#280 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

2021-04-06 00:00

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#1976, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Francesca Risi,

#280 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Friday 15 October 1976 Niki Lauda arrives at Maranello to carry out a series of tests in view of the last round of the Formula 1 World Championship


Friday 15 October 1976 Niki Lauda arrives at Maranello to carry out a series of tests in view of the last round of the Formula 1 World Championship, the Japanese Grand Prix, scheduled for Sunday 24 October 1976. The Austrian driver arrives around 12:00 a.m., specifying first of all that he is in excellent health conditions. To what do you think the latest results are due?


"I think it is mainly a matter of the temperature of the tires. They can't warm up and therefore they don't work well, to the detriment of the performance. For this reason, today I will try a new type of suspension that Ferrari has prepared in a week with the aim of improving the performance of the tires".


It is precisely on the basis of the outcome of these tests that we can have some hope of victory. Lauda is also convinced of this.


"I have never been to Japan, so I don't know the circuit. About the outcome of the race, now I can only say that it all depends on the temperature: if it will be hot we can win: if, instead, it will be cold everything will become problematic".


Your opinion about Hunt?


"He is a good driver".


Why is McLaren going so fast? Do you think it is due to Hunt?


"I think it's due to the confluence of a few circumstances: a good driver, a good time for the car and the coincidental decline of our cars".


But what does the current gap between the two cars depend on?


"Particularly to the incident at the Nurburgring. We must not forget that. Since then Ferrari has thought more about me than about continuing the development. I have not been able to work at full speed and time has been lost".


Lauda took to the track in the late afternoon, and completed a series of laps that were then suspended as darkness fell. The modifications concern the lengthening of the suspension arms. The track is almost unknown, therefore on Saturday October 16, 1976 James Hunt and Emerson Fittipaldi study it well in advance of Lauda, who is diverted to Maranello before leaving for Tokyo, in order to look into the defects of the 312 T2 and maybe eliminate them. In this last challenge that the Formula 1 World Championship proposes to the people's fantasy, before developing and fulfilling itself as a ritual on the asphalt of a circuit that the Japanese have placed in the shadow of the sacred mountain, there are the characters of a classic story of the Old West, compelling and absurd, dramatic and morbid. On October 20, 1976, concentrated in a hotel on Lake Yamanaka, the drivers consumed their wait thinking and rethinking about the route. A race that seemed destined to be an appendix becomes the decisive test. The Fuji circuit was built in 1966, at the foot of the mountain of the same name, about one hundred kilometers from Tokyo. The track was born thanks to the financing of the companies Nissan and Toyota, which joined with other minor firms favored the construction in order to increase the motor competitions. The part of the Japanese circuit that will be used for the Grand Prix has a development of 4300 meters, along which there are large curves and several ups and downs. Formula 1 experts say that Fuji is reminiscent of the Scandinavian track of Anderstorp in terms of design, layout, altimetry and development. In the Swedish Grand Prix the Tyrrell dominates, the single-seaters with six wheels, and there are those who are convinced that the Tyrrell are the favorites on Sunday, because of the superior adherence of the front end to the road compared to the other cars. 


On this track Lotus and March should be at their ease, while Ferrari could be penalized. Hunt and Lauda in their direct challenge for the title will also have to deal with Scheckter, Andretti, Peterson and Brambilla. The track record was set in 1968 by the American Mark Donohue, who tragically passed away last year during practice for the Austrian Grand Prix, with a McLaren in a time of 1'16"81, at an average speed of 201.535 km/h. There are no terms of comparison for Formula 1, but it is to be believed that this circuit will be one of the fastest in the championship. Nevertheless, in the shadow of the holy mountain Niki is sure to win: the Austrian is of the opinion that three points are enough to lead him to the world title. His strength of mind, if you take into account what he has been through, is exceptional. He was worried in the past few days about the performance of his car, but after his visit to Maranello he has become completely calm again. The accident at the Nurburgring prevented the Ferrari driver from securing in the previous races a success that no one doubted, and a slight drop of the Ferrari compared to the McLaren of the English driver did the rest. Now Lauda has 68 points and Hunt 65: everything is possible on the Fuji circuit. But former world champion Jackie Stewart is convinced that it will be Lauda who will win:


"I'm willing to play everything on Niki Lauda".


And he explains why the Austrian champion could leave the Japanese circuit of Fuji with the world title in his hands: in Stewart's forecasts there are no sentimental urges, of admiration or solidarity for a driver who has challenged everything there was to challenge. For Stewart, Niki Lauda will regain the crown because the circuit of Mount Fuji should be more suitable for Ferrari than Mosport in Canada and Watkins Glen in the USA have been recently; because the Austrian's experience can be decisive and, finally, because on Hunt's side there is a too long series of lucky races, without mechanical problems, a golden series that lasts since Monte-Carlo. On October 19, 1976 Niki Lauda inspects the circuit, waiting for the tests that will take place on Thursday, October 21, and on this last date he asks to make some laps with his Ferrari: the organizers agree, but Ecclestone opposes with vague and banal excuses, then he decides to preside a vote on the matter. The no to the request is ratified with six votes against two, plus five abstainers and nine ballots torn to pieces. Finally Daniele Audetto succeeds, amidst a thousand difficulties, in obtaining an extra hour of rehearsal despite the opposition of the English, but only for Saturday. Niki, however, does not give up and asks to inspect the track at the wheel of a Rolls Royce, the car with which he had reached Fuji from Gotemba, where he is staying. The managers agree and so the Ferrari driver drives the elegant car, logically at a reduced speed. Lauda carefully studied the curves and the bottom of the track and on his return to the pits, immediately besieged by journalists, the Austrian says:


"I can't comment on the Fuji circuit because I wasn't at the wheel of a racing car. It was a simple inspection. But I will do everything to win this decisive test".


Then, jokingly, he admits:


"I'm getting better and better. Only Marlene doesn't sleep, I'm strong-man, I absorbed the time zone change without any problem".


And to demonstrate his physical efficiency and excellent reflexes, Lauda asked journalist Giorgio Viglino to play a Japanese game called field hockey, where he had to hit a hard plastic puck that was bouncing on a rectangular table. Lauda wins, and the wounded pride of the Italian journalist is appeased only when he finds another victim in Stuck. Hunt, instead, does not show up at Fuji. The Briton prefers to stay in Tokyo, spending his free time playing volley-ball and buying, together with Giorgio Viglino, a tape recorder: but James' device roars and does not work, while the camera bought by Viglino works perfectly. 


