Hunt wins amid Fuji tragedy

1977 Japanese Grand Prix flashback

The first world championship Japanese Grand Prix in 1976 is one of the most well-remembered in F1 history: James Hunt battled in pouring rain to win the world championship while Niki Lauda withdrew from the race.

But the return to Fuji the following year was not so well-remembered. A terrible crash saw the death of two spectators, and afterwards F1 stayed away from the circuit until this year.

Here is the story of the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix.

Missing drivers

The entry list for the second Japanese Grand Prix was missing a few notable names. Lauda, who had become champion for the second time for Ferrari at Watkins Glen a few weeks earlier, took the opportunity to sever his poor relationship with the team a race early. Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve, in his third F1 start, represented the team that had also won the constructors’ championship.

Ian Scheckter’s March was missing due to contractual problems and Renault’s one-car team with driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille had elected not to race – taking advantage of a dispensation that allowed the teams to miss one non-European world championship round per year. Today, appearing at every round is mandatory.

The field was bolstered by a couple of local entries. A pair of Kojimas piloted by Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Noritake Takahara were joined by Kunimitsu Takahashi in a Tyrrell 007. That boosted the field to 23 cars.

Fast and dry

The previous year’s winner Mario Andretti took pole position ahead of outgoing champion James Hunt, who had switched to team mate Jochen Mass’s car. That proved a smart move when Mass’s engine failed during the race, ending the German’s last race for McLaren.

After the constant heavy rain of the previous year the bright sunshine at Fuji was welcome. Thirty years ago the track consisted of the same long straight that remains today, followed by a hairpin, two long, fast corners that lead to a second hairpin behind the pits, and a long right-hander that brought the cars back onto the main straight.

At the start Hunt leapt into the lead while Andretti fell back into the pack. Jody Scheckter moved up to second ahead of Mass with Clay Regazzoni fourth. Andretti was eighth behind John Watson, Jacques Laffite and Hans Stuck – he quickly passed Stuck but then hit Laffite, and a wheel from Andretti’s car was struck by Takahara. Of the three involved, only Laffite was able to continue.

Tragedy

But on the fifth lap disaster struck. Approaching the end of the main straight Villeneuve struck the rear of Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell, barrel-rolled through the air and came to a rest after hitting a photographer and a marshal, both of whom died.

Despite this, and the gory pictures of the scene beamed back by the Japanese film crews, the race continued, as was normal practice.

The race

Mass had moved up to second ahead of Scheckter before his engine blew on lap 28. Watson retired on the next tour, promoting Regazzoni to third, before the Ensign driver took second off Scheckter. But he too was destined not to finish the race, retiring with an oil leak on the 43rd lap.

Laffite became the next driver to take over second place and once again it proved to be cursed. He ran out of fuel on the final lap, letting Reutemann up into second and dropping the Frenchman to fifth behind Patrick Depailler and Alan Jones. The final point went to Riccardo Patrese.

Hunt does a runner

With that, the Japanese Grand Prix and the 1977 season ended, and no-one was in a mood to hang around the Fuji circuit. Winner Hunt and Reutemann didn’t both to attend the podium ceremony, such was their haste to leave, which meant Depailler was left there on his own.

Two drivers skipping the podium ceremony today would be unthinkable. Thankfully, the grim spectre of death at an F1 race has also become far less common.

It was expected at the time that the Japanese Grand Prix would move to Suzuka for 1978. But there was no Japanese Grand Prix that year and the event remainder off the calender until 1987, when Suzuka made its world championship debut.

The first Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in 30 years takes place this weekend on a radically revised track.

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