Guest writer Andrew Tsvyk makes his first appearance for F1 Fanatic with a comprehensive account of the first ever F1 championship event at Fuji 32 years ago.
The 1976 Formula One world championship season consisted of 16 grands prix, the last of which was held in Japan, at Fuji Speedway.
It was the first Japanese event on the F1 calendar but that was not the only reason because of which it would be remembered for a long time. In appalling conditions, James Hunt survived a late-race scare to clinch the world championship title.
A down-to-the-wire championship
The 1976 season was one of the most dramatic and intense the world championship has ever seen. At the final round in Japan the driver’s championship was still to be decided. Austria’s Ferrari driver Niki Lauda led his main title rival Hunt by three points, but it was the Briton who was considered to be the favourite to claim the title.
Lauda had been involved in a massive accident three months earlier at the Nurburgring that put him out of action for two races. The 1975 world champion, to the delight and surprise of millions of fans worldwide, made a speedy recovery.
At Monza ‘The Rat’ made his comeback, putting his Ferrari on the fifth spot of the starting grid. Lauda still had a strong chance of adding a second title to his name, as he led his nearest chaser Hunt by 14 points with only four rounds remaining.
Eight months earlier Lauda made a great start to his 1976 campaign by claiming victories at Interlagos and Kyalami, the first two rounds of the season. After four races Lauda was ahead of the second-placed Hunt by 15 points.
Before the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring Lauda had a lead of 31 points over Jody Scheckter, his nearest chaser in the championship standings, while Hunt was further four points behind, in fourth spot. The outcome of the title race seemed to be decided in Lauda’s favour.
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But then came that fateful day at the Nurburgring that changed Formula One forever. Lauda was lying unconscious in hospital, the officials were looking for measures to prevent such accidents in the future while Hunt was doing everything he could to become world champion.
At the beginning of the year Lauda had organised a drivers’ meeting, where he proposed to boycott the German Grand Prix at the 14 mile-long Nurburgring track. However, the other Grand Prix participants did not support Lauda’s idea. Ironically, it was the Austrian who had to pay the price.
The German Grand Prix was stopped following Lauda’s incident. But it was never cancelled. While Lauda was being airlifted to a local hospital, the rest of the field, with the exception of Chris Amon, was lining up for a re-start of the race which would be won by Hunt’s McLaren-Ford.
In Lauda’s absence Hunt finished fourth in Austria and won in the Netherlands, reducing the gap to Lauda in the championship to 14 points.
In Italy Lauda made a small feat by not only surviving a tough race, but finishing inside the top six as well. With Hunt having a weekend to forget, the Austrian extended his lead in the world championship standings by vital three points.
But more importantly, it was then announced that Hunt had been deprived of his win in the British Grand Prix. As a result the British star lost further nine points to his Austrian title rival. Hunt’s championship hopes received a heavy blow.
Nevertheless, Hunt was not going to give up without a fight. Hunt drove flawlessly in the following Grands Prix in Canada and the USA, winning both of them in a dominant style.
The victories brought Hunt’s championship hopes back to life. With one round left till the end of the 1976 world championship Hunt found himself just three points behind Lauda who had struggled in the North American races.
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In Canada, despite starting from sixth, the Austrian was unable to stay in touch with the leaders and finished eighth. Things went slightly better for him in the USA. Lauda was fifth fastest in the qualifying session and made up two spots on his way to a third place finish in the race on Sunday. It also marked the first time the Austrian ace would visit a podium after his horrible accident at the Nurburgring.
Practice and qualifying
The McLaren team was the first to arrive in Japan. It proved to be a smart move which helped the personnel to adapt to the climate and time zone. The others arrived on Tuesday and Wednesday and found it difficult to acclimatise. This was the first of things that went according to McLaren boss Teddy Mayer’s plan that would eventually bring the team to its second championship success.
