An epic Grand Prix

 

1976 Japanese F1 Grand Prix

The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was a Formula One motor race held at Fuji Speedway on 24 October 1976.

The 1976 World Championship was to be decided at the Mount Fuji circuit, with Niki Lauda just three points ahead of James Hunt after a season full of incidents including Lauda's near-fatal crash at the Nürburgring and subsequent missed races.

The field was almost unchanged from the previous race, but Noritake Takahara rented the second Surtees replacing Brett Lunger and Hans Binder was back in the second Wolf-Williams after Masami Kuwashima's money failed to materialize. Maki resurrected its Formula One car for Tony Trimmer while Heros Racing entered an old Tyrrell for Kazuyoshi Hoshino. Kojima Engineering entered a locally-built chassis for Masahiro Hasemi (on Dunlop tyres).

Mario Andretti took pole position in the Lotus 77, with Hunt alongside him on the front row and Lauda third. Then came John Watson in the Penske, Jody Scheckter, Carlos Pace, Clay Regazzoni and Vittorio Brambilla. The top 10 was completed by Ronnie Peterson and Hasemi. Trimmer failed to qualify the Maki.

On race day the weather was very wet with fog and running water at several places on the track. There were intense debates as to whether the race should be started; in the end the organisers decided to go ahead and a majority of drivers did not disagree. Some drivers, including Lauda, were not happy with the decision.

Hunt took the lead from the start with Watson and Andretti behind. On the second lap Watson slid down an escape road and Lauda drove into the pits to withdraw, as he believed the weather conditions made the track too dangerous. He later said "my life is worth more than a title". Larry Perkins made a similar decision after one lap, as did Pace and Emerson Fittipaldi later in the race.

Hunt continued to lead, behind him second place passed between Andretti and Brambilla. On lap 22 Brambilla challenged for the lead but spun off. Jochen Mass moved into second before crashing on the 36th lap, promoting Patrick Depailler into the position with Andretti third.

It seemed Hunt was on for an easy win, but as the track began to dry he started to lose positions. He only needed a fourth place to win the title, because of Lauda's retirement. On lap 62 Hunt fell behind Depailler and Andretti, but two laps later Depailler's left rear tyre started to deflate and he had to pit. Andretti took the lead, but then Hunt had a similar tyre problem. Hunt pitted, dropped to fifth and set off after Depailler, Alan Jones and Regazzoni. Depailler overtook both drivers on lap 70 and on the next lap Hunt did the same and won the World Drivers' Championship, to his surprise. Ferrari won the Constructors' Championshipdespite Lauda's retirement.

Andretti's victory was his second in Formula One, coming five years, seven months and 18 days after his maiden win at the 1971 South African Grand Prix. As of 2017, this is the longest period between a first and second victory of a driver in the series.