Part 3: 1976, A Season To Remember.

The day is here.  It’s all this writer has been looking forward to for almost a year now.  Today Rush hits theaters and if you aren’t planning on seeing it today I urge you to see it asap.  Critics are calling Rush Ron Howard’s best work.  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Da Vinci Code!  Without further adieu I present Part 3 of our 3 part series taking a look at the real life story behind Rush.


Part 3: 1976, A Season To Remember.

lauda and huntBoth James Hunt and Niki Lauda entered the 1976 seasons coming off their most successful seasons in Formula 1 to date.  Hunt was beginning to win races and finished 4th in the 1975 Championship, and was now driving for a contender in McLaren.  Lauda, still with Ferrari, was coming off his first World Championship.  There was drama both on and off the track as well as tremendous feats of bravery and determination.    Throw in the 6 wheeled Tyrell (yes you read that correctly) and there was excitement everywhere you looked in 1976.

Lauda and Hunt started their fight right off the bat.  With Hunt and his McLaren winning Pole at the Interlagos Circuit in Brazil over Lauda’s Ferrari.  Early on Lauda’s teammate Clay Regazzoni led, ahead of Lauda in 2nd and Hunt in 3rd.  As the race progressed Regazzoni collided with Jean Pierre Jarier, Regazzoni had to hit pit lane for repairs handing the lead over to Lauda who was now in front of Jarier and Hunt.  As Hunt and Jarier fought over 2nd Hunt’s car developed a stuck throttle which caused Hunt to crash.  Jarier ran into similar luck when he hit oil 1 lap later.  Lauda maintained his lead to start his title defense with victory.  Patrick Depailler’s Tyrell 2nd and Jarier’s Teammate, Tom Pryce rounding out the podium.


At the Kyalami circut near Johannesburg Hunt once again took pole but was unable to keep a hold of 1st once the race began.  Lauda would go on to win once again, with Hunt finishing 2nd thanks to his teammate Jochen Mass who waived Hunt past.  Mass would go on to finish 3rd.  At the next race in Long Beach Ca. Regazzoni would go on to a dominant victory with Lauda completing the Ferrar 1-2.  Hunt once again crashed.  This time in an incident with Patrick Depailler ‘s Tyrell.

Heading into the 4th race of the season Lauda was leading the Championship and Hunt was nowhere to be found, struggling to finish races.  In Spain Tyrell lifted the cover off of their radical new P34 6 wheeler f

or Depailler.  The car was immediately on pace as Depailler qualified the strange new car 3rd.  Ahead of him were Hunt and Lauda.  When the green flag dropped Lauda once again got the better start and led for the first third of the race.  Depailler and his

Tyrell were back in 4th when he was forced to retire after spinning out and crashing due to brake problems.  Eventually the McLarens driven by Hunt and Mass began to get


the better of Lauda.  Mass retired late in the race with an engine failure, leaving Hunt to cruise to his first victory of the season or so it appeared.  Lauda finished second and

Gunnar Nilsson and His Lotus finishing 3rd.

In post race inspection the Officials found Hunt’s car to be in violation of the rules.  A new rule was put into place for the 1976 season, stating that a car could be no wider than the widest car in 1975.  This ruling handed the victory to Lauda.  McLaren would appeal the ruling on the basis that the inspection was done while the tires were still hot.  The Good Year tires at the time would expand under heat.  After nearly 2 months Formula 1 would rule in favor of McLaren handing Hunt back his victory.

Lauda would go on to win the next 2 rounds in Belgum and Monaco.  Hunt however would fail to finish either race. At this point Lauda had a massive 33 point lead over Hunt and Regazzoni.  Sweeden saw Tomas Schec.  Lauda would finish 3rd and Hunt 5th.  In France Hunt would go on to victory as the Ferrari’s of Lauda and Regazzoni both retired due to engine failure.

