Date: 10 October 1976
Place: Watkins Glen, NY
Race Winner: James Hunt (GBR)
The 1976 Formula One season is often touted as the greatest of all time. Fraught with danger and courage, the rivalry of Niki Lauda and James Hunt in this golden era is racing lore.
With just two races of a legendary season remaining, Lauda boasted an eight-point lead over Hunt. The Austrian had raced with incredible spirit following his near-fatal accident at the “Green Hell” of Nürburgring, slowing the narrowing of the gap in points between the two.
A wet track ensured that the first qualifying session was poorly attended, though the weather would improve over the course of the day.
The lead continually changed over the course of the second session with drivers changing to slicks, and it was James Hunt who eventually took pole position in fortuitous circumstances. The air bottle of Hunt’s air compressor hit Patrick Depailler’s six-wheeled Tyrell, disrupting his steering and consigning him to seventh place on the grid.
Conditions on the track adopted a new degree of treachery during the night before the race, as snow fell in Watkins Glen. A capacity crowd of 100,000 gathered at the famous circuit, ready to witness the penultimate chapter of a thrilling title fight.
South African driver Jody Scheckter, who started in second position, benefitted from a lightning-quick start as he overtook Hunt on the very first turn. Lauda, meanwhile, began with understandable restraint and ran in fifth for much of the opening lap. Eventually, Lauda was able to overtake Brambilla in third, though he remained well behind the furious duel between Hunt and Scheckter.
Jacky Ickx became the first casualty of the day, on lap 15, when his car veered right at the infamous ‘Anvil’ of Watkins Glen. Ickx hit the barrier, rendering his car a flaming wreck and injuring his legs, and climbed out to safety.
Meanwhile, the frontline duel between Scheckter and Hunt swung decisively in the latter’s favour. Scheckter found himself losing control of the car as the fuel load decreased. On lap 37, the inevitable happened, as Hunt took the lead.
It would be a far from smooth ride to victory, with Scheckter retaking the lead just seven laps from the end. Hunt’s superior machinery enabled him to snatch the lead back, and maintain it to claim a vital win and further close the gap on Lauda.
Lauda’s wounds had bled through his balaclava, but he fought through the pain barrier to clinch third place
and remain four points ahead of Hunt.
The finale at Fuji took place in appalling conditions, with the drivers negotiating a barely-visible circuit. This ultimately forced Lauda to take a voluntary retirement, leaving his crown (quite literally) in the lap of the heavens.
James Hunt’s cavalier attitude towards life inspired him to run the race of a true champion in the closing laps. With a desperate, last-gasp lunge, Hunt crossed the line to finish third and win the World Championship by a single point.
by Tamhas Woods
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