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Niki Lauda continued his World Championship winning form in the early races of 1976, and by mid-season a second title seemed assured. Then, on the second lap of the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, he crashed heavily at Bergwerk and his car burst into flames. Severely injured and badly burned, he was given the last rites in hospital. But Lauda staged a miraculous recovery, and although badly scarred, he was racing again within five weeks at the Italian GP.
It had already been an acrimonious season of disqualifications and appeals by the time of the accident, with James Hunt a constant thorn in Ferrari’s side. In Spain Hunt controversially ended a run of five Ferrari victories when his McLaren was originally disqualified on a technicality but later reinstated. Then he won in Britain, before race officials ruled that he should not have participated in the restarted race after his car had been damaged in a multiple first corner accident.
Hunt had closed the gap by the time of Lauda’s return and he was just three points behind before the last round in Japan. In appallingly wet and dangerous conditions Lauda withdrew, believing his life to be more important than just another championship win. Even then, Hunt appeared to have lost the title in the confusing final laps only to learn that he had finished third – enough to become 1976 World Champion.
Although overshadowed by the championship finale, the Japanese GP also saw Mario Andretti return an improving Lotus team to the winner’s circle. With Lauda temporarily sidelined, Ferrari signed Carlos Reutemann from the disappointing Brabham-Alfa Romeo team. But Reutemann made just one appearance for Ferrari before Lauda’s return. Ferrari’s only other win had come early in the year when Clay Regazzoni won the first Formula 1 race around the streets of Long Beach, California.
All in all it had been a remarkable season. Hunt’s opportunity at McLaren only came when Emerson Fittipaldi decided to race for his family’s team, a decision that prematurely halted his career as a top-line F1 driver. Fittipaldi suffered five more mediocre seasons in F1, but returned to form after later coming out of retirement to race Champ Cars.
Tyrrell introduced the radical six-wheel P34, which used four small front wheels to improve frontal aerodynamics. Although Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler finished first and second in Sweden, the car did not win again and was replaced by a conventional design after two seasons.
Ronnie Peterson quickly grew frustrated with Lotus and returned to March after just one race, bringing that team a victory at Monza. John Watson scored Penske’s only win at the Austrian GP in a victory that cost Watson his beard – the result of a bet with team owner Roger Penske.