The 1976 Belgian Grand Prix, otherwise known as the XXXIV Grote Prijs van Belgie, was the fifth round of the 1976 FIA Formula One World Championship, staged at the Zolder circuit on the 16 May 1976. The race would be remembered for the dominant display of the Ferrari team, as well as a lucky escape for Chris Amon.
The scarlet cars had dominated in qualifying to start the weekend, Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni locking out the front row for the tifosi by over two tenths of a second. James Hunt was their closest challenger in third, sharing the second row with Patrick Depailler who would use the Tyrrell P34 once again.
Indeed, the only flaw to Ferrari's weekend would be the fact that Hunt beat Regazzoni off the line, although Lauda would streak out of sight to all but secure the win at the first corner. Hunt was therefore left to fight with Regazzoni, while Jacques Laffite made a good start to climb to fourth in the Ligier-Matra.
It took until lap six for Regazzoni to elbow his way past Hunt, the F12 Ferraris simply unbeatable around the Zolder circuit. As the Swiss racer jetted off after teammate Lauda, Depailler managed to force his way past Laffite after the Frenchman made a failed lunge at Hunt.
With the scarlet duo out of sight the race became about the fight for third, Laffite retaking fourth from Depailler on lap fifteen to get back onto Hunt's tail. However Matra V12 was enjoying the "go-kart style" Zolder circuit, and so Laffite went charging past Hunt just two laps later, dragging Depailler with him.
Now in clean air, Laffite was able to drop Depailler, who would remain in an increasingly lonely fourth until his engine failed just before half distance. His teammate Jody Scheckter moved into fourth having elbowed Hunt out of the way, the Brit now struggling with an ailing transmission. Indeed, as Lauda and Regazzoni began lapping the backmarkers, the #11 McLaren rolled to a stop with no power going to the wheels.
With that the race was run, bar a spectacular accident for Chris Amon in the Ensign. On the 52nd lap the Kiwi suffered a wheel failure at highspeed, with the momentum of cornering managing to flip the Ensign over as it skidded across to an earth bank. Miraculously Amon scrambled out of the cockpit uninjured, but was otherwise frustrated to have crashed out from fifth.
Out front, meanwhile, Lauda cruised home with fastest lap to claim his first Grand Chelem having led every lap. Regazzoni completed an excellent Ferrari one-two, while Laffite collected Ligier-Matra's first podium spot in third. Scheckter, Alan Jones and Jochen Mass complete the scorers, the latter two a lap down.
Despite the less than rave reviews that the Zolder Circuit had received back in 1973, the F1 circus would return to Belgium's second circuit for the third time in four years in an optimistic mood. The circuit itself was unchanged despite its less than spectacular nature, remaining an oversized go-kart track just capable of handling Grand Prix cars. However, with the Nivelles-Baulers circuit in a financial black hole, and Spa deemed too dangerous, there was no real alternative other than to remove the Belgian Grand Prix from the calendar.
Into the entry list and, as had been the case in Spain, most of the entrants had spent time at the Zolder circuit ahead of the race weekend to test their evolving designs. Leading the charge were Ferrari, with three confirmed wins to their name thanks to the efforts of Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni. They arrived with the same two 312T2s that had raced in Jarama, while Lauda's 1975 car was retained as a spare.
Their major rivals McLaren also arrived in force, looking to move on from James Hunt's disqualification in Spain after getting a date for the FIA to hear their appeal. They arrived with three cars for Hunt and teammate Jochen Mass to try, all of which were sent to the scrutineers ahead of the first session to ensure they complied to FIA standards. These were the three newest examples of the M23, all sporting the latest McLaren bodywork, skirts and all.
Elsewhere, Tyrrell arrived with their two six-wheeled P34s, happy enough with the car's Championship debut in Spain. This time, however, both Patrick Depailler and Jody Scheckter would race the cars, after the South African racer opted to use his old 007 in Spain. The reason for this was that Scheckter's 007 had not been shipped to Zolder after damage sustained at Jarama.
Over at Brabham there were increasingly pleased faces, with Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pace now getting some reliable running out of their Alfa Romeo engines. They spent the week prior to the race focusing on race pace instead, with the F12 Alfa engines seeming to enjoy the layout of the Zolder circuit. Two old Ford Cosworth engined Brabhams would also be in attendance, with privateers RAM Racing fielding Loris Kessel and Patrick Nève, two promising Formula Three drivers.
