The 1976 season seemed to be meandering towards a Niki Lauda world championship, with the post-race politics adding the additional excitement.
Lauda had won four of the opening seven races, and finished on the podium in the other three. It had initially been five race wins, after he was announced the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix following James Hunt's disqualification for having a car that was too wide. It was typical of Hunt's luck, as everything seemed to be stopping him mounting a championship challenge.
But in France a fortnight earlier, Hunt had won and Lauda retired with engine failure. Soon afterwards, Hunt was informed that he had been reinstated as the victor in Spain, and suddenly the difference between himself and Lauda had shrunk. Lauda still held a substantial lead, however, with 52 points to Hunt's 26 as the Formula One paddock descended on Brands Hatch.
With Hunt being the nearest challenger the British crowds were out in force to support the charismatic McLaren driver in his quest for a home victory to close the gap even further. The British Grand Prix had been alternating between Silverstone and Brands since 1963, making this the seventh race to be held at the Kent circuit, and qualifying pointed to a close battle in the second half of the season as Lauda pipped Hunt to pole by just 0.06s.
Mario Andretti was a strong third in the Lotus, 0.3s further back but beating the second Ferrari of Clay Regazzoni in to fourth place. Patrick Depailler put the six-wheeler Tyrell in fifth place ahead of Chris Amon who had delivered an impressive performance in the unfancied Ensign.
The race would ultimately be decided in the first 500 metres though. Lauda got away well from pole, and Hunt's start wasn't exactly poor, but Regazzoni came flying through to challenge Lauda for the lead in to Paddock Bend. The Ferrari pair touched, and Regazzoni spun as he tried to get back on the power.
Behind him, Andretti had cut inside of Hunt, forcing the McLaren to the outside of the corner. As Regazzoni rolled backwards Hunt tried to avoid him, but he ran over the Ferrari's right rear wheel and was launched on to two wheels. The impact on landing broke Hunt's suspension. Dust was kicked up as the field tried to avoid the stricken Ferrari, and as it settled only Jacques Laffite's Ligier was left at Paddock having been launched off the front of the stationary Regazzoni. Marshalls were unable to clear it away without a recovery vehicle however, and the race was stopped.
Hunt was able to limp back to the pits with the heavily damaged car, and he, Regazzoni and Laffite all prepared to get in to their spare cars for the restart. This wasn't permitted in the rules, however, so Hunt's McLaren team started working frantically to repair the car, while Regazzoni and Laffite decided to race in the spares and deal with the repercussions afterwards.
A 40 minute delay ensued as organisers deliberated whether to allow Hunt to take the restart as his McLaren had not been able to complete the first lap under its own steam. During the break Hunt explained in his usual frank way that the damage was caused when "Regazzoni hit Niki and that was it. I just couldn't avoid it, but then I went round the side avoiding it and somebody hit me up the arse".
A decision on which cars could restart was a long time coming as the home crowd chanted "We want Hunt!" The delay was long enough for McLaren to repair the original car, and so Hunt retook his position of second on the grid behind Lauda.
The second restart saw Andretti stall on the grid, and further round the lap Guy Edwards and Hans Stuck retired. Lauda led away from Hunt at the front with Regazzoni a close third, until a lack of oil pressure brought the second Ferrari to a halt and makes it a two-horse race. Having pulled a decent gap, Lauda began to struggle with his gearbox and Hunt eroded the lead before diving up the inside of the Ferrari in to Druids.
From there it was reasonably straightforward for Hunt, who eased away. Lauda nursed his car home in second place, but finished over 50 seconds behind the McLaren, with Scheckter a further 16 seconds back in third.
Hunt was obviously delighted as he jumped out of his McLaren saying that the win meant "9 points, 20,000 dollars and a lot of happiness!"
"[The race] was very relaxing. Except I was naturally worried about the handling of my car, and the first quarter of the race it wasn't good and then it seemed to improve as the race went on."
"[The mechanics were] absolutely fantastic, I mean they really did a good job. They had to just throw it on, both sides of the front suspension had to be renewed and they had to check the whole of the back and it was incredible that they got it done. It didn't start very well but it got steadily better and by mid distance it was fantastic."
Further drama was to come, though, as Ferrari appealed the legality of Hunt being allowed to take the restart. Three hours after the race the initial appeal was dismissed by the race organisers, who denied they had been swayed by pressure from the crowd. But Ferrari would not back down and took their case to the FIA, eventually being successful in September to have Hunt disqualified, promoting Lauda to race victor ahead of Scheckter and John Watson.
Chris Medland is an assistant editor on ESPNF1.