Big in Japan

In Japan some passage of time is usually required before an event, an artefact or an era can be defined as a classic. But the 1976 Japanese GP was different In pouring rain on a circuit built in the shadow of Mount Fuji, what was possibly the most exciting season of Formula One came to a spectacular conclusion in a race memorable for many different reasons. Because it was the Hunt versus Lauda championship showdown, the fact that Mario Andretti gave Lotus its first grand prix win in more than two years is often overlooked. But these weren’t the only remarkable things about this race, for Formula One’s first visit to the Far East threw up two local heroes who had scarcely been heard of outside their homeland; what’s more, they were driving Japanese-entered cars — one of which had been built just outside the circuit gates. Even more incredibly, that car — the Kojima KE007 — was to top the qualifying times for a substantial period in the first session and would go on to ‘officially’ set the fastest lap of the race.

This machine was the project of Matsuhisa Kojima, formerly a rider for the factory Suzuki motocross team, who’d set up Kojima Engineering in 1970 to construct single-seater and sports-racing cars. The company had worked its way through the ranks, toiling in the unique-to-Japan FJ1300 category and then breaking into the strong domestic F2 series.

The KE007 was not taken seriously before the regular teams arrived at Fuji, principally because the designer was Masao Ono, of Maki infamy. But Ono had obviously learned his lessons, for the new car was neat, conventional and quick. Featuring the ubiquitous DFV and Hewland gearbox, it stood on Japanese-made Dunlop tyres, successful in the local series but hitherto untried in F1.

Its driver was 30-year-old Masahiro Hasemi, who had known the team owner since 1960, when they competed together on two wheels. Kojima had maintained Hasemi’s FJ1300 as they rose up the motorsport ladder together — and they remain good friends to this day. Hasemi reveals that testing was very limited: “I think only three times. We had a shakedown at Suzuka and twice went tyre testing at Fuji. Dunlop Japan had got some information from Dunlop in England. They made two types of race tyre, and one for qualifying. I remember the softer race tyre was very good. Actually, the performance was better than I had expected.” The other big local hope was 29-year-old ICazuyoshi Hoshino, who was entered by Hems Racing in an ex-works Tyrrell 007. Driver and team arrived at Fuji as the reigning Japanese F2 champions, winning with a March-BMW

They had restyled the Tyrrell by replacing its chisel nose with a broader March-style affair. “That was designed especially for the Fuji course,” says Hoshino. This car would run on Bridgestones, marking the first foray into F1 for the firm which would dominate the sport more than 20 years later. Hems, like Kojima, had not got much testing in before Fuji. “I did five tests in two days before the race,” says Hoshino. It didn’t seem to matter though: Hoshino placed a respectable 21st out of the 27 runners in qualifying, while Hasemi stunned the Europeans. For the first half-hour of Friday’s opening session the Kojima topped the timesheets. Goodyear then produced some softer tyres to enable title combatants Hunt and Lauda to move to the fore. Hasemi had dropped to fourth by the end of the morning, but held high hopes of vaulting to the front in the afternoon. “I knew Fuji,” he recalls. “I knew how I could set the fastest time. I was waiting in the pitlane for one of three drivers — Hunt, Lauda or Andretti — to come into the hairpin [the track’s first corner]. When Hunt came by I went out onto the track. He was ahead of me and Andretti also overtook me, so I had two cars to slipstream. I overtook Andretti at the end of the main straight at the start of my lap, and I followed Hunt — but I crashed at the final corner.” It was an enormous impact and

Hasemi’s pole position bid ended with a wrecked car. Somehow his mechanics built up a brand new monocoque in time for Sunday’s race, for which his Friday morning time was still good enough for 10th on the grid. Luckily for him, the heavens opened wide on Sunday, for the patched-up car would surely have been less competitive in the dry: “The steering rack was very tight. They did a good job to get the car running, but I could not drive straight!”