Above Mount Fuji, worlds intertwine: the Japanese world amazes the overly wealthy, but the noise, the color, the thrill of the automobile circus shock the average Japanese, the urbanite of course, because the peasants bent over the fields do not even know of the existence of the races, of the same track that somehow contaminates the sacredness of the mountain. There are monks dressed in white, their bonnets white, and pilots with fireproof suits, masks and helmets. It is precisely the kids who accompany the monks who are the first to ask for autographs, just as the pilots take the most beautiful cameras, bought at the official smuggling, on the incredible old men. The Fujiyama that can be seen on clear days from Tokyo, far above the fog of the plains, is far more majestic than when you arrive at the base. After all, they have done everything possible to make it lose its dignity, building around the five lakes that the last volcanic eruption scattered around the base, a series of vacation villages, many unimaginative Disneylands where fun is a must, as noisy as possible. The national park of the mountain protects, more than the natural beauty, the big business behind the vacation of tens of thousands of stressed inhabitants of the capital who come here in rotation. In the gigantic amusement park there is now also a track for car and motorcycle races. It already costs money just to move around, every car is a token, access to the Fuji-area costs each car in proportion to the number of passengers. The capitalist logic, more rigid here than in the United States, gives this Grand Prix the record of profitability, so much so that, according to the organizers, a profit of half a billion yen is expected, a billion and a half of devalued liras. It doesn't matter that the infrastructures are lacking to move all the masses of spectators in the big city, that traffic jams are foreseen from seven in the morning until midnight, that the Tokyo-Fuji route is calculated by the police to take about six hours, an average of twelve miles per hour. No one is concerned here with the masses, as long as they do not bother. Only a few individuals can get consideration, those who have access, to be clear, to the sectors reserved for VIPs. And it doesn't matter if it's at the hotel, at the airport, in the store, the sign is always there. In this unhappy country, drivers and assemblers transfer their end-of-season unhappiness, or at least their dissatisfaction, leaving only two, teams and men, the right to rage and resentment. This Japanese Grand Prix, which was supposed to be just a show at the fair, incredibly turned into a real race with Niki Lauda and James Hunt battling for the title right at the last race, full of animosity as has not happened for a long time. Friday, October 22, 1976 Niki Lauda's day begins at 7:00 a.m. but a little later, at 8:00 a.m., the Austrian knocks on the door of the next room, which houses the Italian journalist Giorgio Viglino and his colleague Pietro Rizzo, a lazy Sicilian, to tell the sleepy interlocutor:


"Guys, let's go to work".


Niki is dressed in a red racing suit and calls the journalists to perform their duties, before being the first to arrive at the circuit. The same evening he will be the first to go to sleep, and the only one to take to bed as a study table comparative times, compared lap by lap, to discover perhaps non-existent secrets of opponents and colleagues that he sees only in the mirrors. James Hunt, on the other hand, spends his third sleepless night and falls asleep only in the morning, when it's time to be ready to get up. Cadwell, recounting these things shakes his head in concern, saying with a very British terse expression:


"I can't touch the human engine, but this one is already out of whack".


His girl-friend is in England, and any female contact has been forbidden to him by Teddy Maier who is watching over his renewed virginity. The British driver accepts but is nervous, then there was the episode of the tape recorder that sent him into a rage, and now he finds himself having to play with the car on the track, and he knows that these are quite serious problems. The tests he had conducted on Saturday 16 October had already highlighted set-up problems without indicating solutions, which must be found between Friday and Saturday. The Ferrari pits are the first in the long queue, as usual, and all around there is the usual siege at Monza but unpredictable in Japan, where after all the major titles are held by McLaren, and then there is the nervousness of those who feel like protagonists around the cars. Inside the driver's seats Clay Regazzoni plays coldly with Lauda, talks quietly and points out this or that detail. 


It was decided to go step by step, adjusting suspensions and wings, without expecting to get the best performance right away. At McLaren, efficiencyism gave way to a sort of exhibition of efficiency. The mechanics, if they have to pass over the guard-rail, jump with a feline leap, Mayer sits in a photogenic position on the side of the car to be well framed near Hunt, then he inserts in the family group Barry Sheene, motorcycle champion and new jewel in his collection of contracts, for a use that can go from the immediate two wheels to the four of the future. When Hunt goes on the track the chronometer operation starts, but there is little to be happy about, because the white and red car is one of the many that run away clearly lacking in the right balance between the slow curves of the lower part and the fast curve that goes up to the arrival straight. Hunt seldom manages to complete more than two consecutive laps struggling with the adjustment of the rear wing and the lightening of the front suspension. But in the meantime, Ferrari and McLaren receive two different sets of tires at the same time. Goodyear conducts its policy with its usual partiality, ready to grant favors that everyone will talk about, naming it by force and giving it the publicity that it does not deserve but that the monopoly situation grants it. The new trains are different, they have a softer compound, they allow better times with less effort. Strengthened by the special tyres fitted at the end of the first part of the tests, Hunt and Lauda obtain times that are decidedly inferior to all their adversaries, with the exception of Pace, who has a car that is definitely well set up. Martini-Brabham is the only car that manages to meet the double requirements of the slow bends in the lower part of the track and the fast curve that leads to the arrival straight. Also the Lotus are already quite balanced, while the Tyrrell appear clearly distanced on the times. But what is surprising is the unexpected Kojima of the unknown Hasemi, who uses Dunlop tires: during the first practice session Masahiro Hasemi, with the Kojima Engineering KE 007 gets the best time when there are twenty minutes to go, beating Hunt and Lauda by one second. Lauda and Hunt fight it out on the last laps and it is a matter of small cents in favor of the Englishman who, however, pulls beyond the limit, risking big trouble in an overtaking on Watson. Before the start of the second series, Chapman and Ecclestone protest to get special tires as well, and they get them after a long discussion. 


The great fear of Goodyear makes that in the second practice session all the teams, except Coopersucar and Surtees, have the tires that only Ferrari and McLaren had. An hour's break to clear up ideas, then it's back to the track. The trouble for Hunt is that he has to run against everyone, while Lauda has the peace of mind of knowing that every opponent that comes before him and is not called Hunt, makes him take a step forward towards the title. And everyone is now on a level playing field. The fast tires were supplied to all the teams that counted, and so the Hunt-Lauda fight widened, involving Martini-Brabham-Alfa, for the first time the absolute protagonist with Carlos Pace, Andretti's Lotus, then Regazzoni with the Ferrari, and the incredible Brambilla, a driver who managed to work miracles with an old car. On the track Andretti and Pace show respectively how much the new tires were worth, leading the patrol of the privileged in front of Regazzoni, then Brambilla who, with crazy risks, manages to precede Lauda this time faster than in the first series. Niki Lauda has his own problems because the set of tires they gave him has strange balancing defects, the circumference of the tires is not equal, and the car runs badly until Lauda decides to go back to hard tires, and with these he improves his time. This is enough for him because Hunt is really in crisis this time. After changing three more times the wing position and modifying the front setup, the British driver ends up in a spin at the first bend of the lower part of the circuit, damaging the car in the exit on the grass: the very efficient McLaren shows some difficulty when it comes to intervene on the fly, out of the program. Hunt goes out and comes back three times from the pits, less and less effective in his driving, more and more gloomy in his face after going off the track after about six laps of running-in. Despite a new change of the rear springs, he remains several tenths above the best drivers. The first round ends with Niki more reassured, and Hunt reacting like a betrayed boy. The Lotus leads the ranking of the times thanks to Mario Andretti, who precedes the Martini-Brabham of Carlos Pace, the Ferrari of Regazzoni, the incredible Brambilla with a March rather subdued, then Niki Lauda, in turn ahead of Hunt. The Japanese Masahiro Hasemi in the second session is the author of an off track accident that ruins the chassis and forces the team to suspend the tests. 


