Forty years ago today James Hunt and McLaren won the British GP – or at least they did as far as the thousands of happy fans at Brands Hatch were concerned. Unfortunately, several weeks later a court of appeal took the victory away, and the history books show that Niki Lauda and Ferrari won the race.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the legal technicalities, Brands ’76 remains one of the most extraordinary events in Formula 1’s history.
Hunt was busy in the days leading up to the Grand Prix. His first big commitment was the Tour of Britain, a combined race and rally event, in which he shared a Vauxhall with BBC TV personality and sometime saloon racer Noel Edmonds. After a crash on a special stage Hunt wanted to retire while co-driver Edmonds wanted to continue. Their discussion became a row by the time it reached the national newspapers, and after they finally opted to carry on Hunt again made the headlines when they were stopped for speeding.
On a more positive note James gained a few more admirers when he appeared on TV in Grand Prix Night of the Stars, a slightly oddball variety show with a bill that featured acts such as Morecambe and Wise. James played a trumpet solo – he had learned the instrument at school – much to the surprise of both the audience and his assembled colleagues.
When the race weekend finally rolled around it was clear that the British fans had turned out in force to support their hero, and the camp sites and car parks around Brands Hatch were packed. James was fast from the start of practice, but he had to cede pole to Niki Lauda. Nevertheless, he was on the front row, and from there victory was in his sights. In fact, Lauda chose to start from the left, rather than the normal pole spot on the sloping right side of the track.
Not for the first time in 1976 Hunt made a poor start, and from the second row Lauda’s team-mate Clay Regazzoni shot past. The Swiss veteran then made an optimistic lunge on the inside of his team-mate, and, just as they had in Spain the previous year, the pair made contact.
“Niki was already turning into the corner and Clay dived in and hit him,” Hunt said in his book Against All Odds. “I was able to enjoy it 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. But it quickly became obvious that I was in it too. I got on the brakes because there was no way through, and I was punted up the rear. Then all hell broke loose. I was into Regazzoni’s car, which was sliding backwards, and my rear wheel climbed over his.”
As Lauda escaped the mayhem Hunt’s M23 reared up on its left-side wheels, before crashing down again. As he drove away from the scene James realised that he was in trouble – the car wouldn’t steer properly, and the suspension was buckled, so it appeared that his race was over.
However, as he came down the hill from the Druids hairpin he saw flags signifying that the race had been stopped, a rare event in those days. Rather than continue on a full lap with his damaged car, he turned into the back gate behind the pits, where he parked the crippled car.
“I turned into the back road to the pits because the car wasn’t steering properly,” he said. “And there were people crowding all over the place, I abandoned the car and ran down the pit road to tell the lads to come and do something about it.”
Hunt’s first thought was that he could use the spare car, and as the grid was reformed McLaren prepared it for his use. Ferrari also got its spare ready for Regazzoni, while Jacques Laffite, another victim of the shunt, took the spare Ligier. However, McLaren boss Teddy Mayer wisely hedged his bets and asked his crew to repair Hunt’s original car as well.
Now confusion reigned. Stoppages were so rare in those days that few realised that in theory teams were not allowed to field a spare for the restart. It was also deemed that only drivers who had completed the lap and got back to the grid would be allowed to take the restart, as the rules appeared to say that only drivers running at the time of the stoppage could get a second chance. Was Hunt running when he pulled into the back of the pits?
“The rules didn’t really state what would happen,” Mayer explained several years later. “One of the problems was that most people didn’t know the rules, and quite often in those days even the officials didn’t know the rules properly. We went in and started to argue about what had gone on.
“I think the officials were fairly confused themselves – they were not 100 per cent sure about what to do. There wasn’t the cut-and-dried procedure that there is now, that if A happens, then comes B and then C.”
A public announcement to the effect that Hunt would not be restarting resulted in an unprecedented display of anger from the British crowd, who thought they would be robbed of the chance of seeing their hero in action. Some even threw bottles and cans onto the track.
In race control debate continued between officials and team managers. Mayer cleverly kept the discussions going just long enough to ensure that Hunt’s original car could be repaired!
“The left-front corner of James’s car was damaged,” said Mayer. “We just took it all off, put another one on and lined it all up. Alastair Caldwell did that while I played politics. The guys did a great job – in the end the race car was alright for the restart.”
The original car was duly pushed onto the grid, and the spare returned to the garage. Eventually officials decided that everyone could take the second start, from their original grid positions, with Regazzoni and Laffite allowed to use their spares.
This time around Hunt made a better start and he slotted into second, behind Lauda. James had used tyre pressures to set-up the car to be better in right handers, and initially he struggled with understeer in the left handers on full tanks. As the fuel level went down, he found some extra performance, and he was able to close in on the Austrian.
“I was going really well now,” he said. “And about 10 or 15 laps before I actually passed Niki, I knew I’d get him. I knew I was getting on top and our lap-times were coming down, down, down. It was quite fantastic.”
Eventually the pair were lapping at a pace close to their qualifying times: “I’d been catching Lauda steadily but not enough and then I was helped by a couple of backmarkers trailing the field. He got the worst of that, and about five laps after that I started stabbing at him...”
On lap 45 James finally made it past as they headed into Druids, and when he came down the hill in front, the crowd erupted. To Hunt’s disappointment Lauda didn’t fight back, in fact he soon dropped away, later citing gear linkage problems.
“After about a lap he stopped fighting. That was nice but I was on top and I wanted him to race me, not just hand over.
“I cruised around after that because If I’d kept my boot on the accelerator, I would have lapped the field. Actually I was a bit annoyed with everybody else at Brands, because where were they? I needed Niki to get a whole lot less than six points for second place and in the normal way there would have been five cars in the 50-second lead I had built up over him.”
James duly came home well clear of Niki, but even as he celebrated on the podium trouble was brewing. Ferrari, Tyrrell and Copersucar all submitted protests, claiming that he had not been running when the race was stopped.
The stewards heard evidence from marshals who indicated that James had been running when the race stoppage signals went out, and before he turned into the back of the pits. Thus on the day at least, the result stood – James was the winner. Tyrrell and Fittipaldi withdrew their protests, but Ferrari did not, which ensured that the matter would go to appeal in Paris.
“I was involved with the officials for about three hours afterwards,” Mayer recalled. “So I didn’t really celebrate except by driving home at about midnight. I don’t know where James was. He probably had a party – he tended to celebrate fairly conclusively after a race!”
In fact, James wasn’t toasting his win in a glitzy London nightclub, but was with friends at a barbecue in a Brands Hatch camp site. For that night at least, he was the British GP winner, and the first Englishman to win the race since Peter Collins in 1958. Unfortunately for him and McLaren, the final result was to be decided in Paris rather than the Kent countryside...