MAURICE HAMILTON

Only in the movies


Ronnie Peterson (March-Ford 761), James Hunt (McLaren-Ford M23), Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell-Ford P34), Mario Andretti (Lotus-Ford 77). Canadian Grand Prix, Mosport Park, 3 October 1976

Ronnie Peterson (March-Ford 761), James Hunt (McLaren-Ford M23), Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell-Ford P34), Mario Andretti (Lotus-Ford 77). Canadian Grand Prix, Mosport Park, 3 October 1976 

 Photo: Allan de la Plante

Just as we were saying how uniformly ugly F1 cars have become, Paul Boggan, a race fan, happened to post this picture on Facebook. Okay, it’s from 1976 when race car design did not need to be as tightly controlled as it is today, but the fine shot by Allan de La Plante illustrates the point.

Here we have examples from March, McLaren, Tyrrell and Lotus; four cars demonstrably different and easily recognisable even if they were stripped of sponsorship colours and painted Battleship Grey. Aerodynamic thinking amounted to no more than March trying(and rejecting) a flat profile nose cone on Ronnie Peterson’s car and McLaren fitting a small aero screen, just visible on the leading edge of the cockpit surround in order to reduce buffeting around James Hunt’s head. When the science of airflow was that basic, the regulations did not need to be pedantically prescriptive.

The picture is also significant because of the attacking attitude of the cars, made even more noticeable by lofty ride heights and an angle of roll that would be unthinkable today. And it has to be said, the impact of the image is also influenced by a battle for the lead which, while it lasted, summed up a hugely dramatic weekend.

This is Sunday 3 October 1976 at Mosport Park, three races from the end of a season so theatrical that the acclaimed film director Ron Howard is making a movie about it. The story line, were it not real, would be dismissed as fantasy.

The fundamental ingredients are these: Hunt, a young Englishman with flowing blond hair, is fighting for the championship against an arrogant (according to the British media) Niki Lauda driving for the horrid Ferrari team. Throw in Hunt being disqualified from the Spanish GP and getting the victory back, not to mention Lauda being given the Last Rites after an appalling fiery accident, only to have the scarred and frail-looking Austrian return to the cockpit six weeks later at Monza – where Hunt and McLaren are sent to the back of the grid.

Now we come to Mosport where the friction is cranked up one more notch when McLaren learn that Ferrari have successfully appealed against Hunt’s win in the British GP. Ferrari claimed James should not have been allowed to restart after the race had been stopped due to first corner mayhem triggered by – no surprise in a season such as this – a collision between the two Ferraris!

On this occasion, an accusation of arrogance had some merit when Hunt preferred to play squash in Toronto and prepare for the race rather than attend the hearing in Paris. Ferrari’s case was indeed marginal but Lauda played an ace – as he would - by turning up in court with his head bandaged and apparently oozing blood, the judges instantly swayed by the sight of this poor stressed soul being put upon by a haughty Englishman who couldn’t be bothered to turn up. Lauda’s lead of five points expanded to 17 at the stroke of a legal pen.

Hunt was beside himself with rage. Or, at least, that’s what he wanted Lauda to think in the hope that the Ferrari driver would keep his distance in a race that James simply had to win. As it happened, Lauda would be plagued by a handling problem that would relegate him to eighth place. But, as the photo shows, Hunt’s job was not being made any easier because of it.

Boosted by a rare win in the March at Monza, Peterson was using all of his extrovert skill to stay at the head of the field. After eight laps, however, the right-front Goodyear began to wilt and Hunt got by. And so, almost immediately, did Patrick Depailler in the six-wheel Tyrrell.

Now began an enthralling contest which I had the pleasure of witnessing from a high bank overlooking the fast downhill right-hander at Turn 1. For 60 laps (there were no pit stops) the feisty little Frenchman would not let Hunt go, both men driving on the absolute limit throughout.

The only time they were more than a second apart was when Hunt, utilising his fine racing brain, played the traffic perfectly. And there were plenty of backmarkers. By half distance, only two of the 24 starters had retired, Hunt having to constantly ensure he was not wrong-footed at any stage, otherwise Depailler, looking for his first win, would have him.

Suddenly, with just two laps to go, Depailler dropped back by a couple of seconds. This was most unlike him. When the McLaren and the Tyrrell took the flag, they were six seconds apart; a lifetime compared to what had been going on for the previous hour and 40 minutes. It was arguably one of Hunt’s finest performances. But the drama was not yet over.

The Tyrrell was weaving noticeably as it crossed the line, Depailler then hurriedly pulling off the road, just below where I was sitting. He fell out of the cockpit and slumped by the side of the car. A line to the fuel pressure gauge on the dash panel had split. For 18 laps, Depailler had been sitting in a fine mist of fuel which was gradually seeping into the padding of his crash helmet.

In the Elf Team Tyrrell Winnebago motor home, Depailler said he felt like he was drunk while driving the final laps on automatic pilot. “And zen,” he grinned, while lighting another Gauloises, “I ‘ave only one eye to see. The left eye, she is completely closed.” Indeed, his eye looked a total mess. But that was irrelevant to Patrick. He was still high on the scrap with James.

They don’t make cars - or drivers - like that anymore. Only in the movies.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

Follow grandprixdotcom on Twitter
Print Feature