Nevertheless he is eighth. The difference in temperature between the hours of the morning when they tested, and the first hours of the afternoon when the race is scheduled, suggest to several teams to play the card of the softer tires, but the final decision will be taken only on Saturday at the end of practice, or maybe even on race day, with a look at the thermometer. From the point of view of the assignment of the world title, if the race classification were to reflect that of the practice sessions, the world title would belong to Lauda, who would further increase the slim advantage of three points that he has at the moment. The Formula One World Championship is nothing if not truly International and the latest country to climb onto the Grand Prix bandwagon is Japan who hosts the final round of this season’s 16-race series at the 4.3-km. Fuji International Speedway, situated in the shadow of the impressive (but happily dormant) Fuji volcano. The circuit was built just over ten years ago and its full 6-km. length includes a section of steep banking at the end of the long start/finish straight. However, the banking has not been used for racing since a fatal multi-car pile-up during a 2-litre sports-car race in 1974 so the Formula One event took place on the shortened 4.3-km. course which really consists of the long straight connected by a couple of tight corners and one extremely fast long right-hander, through which the fastest Grand Prix cars got into 5th gear before catapulting out onto the straight again. Enthusiasm runs high amongst the local organisers who go out of their way to be hospitable and, although there is some concern over the durability of the lightly resurfaced circuit, everything runs very smoothly during the two official practice days. In this event there is an interesting local note given by a small group of drivers participating in the Japanese F2000 championship, all at their debut in the world championship: Masami Kuwashima, initially indicated as the RAM driver, who however did not participate due to the usual judicial issues, took the place of Warwick Brown at Wolf-Williams, Noritake Takahara, who had already participated in the 1974 BRDC International Trophy with the March, took the place of Brett Lunger at Surtees, Kazuyoshi Hoshino found a job on the Tyrrell of Heroes Racing, while Masahiro Hasemi, as mentioned, took the Kojima to his debut. Hoshino's car is fitted with Bridgestone tires, while Kojima's is fitted with Dunlop tires, returning to the world championship after six years. 


Among the constructors the Japanese Maki is back, with Tony Trimmer again at the wheel, while Ensign, with Ickx injured, Otto Stuppacher and Henri Pescarolo do not participate in the trip to Japan, while Hesketh enters only Ertl. Masami Kuwashima, after the poor results in Friday's practice and the failure of the sponsors who should have supported him, is replaced on the Wolf Williams by the Austrian Hans Binder. The only one not qualified will be Tony Trimmer on Maki. Apart from all the Formula One regulars there is a generous sprinkling of local interest at Fuji with no fewer than three Japanese drivers contesting their very first home Grand Prix. Noritake Takahara buys a drive in the second Surtees (TS19/02) which was driven for most of the season by Brett Lunger, Takahara having previously had a one-off Formula One drive at the wheel of a March 741 in the 1974 Silverstone International Trophy race. Kazuyoshi Hoshino has one of the old Tyrrell four-wheelers (007/5) running on Bridgestone tyres and Masahiro Hasemi drives the very impressive Dunlop-shod Kojima KE007, which was built in a small factory adjacent to the Fuji Speedway gates. British enthusiasts may recall that Hasemi visited this country in 1974 to drive a Datsun Cherry in some saloon events, highlighting his stay by leading Frank Gardner’s Camaro round the twists and turns of Ingliston. The Kojima, owned and constructed by former Suzuki moto-cross rider Matsuhisa Kojima, is a very conventionally laid out Cosworth Hewland kit car with side radiators, front suspension by means of angled spring/damper units rather like those originally seen on the Brabham BT44B but operated by wide fabricated top rocker arms and rear suspension by means of lower parallel links plus top link and radius arms with outboard spring/dampers. Brakes are inboard at the rear, outboard at the front and the car is clothed with spectacular looking bodywork, the engine air intakes of which extend forward either side of the driver’s cockpit. A great deal of effort and attention to preparation went into the Kojima’s first Formula One appearance, although most people reckons the team to be a little optimistic if they imagine they can be competitive with the Grand Prix regulars first time out. When the first timed session gets under way on Friday morning, Hasemi’s performance in the Kojima is quite startling. 


With little apparent difficulty he rockets his well-practised path round Fuji to record a tremendous 1'13"76 best and is actually fastest of all with some times round the 1'14"0. barrier during the first half-hour. His efforts on a set of very tacky Japanese Dunlop qualifiers leaves Goodyear pretty ruffled and the American firm immediately produces some soft Mosport covers for Hunt and Lauda which enables the McLaren driver to emerge from the first session at the top of the qualifiers with 1'13"76. The reigning World Champion produces a time one-hundredth of a second slower, proving that front and rear suspension revisions to his Ferrari 312/026 substantially improved the car’s handling since its run to third place at Watkins Glen, the car now rid of its frustrating oversteer problem which was caused by the rear tyres failing to heat up sufficiently. Carlos Pace is third on 1'13"81, in the Brabham BT45/3, the Brazilian starting practising with BT45/1 but taking over the newer car from team-mate Larry Perkins after it developed a misfire. The Martini sponsored team is down to only two machines for this final race of the season as the new lightweight BT45/5 was sent home after Pace had tangled with Mass’ McLaren at Watkins Glen and damaged the chassis quite badly in the ensuing accident. Hasemi’s time is good enough to maintain fourth place at the end of the first session ahead of Mario Andretti in Lotus 77/R1 (1'13"91) and Mass (1'14"07) in the second McLaren. In the Elf Tyrrell camp Scheckter starts off the session in his spare car (P34/2), transferring to P34/4 later on as he becomes conversant with the circuit and is in a position to advise the mechanics as to just what gear ratios are necessary. Depailler drives P34/3-2 on this occasion, this replacing his usual P34/2 which still has some minor dents in its monocoque after collecting Hunt’s compressed air starter bottle when it fell off the McLaren during practice for the United States Grand Prix. Intent on lapping even faster, Hasemi blottes his copybook in the biggest possible fashion during the second session when he crashes the Kojima very heavily on the long right-hander leading into the pits straight, the car sustaining very serious monocoque damage but the driver emerging from the wreck without any injuries. But even with the Kojima out of the way neither Hunt nor Lauda manage to maintain their advantage at the head of the field during the second session, Hunt complaining of acute understeer in the tight corners and big traction problems as he accelerates away from them. 


