The Waterboys

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It is 20 years since James Hunt clinched the World Championship in one of the tensest Formula One finales. Simon Arron recalls Fuji 1976

I really thought we’d blown it with that pit stop. When I came into the pits after the race, I didn’t know where I’d finished, but I was convinced that Niki had retained the championship. I was heartbroken,”

The speaker? The late James Hunt, October 24 1976.

The event? The Japanese Grand Prix, the first World Championship race in the Far East and epoch-making in several other ways. This was the race that helped introduce the wider general public to motor racing, the most widely publicised motor racing event of all time to that point.

“It was this race which persuaded the BBC to televise the sport,” confirms Murray Walker, at the microphone then as he was for the BBC’s recent swansong, at Suzuka, and as he will be when ITV assumes control in 1997. “I remember they opened up the studio at four in the morning, which was something they never normally did.

“Regular TV coverage didn’t start until 1978, because it took time to sort out the question of cigarette advertising, but it was the Japanese race which started the ball rolling.”

Put most of the ingredients into a movie script, and they would have been dismissed for being too far-fetched. There was Hunt, the English former public schoolboy with a hell-raising reputation. A man whose career appeared to be on the skids at the start of the year, but rescued from the job centre when Emerson Fittipaldi conveniently quit McLaren in favour of his own family’s fledgling team. A man whose later career as a TV commentator kept him at the forefront of popular culture, until his untimely death from a heart attack in June 1993.

There was Niki Lauda, pragmatic, calculating, the reigning world champion . . . but a man bearing the severe physical scars of his fiery accident at the Nurburgring. Read the last rites in the first week of August; finished fourth in the Italian GP on September 12.

Lauda missed only two races, in which Hunt scored 12 points, and James’s twin success in Canada and the USA left him only three adrift of the Austrian as they travelled to the foot of Mount Fuji for their Japanese showpiece.

After a season marked by a series of controversies (Hunt having been excluded, then reinstated, in Spain, and disqualified at Brands Hatch), Fuji held several more surprises in store, not least the weather.

“The conditions weren’t difficult, they were just about impossible,” recalls John Watson, who had qualified his Penske fourth fastest. “When you get rain in Japan, it’s not rain as we know it, it’s more like a monsoon. The entire main straight looked more like the Serpentine than a race track. It was just deep puddles, and even in those days our cars were doing 175-180 mph by the end of the straight. The pools were quite deep. Much, much deeper than a tyre would have a chance to clear.

“The thought of starting a race in those conditions had everyone very concerned. The track had a number of fast sweeping corners around the back, raising the prospect of drivers being unsighted if someone went off.”

Although a cancellation would have finished his championship hopes. Hunt himself was firmly against the idea of racing.

“We wandered back and forth up to the race headquarters several times,” remembers Teddy Mayer, director of McLaren’s racing operation at the time. “We conferred with Bernie Ecclestone and the Japanese officials. The drivers were not all that anxious to race, James particularly so. Every time we went up there he’d say, ‘No, no. I’m not going to run.’ I’d say, You do whatever you want, James’, knowing full well that when the moment came he’d climb in the car. He was saying it’s too dangerous, really silly, a joke, and what have you, even though he knew that he couldn’t win the title if he didn’t go out. I just told him to do what he felt was right when the time came, and not to feel under any pressure.

“Eventually, if we’d left it much longer it was going to get dark, and the officials decided that there was going to be a race, whether the drivers liked it or not. If they wanted to show up, line; if they didn’t so be it, Of course, they all did.”

“As soon as one car goes out, then everybody goes,” smiles Watson. “That’s the fallibility of a racing driver. The situation is unchanged. It existed then, it exists today and it will exist in the future.

When you accept the role of a Grand Prix driver, and you’re paid to do the job, there is a responsibility, partly to yourself but also to the public and the TV audience. There may be circumstances you are personally unhappy with, and there may be times when you want to step out and people will respect you for that, but I believe that it is right to start the Grand Prix.

“The stronger drivers are always the most resistant, and the weaker drivers will always follow the example of the strong. It happened in Barcelona in ’75, South Africa in ’82, Dallas in ’84. At the end of the day, I do believe that a racing driver has an obligation to get on to the grid and start a Grand Prix. He can then stop at the first corner, the end of the first lap, whenever he likes, but if it’s possible to start, if there isn’t 10 ft of water on the track, then it ought to take place. There has to be that commitment. The show has to go on.

“Clearly, there was a commitment from the teams to the Japanese organisers, and from the Japanese organisers to the public and the TV companies. The whole world was watching,”

“They eventually started off, about two hours late,” recalls Mayer, “and James went storming into the lead. After a while [team-mate] Jochen Mass was quite tight on his gearbox. I could tell that James didn’t like that, and it was a bit silly to be that close, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. We kept trying to get Jochen to back off and give him room, but he wouldn’t. Eventually, he fell off, which was a relief to be honest, because it was a bit damn stupid. He was being like drivers were you know, ‘I’ll show you I’m as good as this guy in the wet, even though he’s winning the championship and I’m not.

And what exactly were the conditions like in those opening stages?

