The Japanese Grand Prix
A Lotus wins, but Hunt paddles to the Championship victory
Fuji Speedway, Japan, October 24th
The Formula One World Championship is nothing if not truly International and the latest country to climb onto the Grand Prix bandwagon is Japan who hosted the final round of this season's 16-race series at the 4.3-km. Fuji International Speedway, situated in the shadow of the impressive (but happily dormant) Fuji volcano. The circuit was built just over ten years ago and its full 6-km. length includes a section of steep banking at the end of the long start/finish straight. However, the banking has not been used for racing since a fatal multi-car pile-up during a 2-litre sports-car race in 1974 so the Formula One event took place on the shortened 4.3-km. course which really consists of the long straight connected by a couple of tight corners and one extremely fast long right-hander, through which the fastest Grand Prix cars got into 5th gear before catapulting out onto the straight again. Enthusiasm ran high amongst the local organisers who went out of their way to be hospitable and, although there was some concern over the durability of the lightly resurfaced circuit, everything ran very smoothly during the two official practice days.
Practice was preceded by an argument between the Ferrari and McLaren teams over the fact that Hunt had done some slow laps in the wet the previous Saturday after everyone had agreed not to be beastly and go testing prior to the race. Ferrari team manager Audetto became almost apoplectic about the whole affair, brandishing accusations round that it was "unsporting" and "unforgiveable" for McLaren to carry on like that, while Niki Lauda just sat and looked in the other direction hoping that his team manager would stop "banging on" in such a fashion. Fortunately it was soon Friday morning and somebody fired up one of the Ferrari flat-12s which drowned all the bickering between the two teams!
Apart from all the Formula One regulars there was a generous sprinkling of local interest at Fuji with no fewer than three Japanese drivers contesting their very first home Grand Prix. Noritake Takahara had bought a drive in the second Surtees (TS19/02) which has been driven for most of the season by Brett Lunger, Takahara having previously had a "one-off" Formula One drive at the wheel of a March 741 in the 1974 Silverstone International Trophy race. Kazuyoshi Hoshino had one of the old Tyrrell four-wheelers (007/5) running on Bridgestone tyres and Masahiro Hasemi drove the very impressive Dunlop-shod Kojima KE007, which was built in a small factory adjacent to the Fuji Speedway gates. British enthusiasts may recall that Hasemi visited this country in 1974 to drive a Datsun Cherry in some saloon events, highlighting his stay by leading Frank Gardner's Camaro round the twists and turns of Ingliston! The Kojima, owned and constructed by former Suzuki moto-cross rider Matsuhisa Kojima, is a very conventionally laid out Cosworth Hewland "kit car" with side radiators, front suspension by means of angled spring/damper units rather like those originally seen on the Brabham BT44B but operated by wide fabricated top rocker arms and rear suspension by means of lower parallel links plus top link and radius arms with outboard spring/dampers. Brakes are inboard at the rear, outboard at the front and the car is clothed with spectacular looking bodywork, the engine air intakes of which extend forward either side of the driver's cockpit. A great deal of effort and attention to preparation had gone into the Kojima's first Formula One appearance, although most people reckoned the team to be a little optimistic if they imagined they would be competitive with the Grand Prix "regulars" first time out.