His best time is 1'13"95, not as quick as the first session, but Lauda improves by 0.2 sec. which means that the fastest Ferrari is fifth quickest and the fastest McLaren sixth at the end of Friday’s second session. The man who heads the grid is Andretti in the Lotus 77, the rugged American driving on top form and looking very confident and assured in the process. Pace is finding that the long straight gives him a chance of using some of the Alfa flat-12s top end power and he finishes the day second quickest on 1'13"42 while Regazzoni in the second Ferrari is next (1'13"64) just in front of Vittorio Brambilla in the orange Beta March (1'1372). From the point of view of the World Championship struggle, Hunt goes back to his hotel on Friday evening knowing full-well that he has to improve on his time the following day if he wants a chance of finishing sufficiently far ahead of Lauda to win the Championship. As it stands at the end of Friday’s practice the British driver has a lot of very hard competitors in front of’ him and once the race starts they are going to be hell bent on winning the Japanese Grand Prix for themselves rather than concerning themselves with the destiny of the driver’s title. Although Scheckter tries both his Tyrrell P34s, Depailler emerges the fastest Elf runner on Friday with 1'14"15 ahead of Mass (1'14"17) and the determined Tom Pryce who rockets up to ninth fastest in the second session with the aid of a set of Mosport rubber. The Welshman’s 1'14"23 puts him just ahead of Scheckter’s Tyrrell (1'14"26) and the enthusiastic Perkins in the second Brabham-Alfa Romeo (1'14"38). The French Ligier-Gitanes team bring along their singleton Ligier Matra JS5/01 leaving Laffite without any back-up car after Watkins Glen while the Penske team produces only PC4/01 for Watson and then must have wished that they’d brought a spare along when it suffers engine failure at the start of Friday’s second session and leaves its driver kicking his heels in the pits with nothing to do. Before this mechanical failure interrupts his progress, Watson lapped in 1'14"67, to head Hans Stuck in the fastest of the March 761s (1'14"80). Team leader Ronnie Peterson, having his last race for the Bicester team prior to joining Ken Tyrrell for 1977, opens the weekend on a frustrating note when his March grounds to a standstill on the apex of a very vulnerable right-hand corner during the second session.


Despite the marshals trying to persuade the Swede to move his car off the circuit, Peterson remains on the corner unwilling to risk his only set of soft tyres on the rutted and flinty run-off area. Eventually Hasemi has his accident with the Kojima which results in the session being stopped, and as breakdown vehicles go to retrieve the damaged Japanese car they also stop by and tow the missing March back to the pits. Examination of Peterson’s car reveals the trouble to be in the gearbox, so the Swede joins Watson as a non-runner for the remainder of the second session. In the Frank Williams/Walter Wolf camp somebody did a dreaded deal for Japanese driver Masami Kuwashima to handle the second FW05 alongside Merzario, but after Kuwashima practises on the first day it is announced that perhaps his cheque is not in the post after all and Austrian Hans Binder (who’s been waiting quietly in the pits on Friday) will take the car over for the race. Alan Jones manages 1'14"94. in his Surtees TS19 which is covered in hieroglyphics proclaiming sponsorship from Theodore Racing (Jones’ Formula 5000 entrant in the United States) for the occasion, while Gunnar Nilsson is not keeping up with the searing pace set by teammate Andretti and is even slower than Merzario’s Williams on Friday. Tony Trimmer comes all the way to Japan for another drive in the locally built Maki Formula One car, but this team does not appear to have made any more progress since their last race in Europe and poor Trimmer only manages 1'36"84, hampered by dire gear selection and engine bothers. At the end of the qualifying a complaint is made by Martini-Brabham, because Carlos Pace would have recorded on the last lap the excellent time of 1'13"20, and therefore it would be him to get the pole position after this first day. But the claim is rejected. Saturday’s practice is conducted in the same fine autumn weather that was experienced the previous day and the final hour-long timed stint resolves itself into the dispute between Lauda and Hunt that has been so frequent before the Austrian’s Nurburgring accident. Hunt records a fine 1'12"8 while the Ferrari driver hovers just the other side of the 1'13"0 barrier with 1'13"08. Just as it looks as though the two contestants for the World Drivers’ Championship might start the final race from the front row of the grid everybody notices that Andretti’s times are getting faster and faster, the little American eventually cutting a tremendous 1'12"77 best to snatch pole position for Lotus. 


It is the first time a Lotus qualifies fastest for a Grand Prix for over two years and the first time Andretti is on pole since his amazing debut in a Lotus 49B at Watkins Glen in 1968. Andretti’s performance relegates Lauda to the second row of the grid while Watson makes up for his previous afternoon’s disappointment by hurling his Penske round in 1'13"29 to qualify in fourth place. Scheckter is next on 1'13"31 ahead of Pace’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo (1'13"43) and Regazzoni and Brambilla find themselves displaced bodily from the second to the fourth row, if not out of harm’s way then certainly out of Hunt’s, the British driver breathing a sigh of relief that he does not have to deal with those two renegades in the opening stages of this crucial race. On the fifth row Peterson slips in a 1'13"85 but when the field lines up on the grid for Sunday’s race, the Swede must have felt slightly embarrassed to look across to his left and see the inscrutable Hasemi sitting alongside him in the Kojima, its first session best of 1'13"88 still good enough to qualify the car tenth quickest overall even though the rest of the field has taken part in over two hours’ practice after the Kojima’s accident. Laffite equals the Kojima’s time but Mass cannot better 1'14"05 and then comes Depailler (1'14"15) and Pryce (1'14"23). Jarier looks more competitive than he was for most of the season, lapping his Shadow DN5 in 1'14"32, only to have a frightening incident on the main straight just before the end of the session when a rear tyre disintegrates and the black car skids to a halt in spectacular fashion. Jarier emerges unscathed and although the car does not seem damaged, the brunt of the impact has been taken by the radiator mountings and the underside of the monocoque is quite seriously bashed. Accordingly Jarier takes over Pryce’s spare DN5 for the race on Sunday. Behind Jarier comes Nilsson in the second Lotus, Perkins and Stuck, while Merzario qualifies ahead of Jones' Surtees and Hoshino’s Bridgestone-shod Tyrrell laps quicker than Ertl, Fittipaldi and Takahara. Finally Frank Williams gets everybody to sign a paper saying that they do not mind Binder starting as 25th on the grid, so the Austrian begins the race all on his own at the back. Saturday, October 23, 1976, Mario Andretti, American driver with birth and dialect of Trieste, leads the ranking of the times in the test, despite the efforts of James Hunt to win the pole position more than ever useful on this occasion. 


