“There’s a race going on dear boy!”- Hunt 1976
A moment of excruciating clarity from James Hunt, as he dodges reporters on pit lane in a frantic effort to get his car on the grid and his team to the top of the podium in the 1976 British Grand Prix.
And what a race it was!
Brands Hatch was playing host to what would arguably become the most controversial race of what is regarded as one of the most exciting Formula One seasons in the sport’s history. The race was setting records before it even began, even now being the only F1 race in which multiple female drivers were entered. However, it was the epic battle between Niki Lauda and James hunt, played out against a backdrop of confusion and controversy that elevated the race to greatness.
The 1976 F1 season was Hunt’s first with McLaren after 3 years at Hesketh. He was rejoicing in the competitiveness of his M23, entering the British GP, his home race, with 26 points in the driver’s championship compared to Lauda’s 52. Hunt started second on the grid, in front of an ecstatic home crowd, with Niki Lauda on pole in his Ferrari and the Lotus 77 of Mario Andretti third. Clay Regazzoni was fourth in a second Ferrari.
Off the line Regazzoni managed to get past Andretti and Hunt and was side by side with his Ferrari teammate going into the first corner. The two Ferraris touched, causing Regazzoni to spin and end up facing Hunt. Hunt nearly avoided the incident, but his back wheel touched Regazzoni’s, throwing the back of his car into the air. The landing damaged the suspension of his M23 and the repairs would require a miraculous effort from McLaren’s mechanics if the car was to be fixed in time for the race. Although most of the field managed to avoid the incident, the race was red flagged while the debris was cleared away. This gave Hunt a chance to nurse his damaged M23 back to the pits, via an access road and allowed his McLaren team to get to work rebuilding it.
The drivers, Hunt in particular, were now in limbo as they waited for a restart. There was much debate and confusion as to whether or not drivers would be able to restart in spare cars and whether or not Hunt would make the restart in time and be able to enter the race. Officials had flagged him for contravening the rules by taking an access road to get back to the pits and therefore not completing a red flag lap. The crowd was not pleased at the thought of their British hero being denied the opportunity to race and became quite raucous, chanting for Hunt and demanding that he be allowed to race. Eventually the stewards surrendered to crowd pressure and delayed the restart long enough for Hunt to get on the grid.
Off the line for a second time and Hunt, with an elated crowd at his back, got away cleanly with the rest of the front-runners and assumed second position behind Lauda. Regazzoni followed in third, with Jody Scheckter in fourth. Lauda pulled away quickly, building up a sizeable lead in the early stages of the race while Hunt fought to catch up. Mid way through the race Lauda began to suffer gear selection problems, allowing Hunt to catch him and eventually pass him up the hill to Druids, taking the lead. Hunt held the lead all the way to victory, taking the 1976 British GP ahead of Lauda and Scheckter in a time of 1:43:27.61. It was the first time a British driver had won the British Grand Prix in 18 years, but for Hunt it was “9 points, $20 000 and a lot of happiness”.
Unfortunately for Hunt those 9 points were not destined to remain his. Ferrari disputed his eligibility to race after the restart and sought to have him disqualified for not completing the red flag lap on his way to the pits. The initial protest was denied but Ferrari persisted and won their appeal several months after the race; Hunt was disqualified and Niki Lauda was awarded the win and the 9 points.
Despite the problematic chain of events, Hunt would go on to win the 1976 world championship, taking the title in the final race in Japan after a rollercoaster season that would see the sport forever changed.