Hasemi dropped back in the opening laps, but Hoshino was on a charge, leapfrogging from 21st to eighth by the end of the first tour. By lap seven the old Tyrrell was ahead of Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari and into fourth. Then, to the roar of the crowd, it dived past the six-wheeled Tyrrell ofJody Scheckter to take third three laps later. Only Hunt and Andretti were ahead.

“I was very excited when I passed Scheckter,” Hoshino admits.

“When I reached third place I could see the tail-end of Andretti. I tried hard to overtake him, so I pushed as hard as I could. I was fighting for myself; I wanted to be recognised and thought this was my best opportunity.”

Unfortunately, tyre problems soon intervened and, after pitting, Hoshino eventually retired — there were simply no Bridgestones left. At about the same time, Hasemi pitted to swap his wet rubber E4 for intermediate Dunlops. He would stop again later in the race to move onto slicks, a move which cost him a lot of time and dropped him to last by the finish. At the time, designer Ono opined that they had too big a choice of tyres. “Maybe that’s right,” says Hasemi. “But our grooved tyres had a short life and I had to pit more than those on Goodyears.”

Incredibly, the Kojima was credited with the fastest lap. It’s a time which is often disputed, but it’s there in the record books. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” Hasemi says. “I did not care!” It was planned for Kojima to contest the first four grands prix of the 1977 season, Hasemi reckoning that the car would have suited fast circuits with similar characteristics to Fuji (such as the flowing Buenos Aires and Interlagos). In the end, though, the works team couldn’t even find the money to compete that year at Fuji. Instead, Heros ran a pair of KE009s — an evolution of KE007 — for Hoshino and Noritake Takahara. This time there was to be no 1976-style sensations, merely a respectable midfield run from Hoshino.

That was the last GP at Fuji, and it would be 10 years before Formula One returned to Japan. Hoshino and Hasemi went back to their domestic careers, the former notching up a Formula 3000 title as recently as 1993, and the pair of them linking up to win the Daytona 24 Hours for Nissan in 1992. Hoshino is reckoned by many to be Japan’s greatest racing driver of all time. Among the many Europeans who have taken him on, and been defeated by him, he is regarded as “a Jean Alesi with brains”. Yet when Honda returned to Fl in the ’80s, he was passed over in favour of Satoru Nalcajima. “One of the reasons he was chosen was age,” explains Hoshino. “I was so affected by this that I refused to know anything about F1 for three years after that”

Hoshino still races on in the Japanese GT championship, while Hasemi did the same series until hanging up his gloves at the end of 2000. As he went on a lap of honour at Suzuka, an old friend looked down from the sky: “Mr Kojima was in a helicopter. He’d come to see my final GT race. “He says he wants to race again. I hope he does.” 11

What happens when the inscrutable become unscrewed

Not content with dragging down the reputation of the Japanese motor racing industry in an ill-starred European campaign in 1975, the Maki team broke a one-year lay-off to make its Formula One return at Fuji in ’76. Once again talented Briton Tony Trimmer (right) — a man who spent most of the ’70s on the fringes of F1 — would be the victim in the cockpit.

The F102A was thrown together at the last minute and was based on the Masao Ono-designed F101C, which itself had never qualified for a grand prix.

“It was worse than the old one,” shudders Trimmer.

“I did about half a lap at Fuji before it broke down and I don’t think I ever did a full lap. I don’t remember ever crossing the startline.

“It was so bad that the other F1 team managers came around to look at it and wouldn’t allow me to run. They decided it was so flawed in design it would be dangerous to drive. The whole of the front end was held on by a small bracket which looked as though it would cave in as soon as you got going and you’d run over the front of your car.” During his Maki career Trimmer estimates there were “26 major breakages in the five races I tried to do. At least I got an award from the drivers — bravest but stupidest!”

Ironically, Trimmer nearly got his big chance at Fuji: “Because everyone felt sorry for me I was fitted into the spare Shadow, but then the Maki sponsors said, ‘We can’t let you do that—you’re contracted to us.’ I said, ‘Keep your money’, but they refused. That would have been the best break of my life and, at the last moment, I was told I couldn’t take it. Would you believe it?”