• Italian Grand Prix

Peterson wins on Lauda's remarkable return

ESPNF1 Staff
September 12, 1976
Niki Lauda leads Clay Regazzoni after making a heroic return to Formula One following his fiery near-fatal accident at the Nurburgring six weeks earlier © Sutton Images

Ronnie Peterson's wretched luck with his March was put to one side for a day as he won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, his third victory in the race in four seasons. But all the media attention before and after the race surrounded the remarkable return of Niki Lauda, six weeks after he had been given the last rites following his crash at the Nürburgring.

Ferrari had entered only one car at Zandvoort, but announced the signing of Carlos Reutemann to drive for it at Monza after buying him out of his contract with Brabham. Lauda, meanwhile, had signalled his hope to return in time for the Canadian Grand Prix on October 3, but privately James Hunt's win in the Netherlands had prompted him to have a rethink.

Five days before the race, Lauda drove at Ferrari's private test track and then announced he would be on the grid at Monza as one of the team's three entries. Enzo Ferrari, while delighted, told the press Lauda's return "was the sole responsibility of Niki and his doctors".

All eyes were on Lauda as he gingerly climbed into his Ferrari on the Friday. His head was still swathed in bandages, and he was unable to close one eye as his eyelid had been burned off. His run lasted only two laps in pouring rain before his team manager decided the risk was too great and called him in. Nevertheless, Lauda said he was "100% fit".

The grid for the race was a real mix. Both Tyrrells were in the top four, but Jacques Laffite's Ligier took pole with the Brabham of Carlos Pace in third. Lauda was in fifth while Hunt was relegated to the back row after fuel samples taken from his McLaren, that of team-mate Jochen Mass, and the Penske of John Watson were found to be above the permitted octane limit.

Initially the three had been booted out and labelled as first reserves. Watson's team-mate Guy Edwards stood down to enable him to race, and then organisers realised Arturo Merzario and Otto Stuppacher - who was eight seconds slower than the next slowest car - did not have time to prepare and reinstated the McLarens. It later emerged Stuppacher had already flown home to Austria after his dismal efforts on the Saturday.

An already poor weekend for the McLarens continued as both cars were eliminated early on, Hunt when nudged off at a chicane by Tom Pryce - Hunt admitted he had "run out of road" - and Mass because of an electrical fault.

McLaren boss Teddy Meyer hinted at local skullduggery with the grid relegation, telling reporters: "We knew they'd throw something at us."

Peterson drove brilliantly to take the win. He had led in the three previous races only for his March to let him down, and that had prompted him to sign for Tyrrell for the 1977 season earlier in the week. Ironically, his March behaved impeccably. "This time everything held together perfectly, and on the cooling-down lap I began to wonder if I had done the right thing," he admitted.

Tyrrell had to be content with fifth and sixth after fading late on, but Clay Regazzoni took second for Ferrari and Lauda an amazing fourth. He had started cautiously but gradually worked his way through the field, and said he had been greatly encouraged, telling reporters: "I am back in business." However, the reality was quite different. Years later in his autobiography, he admitted: "When I climbed into the cockpit at Monza, the fear hit me so hard that all my self-motivational theories flew out of the window… diarrhea, heart pounding, throwing up."

As he drove into the pits delirious supporters swamped the track. He needed police to protect him from overzealous well-wishers and it took a baton charge to enable him to get to his helicopter. He would not have minded as he had proved he was back and had also extended his lead over Hunt in the drivers' championship to five points.

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