James Hunt | 40 years a champion
2016 marks the 40th anniversary of James Hunt's world championship victory. We start his story here:
On January 25, 1976, James Hunt lined his shiny, red-airboxed McLaren M23 up on the pole position slot at Brazil’s legendary Interlagos circuit.
It was the Briton’s first-ever grand prix behind the wheel of a McLaren – and, with pole, he kicked off his red-and-white career in style. It was also the beginning of a world championship campaign that would go on to become one of the most (in-) famous, intriguing and exciting in Formula 1 history.
Doubtless you already know who won the ’76 title – but if you don’t, don’t worry: we’ll recount all the big events of the ’76 season as they unfolded throughout the year.
Let’s pick up McLaren’s story at Interlagos with Motorsport magazine’s January 1976 report, written by the inimitable Alan Henry:
“Similarly McLaren Racing were still using two of their successful M23 chassis, Fittipaldi's position as team leader having been taken by former Hesketh team driver James Hunt.
“Hunt was proving a very able successor to the Brazilian, lapping his six-speed McLaren in 2 min. 33.87 sec. during the first session to be fourth overall although team-mate Mass went even quicker by the end of the second session.
“But in the session that mattered, the final hour, James put in a tremendous spurt to set fastest official time of the weekend with an excellent 2 min. 32.50 sec. Niki Lauda wasn't particularly ruffled by the McLaren driver's performance, claiming second place on the grid just 0.2 sec. slower—confident that his car had more to offer on race day.
“There was a good deal of smiling going on in the McLaren pit as Hunt’s M23 lined up on pole position, the young English driver having gone some way towards compensating for what Teddy Mayer felt was Fittipaldi's abrupt departure from the team last October. But when the green starting light flashed on as the cars moved forward from the dummy grid in ragged formation, Regazzoni's Ferrari dodged between his team-mate and Hunt and dived into the first corner in the lead.
“By half distance it really did look as though the race had developed into an impasse. Lauda was comfortably out in front, extending his lead slightly all the time, as Jarier became locked in a ferocious scrap with Hunt, who wasn’t being intimidated and, by the expedient of keeping cool and not getting ragged, stayed a few yards ahead of his rival until his DFV lapsed onto seven cylinders and he was forced to concede second place.
“An injection trumpet had worked loose on the McLaren's DFV, dropping down and jamming the throttle mechanism as well as depriving one cylinder of its fuel. He was then further troubled with an intermittently sticking throttle to add to his other difficulties, which eventually spun the McLaren into the catch fencing on a fast downhill right-hander.”
If James’ first race for McLaren didn’t deliver the fairytale happy ending, his pace and maturity went a long way towards validating the Briton’s right to fight at the front. And his performance certainly wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by world champion Niki Lauda, who was doubtless already cautiously eyeing pretenders to his crown.
As with every race weekend in 1976, it was to be the start of an unpredictable rollercoaster of a year.
Motorsport magazine’s fascinating back-issue archive can be viewed at www.motorsportmagazine.com