F1's great drives: James Hunt - 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

F1

With everything to lose, in treacherous conditions, and with late drama, James Hunt's drive in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was one of the greatest of all time. It all began a week before...

James Hunt leads team mate Jochen Mass at Fuji in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Hunt leads team-mate Mass at Fuji

Grand Prix Photo

James Hunt delivered his greatest drive in spite of himself. It wasn’t just the peak moment of his career, but also a defining drive for F1.

The British gentleman racer conquering the world’s best in far away lands – Hunt embodied it.

Despite this, the Brit’s landmark drive came in the midst of late night escapades, mechanical disasters, psychological warfare and F1 politics.

As the ‘76 season approached its climax in North America and Asia, it seemed all might be lost for the McLaren team and its lead driver. Hunt had been duelling with Ferrari’s Niki Lauda throughout the year, but losing his British Grand Prix win to disqualification (announced by the FIA at Round 14 in Canada) seemed to have derailed his season for good.

“James met a girl and came to the race dishevelled, in the same clothes from the previous night – and won the race”

Team manager at the time Alastair Caldwell describes the state of affairs as they approached the North American leg of the season: “We abandoned the idea of winning the world championship. I let him misbehave in Canada and in Watkins Glen. On both occasions we were pissed on race eve, both of us in a bar after midnight getting rotten – me on alcohol and him on women, because he was always very successful with women.

“James met a girl – the leader of the band at the motel in Montreal – and so he came to the race dishevelled, in the same clothes as he’d been wearing the previous night – and he won the race!

“Even then we still thought we were out of it. Then we won Watkins Glen too! So suddenly we became serious again.”

Lauda had scored 4 points to Hunt’s 18 in this period. With the championship fight back on, the rejuvenated team and driver looked at the season finale in a new light. The championship fight was back on, and as a result, McLaren prepared for the Japanese GP with renewed vigour.

James Hunt at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix in Fuji

Hunt at Fuji

Grand Prix Photo

“I used to try and test (the car) the week before,” remembers Caldwell, “So we flew to Japan and tested on the Saturday. It was a fantastic move because James was in Japan for 10 days before the race, so he was totally acclimatised – to the track, the hotel, everything, he had no jet lag. That’s a huge benefit to any sportsman.”

McLaren’s preparations were in sharp contrast to the rest of the field who arrived just for the race weekend itself:

“The others all turned up on the Thursday, including Niki, you can see them all get off the plane knackered and then trying to find where this new racetrack was.”

It wasn’t just through testing and acclimatisation that Hunt and McLaren stole a march. Caldwell thought he might use interactions with the press to his advantage: “Just for a laugh we spread a rumour. A journalist said to me ‘what’s the track like?’ I said ‘It’s is good but it’s got a lot of loose gravel on it.’”

James Hunt in the pits at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

McLaren stole a march on rivals with an early test session

Hoch Zwei/Ronco

Enjoying the effect the track surface story had on the rest of the field’s preparations, Caldwell thought he’d develop the rumour into a full-blown design feature.

“Because we were bored and had nothing else to do, the mechanics made mesh covers for all the air intakes on the car, to “protect” the brake ducts and air intake.

“Then Niki (Lauda) came down to our garage, which he always did – he spent more time in our garage then Ferrari’s. He would joke with us and do mechanic’s repartee.

“Psychologically we had them on the back foot right from the start.”

“Niki had come to see what we’d done with the cars as he was also a spy. So I told the mechanics, ‘just by mistake’, to take the covers off the cars so you could see the mesh covers on all the intakes. They did this and then they put it back on in a hurry while I ‘looked displeased’.

“And so then Niki broke off the conversation, trotted back to Ferrari and said ‘f**king hell, McLaren have put vents near these grilles over everything in the car, we got to do the same.’

From the archive

“The whole Ferrari organisation went out to find these grilles, find where they came from and make them for their three cars. Then we put our three cars in the pit road and took all the grilles off the T-Car. Niki came down and said ‘You f**king bastards!’ They came down the pitroad and Ferrari had this shit all over their car – these grilles all over the radiators.

“He had to tear back and tell them to take them all off. Psychologically we had them on the back foot right from the start, there’s all this psychological warfare.”

The mind-games might well have been in vain, for the monsoon weather which rolled in on Sunday looked like putting the race in jeopardy. If the Grand Prix was cancelled, Lauda would be handed the World Championship.

The Grand Prix Drivers Association had been formed to have some influence on such matters, to stop the interests of teams, the governing body and sponsors taking precedence over drivers’ well being. Hunt and Lauda were both members and convened prior to the race start in an effort to have it stopped.

“They were adamant the race wasn’t going to be held. Bernie (Ecclestone, Brabham team boss) and I were in the race control tower trying to convince them to hold the race.” says Caldwell “And James kept on saying ‘No no, we’re not going to race’. I tried to explain to him that no race meant no World Championship. He replied “No, no, no, it’s totally unsuitable, we can’t race”.

