Friday, 28 January 2011

1976 Italian Grand Prix - Monza

September 12, 1976

By 1976 Niki Lauda had established himself as the premiere driver of the day. Since joining Ferrari in 1974 it was the pairing of the Austrian with the Scuderia that had that unique chemistry which could dominate the sport.  Lauda did just that.  When he came to the team it was as the number two driver behind team leader Clay Regazzoni.  However, Lauda was quickly recognized as the pace setter. He scored his first two GP victories that season and duly went on to capture the driver's title the following year winning 5 Grands Prix and 9 pole positions. His dominance appeared set to continue in 1976, as he won 5 of the first 9 races.  Leading the driver's championship by 31 points over Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell), Lauda seemed set to cruise to his second consecutive driver's title.

1976 GP Season - Lauda dominated the early races
The next round in the championship, however, was the German Grand Prix at the fabled Nordschleife of the Nurburgring. Having been the first and only driver to lap the Nordschleife in less than 7 minutes the previous year, Lauda's confidence had to be high.

Wet conditions prevailed as the grid formed for the race and most drivers, including Lauda, who was starting second, chose to start the race on wet tyres.  At the drop of the green flag Regazzoni took the lead, followed by Hunt, Jochen Mass (McLaren) and Jacques Laffite (Ligier). Lauda made a poor getaway and dropped back.  By the end of the first lap the rain abated and dry conditions began to prevail. Most of the drivers, including Lauda, pitted for slick tyres. When he rejoined the race he was pushing hard, trying to make up for his poor start and bring himself back into contention. Just after the fast left kink before the Bergwerk right hand curve, his Ferrari 312T2 snapped to the right and spun through the fencing and into an earth embankment. The car immediately burst into flames and bounced back onto the circuit. Guy Edwards (Hesketh) managed to avoid the Ferrari, but Harald Ertl (Hesketh) and Brett Lunger (Surtees) both hit it. All three drivers stopped and tried to free Lauda, from the flaming wreckage. They were joined by Arturo Merzario who stopped his Wolf Williams after passing the crash.

Brave Heroes - Edwards, Ertl and Lunger save Lauda
Thankfully, they succeeded, but Lauda was very seriously injured. He had lost his helmet when the car overturned and suffered severe burns to his head, face, arms and hands. His lungs were also severely damaged from the effect of toxic gas inhaled while he was trapped in the car. He was rushed by helicopter to a special hospital where, for several days, he was under intensive care.  The situation appeared very grim.  So grim, in fact, that a priest even administered him his last rites. The crash was so horrific that while awaiting the restart of the race Chris Amon (Ensign) decided to end his career immediately and never raced a Grand Prix again. Death in Formula One was all too common in the 1970s, and few expected the Austrian to pull through.

Miraculously, not only did he pull through, he turned up at the Italian Grand Prix just six weeks later, his head swathed in bandages and ready to race. This surprised even the Ferrari team, and complicated things, since they had hired Carlos Reutemann to replace Lauda.  The Argentinian had even used his own money to buy out his contract with the Brabham team in order to race for the Scuderia. The team had no choice but to prepare a third entry for Niki. 

1976 Italian GP - Lauda, bloodied, but unbowed.
Lauda was still ahead in the World Championship.  However, during his absence Hunt had closed up to within 14 points. Honestly though, what could he truly accomplish? As physically damaged as he was from the crash, psychologically he must have been destroyed.  Surely he could never again attain the speed necessary to regain his status as the top driver.

Niki showed that he still had mettle in qualifying. Jacques Laffite took pole position in his Ligier, ahead of Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell), Carlos Pace (Brabham), Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell), and Lauda an admirable fifth.

At the start Scheckter grabbed the lead from Laffite at the chicane followed by Pace but the Brazilian soon fell prey to Depailler, Peterson, and Reutemann. Lauda started very slow and soon faded to 12th.  To the onlooker, the gruelling demands of the race was to much for Lauda, who must have still been reeling from his terrifying accident. Mass, Hunt and Watson were carving their way through the backmarkers. On the second lap, however, Mass was in the pits with a misfire.

At the front Scheckter maintained his lead ahead but Laffite dropped back to fourth on the third lap as Depailler and Peterson went past him. A lap later Peterson passed Depailler to move into second. Regazzoni was in hot pursuit and had overtaken Reutemann and on lap 11 passed Laffite as well to take sixth place.  On that same lap Peterson, who had closed the gap to Scheckter, moved ahead of the South African to take the lead. Hunt's rapid progress came to an end on lap 12 when he spun off.

The tyres on Scheckter's Tyrrell were deteriorating and he began to drop back, being passed first by Depailler on lap 14 and then Regazzoni on lap 23. Scheckter then battled Laffite, fifth, while Lauda followed them closely, intent on a finish.

With Scheckter's tyre woes growing worse, Laffite managed to get by the Tyrrell driver.  Lauda also found his way past soon after. Ahead of this battle Depailler hit engine trouble on lap 46 and dropped back to sixth. At the checkered flag Peterson scored a welcomed win for the March team, with Regazzoni second, Laffite third and Lauda an incredible fourth.

1976 Italian GP - The last ever F1 victory for March 
At the start of the weekend, It was simply amazing that Lauda was in the car and willing to compete. His determination and grit was even more remarkable considering that the fire had burnt off part of one ear and his tear duct mechanism was severely damaged which affected his vision during the race. The amount of pain he had to have endured to qualify fifth must have been unimaginable, but to have the fortitude to not only race, but to overcome it all and fight to a fourth place finish left me absolutely speechless. 

At Monza in 1976 Lauda defined what a true champion should be. He made no excuses, and hid behind nothing.  He simply came to Monza and with this performance showed his rivals that he was the defending World Champion. If they wanted to take the title away from him they would have to beat him on the track. At a moment when we were supposed to be pitying him, he came back, with the heart of a lion, to confirm his place as one of the very great champions in Formula One history.

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