Hosted by the Fuji Speedway, the Japanese Grand Prix of 1976 was the first to be held in the country, and the new-to-F1-nation was treated to a title battle balanced on a knife edge.
The whole thing had come about largely because Niki Lauda had suffered the horrific crash at the Nurburgring that had left the Ferrari driver badly burned and at death’s door.
In typical Lauda fashion, the Austrian had kicked the Grim Reaper square between the legs, jammed his pitchfork down his throat and made a miraculous return to racing after just one month.
But having dominated the early part of ’76 his championship advantage had dwindled. He’d had more than double the points of his nearest rival before his accident, but McLaren’s James Hunt had hit form. With the Englishman having won three of the four races leading up to Fuji Lauda’s lead was down to just 3 points
Qualifying saw Lotus’ Mario Andretti beat Hunt to pole with Lauda third. Come the race the weather was awful, with heavy rain and plenty of mist thrown in for good measure. Some drivers – Lauda included – weren’t convinced that the race should go ahead, but the 73-lap event was given the green light to run as planned.
Hunt immediately seized the lead at the start with John Watson (Penske) slipping in to second, demoting Andretti to third. Then, on lap two, Lauda pulled in, unwilling to continue in the conditions.
Hunt calmly pulled away at the front and looked to be on for a relatively simple title-winning race. But as the conditions improved the McLaren’s pace dropped off and, on lap 62, he was passed by Patrick Depailler (Tyrrell) and Andretti. The Frenchman soon suffered a tyre problem and was forced to pit, putting Andretti out front and Hunt second. With Lauda gone he only needed fourth place for the title.
But then Hunt suffered a puncture, pitted and dropped to fifth – no longer title-winning territory. He began chasing down Depailler, Alan Jones (Surtees) and Clay Regazzoni (Ferrari). Depailler overtook both men on lap 70 and on the next lap Hunt did the same, giving him third, behind Andretti (who had lapped the field) and Depailler, and with it the world title.
Not that he knew this. He was getting mixed signals from his pitwall and didn’t think his late passes had done enough to secure him the championship. But, as we well know, they had, and Hunt embarked on a little celebration, as was the style of the time.
Lauda voiced the opinion that his life was worth more than a title, and with Ferrari taking the Constructors’ crown the Scuderia didn’t leave Japan empty handed.
As first races go this one was about as memorable as they come, and on the morning of this year’s Japanese GP qualifying Badger made use of the rain-enforced free time to dig some clips of Japan 76 from the archives – check them out here.