We are following the dramatic 1976 Formula One season as it happened forty years ago, and on this day in that year it was round two, the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami:
The 1976 South African Grand Prix held on March 6th was the second round of the Formula One season, Niki Lauda arriving in South Africa in the championship lead after his win in January’s Brazilian Grand Prix. The Austrian was on form in South Africa too, taking Ferrari’s second win of the season ahead of James Hunt’s McLaren, Lauda slowing in the final laps with a puncture but still with enough in hand to bring his 312B3 home ahead.
1 James Hunt (McLaren M23/8) 1m16.10s
2 Niki Lauda (Ferrari 312B3/023) 1m16.20s
3 John Watson (Penske PC3/01) 1m16.43s
4 Jochen Mass (McLaren M23/6) 1m16.45s
5 Vittorio Brambilla (March 761/1) 1m16.64s
6 Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell 007/4) 1m14.77s
7 Tom Pryce (Shadow DN5/5B) 1m16.84s
8 Jacques Laffite (Ligier JS5/01) 1m16.88s
9 Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari 312B/022) 1m16.94s
10 Ronnie Peterson (March 761/03) 1m17.03s
James Hunt delighted his new McLaren team with his second pole position of the season, setting the quickest time in the final session on Thursday afternoon at the 2.55-mile Kyalami circuit. Lauda again lined up second, the front row of the grid the same as that for the season-opener in Brazil, with Penske’s John Watson just pipping Hunt’s team-mate Jochen Mass for third.
Shortly before the race the organisers decided to swap round the front two rows of the grid, Hunt now lining up on pole position on the right-hand side of the circuit, while leaving the remaining rows as originally published on the grid sheets – thus sixth quickest Depailler lined up behind third-quickest Mass.
Lauda made the best start and led the field away, the two McLarens falling behind the quick-starting Brambilla. As Lauda eased away in his Ferrari, the March driver was characteristically robust in his tactics as the two McLarens swarmed over the back of him, shutting the door more than once in emphatic style in the opening laps.
Mass was initially third but soon waved Hunt past for a turn at tackling Brambilla, and the Englishman had his McLaren M23 (the new for 1976 M26 still under development in the UK) past on lap five, Lauda already with a gap to the rest. By Lap 25 even Motorsport magazine’s correspondent was commenting that the race had lost any entertainment value, Lauda and Hunt well clear of Mass.
A high spot had been when it was Depailler’s turn to take on Brambilla, the Frenchman spinning at the first corner, Peterson becoming embroiled in the incident, while Depailler then rejoined mid-corner just as Chris Amon arrived in his Ensign. Both the Brabham Alfa Romeos retired, having doused following cars in oil for much of the race, that of Carlos Ruetemann letting go as he moved in on Brambilla, while Laffite’s Ligier and the Ferrari of Regazzoni both failed to finish.
In the closing laps a slow puncture started to hinder Lauda’s progress, and Hunt began to close in, but the Austrian had enough in hand to be over a second clear as they took the flag at the end of the 78-laps. Mass was third, with local hero Jody Scheckter working his way through to fourth, and last driver on the lead lap, from twelfth on the grid in his Tyrrell.
John Watson took fifth ahead of Mario Andretti in the battle of the American chassis, Andretti with the Parnelli team having raced for Lotus in the season-opener in Brazil. Tom Pryce took sixth for Shadow despite being delayed by a puncture.
Brambilla was eighth ahead of Depailler’s Tyrrell, and was the subject of a protest by Tyrrell over how he had been refuelled mid-race. Team Principal Ken Tyrrell furiously scribbled off his protest and handed team driver Scheckter an envelope to give to the Clark of the Course as he left for the airport and his flight back to the UK. Alas, it was only when he arrived back home Tyrrell realised he had placed the required cheque and a grid sheet in the envelope…but had neglected to insert the protest itself, which must have slightly baffled the Clerk of the Course when he opened it.
That was not the only hint of politics starting to impact on what would be a tumultuous season, as a number of teams had expressed concern early in the meeting about the plastic ‘skirts’ McLaren had fitted to their M23s. The argument was based round a regulation that said the main mechanical parts of the car had to pass between two hypothetical horizontal planes 800mm apart (excluding roll hoops, air boxes etc) and a number of teams pointed out that with the skirts in place the cars did not comply. With any benefit from the parts minor, McLaren responded by removing them for the race and still saw the M23 on the pace and two drivers on the podium.
A final point of note was Briton Bob Evans taking tenth for Lotus, an improvement over the previous race where their two, now former, drivers had driven into each other.
1 Niki Lauda (Ferrari 312B3/023) 78 laps in 1h42m18.4s (116.65mph)
2 James Hunt (McLaren M23/8) +1.3s (behind leader)
3 Mass (McLaren M23/6) +44.6s
4 Jody Scheckter (Tyrrell 007/6) +1m08.4s
5 John Watson (Penske PC3/01) +1 lap
6 Mario Andretti (Parnelli VPJ4/002) +1 lap
7 Tom Pryce (Shadow DN5/5B) +1 lap
8 Vittorio Brambilla (March 761/1) + 1 lap
9 Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell 007/4) +1 lap
10 Bob Evans (Lotus 77/R2) +1 lap
Fastest Lap: Lauda, 1m17.93s (117.75mph).
Driver’s Championship Points:
1 Niki Lauda 16
2 Patrick Depailler 6
3 James Hunt 6
4 Jochen Mass 5
5 Jody Scheckter 5
Constructor’s Championship Points:
1 Ferrari 18
2 Tyrell-Ford 9
3 McLaren-Ford 7
4 Shadow-Ford 4
5 March-Ford 3
Next Race: US Grand Prix West, Long Beach, California, March 28th.