August 1, 1976 changed the face of Formula One as we know it. On the second lap of the German Grand Prix, Niki Lauda lost control of his Ferrari, which snapped to the right and collided with the metal barriers. The force shoved Lauda back into the track, where he was struck by another car. When he was finally pulled from the flames, it was unclear if Lauda was actually going to live. It became the turning point of the season.
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That year, Lauda had been battling the spectacular but not always consistent James Hunt of McLaren for wins and championship points. It was one of the wildest seasons in history, with accusations of cheating, stolen wins, and reinstated points that constantly kept fans on their toes because there was no telling which driver would come out on top.
But Lauda’s crash changed the complexion of the season. He suffered extensive burns that had him first fighting for his life and then fighting to maintain his race seat. He missed two races while in the hospital — races where he wasn’t scoring points but Hunt was. It served as the motivation for Lauda to leave the hospital as quickly as he could.
Just six weeks after the accident, Lauda intended to compete at the Monza Grand Prix, where he ultimately finished fourth. By his own admission, he was completely petrified, and his blood-soaked bandages and special helmet belied the fact that the Austrian was in massive amounts of pain. But he was determined to prevent the points gap from continuing to grow.
Because of Lauda’s absence, the title battle went down to the final race, the Japanese Grand Prix, where Lauda led Hunt by a mere three points. F1's profile had grown exponentially during the course of the season, which saw the BBC airing the event live. Torrential rain, however, delayed the start, but the race began under dangerous conditions because the race promoters had to get the event in during the television window.
But the conditions were so poor that visibility was almost nil. Lauda chose to withdraw out of concern for his own safety, further damaging an already-sketchy relationship with Ferrari, at whom Lauda was furious for replacing him with Carlos Reutemann while Lauda was in the hospital.
Lauda’s accident precipitated the down-to-the-wire finish that helped embed the 1976 F1 season in the motorsport history books, which in turn encouraged the growth of the sport on the international stage by seeing a greater demand for live television events.