Coming off Victory in France Hunt came into his home race at Brands Hatch to a hero’s welcome.  Much to the dismay of the home crowd, Lauda would win pole position.  At

Hunt after the Brittish Grand Prix.  He thought he had won only to have the FIA disqualify him 2 months later.
Hunt after the Brittish Grand Prix. He thought he had won only to have the FIA disqualify him 2 months later.

the start Regazzoni immediately passed Hunt, as the 2 Ferrari’s battled they touched causing Regazzoni to spin, Hunt unable to avoid the Ferrari ran into him as did  Jacques Laffite.  The rest of the field was able to avoid the cars but there was to much debris on the track and the race had to be restarted.  The restart allowed Hunt, Regazzoni and Laffite to take the restart in spare cars amid huge controversy.  With roughly 15 minutes left in the race Hunt roared to the lead, passing Lauda who was suffering Gearbox issues.  Hunt would go on to victory Lauda finishing 2nd and Scheckter 3rd.  Despite their own driver also taking part in a spare car Ferrari lodged a formal complaint to the FIA regarding Hunt’s participation in a spare car.  The FIA would rule in Ferrari’s favor 2 months later giving the victory to Lauda.

The next race would be held in West Germany at the legendary Nordschleife where concerns over safety arose.  The German track was 3 times longer than Interlagos the next longest circuit on the schedule.  With high speeds, close guard rails, the Nordschliefe was demanding and dangerous in ideal conditions.   The start of the 1976 German Grand Prix would start under damp but drying conditions.  Hunt was once again passed on the start by the Ferrari of Regazzoni.  Lauda uncharacteristically started slow and lost several positions.   After the 1st lap many teams decided to pit to change tires which handed the lead to Mass who elected not to pit.  Hunt and Lauda were among those electing to pit.  On the 2nd lap Lauda lost control of his Ferrari due to a suspected suspension failure.  His car bounced off the guard rail, caught fire and then struck Harald Ertl’s Hesketh and Brett Lunger’s Surtees.  Ertl and Lunger immediately got out of their cars.  Arturo Merzario stopped

German-Grand-Prix-1976-Niki-Lauda-Crash-Near-Death-728x427his Wolf-Williams as well and the three helped Lauda out of his car.  Guy Edwards would also join the rescue effort.  With third degree burns on his right side, including parts of his head and face, Lauda was rushed to the hospital.  The question was not would  Lauda race again but would he survive.  The prognosis was so bad that Lauda was given his last rites by a priest.  Seeming rather unimportant at the time Hunt would go on to win the final race ever held at the Nordschleife.

As the series reached Lauda’s home race in Austria, news reached the paddock that Lauda’s condition was no longer life threatening.  Penske’s John Watson would go on to win with Hunt finishing a disappointing 4th.  Ferrari returned to action with Regazzoni in Holland.  The news was even better for Ferrari as Lauda was miraculously recovering faster than anyone would have ever expected and was planning to return to racing.  Hunt would go on to hold off Regazzoni for victory with Mario Andretti finishing 3rd.

Lauda astonished everyone by returning to action in Italy.  A mere 6 weeks after his terrifying accident.  Lauda had suffered severe scarring on his face, lost most of his right ear, most of the hair on his right side as well as his eyebrows and eye lid.  Dispite all of this he would go on to finish a remarkable 4th in the race.  Hunt was penalized for a fuel infraction and in his attempt to charge up the field, spun out and crashed.


Hunt entered Mosport and the Canadian Grand Prix 17 points behind Lauda.  Never one to give up Hunt would go on to win from pole.  Lauda’s Ferrari ran into handling issues and would finish 8th, not scoring any points.  At Watkins Glen Hunt would once again start from pole.  Hunt would battle Scheckter all race long eventually passing him with 14 laps to go.  Lauda would finish third, truly astonishing considering his physical condition.  Going into Japan Lauda’s Championship lead was only 3 points.