However, when the first timed session got under way on Friday morning, Hasemi's performance in the Kojima was quite startling. With little apparent difficulty he rocketed his well-practised path round Fuji to record a tremendous 1 min. 13.76 sec. best and was actually fastest of all with some times round the 1 min. 14 sec. barrier during the first half-hour. His efforts on a set of very tacky Japanese Dunlop "qualifiers" left Goodyear pretty ruffled and the American firm immediately produced some soft Mosport covers for Hunt and Lauda which enabled the McLaren driver to emerge from the first session at the top of the qualifiers with 1 min. 13.76 sec. The reigning World Champion produced a time one-hundredth of a second slower, proving that front and rear suspension revisions to his Ferrari 312/026 had substantially improved the car's handling since its run to third place at Watkins Glen, the car now rid of its frustrating oversteer problem which was caused by the rear tyres failing to heat up sufficiently. Carlos Pace was third on 1 min. 13.81 sec., in Brabham BT45/3, the Brazilian having started practising with BT45/1 but taking over the newer car from team-mate Larry Perkins after it had developed a misfire. The Martini sponsored team was down to only two machines for this final race of the season as the new lightweight BT45/5 had been sent home after Pace had tangled with Mass' McLaren at Watkins Glen and damaged the chassis quite badly in the ensuing accident. Hasemi's time was good enough to maintain fourth place at the end of the first session ahead of Mario Andretti in Lotus 77/R1 (1 min. 13.91 sec.) and Mass (1 min. 14.07 sec.) in the second McLaren. In the Elf Tyrrell camp Scheckter started off the session in his spare car (P34/2), transferring to P34/4 later on as he became conversant with the circuit and was in a position to advise the mechanics as to just what gear ratios were necessary. Depailler drove P34/3-2 on this occasion, this replacing his usual P34/2 which still had some minor dents in its monocoque after collecting Hunt's compressed air starter bottle when it fell off the McLaren during practice for the United States Grand Prix.
Intent on lapping even faster, Hasemi "brotted his klopyhook" in the biggest possible fashion during the second session when he crashed the Kojima very heavily on the long right-hander leading into the pits straight, the car sustaining very serious monocoque damage but the driver emerging from the wreck without any injuries. But even with the Kojima out of the way neither Hunt nor Lauda could maintain their advantage at the head of the field during the second session, Hunt complaining of acute understeer in the tight corners and big traction problems as he accelerated away from them. His best time was 1 min. 13.95 sec., not as quick as the first session, but Lauda improved by 0.2 sec. which meant that the fastest Ferrari was fifth quickest and the fastest McLaren sixth at the end of Friday's second session. The man who headed the grid was Andretti in the Lotus 77, the rugged American driving on top form and looking very confident and assured in the process. Pace was finding that the long straight gave him a chance of using some of the Alfa flat-12s top end power and he finished the day second quickest on 1 min. 13.42 sec. while Regazzoni in the second Ferrari was next (1 min. 13.64 sec.) just in front of Vittorio Brambilla in the orange Beta March (1 min. 13.72 sec.). From the point of view of the World Championship struggle, Hunt went back to his hotel on Friday evening knowing full-well that he would have to improve on his time the following day if he was to have much chance of finishing sufficiently far ahead of Lauda to win the Championship. As it stood at the end of Friday's practice the British driver had a lot of very hard competitors in front of' him and once the race started they would be hell bent on winning the Japanese Grand Prix for themselves rather than concerning themselves with the destiny of the driver's title.
Although Scheckter tried both his Tyrrell P34s, Depailler emerged the fastest Elf runner on Friday with 1 min. 14.15 sec. ahead of Mass (1 min. 14.17 sec.) and the determined Tom Pryce who rocketed up to ninth fastest in the second session with the aid of a set of Mosport rubber. The Welshman's 1 min. 14.23 sec. put him just ahead of Scheckter's Tyrrell (1 min. 14.26 sec.) and the enthusiastic Perkins in the second Brabham-Alfa Romeo (1 min. 14.38 sec.). The French Ligier-Gitanes team brought along their singleton Ligier Matra JS5/01 leaving Laffite without any back-up car after Watkins Glen while the Penske team produced only PC4/01 for Watson and then must have wished that they'd brought a spare along when it suffered engine failure at the start of Friday's second session and left its driver kicking his heels in the pits with nothing to do. Before this mechanical failure interrupted his progress, Watson had lapped in 1 min. 14.67 sec. to head Hans Stuck in the fastest of the March 761s (1 min. 14.80 sec.). Team leader Ronnie Peterson, having his last race for the Bicester team prior to joining Ken Tyrrell for 1977, opened the weekend on a frustrating note when his March ground to a standstill on the apex of a very vulnerable right-hand corner during the second session. Despite the marshals trying to persuade the Swede to move his car off the circuit, Peterson remained on the corner unwilling to risk his only set of soft tyres on the rutted and flinty run-off area. Eventually Hasemi had his accident with the Kojima which resulted in the session being stopped, and as breakdown vehicles went to retrieve the damaged Japanese car they also stopped by and towed the missing March back to the pits. Examination of Peterson's car revealed the trouble to be in the gearbox, so the Swede joined Watson as a non-runner for the remainder of the second session.