Another team with optimism overcoming adversity was the Lotus squad, who arrived fresh from rookie Gunnar Nilsson's maiden podium finish in the 77. He would once again partner Mario Andretti, with both hoping that their pace in Jarama was not just a flash in the pan. The reverse was true of the Shadow effort, with Tom Pryce and Jean-Pierre Jarier hoping that Zolder would suit the Shadow's typical one-lap pace.
Over at Ligier-Matra there were rumours of an expansion to their effort, although Jacques Laffite would be their only driver in Belgium, still using the original JS5. March, in contrast, arrived in their now usual hoard of four, with the two "Championship" entries of Vittorio Brambilla and Ronnie Peterson joined by the "non-Championship" duo Hans-Joachim Stuck and Arturo Merzario. Another expanded effort were Hesketh Racing, back up to two cars as Guy Edwards, with backing from Penthouse Rizla, joined Harald Ertl in the team.
Ensign had also added a second car to their entry, although whether the unknown Swiss racer Antonio Bernardo would actually arrive to partner Chris Amon remained to be seen. Larry Perkins would, however, be in attendance with the Boro badged Ensign, with backer HB Bewaking hoping that his older car could beat the team he had previously supported. Also in action were the Fittipaldi squad, who brought three cars for Emerson Fittipaldi and Ingo Hoffmann.
The Wolf-Williams team would be the only entrants using the Williams moniker, fielding Jacky Ickx and Michel Leclère once again. Surtees were back again with two cars, Brett Lunger hoping to atleast match teammate Alan Jones having been completely thrashed by the Australian racer last time out. Rounding out the field would be the sole Penske entry for John Watson, who had the pick of two PC3s as they brought a host of their sponsors to attend the Belgian Grand Prix.
Into the Championship and there was still a mess surrounding Hunt's disqualification in Spain, meaning the provisional Championship standings stood thus: Defending Champion Lauda continued to lead by fifteen points, Depailler had held onto second. Regazzoni, Mass and Hunt completed the top five, while Nilsson had shot up the table, gaining a huge total of sixteen places.
With Hunt yet to be reinstated the gap at the top of the International Cup for Manufacturers' had been increased, Ferrari still holding a daunting lead with their 36 point tally. McLaren-Ford Cosworth could move up into second with Hunt's restored heroics, although as things stood it was Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth who sat in second. Team Lotus-Ford Cosworth had been the big movers, up into fifth and level with Shadow-Ford Cosworth, while Brabham-Alfa Romeo had secured the first points of their new partnership.
The full entry list for the 1976 Belgian Grand Prix is outlined below:
The new-for-1976 practice/qualifying format would be followed in Zolder, with three "timed" sessions and an addition "untimed" session scheduled across Friday and Saturday. Friday would see two of the timed sessions, held across the day with support from various Renault powered Series, while Saturday would play host to the "untimed" session in the morning, designed to give teams a chance to try some race setup runs without compromising their qualifying chances. Otherwise the target time for the top teams would be a 1:25.43, the circuit record set by Niki Lauda en-route to pole in 1975.
There would be a surprise during the first practice session of the weekend, as the ever reliable F12 Ferrari engine in the back of Lauda's car expired in a cloud of smoke. The Austrian racer was therefore forced to swap to his spare car for the rest of the day, allowing James Hunt to seize the advantage in his new McLaren. Indeed, come the end of the session the Brit had recorded a 1:26.74 to top the timesheets as the only man in the 1:26.00s.
Another driver looking strong would be Jacques Laffite in the Ligier-Matra, whose V12 engine seemed to enjoy the Zolder circuit well enough to leave the Frenchman fifth fastest. Just ahead of him were the two Tyrrells of Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler, which were once again demonstrating their phenomenal front end grip at the expense of rear stability. They would end the morning just a hundredth of a second apart, and just a tenth shy of Clay Regazzoni in the healthier Ferrari.
Elsewhere, Tom Pryce spent most of the morning in his spare Shadow after destroying his engine early on, as did John Watson in the newer of the Penskes. Jochen Mass spent the morning battling a cooling issue, a symptom of the re-positioned oil coolers on his McLaren. He would at least get some running in, however, unlike Ingo Hoffmann who was sent home after the Fittipaldi team ran out of engines, and so chose to support lead driver Emerson Fittipaldi with their last Ford Cosworth unit.
