Jochen Mass nearly wins 1976 German Grand Prix
It is a race best known in the history books as the occasion Niki Lauda had a horrifying brush with fate, a moment when he was pushed to the edge of the abyss in a blazing Ferrari which almost cost him his life. It is a race also remembered as one of the very best of James Hunt’s career, a day when his mastery at the wheel of the McLaren M23 enabled him to take a giant step towards winning the 1976 world championship. But it is less well known as the Grand Prix which was oh-so-nearly won by local hero - and McLaren’s number two - Jochen Mass, who relied on his shrewd local knowledge and a tip-off from a pal to storm into a short-lived lead at the start.
Jochen was one of the most intelligent and sensitive drivers of his era. In the early 1970s he forged a reputation as a formidable touring car driver at the wheel of the Cologne Capri RS2600s which dominated the European Touring Car Championship at the time. Later he moved up into F2, winning the Eifelrennen at the Nurburgring with a works March in 1972 and eventually made his way into the ranks of F1 hopefuls at the wheel of a Surtees in 1973.
Jochen moved to McLaren in 1974, initially taking the place in the Yardley-backed line-up suddenly made vacant by Mike Hailwood’s major shunt in the German GP at Nurburgring. For 1975, he succeeded the retiring Denny Hulme in the Marlboro-backed squad alongside Emerson Fittipaldi, scoring a rather inconsequential victory in the accident-strewn Spanish GP at Monjuich Park which was flagged to a halt prematurely and for which only half points were allotted.
At the end of ’75 Fittipaldi decided to leave McLaren and, in his place, the mercurial James Hunt was signed fresh from his first GP victory for Hesketh in Holland the previous summer. Mass relished the challenge of squaring up to Hunt in a similar car and was confident enough to believe that he would get the upper hand over the Englishman from the outset. Yet it was to deal him a very different card. From the moment the two McLaren drivers went head-to-head in qualifying for the Brazilian GP at Interlagos, Hunt exerted the upper hand, brimful of confidence, while Mass seemed to buckle ever-so-slightly under the weight of the huge expectation which had so suddenly been piled on his shoulders.
Yet the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was an example Jochen’s brilliant opportunism. With rain threatening for much of the weekend, and particularly on race day, the German driver drew on his local knowledge and a tip-off from the driver of the course car that, although it was raining around the startline area, the remainder of the 14-mile circuit was, for the most part, virtually bone dry. Mass seized the opportunity and elected to start on dry weather slicks. While most of his rivals were slip-sliding precariously on the greasy surface, Mass seized the initiative, stormed into the lead on the second lap when most of his rivals pitted to follow his example and change to slicks.
In the McLaren pits Teddy and chief mechanic Alastair Caldwell now faced a major dilemma. Their German driver was now heading a McLaren 1-2 in front of his effusively supportive crowd, so what were they to do now? Leave the running order as it was? Or signal Mass to allow Hunt through in the interests of the championship? In the event, Lauda’s terrible accident solved the problem for the McLaren management. With the track now blocked by the blazing Ferrari, the race was obviously flagged to a halt and, at the restart, Hunt seized the initiative to deliver a brilliantly decisive winning performance. He emerged victorious by over half a minute from Jody Scheckter’s Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler with Mass trailing home a disappointed third. In normal circumstances he would have been quite encouraged by the lowest place on the podium, but on this occasion he was understandably dismayed. A day which had promised so much for the popular German driver had turned out delivering so little.