The goal fails, even if only for three hundredths, and Niki, who forces much less, is third in the ranking of the times, in a position that if it were in the final ranking would give him the best gift of the year and also the most deserved: the world title. Andretti leads his Lotus always at maximum speed, feeling only a moment of agitation at the exit of the first curve of the lower part of the circuit. The moment was enough for him to end up drifting on the grass, without damage but with a clear demonstration of how much the safety margin was reduced. Hunt doesn't risk less, but he controls the situation more carefully, trying to limit the number of laps, then as the end of the tests approaches he dares more and more, but without being able to achieve the best time. But the official times are not immediately available, and at McLaren a slightly optimistic timekeeper, or just boned compared to the official timekeepers, indicates to his driver the best performance, so Teddy Mayer, McLaren manager, declares at the end of the tests:


"It's the normal solution to see that we are the strongest".


And James echoes him by saying:


"I'm the strongest, it's since America that I've been telling you this and there are only the few uncertainties of the race".


At the same time, at Ferrari they are quite satisfied with the progress of the car, that from a situation of clear inferiority in the American races has passed to a good competitiveness. Lauda runs with the confidence of a fully recovered man, while Regazzoni encounters problems with the tires because Goodyear has provided about half of the new tires with different circumference, causing troubles a little bit to all the teams. Even though he improved his Friday time, Clay could not get into the top positions because he never had a good set of tires. In fact, all the tires supplied by Goodyear to Ferrari are given to Lauda first, in order to favor him in this last and decisive test. The poor Clay is thus forced to use the tires discarded by his teammate, and therefore cannot fight for the first places. James Hunt jokes about the performance of the tires, and at the end of the tests he approaches Audetto and asks him if he can use Hasemi's Dunlop tires:


"So you give me a bit of an advantage".


But Audetto reminds him that only one set is available, so Hunt pulls out a coin and throws it in the air after agreeing on who would take the set played heads or tails. The Martini-Brabham-Alfa Romeo suffered the most damage, with Pace driving a car as perfect as Friday's, but unbalanced by the tires. The Brazilian, who had ambitions of success, found himself in the same conditions as Lauda on Friday, i.e. with different tyre diameters, and was forced to be content with Friday's time, which unjustly reduced him to the third row of the grid. Trouble also for Brambilla but from the engine, first lower than 400 rpm at maximum speed, then literally burst after just three laps, which prevents him from repeating the good performance of the previous day; in the race he will use the one already used on Friday, but he has no great hopes of keeping it. Out of the race remain Binder and Tony Trimmel, who brings back the Maki on track without too many hopes, while Merzario, always struggling with a car full of troubles, runs a bad adventure when he breaks a wheel at the end of the pit straight, at top speed. Fortunately, the driver from Como manages to control the skid and return to the box to replace the tyre. Numerous are the spins and the exits, fortunately without consequences. The victims are Laffite, Watson, Jones and Andretti. But the most spectacular incident involves Binder, who drives the Williams. The Austrian driver gets upset at the entrance of the hairpin bend in the lower part of the circuit, touches the kerb, and the car rears up on two wheels, but fortunately falls back on all four, without serious damage. In the interval of the tests carried out during the day on Saturday, Daniele Audetto asks Giancarlo Cevenini, journalist of Autosprint, if he brought the newspaper with him. At the negative answer, he exclaims laughing:


"Too bad, I wanted to know what was being said about my future at Ferrari".


When asked to explain that the most common rumour in the usually well-informed circles is that he has been excluded from Ferrari, Audetto laughs again and says that it is not true.


"Autosprint even wrote that I had put my foot down...".


To the affirmative answer, he shakes his head and says:


"It's true, but that was a long time ago. Months ago. Now the situation has changed and I'm staying at Ferrari for at least a year, maybe two. You see, I'm comfortable at Ferrari. My contract has no problems whatsoever. I have recently spoken with Montezemolo who has once again renewed his, FIAT's and Ferrari's confidence in me, after the veiled anticipations of Autosprint".


But engineer Nosetto has resigned from Csai, and rumors say that he would have been the new sports director of Ferrari. Audetto is impressed and swallows. Now he is distraught, and is forced to admit without reticence that he knows about Nosetto:


"Yes, I know, he's been hired by Ferrari, but not to be the sports director right away, for a while he'll come with me to the races, let's say for a year at least, then we'll see. You see, in the world of Formula 1, a pure, simple person like engineer Nosetto, if he doesn't make his bones well first, those of the English Mafia will eat him up in no time".


So he takes a breath, then continues:


"I know the battles I've had to fight in every Grand Prix. This morning you were the only witness of the fight I had with Ecclestone, Mosley was present, when I asked everyone to sign a paper authorizing whoever wanted to try for an hour after the tests. But Ecclestone and Company denied it to me. So it has been in every race, every time, a dispute, every time discussions, and if you don't have an iron hand, the English teams will tear you to pieces. Then they did the vote to see who wanted to do the free practice and who didn't, six votes in favor and eleven against. I'm staying with Ferrari. In addition to Montezemolo's assurances to that effect, I also had others. I have done my job well, at least that's what everyone tells me".


But didn't you have any disagreements with Lauda?


"Never. I've always got along well with Lauda and I've never had any complaints. For me, the story that I am leaving Ferrari is a complete fabrication. Many newspapers, after inquiring, wrote that I had been reconfirmed for 1977, and I will have engineer Nosetto with me to give him some grit. Nothing else".


After the qualifying tests, the car season closes on Sunday October 24, 1976 with the last challenge between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, that summarizes in the brief arc of only one Grand Prix the contradictions of ten months of activity. Niki Lauda has now on his side the sympathy of everybody, the consciousness that just seeing him on the track in this moment is a title of merit prevailing over any other, the prestige that comes from being a Ferrari driver. On the other hand he has a car that is no longer superior to all the others, on the contrary it has precise limits and defects, with faults adequately divided among the technicians, so he must aim at a defensive race. 


