James Hunt’s Spanish disappointment
It was the high summer of 1976 and James Hunt was as hot as the torrid weather which seemed to be blanketing the whole of Europe. The tousle-haired Englishman was just getting into his stride at the wheel of the superb McLaren M23 in his role as Emerson Fittipaldi’s successor as team leader and his first two races of the season had yielded a debut pole position in the Brazilian GP and a dominant victory in the non-title Race of Champions.
Now, at the start of May, he headed for the first European race of the season, at Madrid’s confined Jarama circuit, aiming to go head-to-head with his old pal Niki Lauda and the Ferrari team. More than ever before, James’s pressure cooker confidence seemed to be simmering just below boiling point. Hunt and McLaren were absolutely right for each other at the time circumstances threw them both together at the end of 1975. Fittipaldi, for all his driving genius, had been introspective and cunning. Hunt had an extrovert arrogance which struck a chord at the height of the swinging seventies. And at this stage of his relationship with McLaren he gave every race his best shot.
But James knew full well that if he wanted to win the 1976 world championship he would first have to get the better of Lauda, the reigning title holder. But in the run-up to the Jarama race Niki had cracked a rib after rolling a lawnmower in the grounds of his palatial Austrian lakeside home. This was the moment for James to strike. He had beaten Lauda the previous summer when he’d scored the only GP win for the Hesketh team in Holland, so going wheel-to-wheel with the Ferrari ace held no fears for him.
Niki wasn’t giving up without a fight, and although Hunt slammed the M23 onto pole position by a whopping 0.3sec, Niki’s Ferrari 312T2 got the jump on the rest of the field and eased into the lead on the run down to the first tight right-hander. James, ever more confident, was happy to slot the McLaren in behind, content to let Niki make the running in the early stages, content that the Ferrari was likely to come back towards him as the Austrian – inevitably – began to tire.
Watching from the touchlines, you just knew from the outset how this confrontation would unfold. Lauda, bobbing around in the cockpit of his Ferrari wearing a too-big AGV crash helmet, looked ever so slightly tentative even though he was leading. James, by contrast sitting high behind the wheel of his M23 – almost bursting out of it, in fact – looked as though he could pass the Ferrari any time.
Just before half distance he made his move. Niki ran wide up a kerb and a stabbing pain from his injured rib momentarily unsettled him. In the blinking of an eye, James was through. A few laps later his team-mate Jochen Mass followed him through into second place, but McLaren were denied a 1-2 finish when the German driver’s engine blew up.
So Hunt strolled home to his first McLaren GP victory. Which lasted until the M23 was pushed into the scrutineering bay. After detailed examination it was revealed that the winning car was 1.8 centimetres wider than the maximum permitted width across the rear wheels, a slip caused by the failure to double check the new wheel rims being used for this event. Hunt was disqualified.
The team were stunned. They retreated into the office at the back of the McLaren motorhome, their luggage – packed and ready for a quick Sunday afternoon escape to the airport – left in a chaotic muddle on the paddock floor outside. “It’s like being hanged for a parking offence,” said team boss Teddy Mayer with characteristic overstatement. It was over the top, but we all knew what he meant.
Many F1 insiders felt that a fine or loss of Constructors’ championship points might have been a more equitable penalty. Just under two months later, after an appeal to the FIA, the team’s win in Spain was restored, but a $3000 fine imposed instead. If Mayer thought about opening his mouth to speculate that one was either innocent or guilty, he wisely resisted the temptation.