Mario Andretti: My Greatest Race

All eyes were on the battle for the world title between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, but Mario Andretti's win put Lotus back on the winning track at Fuji '76

Mario Andretti, Tony Southgate, Lotus-Ford 77, Grand Prix of Japan, Fuji Speedway, 24 October 1976. Mario Andretti celebrating victory with Lotus engineer Tony Southgate who co-designed the Lotus 77 and Lotus 78 with Peter Wright. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Andretti celebrates with designer Tony Southgate after that momentous Fuji win

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

The race which was particularly exciting for me was probably my first Grand Prix win for Lotus in Japan in 1976. The weather conditions were dreadful, some of the drivers didn’t want to race, but if you’re on the dancefloor, you have to dance…

“At the beginning of that season the Lotus team had reached a new low, and so had I”

At the beginning of that season the Lotus team had reached a new low, and so had I. That year I was determined, once and for all, to do Formula One full time, but after the third race all of that was about to change, without me even knowing about it. I’d had a one-off drive with Lotus in Brazil – the car was terrible – and then gone back to Parnelli for the rest of the season. However, at Long Beach the team told (journalist) Chris Economaki that after the weekend there’d be no more F1 – they were going back to race only in Indycars. And Chris told me on the grid!

I was so upset, I missed all the freaking gears at the start of the race. Afterwards I said to my team bosses, Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones, “Thank you for having someone else alert me of our plans…”

Mario Andretti (Lotus-Ford) and John Watson (Penske-Ford) in the grid before the wet 1976 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Andretti lines up on the grid with Penske’s John Watson next to him

Grand Prix Photo

They said, “Well, we understand, but we’d like to go and do Indycars”, and I replied, “You’re going, I’m not.” They started talking about contracts and I just said, “I’m going, I’m gone, gone, gone.” So that was it. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but as fate would have it, the next day I was having breakfast all by myself in the hotel. I’ll never forget it I was on one side of the room, and Colin Chapman was on the other. And honest to God we were it wasn’t planned I joined him and told him about all the trouble I was having and he just asked, “Do you wanna join the team full time?”

I said, “I will on one condition – that we really go racing. Put your road car company, your boat company, everything else out of your head, and let’s go racing, strictly racing.” We walked away. I was happy, and I think he was happy too. So we got back together.

I always had a good relationship with Colin. I started with him in F1 in 1968, but then he was angry with me when I left him for March, and then later Ferrari. He was a bit cold for a while, but Colin was a businessman; he wanted to forget, and then talk it out. I think we both needed something, and it was a marriage made in heaven for a while…

From the archive

As the season went on we were making some tremendous gains with the Lotus 77. We were gaining some downforce, but the big penalty was the car was like a brick in a straightline. Anywhere with a long straight we were in trouble that year. But we got a few results, and I had a good third in Canada. When we got to Fuji, it was just a matter of finishing the season on a high note. Everything was really leading to a good finish.

I always enjoyed Japan. It was a different sort of ambience there, the Japanese being all so very polite and very curious. I’d actually been to Fuji before, for an IndyCar race in 1966, but it was run in the reverse direction. Driving a circuit backwards is not the same at all – it’s like being in a different place entirely. With our straight-line problems I was surprised to get pole; had it then been a dry race as well, I’m not sure the outcome would have been the same. I think the rain was the equaliser on race day.

“I saw two Japanese drivers and thought, “Ah, they know where they’re going”

Conditions were unbelievable, and we only started after a long delay. The race is remembered today for the fact that the James Hunt/Niki Lauda battle had gone down to the wire. I think Lauda was 100 per cent correct to withdraw just after the start. It was one of the first races back from his accident, and to be fair I think it was reasonable to do it, even though it cost him so much. But that didn’t make the rest of us totally crazy by going ahead and accepting it, because it was the same for everyone.

Normally pole is good, especially in the wet, but I got smoked at the start, and Hunt got into the lead. There were rivers running across the track everywhere. Later I saw Jochen Mass and Vittorio Brambilla going by. I thought I’ll sit back and watch this… and before you knew it they were just hanging from the trees somewhere. There was just no way!

I just bided my time. I had one helluva time on the straight; there were so many huge puddles, and I couldn’t find the right line. All of a sudden, way over by the guardrail, I saw two Japanese drivers. I don’t even remember who they were. I thought, “Ah, they know where they’re going”, so I followed them for two laps, then I blew by them, and off we went.

Later it started drying, and it was a question of either riding it out, or pitting for slicks. In those days things were rather basic – there were no in-car radios and we were not too well geared for changing tyres.

The quick line was dry, so I was staying on the wet part, right on the edge, trying to keep my tyres cool. Hunt eventually stopped, and it put me in the lead. I really resisted going in. It’s especially hard if you’re leading; I knew that Hunt was right there, and I knew that anyone who could run on slicks could all of a sudden come back strong.

I tell you, man, I just made it on those tyres. Maybe another lap, and he would have taken me. It was a good call in that respect, maybe if I had gone in, I wouldn’t have won, because I don’t think the Lotus boys would have been as quick as the McLaren boys. It was a very exciting event for me. I think we really played our cards well that day, and it was one of those very satisfying races.

Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter, Lotus-Ford 77, Grand Prix of Japan, Fuji Speedway, 24 October 1976. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Andretti resisted coming in for dry tyres – the call kept him in the lead and brought Lotus a win

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Hunt won the title, and everyone was more interested in that. That was understandable – the championship was a big story, especially the way he won it. When you win a race, nothing can faze you. If at the moment the attention is not there, then so be it.

Colin was a great. He was so emotional. You wouldn’t expect that from the ice man, because in other ways he was so cold. But Colin loved to win, and the best of Colin always came out when you were on the podium. Had it been dry he might not have been that way. But we were in the right situation, and we won. It’s amazing what that does for momentum in the team. It was the start of something special; over the next couple of years there were many times that we had something to celebrate on Sunday evening…