It’s 40 years since archetypically Italian Ferrari and British-based garagiste McLaren went head to head in the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship, 312T2 vs. M23. Two different cultures. Two very different cars. One epic season.
During a lull at the 1976 Belgian Grand Prix in May, James Hunt clambered aboard friend, title rival and reigning Formula 1 World Champion Niki Lauda’s car. An undignified squeeze, hilarity ensued as the “Hunchback of Colnbrook” struggled to extricate himself. The gangly Englishman had emphasized the differences: 8in. shorter and 6in. narrower, Ferrari’s 312T2 majored on tight packaging – tiny dampers on an exquisite magnesium frame crammed into a narrow nose – whereas Hunt’s McLaren M23, with its chunky spacer between engine and gearbox, expanded the envelope.
The T2 and the M23 scored 24 GP wins combined – the T2 taking eight in just two full seasons; the M23 bagging 16 in almost five seasons as the McLaren factory’s weapon of choice. How each went about it reflected the character and working environment of their creators.
Ferrari designer Mauro Forghieri was self-confident verging on obstinate. Joining as a graduate in 1959, and with a strong family connection to the Scuderia, he rose quickly through ranks depleted by a massed walkout of key personnel in late ’61 – and by the 1970s could do the lot: engine, chassis, suspension, transmission and aero.
McLaren designer Gordon Coppuck was obliging verging on self-conscious. Joining, aged 29, in 1965, and with no previous experience of motor racing, he learned steadily in an inclusive atmosphere – and by 1972-’73 felt ready for his first F1 car. It was a task he’d previously shared with, or deferred to, more experienced colleagues.
Heavily influenced by his successful M16 “wedge” Indy car, Coppuck’s M23 started its first GP from pole – and won at its fifth attempt. Sturdy and stable, and always intended to be a two-year car, driven by new signing Emerson Fittipaldi it beat Lauda’s 312B3, heavily reworked by Forghieri, to both 1974 titles.
The latter, however, now played a trump card: a compact transverse gearbox ahead of the rear axle line. Lauda had his doubts – until he drove it. Reducing polar moment of inertia by placing more mass within the wheelbase gave neutral balance and nimble handling in conjunction with Forghieri’s smooth, torquey flat-12. The 312T of 1975 took both titles as M23 faded.
Coppuck had already begun work on M26: “But our biggest change going into 1976 was Emerson’s [late] departure. It left us shocked and in need. James was the best alternative available.”
That said, the updated M23 that Hunt wriggled into – steering box upturned and cockpit surround extended so as to neither stub his toes nor skin his knuckles – was fitted with Kevlar panels and a pioneering onboard pneumatic starter to obviate the need for a battery: a 15kg (33lb) saving.
Coppuck: “My Indy car experience made me realize that the better you controlled the attitude of a car, the better it will be. We ran more skirt than the others and M23’s large plan area also helped.”
Forghieri had experienced something similar: “We were lucky in that we had worked with the sportscar [his 312PB of 1971-’73] and started to understand what it meant to have a large flat surface running close to the ground.”