James Hunt Niki Lauda and Ronnie Peterson at Fuji for the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

The waiting game: Hunt, Lauda and Peterson

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Caldwell resorted to more imaginative tactics to swing the mood towards starting the race.

“I was going down (to the pits) getting my car mechanics to start the engines every half an hour, which would make all the other teams start doing it – they didn’t know why. The engines were making this noise ‘woop, woop, woop’”.

The engineer then turned his attention to activating the spectators.

“I was trying to get some enthusiasm from the passive Japanese crowd, they’d been there for hours doing nothing. They weren’t even talking, just sitting in the rain – miserable.

“I said to our tyre man Lance Gibbs ‘Do you think you could get the crowd going?’ So he got up on the pitwall with his ACME Thunderer whistle, which had been given to the boys to use as a horn, for when they pushed the race cars around the paddock.

“He went ‘beep beep’ and hundreds of spectators did the same – got them doing a concert. We then did the business of slow clapping, when it gets to the end, people can’t keep up, they lose co-ordination and you get a huge noise.

“I went back to the tower and the geriatric Japanese officials and said, ‘Look, you’ve got a riot on your hands’ Bernie was there and he said ‘Yeah, you’ve gotta hold the race. Otherwise you’ll have trouble’. So they said ‘Ok we’ll have the race.’”

Patrick Depailler and his Tyrrell Ford in the rain at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Patrick Depailler in the spray of race day

Grand Prix Photo

With the decision made, the cars finally lined up to start at 4pm. The deliberations had been going on so long that the light was now beginning to fade, reducing the limited visibility even further.

Hunt, starting in second, lined up next to poleman Mario Andretti on the grid. Lauda was just behind in third. As the flag fell, the Englishman got the jump on the Lotus driver to lead into the first corner.

By the end of the first lap, his gap to Andretti was 4sec. Hunt had charged round lap 1, but there was a soon warning of how treacherous the conditions were.

As the McLaren driver headed into T1 on lap 2, his M23 suffered a vicious twitch, almost pitching him into the wall. Hunt just about managed to maintain control, before cautiously carrying on.

After just 1 lap, Lauda had seen enough. Deeming the conditions too dangerous, and having already nearly lost his life at Nürburgring that year, the Austrian decided it simply wasn’t worth carrying on. He pulled his Ferrari into the pits and walked away from the 1976 World Championship.

Niki Lauda pulls into the pits and retires from the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Lauda leaves the Grand Prix – and the championship race

Grand Prix Photo

With Lauda out the race, Hunt’s task was now a little more straightforward. He simply had to finish third, and the title was his.

The McLaren driver pressed on and by lap 10 his lead had doubled to over 8sec. Meanwhile, interesting movements were afoot further back in the pack.

Local hero Kazuyoshi Hoshino, driving a privately-entered Tyrrell 007, had made his up to third, from 21st on the grid!

More worrying for Hunt was that March’s Vittorio Brambilla had overtaken Andretti and was beginning to hunt him down. By lap 20, Brambilla had closed right up behind the Hunt.

On the next lap, the March driver decided to go for it. Brambilla, known for an erratic driving style, conformed to type on this occasion by inadvertently out-braking himself as he dived down the inside of the McLaren.

Hunt had been wary of Brambilla and was monitoring the situation constantly. In a moment of brilliant anticipation, he allowed the March to spin in front of him, performing the cutback and before carrying on as if almost nothing had happened.

James Hunt drives away from the spinning Vittorio Brambilla in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Hunt drives away from the spinning Brambilla

Grand Prix Photo

Brambilla dropped to fourth, the danger to Hunt being over for now. Andretti at this point was gradually dropping back through the pack. It was Hunt’s team-mate Jochen Mass who was behind him now, with a McLaren 1-2 now looking very much on the cards.

Seeking to control the race from here on in, the team’s new concern was the drying line which was now appearing on the track. Caldwell put out a pit board sign telling his drivers to cool their wet weather tyres – this was done by searching for wet sections of the track, the water preventing the rubber from overheating.

To his team manager’s frustration, Hunt didn’t appear to be heeding the warnings: “As soon as Mass saw the sign, he pulled over in the water right in front of us. Then on the next lap he came down the right hand side of the track, splashing through the puddles, which cools the tires down, (while) James didn’t react.

“The next lap we gave it to Hunt again, the next lap again, he still didn’t do it. So we took away the pitboard, just gave him the ‘cool tyres’ sign and he still didn’t react. So then everyone in the team started pointing at it (the sign). Everybody in the team pointed, Teddy (Mayer, McLaren Managing Director) and everyone else and he still did nothing.”

Hunt carried on down the dry line, running his tyres way above their recommended temperature, seemingly oblivious to the warnings.

If Hunt wasn’t going to heed the warnings, then Andretti was: “Because we were emphasising this so much, Andretti saw it and started to cool his tyres. So he started running through the puddles. He didn’t have to stop (as a result).

