful, the car’s stuffed.’ So I said, ‘Okay we’ll get the T-car [spare] out.’
“Then I wandered down to have a look at the race-car and saw immediately that it was repairable.”
This would prove fortuitous because it was shortly announced by the Stewards that no driver would be allowed to take part in the restarted race unless they were in their original car and had completed the first lap.
There was an uproar. Debate ensued amongst the teams and the Stewards.
“The organiser, a guy called Dean Delamont, was saying to the race teams, ‘You’ve got to take your T-cars off the grid,” explained Caldwell. “This awful big argument was going on. We said, ‘We’re going to race the T-car,’ and Ferrari were shouting, ‘We’re going to race our T-car too!’
“Meanwhile, I was fixing the race car. This took about half an hour to do all this stuff – arguing.”
McLaren did manage to fix their original race car in time, while Ferrari decided to use the T-car for Regazzoni, risking exclusion from the race afterwards.
“As soon as it [the car] was finished, I drove it down, put it on the grid,” said Caldwell. “Literally, James got out of the T-car and got in the race car.”
There was only one problem – Hunt hadn’t finished the first lap. He wasn’t allowed to participate in the restart but there was one thing the Stewards hadn’t taken into consideration, the British crowd.
When they discovered that their fellow countryman couldn’t compete, they lost it. They began chanting “We want Hunt!” and throwing bottles and litter onto the track. It became so intense that the Stewards relented and allowed Hunt to race.
Right off the bat, Lauda led the field after the restart with Hunt in P2 and Regazzoni in P3. Regazzoni retired on lap 37 due to low oil pressure while Hunt remained behind Lauda for 44 laps, but the cars were getting lighter due to fuel burn off, and Hunt found some extra pace.
“About 10 or 15 laps before I actually passed Niki, I knew I’d get him,” wrote Hunt. “I knew I was getting on top and our lap times were coming down, down, down. It was quite fantastic.”
Lauda was held up by backmarkers which combined with a gear shift issue, allowed Hunt to overtake Lauda and take home the win by 52 seconds.
Immediately, Ferrari, Tyrrell, and Copersucar protested the result. Hunt hadn’t finished the first lap, so therefore he shouldn’t have been allowed to race at the restart.
After a three-hour meeting, the original result remained. Hunt had won the race.
Ferrari weren’t having it and appealed to the RAC, the organisation responsible for sanctioning and organising the British Grand Prix. Ferrari used the same argument they had earlier, Hunt didn’t finish the opening lap.
The RAC ultimately decided that while Hunt didn’t finish the lap, his car was still moving when the race was stopped, therefore he was allowed to participate in the restart.
Ferrari were determined not to give up and took their protest to the FIA where a tribunal was held. Instead of sticking to their usual argument, Ferrari took a different route.
Ferrari argued that McLaren mechanics had pushed Hunt’s car before the race was halted, breaking the regulation prohibiting outside assistance during the race. McLaren argued that they had pushed the car after the race was halted.
The tribunal upheld Ferrari’s appeal and disqualified Hunt from the race, handing the win to Lauda.
While Hunt ultimately didn’t win the race, it didn’t stop Caldwell from believing it to be his best race.
“Fuji got him the championship, but to me the British GP was a far better drive. I always say that was his finest hour.”
This was but one plot point in a season-long narrative that eventually established the 1976 season as one of the best of all time.