1977 Japanese at Fuji
How proud were you in 1961 to become the first Japanese rider to win a world championship motorcycle grand prix?
People talk about this but I do not think I was a super rider — I just rode on the Honda ‘bike and crossed the finish line first. I couldn’t have done it without the help of a lot of people, and my job was just a little one at the end. You can never make it without your ‘bike, engine, tyres, staff and fans. Of course I was happy and felt honoured at the time, but it was like a dream!
Why did you make the switch from ‘bikes to cars?
Japanese manufacturers started car racing and started to hire drivers. I thought I could still continue for some more seasons on motorcycles, but Nissan gave me the opportunity to drive instead. After that I never touched a ‘bike, and put away the ‘rider Kunimitsu’.
What did you think of Hasemi and Hoshino in the 1976 Japanese GP?
I was not interested so I did not see it. But then I got the opportunity to race in the next year’s Japanese GP from Mr Kojima of Kojima Engineering. It was not to drive for Kojima, but for the Meiritsu Racing Team. I did not know who Meiritsu were, but I did not need to know — I just had to drive the car.
You drove the same Tyrrell 007 that Hoshino had raced in ’76. Did you expect to make the same favourable impression?
The Tyrrell car was not impressive in terms of power. I had a lot of experience driving big, powerful machines with Nissan in sportscars — they were fun to drive. I had no idea about F1 machines and the Tyrrell, and I had no real comparison. The same for the tyres: I could not make any comment that the Japanese Dunlops were good or bad, but I liked their character.
How did the Fuji weekend go?
The staff were very good in preparing the car, but we had some trouble. I have no good driving memories except the race! The car set-up was not a big problem for us, but the Ford DFV did not work well up until raceday morning — the fuel line and electrics were not good. My staff kept going to the Tyrrell team to get some parts. Our qualifying result was no good — I was 22nd out of 23 cars. I was sorry for the fans who had come to see me and the Japanese drivers running strongly. I thought I would just do my best and finally my engine played fine music just before the race!
And you finished ninth…
I did not know about the accident on the first lap (between Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve). I just drove as hard as possible. I was proud to finish ninth in among some great drivers. I dedicated my run to my staff, the people behind this project and the fans. — JT