‘Being on the second row, my visibility was considerably better than those behind me.” remembers Watson, “but by the end of the lap I was unsighted, and I did a 360 or something in the middle of this bloody lake. You couldn’t see where you were. You were totally disorientated. Anybody in the middle of the grid wouldn’t have a bloody clue what was going on. You had to rely totally on instinct, and to an extent on whatever peripheral vision you could pick up. Conditions were as bad as I ever had to race in.”

And certainly too much for Lauda to contend with. The Austrian lost touch with the leaders on the opening lap, after a big moment in one of the puddles. At the end of the second, he slowly entered the pits, and climbed out.

Ferrari team manager Daniele Audetto was happy to invent a mechanical excuse, but the Austrian wanted none. “Frankly, I think the guy was shitting himself,” says Watson, “and quite understandably too.

“You were approaching these ‘lakes’ on full throttle on the straight, and as you get off the throttle, when the water’s like that, you get this torque reaction from the engine which effectively locks up the rear wheels, and the car gets lifted up. If you imagine a couple of planks of wood, four inches wide, you could water ski on those at 25 mph. We had four of those, and the ones at the rear were at least three times as wide, and we were doing at least six times that speed… You can imagine what its like.

“Niki had just come through hell, and he didn’t want to revisit it. On top of that, he had an advantage in the championship, and he took a gamble. In those circumstances, no one could predict what would happen. For James to finish third or higher, which he had to do with Niki out, you could still get odds on that.”

The weather provided the first twist of the day, Lauda’s sudden withdrawal the second. Yet there were more.

“It stopped aquaplaning about three laps into the race,” explained Hunt, talking to Motoring News after the race, “and the car was perfect apart from the tyres. Just after half distance I realised I was in trouble and was waiting for the pits to take the decision for me to come in, but they were waiting for me to decide. I wouldn’t make the choice; I wanted them to tell me.”

Mayer: “We could see that his tyres were wearing out quite badly. We sat there and talked about it on the pit wall, Alistair [Caldwell, team manager] and I. We didn’t know how bad the tyres were, we couldn’t see them, he could. We were trying to get James to decide whether to come in, because we didn’t have radios in those days, and he was trying to get us to tell him. We really weren’t as good a judge of that as he was, but the decision was eventually made for him because the front left wore out and punctured. He came in and we had quite a good stop considering we couldn’t get the jack under the car, because the tyre was completely flat. Howard Moore picked the corner of the thing up and literally manhandled it onto the jack. The change wasn’t too bad, 15-16s as I remember, which was OK by the standards of the day.”

His fading tyres had dropped him to third place, and with five laps to go he rejoined in fifth. On the 71st lap of 73, he passed Clay Regazzoni and Alan Jones in quick succession, the latter slowed by a puncture. He was back in a title-winning situation, and he didn’t have a clue…

“When he came in he thought he’d lost the title. He was screaming and yelling at us, ‘Why didn’t we bring him in earlier?’ and all this stuff. I was trying to tell him that he’d won, and he couldn’t hear me and was getting quite vociferous.

“It was probably only a few seconds or something like that, but you know how James could be when he was angry, screaming and yelling. Fortunately, he had his helmet on, so you couldn’t really hear what he was saying. But I think we got the idea pretty easily. Eventually he did hear, and all was sweetness and light.”

Hunt’s name seldom crops up in lists of ‘greats’. Was he, in Mayer’s view, a worthy champion? “Absolutely. He really could drive a car very, very quickly. He wasn’t a bad test driver, though he wasn’t wonderful because he didn’t like doing it. But when he did test he could tell you what made the car better and what didn’t. He probably drove around most problems rather than spending time thinking about how to solve them, although he was very canny about tyre choice and trying to get the car set up. When he was focused, he was pretty good.

“His weak points were that he felt that being a racing driver was a pretty dangerous job. It still is, but it was a lot worse back then. That worried him all the time, no question about that, knowing how far he was sticking his neck out. He really had a lot of other things in life he wanted to do, like play. He wasn’t always focused. For a team manager, that made it difficult to get him to some of the off-track functions he was supposed to be doing, or at least to get him to do them properly.”

Hunt the party animal emerged late that Sunday evening. Mayer admits that he can’t recollect many details, other than that it involved drink, music and slumping on the floors of hotel rooms. “There was a great post-race celebration,” confirms Watson, ‘though I don’t know that I saw very much of James. The one person who had the worst time of all was poor Daniele Audetto. There were ‘phone calls being made from one hotel room to Audetto’s bedroom, ‘Pronto! Pronto! Audetto! Audetto! Ferrari! Ferrari!’ This sort of thing went on all through most of the night. It was clearly a euphoric evening on the one hand, but for Niki, Daniele … “

If there was sympathy from Watson, there was less from the McLaren camp. “To be honest, the two of them were pretty good friends,” admits Mayer, “but James took umbrage at some of Niki’s comments after the hearing in Paris over the British race. I think for a while it got a bit tense. Sure, they both wanted to win. They both felt they’d been cheated, which is normal, but most of the time they were mates.

“I have to say, when Niki pitted we thought it was wonderful,” he chuckles, “that it served the bastard right. Motor racing can be like that… “