James Hunt is the new man, the champion created by the persuasion of mass media used by experts like Marlboro and Texaco. He has an ambiguous human charge, he is unfriendly, arrogant, equivocal in his ostentation of male brute and he is the interpreter of Teddy Mayer's philosophy, a new Machiavelli without wit and nobility. Among the opponents, one in particular. Mario Andretti, from Trieste, America, a driver of the old guard, with an almost unbelievable career behind him, has just at the end of the season the right vehicle to win. Chapman has developed a Lotus, for the glory of John Player's, that can win, and the driver wants at all costs to achieve this goal. He wants it for himself, but he has in addition a number of personal reasons that a man like him also wants to pursue:


"I don't like this Hunt. He doesn't have the spirit of us old-timers, nor the seriousness of the new French, Austrian, or South American drivers. We in America say he doesn't have the feeling of a champion. He can win, but no one will ever recognize his real superiority. Besides, if they go on like they did this year, the McLaren gentlemen will always be qualified as cheaters. We all know that Hunt's victories are only obtained thanks to rigged gasoline. The alteration is done so well and the controls so badly that doping is there, but we pretend not to see it. There are those who could speak and bring concrete evidence, but they don't do it because this whole circus is standing on mutual silence. Well, for once that I can stay ahead of him, pulling beyond the limit and without extra horsepower on the straight, I will not give up at the cost of roasting everything. And then I'd be glad to please Ferrari".


But James Hunt pays no attention to these words and declares:


"It's from America that I tell you: James Hunt is the strongest and it shows".


It is Mayer's tactical choice to be aggressive, in line with the team's unscrupulous behavior. And, to stay on the same theme, Hunt will race in a car with the softest tyres available, as long as it doesn't rain like it did on Saturday night, with the guarantee of being able to attack right from the start. At Ferrari, the hours of eve are finally more relaxed. A pre-race balance sheet is made and Daniele Audetto underlines how the Constructors' Cup, which has a great technical significance, is firmly in Ferrari's hands thanks to the complementary tests to those of Lauda, obtained by Regazzoni. As for Niki, he has already performed the miracle of returning to the track to defend the title after the August accident. Audetto's words are beautiful, ecumenical even when he praises the nice and noisy group of mechanics, only that one has the impression that they are not shared by everyone in the Ferrari team. Regazzoni himself, this evening, said some very serene sentences, but not for this reason interesting:


"It's useless to be recriminating. In Spain we lost the set-up of the car, and no one wanted or, worse, knew how to fix it. Then in France came the trouble with the engines and the story was complete. Niki deserves the title, Ferrari a bit less for the many mistakes he made, including the one today. It is not intelligent to let me finish behind, in the starting positions, giving me trains of tires already used by Niki and practically preventing me from improving on yesterday. This is a race that Lauda doesn't have to win at all costs. The important thing is to keep Hunt back and what am I doing starting from the fourth row?"


Now we just have to wait for the race, with Fujiyama shrouded in clouds and the water falling lightly between hisses of wind. At Fuji, on October 24, 1976, at 8:00 a.m., the drivers arrive at the circuit well in advance after getting up early to avoid a queue that does not exist, because the large public deserted the event. It has been raining since the previous evening, and every stretch of asphalt appears flooded. After those two days of sunshine, Sunday provides a depressing contrast with streaming rain and low cloud swirling round the circuit and completely concealing Mount Fuji from view. Thousands of spectators has queued and waited all night in the rain to see Japan’s first Championship Grand Prix, but as the morning passes the prospect of a race actually taking place seems increasingly remote. 


It is not simply a case of torrential rain causing miniature lakes to build up on the circuit; the problems are compounded by the low cloud and mist which one minute clears up only to reappear seconds later and restrict visibility to a matter of a hundred yards or so. Precisely for this reason, at 9:00 a.m. the drivers and technicians observe the track and weather conditions with concern. One hour later, the green light comes on and free practice begins. Everyone takes to the track to study setups for the rain tires, but they can't pull for the prohibitive conditions.


"It's useless to go on like this".


Confesses Niki to Forghieri and Audetto, after returning to the pits.


"If it continues like this, we won't race".


Confesses James Hunt to the journalists present at Fuji. During practice, Larry Perkins wrecks his Brabham at the fast curve, and just at the end Pace also goes off the road, before the free practice closes at 10:30 a.m. Immediately afterwards, the five drivers who make up the Safety Commission, Hunt, Jarier, Lauda, Fittipaldi and Pace, meet in the caravan of the race director, the Japanese Yoshihiro Yasumoto, to decide how to behave. At 11:10 a.m., forty minutes after the end of practice, the Commission's verdict is clear: all five agree that the circuit is unroadable. But at 11:40 a.m. the race director, worried, starts to put pressure so that the race can take place: Hunt, Jarier, Lauda, Fittipaldi and Pace make a survey among the qualified drivers to understand the position to keep, and they discover that only the Japanese Takahara and Hasemi, plus Stuck, Brambilla and Regazzoni seem determined to run. Peterson, on the other hand, mocks and often responds badly to Niki Lauda, as he is still wounded in his pride because of what had happened a few months earlier, when the Austrian prevented him from joining Ferrari. At 12:30 a.m. the Commission asks for an attempt to clean the track and the organizers, to try to meet the request, dig some channels to drain the water from the straight. In the meantime, Niki Lauda slips into the silver Rolls Royce, marked 10-44, that the organization has made available to drive between the hotel, the airport and the track, and begins a series of talks with almost all his colleagues, obtaining consensus in favor of cancelling the race, or boycotting it.


Half an hour later it rains even harder, and the pilots meet again, but this time in the organization tower. Opposite is the jury building, where the race commissioners are absolutely incapable of making decisions, so Max Mosley arrives to announce that the March will participate in the race. At 1:15 p.m. the drivers are joined by the managers of the various teams, especially Daniele Audetto, who helps Niki Lauda, and the discussion becomes confused and dispersive. A quarter of an hour later the green signal is turned on, to indicate that the race can start: on the track the March cars first appear, then the Japanese cars, then the McLarens and Lotus to run a few slow laps. Tom Pryce is sent by his colleagues in the tower to see how things actually are, and he drives his Shadow, but at 1:50 p.m. Pryce returns saying that it is madness to run. He is echoed this time by Peterson and Mass. At this point there are those who propose a race that is not valid for the championship, others to postpone everything to the next day, others still to give the 1976 closing qualification to the first race of 1977, but the proposals are combined in useless theoretical solutions. At 2:00 p.m. Bernie Ecclestone, worried about losing the television coverage, having rented a satellite, proposes to the jury a race not valid for the championship and the postponement of the last test to 1977, but this proposal is rejected and Ecclestone willingly accepts the imposition to run. Lauda exclaims:


"Enough, I have decided not to race. I'll do a lap then I'll stop".


