There have been many memorable races during the history of the British Grand Prix but one of the most memorable is the one held at Brands Hatch in 1976. Prior to the grand prix, the Ferrari of Niki Lauda held a comfortable lead over his nearest rival, James Hunt, driving for the Marlboro-McLaren team. The British driver needed to win his home grand prix in order to make up the deficit and spectators flocked to the circuit to witness the event.
BRITISH GRAND PRIX 1976
After qualifying, Lauda was in pole position with Hunt second, a mere 0.06 seconds slower. As the flag dropped the cars swept into Paddock Hill, the first corner that dropped downhill. However, Lauda’s team-mate Clay Regazzoni, fourth on the grid, saw an opportunity to go for glory by diving down the inside of everyone in an attempt to take the lead. The over-ambitious move resulted in him colliding with Lauda’s Ferrari which amused Hunt until he realised he was also about to hit Regazzoni’s car. The McLaren became airborne, landing heavily and damaging the suspension and nosecone. Due to the carnage and debris on the track the race was halted; Hunt limped around the track before entering the pits via a slip-road. The McLaren mechanics began to work frantically to repair the car for the restart although Hunt was preparing to drive the spare car. It was then the arguments began as the rule book was consulted; only cars that completed a full lap were permitted to take the restart and spare cars were banned. The news was not well received by the spectators who had paid to watch Hunt drive to victory and they began to make their feeling known by chanting Hunt’s name and throwing litter over the fences. It was not the normal British reaction but it was sufficient for the race officals to be seriously concerned that things might get out of hand if Hunt did not start. They announced that he was would be allowed to race despite driving his repaired race car under protest from other teams.
When the race was finally under way, Hunt was second to Lauda’s quicker Ferrari and the Austrian opened a gap before Hunt’s McLaren began to close as the fuel load lightened and the handling became more to Hunt’s liking. Hunt put in a mature drive and passed the Ferrari that began to experience gear change problems and went on to win a dramatic race to the delight of the crowd. But in the background were the protest which were initally thrown out by the British organisers but Ferrari were not to be denied. They took the protest to the FIA in Paris where it was, as expected, upheld and Hunt’s victory was overturned, allowing Lauda to extend his lead in the championship.
The photograph above shows the Marlboro-sponsored McLaren M23 of James Hunt exiting Druids bend and dropping down the hill during a practice session for the 1976 British Grand Prix, priort to the arguments and drama that unfolded the following day.
From ‘Moments in Motorsport’ by Trevor Legate.