“But James just resolutely drove down the middle of the dry track, and we could never bring him in, because he was never that far ahead. It was never possible to tactically stop him because there’s a big long pitroad at Fuji.”

James Hunt's pitboard asking if it is time to stop for dry tyres at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Time for a change? Hunt’s pitboard

Grand Prix Photo

Jochen Mass, benefitting from his team’s tyre advice, now began to reel in his team-mate. If he got past, he would have no trouble driving off into the distance to take the win.

However, the German’s diligence came to naught, as he spun off and out of contention on lap 36. This would have a huge bearing on the race later.

For now, Hunt was again in the clear. Another challenger, Shadow’s Tom Pryce, moved into second, but he too retired as his Cosworth engine expired on lap 46.

As the grand prix wore on, Hunt remained in a seemingly trance-like state as he stuck to his line, the situation became critical.

Whilst yet another to danger to Hunt had abated, the McLaren driver was now deciding whether to play the percentages. He could either pit to replace his worn tyres – and lose track position – or try and stick it out at the risk of losing so much grip he would be overtaken anyway.

Two laps passed and the Englishman was no further up the order. It looked as if he may have lost his championship chance.

Hunt took the second option. He could afford to drop to third, and this is indeed what happened. On lap 61, he was overtaken not only by Tyrrell’s Patrick Depailler, but also the resurgent Lotus of Andretti.

If Hunt managed to hold position, he would be world champion. For the next 7 laps, the plan appeared to be working. Then, on lap 68, disaster struck.

The McLaren driver suffered not one, but two deflated tyres – both on the left-hand side of the car. They were, as Caldwell puts it, “worn down to the air”. Hunt managed to drag his car round for half a lap before scraping into the pits.

F1 jacks at the time were not designed to lift a car with puncture at the front and rear of the car. While the jack was used to lift the rear of the car, TV shots show Caldwell and other team members lifting the other end of the car themselves to replace the front-left tyre.

It was a long pitstop, and once out, Hunt found himself back in fifth place. There were four laps left and Hunt was two places down on where he needed to be.

James Hunt battles through the traffic in the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Hunt in traffic

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Two more laps passed and the Englishman was no further up the order. It looked as if he may have lost his championship chance.

Then, with two laps left of the race to go, Hunt started the fight back. At the exit of T1 he managed to get past the Surtees of Alan Jones. One more place and the championship was his.

Next up was the Ferrari of Clay Regazzoni. It turned out there were some Scuderia politics at play which would work to Hunt’s advantage.

Caldwell fills us in on the back story: “Ferrari’s reaction to Niki’s crash was to sack Regazzoni (for 1977). He had already been sacked (by Fuji).

“So he was pissed off at Ferrari. When James came charging along, he just stepped out of the way and let him by.”

From the archive

After benefitting from Regazzoni’s apparent generosity, Hunt was suddenly back in the golden position, the third place he needed to clinch the championship.

The McLaren man just had to keep it on the road for two more laps and he’d take the title. The tension mounted, both in the team pit and back in the UK, where his family were watching the live television feed at 3am.

Despite two nerve-wracking final laps, the Englishman duly brought his McLaren home in third place. He was the new F1 World Champion.

Photographs show Hunt angrily remonstrating with his team as he climbed from the car. He hadn’t realised he’d got the job done.

Caldwell himself had mixed emotions about the whole affair.

“He didn’t look at the board and when he came into the pits he started shouting at us, because he didn’t know what happened. He was incredibly annoying on the day.

“He did drive magnificently, he kept it on the road – that’s one point of view. From my point of view it was the most frustrating day – I could’ve hit him with a baseball bat!

“He could have won the race, just strolled the world championship. All he had to do was read this pitboard and drive in the water, which is what Andretti did, so he didn’t wear the tyres out and could paddle across the line with the same ones.”

James Hunt smokes a cigarette as Mario Andretti celebrates winning the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

A title for Hunt; Andretti celebrates victory

AFP via Getty Images

In spite of Hunt seemingly making a championship-losing decision, he had still managed to pull it off.

However, such was Caldwell’s consternation, the two didn’t discuss afterwards.

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“I was so angry about it. We flew back to England and I wasn’t talking to him on the plane. He was pissed as a newt anyway – we were all pissed as a newt and totally exhausted. He just went to sleep.”

The two never discussed the reasons behind the events, but it didn’t change the result. Three years after making his F1 debut, Hunt was the world champion.

His career would take a rapid downturn relatively soon after reaching the pinnacle of motorsport, uncompetitive cars demoralising the Englishman. Lacking the application to get back on top, he retired two and a half years after winning the F1 title.

In spite of his career’s decline, Hunt’s endeavours had captured the imagination of the wider world in a way no racing driver had done before.

 

His epic title battle with Lauda, during what many see as the definitive F1 season, was topped off by a thrilling race in the land of the rising sun. It became an instant classic, one of F1’s Great Drives.

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