Four decades on, the 1976 season – with all its twists and turns – is still fresh in the memory of Alastair Caldwell, a gritty, no-nonsense Kiwi who ran a McLaren race team that would emerge victorious by the skin of its teeth. Here, Caldwell relives some of the highs and lows of motorsport’s greatest unscripted drama.
“Where do you start when dissecting 1976 [mischievous, throaty chuckle]? It was eventful, competitive, political, intense, and almost deadly. It’s a bit of a cliché but if you’d scripted it no-one would’ve believed it. Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ told its own story, but the reality was even more far-fetched.
“Until Niki’s accident in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring at the beginning of August, it had been pretty much all about Ferrari. They’d won five of the first six races, thanks to Niki and Clay Regazzoni, and the one James did win – at Jarama [Spain] – he lost because the car was too wide. That was my mistake; we had new Goodyear tyres that were wider than the wheel rims and I failed to take that into account. The M23 was still the same width! We got the points back eventually, but the championship looked pretty hopeless at the mid-point.
“We carried out back-to-back tests between a new-spec M23 and the pre-Spain car at Paul Ricard ahead of the French GP and made a real breakthrough. The only problem was that James couldn’t feel the difference! Various tweaks, such as moving the oil coolers into the sidepods, were really significant, and the car was much better after that. Interestingly, though, James won the French GP in the old car to move up from fourth in the points to second, albeit still with only half Niki’s points.
“And then came Brands [more throaty chuckling]! So much has been written incorrectly about that race and the hoo-ha that went with it. Well, this is what actually happened, in a nutshell: The two Ferraris clashed at Paddock Hill bend after the start and James collided with one of them. He carried on, albeit with a damaged car, and got as far as the back of the pits before leaping out to come and find me. ‘How’s the car?’ I asked him. No need to repeat his response here, but needless to say we got the T-car ready, as did a lot of the other teams who’d been caught up in the melée.