Mario Andretti claimed pole for Lotus
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.
Penske’s John Watson qualified 4th
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.
(L-r) Hunt, Lauda, Bernie Ecclestone and Peterson discuss whether to start the race
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.
Andretti leads as the cars eventually pull away
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.
Lauda decided conditions were too dangerous to race in
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.