On 1 August 1976 the Formula 1 world survived another brush with death, when world champion Niki Lauda had a serious accident on the second lap of the German GP at the Nürburgring. He had just come back out on track on dry tyres when, with his tyres still cold, he lost control of his Ferrari at the Bergwerk corner, hitting a rock and then ending up in the middle of the track, having lost his helmet.
The car caught fire and the driver was trapped inside. Some other drivers stopped and managed to scupper the Grim Reaper’s plans. Guy Edwards, Brett Lunger, but above all Arturo Merzario, who pulled Lauda out of the flames, burning his hands in the process, saved him. However, due to the burns he endured and the poisonous fumes he inhaled, the Austrian’s condition at first seemed so serious that the doctors called the priest to come and read him his last rites. Lauda was out of danger by 5 August and began an incredible path to recovery.
Amazingly, by Friday 10 September, Niki was back in the Monza paddock. The burns had undoubtedly left their mark, but the skin graft operation had been a success. Anyone would think that the Austrian had come just to visit his friends but Lauda was at Monza to race.
There were new features on the track: the Variante del Rettilineo on the home straight, and the Variante della Roggia, between the Curva Grande and the first Lesmo corner. It was raining and on a day that had a whiff of autumn about it, the spectators were not given much to get excited about: in fact, only a few drivers ventured out of the pits because of the high risk of damaging the cars. At one point, the fans got to their feet and started to applaud: they could hear the rumble of a 12 cylinder engine, that of the Ferrari number one, Niki Lauda, who, only 39 days after his accident, was taking to the track once again. The fans’ applause drowned out the whistles directed at his rival James Hunt in the McLaren. Ronnie Peterson in the March seemed destined to take pole, but the forecast for the next day was for dry even if overcast conditions.
On Saturday the sky was grey but it did not rain. In qualifying in the morning, Jacques Laffite in the Ligier was ahead of Jody Scheckter in the Tyrrell, Carlos Pace in the Brabham and Lauda in the Ferrari, who was faster than his two teammates, the new arrival Carlos Reutemann, called in to replace Niki, and Clay Regazzoni, only a tenth behind Hunt. In the afternoon, the cars were subjected to fuel checks and the McLaren and Penske were deemed to be illegal. As it was impossible to know if the fuel had also been illegal the day before, the two teams were given the possibility of lining up according to their Friday’s times, but as it was a wet session, their times were not good enough to qualify. To guarantee that Hunt, Jochen Mass and John Watson in the Penske could race, some drivers pulled out so that they could take part as reserve drivers.
On Sunday the race was started by red and green traffic lights, something that had been trialled the previous year in the British Grand Prix. The system was very quick and got the better of Lauda, who moved away at snail’s pace, being passed by various drivers, to the point where on the first lap he was back in ninth, while Hunt was gaining places from the back. The Englishman’s fightback lasted only 12 laps before his race was ended, to the joy of the Italian fans, by a crash with Tom Pryce’s Shadow.
On lap 23 it started to rain, causing many of the drivers to slow down. Lauda made the most of these conditions and skilfully got himself up into fifth position which became fourth when Depailler had problems in his Tyrrell at the end. Lauda was on the move, first passing Peterson, while Regazzoni was second ahead of Laffite. Lauda finished his race to rapturous applause from the fans who were delighted to see the champion return after missing two races and, even better, they had seen with their own eyes that the accident in Germany had not affected his abilities in any way.
Niki was exhausted at the end of the race. He took off his helmet in a lot of pain and almost had to be supported by his mechanics when climbing out of the 312 T2. The fans, as always, had invaded the track to celebrate and were also under the podium shouting his name, despite not being able to see the Austrian with so many people surrounding him. Lauda was leading the championship with three races remaining.