It is nearly a mile and a half from Monza's second chicane to the sanctuary of the track's pit area. For James Hunt, with his British-built McLaren M23 off the track and jammed into the sand after only 11 laps of the Italian Grand Prix, that meant a long, bitter walk in the cold rain. Because Hunt is threatening to win world championships from Italy's Ferrari (as constructor) and its star, Niki Lauda (as driver), most of the 100,000 spectators had applauded his accident, and jeered and cussed him as he trudged to the pits.
This appalling episode on Sept. 12 must have seemed dauntingly removed from the happy, wine-bubbling party in the sand dunes at Zandvoort, Holland where, just two weeks previous, Hunt, his teammates and a bunch of elated fans had celebrated both the driver's 29th birthday and his Dutch Grand Prix victory in rumbustious style. That night the T shirt he wore read "King James Rules OK"—and indeed his coronation as this season's world-champion driver seemed not too far away.
The nine points from his Zandvoort win had placed Hunt only two points behind Lauda, who was then convalescing from burns he had suffered in a horrifying crash on Aug. 1 in the German GP. The word in racing circles was that Lauda, who at one point had been given last rites, might be well enough to drive in the final three events of the 16-race series (Mosport, Canada on Oct. 3, the U.S. GP at Watkins Glen the following week and Mount Fuji, Japan on Oct. 24). But even if the rumor was correct and the 27-year-old Austrian did resume driving, certainly no one expected him to return to form in time to be a factor in the chase for 1976 world-championship points.
Shortly after that disastrous German GP, which Hunt had won, he declared that he had no wish to win the championship "by default." But a subsequent fourth in the Austrian Grand Prix and the first in Holland, which had given him a total of 12 points (points are awarded on a 9-6-4-3-2-1 basis to the first six finishers), had thrust him to within striking distance of the championship, and Hunt's view had changed somewhat.
"Let's be absolutely honest and frank about it," he said before Monza. "I'd rather win it than not win it. In 1974, 55 points and three Grand Prix wins meant the championship for Emerson Fittipaldi. I've already won five GPs this season. Most other years, I would have won it already with four races to go." That was before the telephone rang in Hunt's villa in San Pedro on Spain's Costa del Sol five days before Monza, bringing the news that by some miracle Lauda had declared himself fit to race only six weeks after sucking flames into his lungs at the N�rburgring. "That makes it fine," Hunt said then. "We've both finished the same number of races. I wasted some early on, when we'd made our car all wrong by messing with its aerodynamics. But now that Niki is coming to Monza we're starting very nearly square; we've both won several races and he was out for three races. I'm very happy to beat him in battle rather than in hospital."
But at Monza, as in the Spanish and British Grands Prix earlier this year, a lot of the battle was going to take place off the track. In Spain, Hunt was disqualified when a postrace technical inspection revealed that the rear wing and tire track of his winning car were fractions of an inch wider than allowed, according to specifications that went into effect on race day but had not applied during practice. That disqualification was reversed by the Commission Sportif Internationale, the body that governs Formula I. After the British GP at Brands Hatch, Ferrari protested another Hunt victory (the first protest of a Formula I result in recent memory), contending that Hunt's McLaren, which was involved in a race-halting multicar crash on the first lap, had not been running when the race was stopped. The British stewards disallowed the protest, but the matter will not be settled until the C.S.I. holds an appeal hearing later this month.
In this corrosive atmosphere, Hunt, the McLaren team and, in particular, its managing director, Teddy Mayer, planned to take special pains to close every loophole on Ferrari's home ground. Because of rumors circulating before the race, Mayer paid special attention to the gasoline used in the two team cars, to the extent of having it carefully analyzed by Texaco (a sponsor along with Marlboro of Team McLaren) well ahead of the race.
The precaution was of no avail. At the last minute, officials of the Automobile Club of Italy, which sanctioned the race, declared that both the McLaren and Penske teams' fuels exceeded the permitted octane rating. Penske driver John Watson, who had won the Austrian GP two weeks after Lauda's crash, was called from a special presentation commemorating that event to be told the news. Hunt heard it from the press. Teddy Mayer, a graduate of Cornell Law School, appealed the decision immediately. "Normally," he said, "you don't get sent to jail before the appeal is heard. It's the other way around in this case. We'll try to get the race declared null and void."
The first practice day at Monza, a Friday, had been vile, cold with an almost continuous heavy rain. Practice lap times, which would determine positions on the starting grid of Sunday's race, were slow. The next day, on a dry track, they were considerably faster. But on race day, A.C.I, officials announced that because of their supposedly tainted gasoline Hunt, his teammate Jochen Mass and Watson would be gridded according to their best times on Friday. All other drivers would be gridded by their faster Saturday times—including an extraordinary three-car contingent of Ferraris driven by Lauda (fifth on the grid), Clay Regazzoni (ninth) and Carlos Reutemann (seventh), who had driven every other 1976 GP for Brabham. This meant that Hunt. Mass and Watson started from the very back of the grid.
It appeared the officials did not just want Hunt out of the race; they wanted him humiliated on the track. From the back of the 26-car grid there would be little chance of his gaining a point. McLaren might well have done as Ferrari did after Lauda's injury—flounced out of the competition. But McLaren decided to fight it out on the terms the fans at Monza were hoping for—a Hunt-Lauda confrontation with the odds heavily weighted on the side of Lauda, the crowd's returned hero. Since he joined Ferrari in 1974, Lauda has resurrected the team's fading glory, not only by his driving but also by his engineering and organizational abilities.