The entry list for the first ever Grand Prix at Mount Fuji was boosted by a number of local entrants. Heading the Japanese attack was the 30 year-old Masahiro Hasemi in a Kojima. Another local star, the 25 year-old Noritake Takahara, took Brett Lunger’s seat in the second Surtees, while Heros Racing entered a Tyrrell 007 for Kazuyoshi Hoshino.
One of the most accomplished racing drivers in Japan, Hoshino won a national motocross championship crown riding a Kawasaki. But soon Nissan tempted the ‘fastest guy in Japan’ to drive four wheels and from then on he would win numerous titles in various disciplines, from Japanese F2 and F3000 to sportscars, in his homeland. It is a pity that Hoshino never had a full-time drive in F1. British F3 graduate Tony Trimmer was entered by Maki, a Japanese racing team. However, qualifying for the race would prove to be impossible for the Maki and as the result Trimmer had to go home early.
Qualifying saw Mario Andretti taking his second pole position in F1, just 0.3s faster than Hunt. Lauda managed third, 0.2s down on the Englishman. John Watson put his Penske-Ford PC4 on the outside of the second row of the grid, while row three was shared by Scheckter’s six-wheeled Tyrrell P34 and Carlos Pace’s Martini-sponsored Brabham BT45.
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Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari and Vittorio Brambila’s March occupied row four, while the rest of the top-ten was completed by the second March of Ronnie Peterson and Hasemi’s exotic Kojima-Ford. Bridgestone tyres made the car even more special, marking the Japanese tyre manufacturer’s F1 debut. Today, some 30 years later, Bridgestone have become an integral part of modern Formula 1. In 2007 they became the sole supplier, providing tyres to every participant of the F1 world championship.
Rain spoils the finale
With the margin between the first and the tenth car on the starting grid being just over one second, the crowd, that came in great numbers, was in for a great race. But they had to wait for quite a while to see some of the world’s best drivers in action. And the reason for that long delay was the weather conditions, which were horrible on race day. The weather had never been very hospitable to the overseas visitors throughout the weekend, but on Sunday it got even worse.
In fact, it was raining so much that at the drivers’ meeting almost everyone, including the two championship contenders, asked to postpone the start until the conditions improve. But it continued raining and with clouds showing no signs of disappearing, Bernie Ecclestone addressed the drivers with a request of going racing – the pressure of putting a race on for the television cameras making itself felt just as it would in 2007.
The show goes on – but not for Lauda
The cars left the pitlane and took their starting positions in fading light. Moments later, when the green flag dropped, Hunt made a blistering getaway, out-gunned pole-sitter Andretti and led the field into the first turn. Watson also made a good start and gained a position by out-powering Andretti’s black Lotus in the sprint to the first corner. But Andretti passed Watson on the next lap.
When the field came round for the third lap World Championship leader Lauda was no longer in the race. And the reason for that was neither a driver error nor a mechanical failure. The Austrian simply drove into the pitlane and decided to call it a day, claiming that it was way too dangerous to race in such conditions.
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There were rumours that other reasons prompted Lauda’s retirement. As the result of the burns suffered at the Nurburgring Lauda was unable to blink properly and water was getting into his eyes. The Austrian was immediately followed by Carlos Pace, the Brazilian parked his Brabham in the pits and decided not to participate in the Japanese Grand Prix either.
Lauda’s name was not the first on the list of retirements. A lap earlier Australia’s Larry Perkins abandoned his BRM in the pits lane area, complaining of poor road holding. But the first retirement of the day occurred on the very first lap when Peterson’s March suffered an engine failure.
At the front, Andretti had to relinquish his second place to Italy’s Vittorio Brambilla, whose March was beginning to gather momentum. The native of Monza was feeling very much at home in the wet. At the previous year’s Austrian Grand Prix, in heavy rain, Brambilla was the man to beat, and scored his first and only Grand Prix win.