In the Frank Williams/Walter Wolf camp somebody had done a "dreaded deal" for Japanese driver Masami Kuwashima to handle the second FW05 alongside Merzario, but after Kuwashima had practised on the first day it was announced that perhaps his cheque hadn't been in the post after all and Austrian Hans Binder (who'd been waiting quietly in the pits on Friday) would be taking the car over for the race. Alan Jones managed 1 min. 14.94 sec. in his Surtees TS19 which was covered in hieroglyphics proclaiming sponsorship from Theodore Racing (Jones' Formula 5000 entrant in the United States) for the occasion, while Gunnar Nilsson wasn't keeping up with the searing pace set by teammate Andretti and was even slower than Merzario's Williams on Friday. Tony Trimmer came all the way to Japan for another drive in the locally built Maki Formula One car, but this team didn't appear to have made any more progress since their last race in Europe and poor Trimmer could only manage 1 min. 36.84 sec., hampered by dire gear selection and engine bothers.
Saturday's practice was conducted in the same fine autumn weather that had been experienced the previous day and the final hour-long timed stint resolved itself into the dispute between Lauda and Hunt that had been so frequent before the Austrian's Nurburgring accident. Hunt recorded a fine 1 min. 12.80 sec. while the Ferrari driver hovered just the other side of the 1 min. 13.00 sec. barrier with 1 min. 13.08 sec. Just as it looked as though the two contestants for the World Drivers' Championship might start the final race from the front row of the grid everybody noticed that Andretti's times had been getting faster and faster, the little American eventually cutting a tremendous 1 min. 12.77 sec. best to snatch pole position for Lotus. It was the first time a Lotus had qualified fastest for a Grand Prix for over two years and the first time Andretti had been on pole since his amazing debut in a Lotus 49B at Watkins Glen in 1968.
Andretti's performance relegated Lauda to the second row of the grid while Watson made up for his previous afternoon's disappointment by hurling his Penske round in 1 min. 13.29 sec. to qualify in fourth place. Scheckter was next on 1 min. 13.31 sec. ahead of Pace's Brabham-Alfa Romeo (1 min. 13.43 sec.) and Regazzoni and Brambilla found themselves displaced bodily from the second to the fourth row, if not out of harm's way then certainly out of Hunt's, the British driver breathing a sigh of relief that he didn't have to deal with those two "renegades" in the opening stages of this crucial race. On the fifth row Peterson slipped in a 1 min. 13.85 sec. but when the field lined up on the grid for Sunday's race, the Swede must have felt slightly embarrassed to look across to his left and see the inscrutable Hasemi sitting alongside him in the Kojima, its first session best of 1 min. 13.88 sec. still good enough to qualify the car tenth quickest overall even though the rest of the field had taken part in over two hours' practice after the Kojima's accident!
Laffite equalled the Kojima's time but Mass couldn't better 1 min. 14.05 sec. and then came Depailler (1 min. 14.15 sec.) and Pryce (1 min. 14.23 sec.). Jarier looked more competitive than he's done for most of the season, lapping his Shadow DN5 in 1 min. 14.32 sec., only to have a frightening incident on the main straight just before the end of the session when a rear tyre disintegrated and the black car skidded to a halt in spectacular fashion. Jarier emerged unscathed and although the car didn't seem damaged, the brunt of the impact had been taken by the radiator mountings and the underside of the monocoque was quite seriously bashed. Accordingly Jarier took over Pryce's spare DN5 for the race on Sunday. Behind Jarier came Nilsson in the second Lotus, Perkins and Stuck, while Merzario qualified ahead of Jones' Surtees and Hoshino's Bridgestone-shod Tyrrell lapped quicker than Ertl, Fittipaldi and Takahara. Finally Frank Williams got everybody to sign a paper saying that they didn't mind Binder starting as 25th on the grid, so the Austrian began the race all on his own at the back.