After the lunch break running would get back underway for an hour on Friday, with the order heading back to the norm. Indeed, Regazzoni ended the afternoon on provisional pole with the fastest time of the day, a 1:26.60, a tenth and a half ahead of Lauda, who was still using his old Ferrari. Also looking strong were Vittorio Brambilla and Depailler, who were the other two drivers to break into the 1:26.00s on Friday.
A notable absentee from the improving list would be Hunt, who slipped to third overall on Friday but barely ran in the afternoon session. This was due to an issue with his Hewland gearbox, and with the spare car needing a new engine, the Brit could only manage a handful of laps with no improvements. Teammate Mass was also struggling, the German not getting out at all as the McLaren engineers strove to solve his overheating issues.
Elsewhere, there were dramas at Brabham-Alfa Romeo as Carlos Pace sent himself skating into the catch fencing, damaging the monocoque badly enough that he had to climb into the spare. Regardless, the Brazilian would end the day as the fastest of the Brabham pilots, with the two RAM Racing entries in the scrap to qualify. Other notable members of that battle were Gunnar Nilsson in the Lotus and Jacky Ickx, who were both lacking pace compared to their teammates.
Saturday's qualifying running would be limited to a single hour in the afternoon once the untimed session was dealt with, which saw Lauda get back on track with his new Ferrari. As such there was little surprise when the Austrian racer hit the top of the timesheets, claiming pole with a 1:26.55. Teammate Regazzoni would end the session second fastest overall thanks to his Friday time, with Hunt and Depailler sharing the second row.
Indeed, Hunt had been unable to challenge once again on Saturday, having had to change to the spare McLaren, and then suffer an engine change, after multiple issues in the morning. As he struggled, Chris Amon proved to be the somewhat unsung hero of the afternoon, ending qualifying in eighth in the new Ensign, ahead of the F12 Alfa Romeo engined Brabhams. At the back, meanwhile, the fight to qualify would last until the final moments, with a shock result seeing Fittipaldi and Ickx join Guy Edwards as the three non-qualifiers, victims of a late flurry of improvements for others.
The full qualifying results for the 1976 Belgian Grand Prix are outlined below:
|3||11||James Hunt||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:26.74||1:27.87||1:28.33T||+0.19s|
|4||4||Patrick Depailler||Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth||1:27.77||1:26.91||1:27.01||+0.36s|
|5||9||Vittorio Brambilla||March-Ford Cosworth||1:27.91||1:26.93||1:27.76||+0.38s|
|7||3||Jody Scheckter||Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth||1:27.76||1:27.69||1:27.19||+0.64s|
|8||22||Chris Amon||Ensign-Ford Cosworth||1:27.92||1:27.54||1:27.64||+0.99s|
|9||8||Carlos Pace||Brabham-Alfa Romeo||1:28.41||1:28.09||1:27.66T||+1.11s|
|10||10||Ronnie Peterson||March-Ford Cosworth||1:27.96||1:27.78||1:27.72||+1.17s|
|11||5||Mario Andretti||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:28.07||1:29.45||1:27.75||+1.20s|
|12||7||Carlos Reutemann||Brabham-Alfa Romeo||1:28.52||1:28.30||1:29.39||+1.75s|
|13||16||Tom Pryce||Shadow-Ford Cosworth||1:29.38T||1:29.61T||1:28.37||+1.82s|
|14||17||Jean-Pierre Jarier||Shadow-Ford Cosworth||1:28.52||1:28.73||1:28.38||+1.83s|
|15||34||Hans-Joachim Stuck||March-Ford Cosworth||1:28.89||1:29.79||1:28.41||+1.86s|
|16||19||Alan Jones||Surtees-Ford Cosworth||1:29.32||1:29.93||1:28.44||+1.89s|
|17||28||John Watson||Penske-Ford Cosworth||1:28.54T||1:29.96||1:28.44||+1.89s|
|18||12||Jochen Mass||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:29.92||—||1:28.50||+1.95s|
|19||33||Patrick Nève||Brabham-Ford Cosworth||1:30.78||1:30.11||1:28.80||+2.25s|
|20||37||Larry Perkins||Boro-Ford Cosworth||1:28.81||1:30.06||1:29.76||+2.26s|
|21||35||Arturo Merzario||March-Ford Cosworth||1:32.96||1:28.84||1:28.84||+2.29s|
|22||6||Gunnar Nilsson||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:29.87||1:30.55||1:28.99||+2.44s|
|23||32||Loris Kessel||Brabham-Ford Cosworth||1:29.96||1:29.09||1:29.62||+2.54s|
|24||24||Harald Ertl||Hesketh-Ford Cosworth||1:31.35||1:31.46||1:29.40||+2.85s|
|25||21||Michel Leclère||Wolf-Williams-Ford Cosworth||1:30.68||1:29.85||1:29.46||+2.91s|
|26||18||Brett Lunger||Surtees-Ford Cosworth||1:30.50||1:30.17||1:29.76||+3.21s|
|DNQ||30||Emerson Fittipaldi||Fittipaldi-Ford Cosworth||1:29.81||1:30.32||1:29.89||+3.26s|
|DNQ||20||Jacky Ickx||Wolf-Williams-Ford Cosworth||1:31.09||1:31.33||1:30.61||+4.06s|
|DNQ||25||Guy Edwards||Hesketh-Ford Cosworth||1:31.77||1:31.99||1:30.77||+4.22s|
|WD||23||Antonio Bernardo||Ensign-Ford Cosworth||Withdrawn|
|WD||31||Ingo Hoffmann||Fittipaldi-Ford Cosworth||Withdrawn|
- T Indicates a driver used their test/spare car to set their best time in that session.