At the meeting all the drivers agree with the Austrian driver's decision. Shortly after, however, the race director, Yoshihiro Yasumoto, arrives and indicates to the drivers that it is getting dark and that if they do not start immediately the televisions will not be able to film the last laps of the race. Instinctively, Vittorio Brambilla starts, and everyone follows him. Lauda is surprised, but after leaving the hall he goes back to the paddock and warns his chaffeur to stay near, ready to start, because the car not feeling quite right after being hurriedly repaired after he crashed it during the untimed morning session. In the meantime James Hunt confesses to Pete Lyons, journalist of the English weekly Autosport:


"I'm not going to race, I can't. I'm only leaving to do a few laps".


However, Hunt is intimated by Teddy Mayer to continue the race and not to dare to stop the car, otherwise he would have ruined his career, while Ferrari's technical director, Mauro Forghieri, says to the Austrian:


"Come on Niki, don't give up, start cautiously, don't take unnecessary risks that it's almost done, understand?"


Lauda, glacial, nods and closes the visor of his helmet. James Hunt would have liked to warn Niki of the threats that had just come from Mayer, but he didn't make it in time because, after 2:50 p.m. the cars were on the track for a very slow reconnaissance lap, at 3:09 p.m. the race was started. Andretti in pole position makes his tires slip; Hunt and Watson take advantage of this and take the lead. At the first passage Hunt leads ahead of Watson, Andretti, Scheckter, Brambilla, Regazzoni, Depailler and Kazuyoshi Hoshino on a Tyrrell of the local Heroes Racing team, which uses Bridgestone tires, while the other contender for the title, Niki Lauda is tenth. Along the track Watson will make a spin and will slip to ninth position, while Peterson will stop with the electrical system out of order. During the first lap, Larry Perkins voluntarily retires, and at 3:12 p.m. Niki Lauda also returns to the pit.


"S'è caghé adoss".


("He crapped his pants")


A mechanic from Modena exclaims when he sees the Austrian stop and get out of the car. Mauro Forghieri, Scuderia Ferrari's technical director, approaches Lauda, who signals that there is nothing to do.


"What is it? The engine? A suspension? The gearbox?"


Forghieri asks. Lauda approaches him, says something in a low voice, and the technical director whitens. At this point Forghieri also calls Audetto, and the truth is revealed. Forghieri suggests to Lauda to blame the retirement on an electrical problem, but the Austrian prefers to take the responsibility and tells Mauro that he would have spoken to Ferrari. Then he goes towards the wall that divides the pits from the track and waits. To Hunt, at this point, it is enough to arrive fourth, provided that the race is not stopped too early, thus awarding only half of the points. With the fourth place, James would have the same points of Lauda but he would have been first in the classification for a greater number of won races, six in comparison to the five of the Austrian driver. In the first laps Brambilla chases Hunt, getting the second place during the third lap, after passing Scheckter and Andretti. The other drivers follow behind. On lap six Brambilla comes charging into the pits to replace a chunking left front tyre and that drops him down to eighth, but he goes charging in at unabated speed. 


Pace and Fittipaldi last until laps eight and ten respectively before pulling into the pits, officially with mechanical troubles but in fact with similar misgivings as Lauda about the weather conditions. By the tenth lap Hunt is over 8sec ahead of Andretti, but the crowd’s attention now focuses on the efforts of Hoshino who brings his Tyrrell up to third place by the tenth lap, passing Regazzoni’s Ferrari and Scheckter’s newer Tyrrell P34 as he did so. This magnificent performance lasts only for a couple of laps until the fast-recovering Brambilla displaces him and then the Japanese-entered Tyrrell stops for a tyre change on lap twenty. Brambilla steadily hauls in Hunt’s leading McLaren and completes the 20th lap right on its tail, the British driver keeping a close watch in his mirrors as he doesn’t want the volatile Italian to ruin his Championship chances with a single imprudent move. Halfway round the 21st lap Brambilla decides to make a bid for the lead and comes rushing up on the inside of the hairpin, careering across Hunt’s bows and immediately spinning as Hunt repasses on the inside. Brambilla, who reportes to his pit that his March’s engine cut out and caused the spin, drops to fourth place behind Hunt, Mass and Depailler’s Tyrrell as a result. In the meantime, on lap 24, it stops raining, so it is decided to complete the race disputing the entire distance. The score, therefore, will be attributed entirely. Niki is now in the back box, close to his wife Marlene that strangely, after the surrender of her husband, does not speak. Giancarlo Cevenini, journalist for Autosprint, goes up to him and asks what happened?

"Nothing, I didn't feel like continuing, I couldn't see. The car was okay, but I didn't feel like continuing".




"Call it what you want, but you couldn't run like that today. With the water that was there, I gave up".


You said Ferrari pays you to race, and I think well, today you didn't, why?


"Ferrari pays me to race, but not to throw me out the window. I will go to Maranello and talk to the commendatore about it. I think, I hope, that he understands".


Why did you consider the track so dangerous today? If everyone else raced, didn't you have to give up the start?


"They wanted to start and I tried. The visibility was zero. I was at my personal limit, I couldn't and didn't want to risk more. I know what my limit is and I don't intend to exceed it for any reason. At Fuji the track was a lake".


How do you judge the title Hunt is winning?


"A usurped title, because I believe that Ferrari and I have always dominated. If it hadn't been for my accident at the Nurburgring I would have easily won the title for the second time. Hunt won only because I could not develop the car".


Will you stay until the end of the race? Hunt can always stop for a breakdown.


"I'll leave as soon as I can. The race doesn't interest me".


When are you going to Maranello?


"As soon as possible".


Then, as the thirty-second lap begins on the track, Niki Lauda leaves the circuit in his Rolls Royce, together with Ferrari's technical director, Mauro Forghieri. On the back seat, at his side is Marlene. Outside the circuit the traffic is chaotic. Several minutes pass before the Austrian driver asks to turn on the radio. The transmission is jammed, and he can barely pick up an American network that is following the race.


"Watch out, incredible twist. Five laps from the end Hunt's McLaren loses positions and stops in the pits. At this moment Niki lauda is World Champion".


