• German Grand Prix

Hunt's win forgotten as Lauda's life hangs in the balance

ESPNF1 Staff
August 1, 1976
Niki Lauda's Ferrari spews flames after his crash at the Nurburgring © Press Association

James Hunt won the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring but no-one remembers that. Instead, the abiding memory of the race is a burning Ferrari with an unconscious Niki Lauda trapped within.

Hunt headed to Germany buoyed by his win in the British Grand Prix - a result that was later to be overturned - and while Lauda was a long way clear in the drivers' championship, Hunt's title hopes were still alive. By the end of the weekend in Germany he had become, in terrible circumstances, odds-on favourite as Lauda clung to life in a nearby hospital.

Ironically, Lauda had been one of the most vociferous critics of the course. "I did not want to start the race," he said shortly after regaining consciousness a few days later. "I did so out of loyalty towards my firm and my friends. It was not a good compromise for me."

The Nürburgring was one of F1's most famous courses but was also a dangerous relic to an era when safety was not as important as spectacle. Drivers may have respected the 14-mile circuit but few liked it. In the weeks ahead of the race there was even a risk a severe drought might force it to be cancelled because of the risk of fire in the heavily wooded areas surrounding the track. It was ironic, therefore, that the day of the race was wet.

Hunt, in his old M23 as the finishing touches were being put to the new M26, was fastest in practice with Lauda in second. There were signs of what was to come when Vittorio Brambilla landed badly after one of the infamous jumps and his March slammed sideways into barriers. He walked away from the crash but his car was a write-off.

The British RAM team - who employed drivers who could afford to pay them for the privilege - had troubles of a different kind when its cars were impounded in the pits by a bailiff acting on behalf of Loris Kessel, a Swiss driver who claimed he had paid £65,000 at the start of the season for a seat and wanted his money back after being replaced. He had driven in four races but had failed to qualify in two and crashed in another. Rolf Stommelen switched to a spare Brabham, while Lella Lombardi was left a spectator for the rest of the weekend.

There was rain before the start and most cars started on wet tyres, the exception being Jochen Mass, who knew the course and opted for slicks. Clay Regazzoni was quickest off the line, with Hunt second, Mass third and Lauda in fourth, but his early advantage lasted less than a lap as he spun. At the end of the lap many drivers switched tyres, and by the third lap Mass was ahead by almost half a minute.

As Lauda, who had pitted after the first lap, sought to make up lost time he lost control and his Ferrari went through fencing and into an earth bank. It bounced back onto the track and burst into flames. Guy Edwards managed to avoid the blazing wreck, but Harald Ertl and Brett Lunger both hit it.

All three drivers stopped and ran back to try to pull Lauda clear, and they were joined by Arturo Merzario. By the time they succeeded, Lauda had suffered serious burns. He was flown by helicopter to a nearby specialist burns unit but so bad were his injuries he was given the last rites.

The race had been red flagged, and when it resumed only 20 of the 26 original starters were there. Five had cars either wrecked or mechanically unfit; the other was the experienced Chris Amon. He had himself escaped from a series of serious accidents in his flaky Ensign, and he decided enough was enough and retired on the spot.

Hunt led the second race from the off, Ronnie Peterson crashed heavily and then Regazzoni spun for a second time and the Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler went off avoiding him. A few laps later Brambilla, in a reserve car after his early mishap, again crashed heavily, and again walked away.

Hunt drove superbly to take the win, but said afterwards: "The thing I want most of all is for Niki to make a rapid recovery. The thing I wouldn't want is to win a world championship with Lauda watching me on a television while lying in a hospital bed." The result had meant Hunt had closed to within 14 points of Lauda in the championship (in reality that was 27 points as his win at Silverstone was later overturned).

As the roadshow headed away from the Nürburgring, the hospital issued a statement saying they had done all they could do for Lauda and, privately, warned his family he was close to death. And yet in one of the most amazing and brave returns, six weeks later, badly scarred and in terrible pain, Lauda was back in his Ferrari battling to retain his crown.

The Nürburgring layout was not used by F1 again, and by the time it once more hosted a grand prix in 1984, the course had been completely rebuilt.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
ESPN Staff Close