After those two days of sunshine, Sunday provided a depressing contrast with streaming rain and low cloud swirling round the circuit and completely concealing Mount Fuji from view. Thousands of spectators had queued and waited all night in the rain to see Japan's first Championship Grand Prix, but as the morning passed the prospect of a race actually taking place seemed increasingly remote. It wasn't simply a case of torrential rain causing miniature lakes to build up on the circuit; the problems were compounded by the low cloud and mist which one minute cleared up only to reappear seconds later and restrict visibility to a matter of a hundred yards or so. The usual half-hour warm up took place and, predictably, resolved itself as an argument between those who were quick in the wet and wanted to race (like Pryce, Peterson and Stuck) and those who were a little more prudent (like Hunt, Lauda and Fittipaldi) and thought that the risk was too great. Discussions and meetings went on until well after the race's originally scheduled starting time and the drivers then had another 15-minute session of lapping just to check the conditions before another drivers' meeting voted by a substantial majority that the circuit was too dangerous. But by this time the organisers had decided to get on with the job of holding their motor race, they opened the pits and the cars trickled out one by one to take up their positions on the grid.
The start took place in absolutely diabolical conditions, but Hunt made the most of a good start and edged his McLaren ahead as they slithered down into the first corner, almost totally enveloped in a huge cloud of spray. By the end of the opening lap he had an enormous lead over Watson who was leading Andretti, Scheckter, Brambilla, Regazzoni, Depailler, Hoshino (who'd made a remarkable start from 21st place on the grid), Stuck, a very depressed and apprehensive Lauda, Mass, Laffite, Pryce, Hasemi, Jones, Nilsson, Merzario, Takahara, Binder, Jarier, Ertl, Pace and Fittipaldi. Peterson's March ground to a halt with flooded electrics mid-way round the opening lap and Perkins crept into the pits to retire his ill-handling Brabham-Alfa, the Australian's car not feeling quite right after being hurriedly repaired after he'd crashed it during the untimed morning session.
Hunt continued to extend his lead, but Watson quickly dropped back into the murk, first being passed by Andretti and then, on lap three, by the determined Brambilla who was going hell for leather in the streaming rain, not one whit concerned about the atrocious track surface. But by this time Niki Lauda had gone. After sliding back out of the top ten, the Austrian bought his Ferrari slowly into the pits at the end of the second lap. The Italian mechanics bent down into the cockpit to see what was the matter, but Lauda simply shook his head sadly, undid his seat harness and lifted himself from the cockpit. The World Champion considered the conditions far too hazardous and, doubtless personally apprehensive of the dangers of a wet race, had chosen to call it a day. Whilst it was difficult to understand why Lauda had taken this decision it was equally impossible to criticise this man who has suffered so much in order that he might return to motor racing so soon after a very serious accident. Looking mournful and unhappy, the little Austrian watched Hunt speedboat past the pits for a few more laps, realised that his own World Championship title had very likely vanished and then walked slowly to his waiting car and left the circuit.
On lap six Brambilla came charging into the pits to replace a chunking left front tyre and that dropped him down to eighth, but he went charging in at unabated speed. Pace and Fittipaldi lasted until laps eight and ten respectively before pulling into the pits, officially with mechanical troubles but in fact with similar misgivings as Lauda about the weather conditions.
By the tenth lap Hunt was over 8 sec. ahead of Andretti, but the crowd's attention now focused on the efforts of Hoshino who had bought his Tyrrell up to third place by the tenth lap, passing Regazzoni's Ferrari and Scheckter's newer Tyrrell P34 as he did so. This magnificent performance lasted only for a couple of laps until the fast-recovering Brambilla displaced him and then the Japanese-entered Tyrrell stopped for a tyre change on lap twenty. Brambilla steadily hauled in Hunt's leading McLaren and completed the 20th lap right on its tail, the British driver keeping a close watch in his mirrors as he didn't want the volatile Italian to ruin his Championship chances with a single imprudent move. Halfway round the 21st lap Brambilla decided to make a bid for the lead and came rushing up on the inside of the hairpin, careering across Hunt's bows and immediately spinning as Hunt repassed on the inside. Brambilla, who reported to his pit that his March's engine cut out and caused the spin, dropped to fourth place behind Hunt, Mass and Depailler's Tyrrell as a result.