Niki Lauda cannot believe it, but turns towards Marlene before the car takes an underpass leading to the airport, losing the signal. At the airport, Niki finds no one to help him know the outcome of the race. Looking through the crowd for a familiar face, the Austrian finds an appointee of the company in charge of transporting the Ferraris in Japan. Lauda sees him, and sketches a smile, but the latter lowers his gaze, spreads his arms and shrugs his shoulders. What has happened at Fuji? On lap 27 Hoshino is forced to retire: his tires are worn out and the lack of a spare set forces him to stop. The track surface is drying noticeably and McLaren team manager Teddy Mayer is anxiously signalling to his two drivers that they shall move off the dry line on the main straight and keep their deep-grooved rain tyres on what water remains. Mass gradually closes in on his team-mate, seemingly intent on leading the race for himself rather than protecting Hunt’s advantage, but his efforts come to an abrupt end when he hits a large puddle on the long right-hand corner before the pits and careers off the track into the guard rail, much to the detriment of the McLaren’s front end. This drama leaves Hunt lapping comfortably on his own in the lead, but Pryce worked his shadow DN8 up into second place by the time 40 of the race’s 73 laps has been completed. Unfortunately Pryce’s gallant effort lasts a mere seven laps before the Shadow’s engine expires in an expensive cloud of oil smoke. That puts Depailler back to second ahead of Andretti while Brambilla has already departed the fray with severe electrical problems. Both the Williams cars are also out before 50 laps have been completed, Merzario with gearbox trouble and Binder with a seized rear wheel bearing. With just over 20 laps to go it is clear that Hunt will have to take things very steadily if he is to avoid the tyre problems that afflict most of his rivals. On lap 27 Hoshino is forced to retire: his tires are worn out and the lack of a spare set forces him to stop. 


Watson breaks the engine of his Penske, Mass goes off the track and Pryce takes the third place, after passing Watson, Andretti and Brambilla in a few laps. Brambilla and Pryce stop shortly afterwards for technical problems: the Italian on lap 38, due to the electrical system, and the Briton on lap 46. At 4:10 p.m. Hunt continues to lead undisturbed; behind him is his teammate Mass, who however leaves the track on lap 35. At 4:30 p.m. Hunt starts to have tire problems, to the point that he is caught and passed by the pursuers on lap 62. Also Depailler has tire problems, and has to leave the lead to Andretti, before stopping at the pits to change tires due to a puncture. Hunt moved up to second place, and hoped to be able to hold out until the end, trying to cool his tires by passing through the damp areas of the circuit. In the following laps the British driver decides to slow down, being overtaken by Depailler and Andretti, as the fourth place would have been enough to gain the 1976 title, and desperately tries to talk with the team, but the team does not understand what the British driver means and continues to set regular times. It's 4:45 p.m. when, on the 59th lap, Hunt is forced to return to the pits, after puncturing his left front tire at the last curve. He restarts after only twenty-three seconds and six tenths, during which the mechanics replace all four tires again with rain tires, in fifth position, since in the meantime he has been overtaken by Regazzoni, Depailler and Jones, while Andretti continues to lead the race. Working with commendable calm, the McLaren lads replace the two rear wheels but have a nasty moment when they cannot slip the jack under the left front wheel because the tyre deflation means that this corner is virtually dragging on the ground. One of the mechanics lifts the suspension up so as to permit the jack to be inserted, the front tyres are changed and Hunt is back in the fray in fifth place with only five laps to go. 


At 4:30 p.m. Hunt starts to have tire problems, to the point that he is caught and passed by the pursuers on lap 62. Also Depailler has tire problems, and has to leave the lead to Andretti, before stopping at the pits to change tires due to a puncture. Hunt moved up to second place, and hoped to be able to hold out until the end, trying to cool his tires by passing through the damp areas of the circuit. In the following laps the British driver decides to slow down, being overtaken by Depailler and Andretti, as the fourth place would have been enough to gain the 1976 title, and desperately tries to talk with the team, but the team does not understand what the British driver means and continues to set regular times. It's 4:45 p.m. when, on the 59th lap, Hunt is forced to return to the pits, after puncturing his left front tire at the last curve. He restarts after only twenty-three seconds and six tenths, during which the mechanics replace all four tires again with rain tires, in fifth position, since in the meantime he has been overtaken by Regazzoni, Depailler and Jones, while Andretti continues to lead the race. Not satisfied, however, Hunt continues not to believe Teddy's indication, so he opens a coke and waits for the race commissioners' verdict. Only when he sees the classification drawn up by the race direction, the Brit puts down the coke and takes a beer. James Hunt, therefore, did it. He had been saying it since the Canadian Grand Prix that he would become World Champion, and he wasn't wrong. What seemed like a boutade turned out to be an authentic prediction based on conviction, on real knowledge of his own means. Now, in the light of the facts, and above all of the race seen on the track of Mount Fuji, the Englishman takes on a new face, that of the capable driver, whose talents are clearly above average. The episodes, though few, confirm this impression: the calm shown before the start of the race, the meticulous search for perfection such as the cleaning of the plastic visor of the helmet and the holes made by the hand drill to have a better ventilation, the determined start, the ability with which he fought off Brambilla's attack, the way he let Andretti overtake him without doing anything crazy, the choice of the time to stop at the pits. Everything contributed to deform, for the better, the image of a driver who seemed to rely only on courage and impetuosity, to transform it into that of a prepared champion. 


Looking back and from a different angle at what happened in this World Championship, the Englishman's qualities may perhaps stand out more clearly. What other driver would have passed unscathed under the psychological profile the cancellation and then the reconfirmed validity of the victory in Spain, the cancellation of the success in England, the practical exclusion, with the inclusion in the last row of the grid at Monza, for gasoline? If there are any doubts about the clarity of this success, they concern McLaren, and certainly not the driver. In England they call him a superstar because of his vague resemblance to the protagonist of the famous musical comedy. Someone has defined him as the playboy of Formula 1 for his success with beautiful women; others define him as a hippy for his nonconformist style, for his extravagant attitudes, for his unkempt clothing. But in reality, behind it all there is the English spirit, the one that makes you love adventure without relying on the precariousness of improvisation. Heir to a tradition that has given motor racing, just to talk about recent eras, protagonists such as Stirling Moss, John Surtees, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, the new World Champion is certainly no slouch. Perhaps he doesn't have Niki Lauda's conductor's ear for tuning a car, but he does have experience, since he built the first cars to run in Formula 3 on his own, buying scrap metal, and a great British will, a coldness that is not computer-like but that of a man from the North. Hunt is not even a product of chance. Lord Hesketh, who entered the world of Formula 1 in 1973 and brought a breath of Victorian puritanism, bet a great deal on him. With a white McLaren, mechanics in white overalls, a huge van on which was written Hesketh runs for Great Britain, the young man launched Hunt into the firmament of Grand Prix. For him it almost went to ruin: he spent something like seven hundred thousand pounds but, in the end, even if now Hunt had to find different sponsors, the consecration was not lacking. At the age of twenty-nine, James Hunt is no longer the young boy he would have us believe. He has a failed marriage behind him, the one with Susy Miller, former waitress and former Miss World who left him for the actor Richard Burton, a school career abandoned for racing (his father, a well-known professional, had started him to study medicine), a series of decisions made that have made him unpopular. 


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