The stage was set, Hunt needed to outpace Lauda by 4 points to win the Championship.  Fuji would play host as anticipation reached fever pitch.  Hunt qualified 2nd and Lauda 3rd.  On race day the heavens opened producing tremendous rain.  Standing water formed on many sections of the track.  With some of the drivers protesting, claiming the conditions were too dangerous to race in, Hunt finally started well.  At the end of the 2nd lap Lauda came into the pits and withdrew.  Claiming conditions were too dangerous.  Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Pace would soon follow suit.

Hunt Japan
Late in the race, needing only a 4th position to win the Championship Hunt suffered a puncture, dropping him to 5th place.  Struggling on old worn out tires Alan Jones and Regazzoni were ahead of Hunt.  On fresher rubber Hunt caught them quickly and with only 2 laps remaining Hunt passed them both.  Andretti would go on to claim his first victory in 5 years.  Hunt was able to hold on to 3rd earning him the 1976 Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship.  Lauda lost out by 1 point, which was equally impressive considering no one knew if he would survive his accident in Germany.

After the season relations between Lauda and Ferrari soured revolving around Enzo calling Niki a coward for retiring in Japan.  Lauda would go on to win the 1977 World

lewis and niki

Championship with 2 races remaining.  As a form of protest Lauda did not contest the final 2 races of the season.  Lauda left Ferrari for Brabham.  Lauda would finish 4th in the 1978 Championship and in 1979 he left the sport all together.  In the penultimate race in Canada he retired, stating he was “tired of driving around in circles.”   Lauda went on to start his own airline.  Lauda Air was successful, so much so that in order to expand they needed more capital.  Or so it was said, either way in 1982 Lauda made his return to F1 with McLaren.  During his negotiations Niki told the McLaren money men he was only charging one dollar for his services as a driver – all the rest was for his personality.  The contract was for a then record $5 million.  In 1984 Lauda won his 3rd World Championship over his teammate Alain Prost.  In 1985 Lauda won the final race of the season and finished 10th in the points.  Niki retired for good following the season.  Lauda would go on to be an advisor for Ferrari, served as team principal for Jaguar and eventually ending up as a F1 tv commentator.  Lauda currently is advisor with the Mercedes Benz F1 Team

hunt bbcAfter winning the 1976 Championship and achieving his dream, Hunt’s interest in racing began to waiver.  After 2 more seasons with McLaren and part of another with the uncompetitive Wolf Hunt retired.  Hunt found difficulty adjusting to civilian life.  He drank, smoked and partied even heavier than before.  Eventually Hunt found a home with the BBC as a Formula 1 commentator.  Not taking the job serious at first Hunt famously drank 2 bottles of wine on air during his first broadcast.  Hunt was infamous for telling the world exactly what he thought, often swearing and calling out the slower teams.  Soon though and somewhat amazingly Hunt became well respected in his new job.  Off air Hunt changed his ways and cleaned himself up.  He would go on to marry a woman named Sarah.  The marriage ended in divorce but produced two sons to whom James became deeply devoted.  Reformed Hunt would fall in love with the woman who would be his 3rd and final wife, Helen.  June 15th 1993 she would accept his marriage proposal, sadly a few hours later James Hunt suffered a massive heart attack and passed away.  Among those taken aback by Hunt’s sudden passing was his old rival Niki Lauda, who said: “For me, James was the most charismatic personality who’s ever been in Formula One.”  Throughout their rivalry and amidst the drama and competition Hunt and Lauda were close friends.

If you’ve missed it, check out Part 1: James Hunt, One of a Kind. and Part 2:  Niki Lauda The Ultimate Tactician.

Written by Chad Kennedy

Chad burst from the womb wearing a racing suit and a helmet. Chad's passion for cars is in his very DNA. His father was a gear head and passed on the tradition through owning such classics as a '66 Mustang and a '59 Corvette all while taking him to various race tracks in the area. Chad likes to wrench on his rides whenever possible, forgoing the stealership. Chad is an avid motorsports fan with particular interest in endurance/sports car racing. When not online writing for Shifting Lanes, you can find him working at the local golf course teaching people how to swing or hooning a golf cart at impossible speeds.


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