By this time the track surface was drying noticeably and McLaren team manager Teddy Mayer was anxiously signalling to his two drivers that they should move off the dry "line" on the main straight and keep their deep-grooved rain tyres on what water remained. Mass gradually closed in on his team-mate, seemingly intent on leading the race for himself rather than protecting Hunt's advantage, but his efforts came to an abrupt end when he hit a large puddle on the long right-hand corner before the pits and careered off the track into the guard rail, much to the detriment of the McLaren's front end. This drama left Hunt lapping comfortably on his own in the lead, but Prvce had worked his shadow DN8 up into second place by the time 40 of the race's 73 laps had been completed. Unfortunately Pryce's gallant effort lasted a mere seven laps before the Shadow's engine expired in an expensive cloud of oil smoke. That put Depailler back to second ahead of Andretti while Brambilla had already departed the fray with severe electrical problems. Both the Williams cars were also out before 50 laps had been completed, Merzario with gearbox trouble and Binder with a seized rear wheel bearing.
With just over 20 laps to go it was clear that Hunt would have to take things very steadily if he was to avoid the tyre problems that afflicted most of his rivals. He could see that his left front tyre was wearing very badly, but he was waiting for a signal from his pits to indicate that they were ready for his arrival to change it. However the McLaren lads were waiting for their man to make his own decision and the result of that was that Hunt just stayed out in the lead, wearing his tyres harder and harder.
Depailler closed to within 5 sec. of the leading McLaren with 13 laps to go, five laps after the demise of his team-mate Scheckter with engine failure, but the Frenchman was pressing on rather too hard for the good of his tyres on the drying surface and the left rear cover soon deflated onto its rim, forcing the Tyrrell into the pits for it to be changed. By contrast, Andretti had dropped back to a distant third, watching his tyres all the time, and hoping to run through to the finish without making a stop.
Andretti's tactics paid off in brilliant fashion. With ten laps of the race left Hunt decided to go for a finish rather than a win, slowing up even more in a desperate attempt to finish with his tyres intact. There were only nine laps left to run when Andretti piled on the pressure for the spurt to the finishing line, pushing his Lotus into the lead as Hunt dropped briefly to third, then back to second as Depailler made his stop for tyres.
The crowd watched on tenterhooks, knowing that a pit stop might be the crucial factor in the points war between Hunt and the retired Lauda and might be the one factor that prevented Hunt from taking the Austrian's World Championship crown. Then, on lap 68, Hunt's left front tyre deflated as he came onto the startline straight and he pulled quickly over into the pit lane and stopped by his waiting mechanics. Working with commendable calm, the McLaren lads replaced the two rear wheels but had a nasty moment when they couldn't slip the jack under the left front wheel because the tyre deflation meant that this corner was virtually dragging on the ground. One of the mechanics lifted the suspension up so as to permit the jack to be inserted, the front tyres were changed and Hunt was back in the fray in fifth place with only five laps to go.
Hunt needed to finish fourth (at least) in order to equal Lauda's 68 points total and thus wrest the Championship from him by virtue of having won more Grands Prix, and the British driver went like the wind for those last few laps, rocketing past Regazzoni's Ferrari and Jones' Surtees (which was slowing with a puncture) to regain third place at the start of the penultimate lap. Almost unnoticed in the great "media hubbub" surrounding Hunt's consequent one-point victory in the World Championship for Drivers, Mario Andretti was waving his right arm in salute as he negotiated his slowing-down lap after putting Colin Chapman's team back on the winning map after so long in the wilderness. Depailler was a disappointed second, yet again, ahead of Hunt, while Jones struggled home a good fourth ahead of Regazzoni and Gunnar Nilsson in the second Lotus. Thus, as the dusk fell over the Mount Fuji circuit, the first Formula One Japanese Grand Prix finished amidst scenes of great British rejoicing and jubilation for the worthy new World Champion Hunt and celebrating that the Lotus marque was at last back in business following Andretti's well-judged victory.—A.H.