Despite making a brief debut at the Dutch GP in 1976, the M26 was still under development at the start of 1977, and although Ferrari, Lotus and Wolf were all strong, teething problems with the M26 obliged reigning World Champion James Hunt to continue relying on the older M23 for the first four rounds, and team-mate Jochen Mass for the first nine.
In testing at Kyalami M26-1 had been seriously damaged when a bolt came loose from a front brake caliper, throwing James off the track. By the time the season reached Jarama for the Spanish GP in May, however, chassis M26-2 was ready for its ‘second’ debut. James found its handling unbalanced and unpredictable, qualified only seventh and retired with a misfire on lap 10.
He returned to the M23 for the next race, at Monaco, and it was not until Zolder for the Belgian GP in June that the M26 reappeared. The wings had been modified, and the oil cooler was now relocated in the nose. The car proved better balanced, but Mass nevertheless outqualified Hunt in the older M23. Choosing slicks for the race in the belief that the rainswept circuit would soon dry out, James was lapped as Mass led briefly. Hunt finished out of the points, in seventh.
At Dijon for the French GP James put the M26 on the front row alongside Mario Andretti's Lotus, and led the American away at the start until Ulsterman John Watson pushed his Brabham Alfa Romeo past both of them. As the McLaren’s began to understeer Andretti overtook Hunt for second on lap 17 and took the win when the Brabham faltered on the final lap and stuttered home second. James was third.
The breakthrough came at Silverstone, where Mass had an M26 for the first time and Gilles Villeneuve joined the team in an M23. Hunt grabbed pole but failed to prevent Watson from thrusting the Brabham Alfa into the lead for the first 50 laps. Then further fuel delivery problems sent the red car into the pits, and James took the flag in front of the predictably partisan crowd. With Jochen finishing fourth it was a long overdue successful day.
At Monza McLaren fielded its regular M26s and an M23 for Formula 2 star Bruno Giacomelli. James qualified on pole. Jochen ninth and after brake problems accounted for the Englishman, the German took fourth place.
James was buoyant at Watkins Glen for the US GP East, despite spinning into a barrier on Friday. After taking his third pole position of the season, he found himself trailing German Hans Stuck's Brabham-Alfa in the early wet going. Inheriting the lead after Stuck went off after 14 laps, and with a comfortable lead over Andretti, he was nevertheless stalked by trouble.
His engine was overheating, and as the field nursed their wet weather rubber on a rapidly drying track, he pressed on with a slowly deflating tyre. He pulled it off, winning his second GP of the season and his second consecutive one at the Glen, but it was a close call as Andretti was only two seconds behind at the finish.
Canada went less well, and was a tense weekend despite Hunt joking about Mosport being a great circuit to drive on, “But not so nice to drive off.“ He and poleman Andretti had all but lapped the field by lap 59 and were about to overhaul Mass, in third place, when Mario lost ground and leader James was accidentally taken out by his own team-mate approaching the right-hander just after the pits.
He hit the wall head-on, wrecking the M26’s tub, and was briefly trapped in the car by his feet. Understandably furious, he punched a marshal who unwisely attempted to prevent him crossing the track to get back to the pits. Hunt left Canada with his reputation as a bad boy confirmed, and a $2,750 fine for his trouble. Jochen recovered to finish third.
The final race of the year at Mount Fuji saw Andretti pip Hunt for pole position. Having damaged M26-2 at Mosport and been dissatisfied with M26-1, James was now driving Jochen‘s chassis M26-3, and as the flag dropped he leapt into the lead as Andretti hit Jacques Laffite’s Ligier and was forced out. When Jochen moved up to second place on lap six it seemed that the M26 really had come good, but the total McLaren domination ended when his engine broke on the 28th of the 73 laps.
For Hunt, however, it was to be an easy run home as he led every lap to take what would be his last-ever Grand Prix victory. It left him fifth in the World Championship with 40 points, a long way adrift of Lauda on 72, and 15 ahead of sixth-pIaced Mass. The success would also be McLaren's last for three and a half years.