The Italian made a bid for the lead on lap 22. But Brambilla lsot control of his car, spun, and almost decided the outcome of the championship as he came perilously close to hitting Hunt’s McLaren. After the spin the 35 year-old would not bother the Hunt any more.
As the result of Brambilla’s troubles, German driver Jochen Mass made it a McLaren one-two. Having started back in 12th, the German quickly found his rhythm on the soaked through Japanese circuit and made rapid progress towards the sharp end of the field. Eighth on lap six the 30 year-old went on to pass drivers like Jacques Laffite, Patrick Depailler, Clay Regazzoni, Scheckter, Hoshino and Andretti, moving from eighth to third in the course of 12 laps.
Before the race Mass was aware that he would have to play a supporting role to team mate Hunt. Mass was unable to carry out the task properly in qualifying, setting the time that was over two seconds slower than Hunt’s. But in the race things went differently, and the German was able to crawl his way up to second and protect Hunt’s lead, until Mass’s race ended with a spin on lap 36.
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Depailler, Pryce and Jones battle through the field
The German’s retirement elevated Depailler’s Tyrrell-Ford up to second. And as it was so often the case in 1976, the Frenchman was one of the fastest drivers on the circuit. Prior to the Japanese Grand Prix, Depailler had scored 8 podiums in Formula 1, 6 of which came in 1976. The results showed that Ken Tyrrell’s driver had quite a talent. They also indicated that the 6-wheeled Tyrrell P34 had some potential. The P34 scored a one-two for the team at Anderstorp in its only third outing. However, Tyrrell’s leading driver Scheckter was not impressed and, as the result, would leave the Woking-based team at the end of the season.
On lap 38 Hunt led Depailler, Tom Pryce (Shadow-Ford DN8), Andretti, Clay Regazzoni (in the second Ferrari 312), Alan Jones (Surtees-Ford TS19), Gunnar Nilsson (in the second Lotus-Ford), Herald Ertl in the outdated Hesketh-Ford 308D, with a local star Noritake Takahara in the second Surtees-Ford and Laffite in the sole-remaining Ligier making up the top-ten.
Pryce was driving a battling race, passing Brambilla for third having started 14th and already taken the likes of Laffite, Scheckter, Watson and Andretti. Then, on the 39th lap, Pryce moved into second spot after getting past Depailler’s Tyrrell. It was all in vain, however: another engine failure ended his charge shortly afterwards.
But Pryce was not the only one entertaining the crowd with breathtaking overtakes and aggressive driving. Jones made up 14 positions during the first half of the race, dragging his Surtees-Ford TS19 back from twentieth on the grid up to sixth spot. The future world champion put an astonishing performance in the early stages of the Grand Prix at Fuji, overtaking five rivals on lap one.
Laffite would drop behind the Australian a lap later, but that did not satisfy Jones’s insatiable appetite for battle. By lap ten he had slipped ahead of Hasemi’s Kojima and 10 laps later Jones was running firmly inside the top ten, having got ahead of Scheckter’s six-wheeled Tyrrell-Ford and Hoshino’s outdated Tyrrell 007.
At about lap 25 Jones had to postpone his attacking ambitions and concentrate on defending his position from the assaults of Hans Joachim Stuck. The 25 year-old March driver was only 18th fastest in qualifying, but having found some speed in the race, was eager to put on a good performance. Stuck overtook Jones for ninth place somewhere around lap 26 and went after Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari in eighth.
However, Stuck’s race would end prematurely on lap 37 after an electric-related problem. That marked the eleventh retirement of the season for the German, which saw him score two fourth places at Interlagos and Monte Carlo, as well as a fifth spot at Watkins Glen. Stuck would end up 13th in the final World Championship standings, with 8 points, trailing his highly-rated team mate Peterson by just two points and totally outscoring his third March team mate Brambilla who ended the season with only one point to his name.
