Paddock magazine relives the first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix in Japan.
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The 1976 World Championship was to be decided at the Mount Fuji circuit, with Niki Lauda just three points ahead of James Hunt after a season full of incidents including Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the Nürburgring and subsequent missed races.
The field was almost unchanged from the previous race, but Noritake Takahara rented the second Surtees replacing Brett Lunger and Hans Binder was back in the second Wolf Williams after Masami Kuwashima’s money failed to materialise. Maki resurrected its car for Tony Trimmer while Heros Racing entered an old Tyrrell for Kazuyoshi Hoshino. Kojima Engineering entered a locally-built chassis for Masahiro Hasemi (on Dunlop tyres).
Mario Andretti took pole position in the Lotus 77 with Hunt on second place and Lauda third. Then came John Watson’s Penske, Jody Scheckter, Carlos Pace, Clay Regazzoni and Vittorio Brambilla. The top 10 was completed by Ronnie Peterson and Hasemi. The Maki failed to qualify.
On race day the weather was very wet with fog and running water at several places on the track. There were intense debates as to whether the race should be started; in the end, the organisers decided to go ahead and a majority of drivers did not disagree. Some drivers, including Niki Lauda, were not happy with the decision.
James Hunt took the lead from the start with John Watson and Mario Andretti behind. In the second lap, Watson slid down an escape road and Lauda drove into the pits to withdraw, as he believed the weather conditions made the track too dangerous. He later said, “my life is worth more than a title”. This was interestingly portrayed in the movie “Rush”. Larry Perkins made a similar decision after one lap as did Carlos Pace and Emerson Fittipaldi later in the race.
It seemed Hunt was on for an easy win, but as the track began to dry he started to lose positions. He only needed a fourth place to win the title, because of Lauda’s retirement. On lap 62 Hunt fell behind Depailler and Andretti, but two laps later Depailler’s left rear tyre started to deflate and he had to pit. Andretti took the lead, but then Hunt had a similar tyre problem. Hunt pitted, dropped to fifth and set off after Depailler, Alan Jones and Regazzoni. Depailler overtook both drivers on lap 70 and on the next lap Hunt did the same and won the World Drivers’ Championship, to his surprise.
Ferrari won the Constructors’ Championship despite Lauda’s retirement.