- Bold indicates a driver's best/qualifying time.
Raceday was a warm and dry affair, with a large schedule of events before the 3:00pm start time for the Grand Prix. Morning warm-up passed without issue, and once a parade of Ferraris, and a swathe of Penske backers were cleared from the grid, the field were assembled for the start. Lining up as first reserve would be Jacky Ickx, although the Belgian was seen sitting in the paddock as his home race got underway.
The start would be controlled by starting lights rather than the wave of the Belgian national flag, although this would not deter pole sitter Niki Lauda from immediately seizing the lead. His instant getaway was not to be matched by teammate Clay Regazzoni, who found himself unable to prevent a hard charging James Hunt from snatching second into the first corner. The rest of the field thundered into the first corner without issue, leaving a thin cloud of dust in their wake.
An uneventful opening tour would end with Lauda leading Hunt by over a second, with the Brit already having to defend from Regazzoni having had to switch to the older of the McLarens. Jacques Laffite had also made a strong start to run in fourth at the end of the opening tour, fighting with Vittorio Brambilla, Patrick Depailler and Chris Amon at the start of lap two. The rest of the field came charging through behind Jody Scheckter, who had both Brabham-Alfa Romeos stuck to his tail.
The opening stages of the race would see Scheckter become the main mover, taking Amon and Brambilla to queue up behind teammate Depailler. The South African's move of Brambilla came as the Italian slithered off the circuit on lap four, rejoining, temporarily, in fourteenth position. The reason for his temporary return to the fray was the fact that his early off had been caused damage by to a rear hubshaft, which would break completely two laps later to send the Italian barrelling off the circuit at the chicane.
Another early casualty would be Gunnar Nilsson, whose throttle slides jammed when the Swede went for a drive off circuit. As he pulled off at the back of the circuit, Regazzoni made his move on Hunt for second, blasting past the Brit with relative ease into the first corner on lap six. The Swiss racer was clear of the McLaren before any response could be mustered by the Brit, who was beginning to struggle with his Hewland gearbox.
Despite his increasing issues with changing gear, Hunt was able to fend off Depailler through to lap ten, the Frenchman having dived past Laffite just before Regazzoni took second away from Hunt. They, however, had been well and truly dumped by the two Ferraris, with Lauda and Regazzoni pulling away by almost a second a lap from the duel for third. Just behind Depailler came Laffite himself, scrapping with Scheckter and Amon, with a gap back to Mario Andretti. The Italian-American racer was leading his own battle pack, featuring Ronnie Peterson, the two Brabham-Alfa Romeos, Alan Jones and Jochen Mass.
Indeed, it would be the Andretti train that caught the eye despite Hunt's increasing woes, with Andretti disappearing into the pits with dirt in his fuel injectors. His departure allowed Carlos Reutemann to move ahead of Peterson, only to have his engine suddenly shut down having lost all of its oil pressure, right in the Swede's path. Lightening quick reactions allowed Peterson to swerve around the stopping Brabham, only for the March to run out of room and wipe itself out on the catch fencing.