Drying track poses another hazard
At about half way stage of the race, the conditions started to improve. However, it brought out new problems for the drivers that were still running. As the track dried, tyre wear became an issue. And even though the order stabilised and it seemed that there was not a great deal more to expect from the remainder of the race, the highlights of the event were about to happen. Nothing ever is certain in Formula 1. And the stable order was just the calm before the storm.
With rain easing off, all the teams advised their drivers to look after the tyres. The drivers were searching for wet places on the track, often deviating from the ideal racing line. But Hunt had no intentions of doing so and, despite quite clear signals from the pits, continued using ideal lines, without thinking too much about the tyres. Consequently the Goodyears on the no. 11 McLaren began to fade.
On lap 61 the McLaren driver lost the lead of the race to Depailler and Andretti’s Lotus passed him on the next tour. But Hunt soon regained second, as Depailler had to make a stop for tyres because of a puncture.
Depailler’s tyre problems left Andretti in the lead of the race, with Hunt hot on the heels of the Lotus. But that order did not last long, as Hunt, too, suffered a puncture and had to make a stop. Fortunately for Hunt the failure occurred near the end of the lap and he was soon in the pits for fresh rubber.
While the McLaren mechanics were performing the tyre change, excitement grew in the Ferrari camp. Would Hunt’s late dramas hand the title to Lauda?
The McLaren returned to the track in fifth position and now Hunt threw caution to the wind, pressing on in pursuit of the fourth place he needed to secure the title.
With two laps remaining it was back in his grasp: Hunt swept past Jones and Regazzoni, moving into third place. But due to radio problems, Hunt had no idea in which place he was running and continued to harass second-placed Depailler.
Hunt takes the title
They crossed the line in that order and Hunt, believing he’d not done enough, though the late pit stop had cost him the title. As he returned to the pits he began screaming abuse at Mayer. Eventually the McLaren team were able to convince him he had just become the 1976 Formula One world champion.
Andretti’s feat of finishingd a lap clear of the opposition – a stunning display – was somewhat overlooked amid the drama of the world championship. It was his second grand prix win and the first for Lotus since 1974.
Jones crossed the finish line in fourth, his best finish to date. With seven points he was classified 14th in the final world championship standings, being the only Surtees driver to score points that season. The team run by 1964 world champion John Surtees finished the year a lowly tenth in the constructors’ championship. For the Surtees team it marked the beginning of the end and in two years time the Edenbridge-based team would cease to exist. But for Jones it would be onwards and upwards: he joined Shadow in 1977, took his first Grand Prix victory in Austria, then moved Williams and succeeded Hunt as world champion in 1980.
Regazzoni’s fifth place marked the end of his tenure at Ferrari. Andretti’s team mate Gunnar Nilsson brought his Lotus home in sixth place with a solid performance, gaining ten places in the course of the race.
Takahara was the best of the local drivers at the finish. The 35 year-old native of Tokyo brought the second Surtees TS19 in ninth, albeit three laps behind the leader. But the quickest of the local drivers was Hasemi, who ran as high as third before retiring. The Kojima driver was also credited – incorrectly, it later emerged – with the fastest lap of the race. Laffite was later confirmed to have set the fastest lap.
But the day belonged to Hunt and McLaren. It was the second drivers’ title won by Teddy Mayer’s team, and a remarkable comeback from a huge points deficit, albeit one aided by Lauda’s absence due to injury.
For Ferrari, victory in the constructors’ championship was scant consolation for Lauda’s loss of the driver’s title. Officially the team stood behind their driver, to begin with at least, but in time Enzo Ferrari’s dissatisfaction with Lauda became known. Lauda returned to take the 1977 championship then left Ferrari before the end of the season.
Despite the drama and international attention focused on F1’s first world championship Japanese Grand Prix, the race failed to gain a foothold the first time around. It returned the following a year for a race which was held in better conditions but marred a terrible accident.
F1 eventually returned to Japan ten years later at the Suzuka circuit. The country has remained part of the calendar ever since, and in 2007 F1 made its comeback to a heavily revised Fuji circuit.