Peterson scrambled out of his ruined car without injury, moments before the sister car of Arturo Merzario dropped by the wayside with a ruined engine. As the March crew tied all their hopes in Hans-Joachim Stuck, Laffite breached the top three for Ligier-Matra by completing successive moves on Depailler and Hunt, receiving a bang from the McLaren for his troubles as he screamed off after the Ferraris. The cause was the increasing lack of pace from Hunt as his ability to change gear was increasingly diminished, which had baulked Depailler enough to hand Laffite fourth before momentum carried the little Ligier past the McLaren. Depailler himself would follow the Ligier through a lap later.
However, Depailler barely had enough time to get back with Laffite before his Tyrrell ground to a halt, his Ford Cosworth engine expiring with a huge bang. Teammate Scheckter was fighting on behind the ailing Hunt, the South African himself battling some wayward handling after breaking a part of his rear suspension on a kerb. He would soon be promoted to fourth once Hunt gave up on his failing car, a decision which promoted Amon into fifth.
For Amon fifth place would have been akin to winning the race, and with the Tyrrell just ahead of him getting increasingly derranged the result could have been even better. However, as Lauda and Regazzoni began the 52 lap, the Ensign suffered a hub failure on the left rear wheel, sending the Kiwi skating into gravel which duly pitched the car into a barrel roll. The car came to a stop upside down but, fortunately, Amon was able to scramble out from underneath without suffering major injury.
With that the race was largely done, bar a flurry of retirements either side of Amon's spectacular exit. Andretti was a notable drop out, the Lotus suffering a driveshaft failure, while the last March of Stuck dropped out with broken suspension. Harald Ertl was forced to retire the lone Hesketh after an engine failure, while Pace suffered a complete electrical failure in his Alfa powered Brabham. This issue was shared by Brett Lunger in the second Surtees, although whereas Pace was able to stop at the side of the circuit, Lunger's car burst into flames as a spark ignited a minor fuel leak.
As the American racer scrambled clear to watch his Surtees burn at the side of the circuit it was left to Lauda to cruise home to claim a dominant victory for Ferrari, three seconds ahead of Regazzoni. Third went to a cruising Laffite, who realised he would never catch the Ferraris and so reduced his pace to secure third, while Scheckter narrowly avoided a complete collapse of his suspension to claim fourth. Fifth went to Alan Jones in the other Surtees after a reliable run, while Mass spent the entire race fighting to claim sixth, just ahead of John Watson and Larry Perkins.
The full results for the 1976 Belgian Grand Prix are outlined below:
- First and only entry for Antonio Bernardo.
- Nineteenth pole position for Niki Lauda.
- Lauda claimed his tenth career victory.
- It was also the Austrian's first and only Grand Chelem.
- Ferrari earned their 62nd victory as a constructor and engine supplier.
- Maiden podium finish for Ligier as a constructor.
A third victory of an incredibly consistent start to the season ensured that Niki Lauda extended his Championship lead in Belgium, the Austrian's tally now standing at 42 points (before correction). Clay Regazzoni had moved up the second after backing his teammate across the weekend, while James Hunt would slip to seventh before his Spanish exclusion was lifted. Patrick Depailler and Jochen Mass completed the top five, while Alan Jones had become the seventeenth different scorer of 1976 with his fifth place finish.
After a second one-two of the season, Ferrari were in a daunting position atop the International Cup for Manufacturers' standings, leaving Zolder with 42 points to their name. McLaren-Ford Cosworth were their closest challengers once Hunt had been reinstated, while Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth retained third, but both were over 20 points behind. Ligier-Matra, meanwhile, were up to fourth in their first season, pushing Lotus-Ford Cosworth and Shadow-Ford Cosworth down the order.
- * Corrected to show points after Hunt was reinstated as the winner of the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix.
Images and Videos:
- 'GRAND PRIX RESULTS: BELGIAN GP, 1976', grandprix.com, (Inside F1 Inc., 2015), http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/rr269.html, (Accessed 06/02/2018)
- D.S.J., 'Belgian Grand Prix - A Ferrari Enthusiast's Delight', motorsportmagazine.com, (Motor Sport, 01/06/1976), https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/june-1976/27/belgian-grand-prix-ferrari-enthusiasts-delight, (Accessed 07/02/2018)
- 'Spain 1976: Entrants', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1976/espagne/engages.aspx, (Accessed 22/01/2018)
- 'Belgium 1976: Qualifications', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1976/belgique/qualification.aspx, (Accessed 07/02/2018)
- 'Belgium 1976: Result', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2015), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1976/belgique/classement.aspx, (Accessed 07/02/2018)
|V T E||Belgian Grand Prix|
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