#297 1977 Japanese Grand Prix

2022-07-10 00:00

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#297 1977 Japanese Grand Prix

Although the Japanese Grand Prix is a new event to the Formula One World Championship series, a race under that title was first held as long ago as 19

Although the Japanese Grand Prix is a new event to the Formula One World Championship series, a race under that title was first held as long ago as 1963. Then it was won by a certain P. Warr at the wheel of one of Colin Chapman’s little Lotus 23B sports racing cars. That of course was Peter Warr, then a keen amateur racing driver, more recently known for his role of team manager at Team Lotus and, from the start of 1977, Walter Wolf Racing. In 1963 the race was held at the Suzuka circuit and now, after two World Championship races at the Mount Fuji Speedway, there is every indication that the 1978 Japanese Grand Prix will return to Suzuka. The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix provided the organisers with a fairy tale finish to the World Championship as James Hunt snatched the drivers’ title by the proverbial whisker and Mario Andretti put Chapman’s Lotus team back in the winner’s circle after a two year drought. This year things are different, and the organisers have accepted that they are unlikely to be blessed with such a spectacular finale to the season as that enjoyed in 1976. However, they were obviously, and justifiably, disappointed when they were deprived of 1977 FIA Points Champion Niki Lauda on the basis of the Austrian’s personal whim, in addition to former Champion Emerson Fittipaldi whose Brazilian financed team feels that they would be wasting their time going all the way to Japan for another disappointing performance. It is understandable that the Fittipaldi team sees a programme of testing in Britain as a much more sensible alternative to competing in Japan and they are only exercising their F1 Association right to miss one race outside Europe.
However, with the French Renault RS01 also failing to make the trip along with Hesketh Racing and most of the privateers, the Japanese Grand Prix has something of a Race of Champions atmosphere about it. Compensating for loss of some of the international interest, there are three Japanese drivers in the race. Noritake Takahara and Kazuyoshi Hoshino have entered at the wheel of locally built Kojima 009s, developments of the very promising 007 version driven by Hasemi in last year’s race. The two Kojimas were fitted with Bridgestone tyres and Hoshino will be remembered as something of a local star in last year’s Grand Prix, working his Tyrrell 007 up into third place during the race’s early rain-soaked stages before being forced to retire for the unusual reason that his pit had run out of fresh Bridgestone tyres! Hoshino’s old Tyrrell appears again at Fuji in the hands of Kunimitsu Takahashi, this time running on Japanese Dunlop tyres. On the regular Formula One front there are still some driver changes to be seen in the dying moments of the Grand Prix year. Ian Scheckter arrives at Tokyo’s Haneya airport only to find that he is not going to be granted admittance to Japan on the particular visa that he has been issued with. After a day or so of wrangling the elder Scheckter brother is on a plane back to London without having left the airport area. This unfortunate mess up in March’s paperwork means that their second entry, the Rothmans-sponsored 771, is to remain vacant for the entire weekend, something that does not seem to bother March director Max Mosley unduly much since he is just about at the end of his tether with the disappointing way things have been going for his organisation this season.
In the Ligier camp there is a second entry for Jarrier at the wheel of Laffite’s spare car JS/ 03, possibly in anticipation of a second entry from this team in 1978, but otherwise all the usual drivers are in all their usual cars. Watson’s damaged Brabham BT45/6B and Nilsson’s Lotus 78/4 have both been straightened out following their accidents at Mosport Park, although the Swede’s car is painted in a red and gold pinstripe livery instead of its customary black and gold. Hunt is allocated the rebuilt M26/1 which has been built up out of a box of spares following his Mosport tangle with Mass while Patrese takes over the Shadow team’s spare DNS/3A after his usual car was wrecked in his Mosport accident. The Wolf team sends WR2 home and brings out WR3 from Britain to pair with WR1 for Jody Scheckter’s use in the Japanese Grand Prix and both Surtees TS19S for Brambilla and Binder are back together again after their Mosport accidents. After the circuit doctor is late in arriving for the start of the timed practice on Friday morning it does not take long for all the teams to agree to amalgamate the first two practice sessions and have a single two-hour stint between mid-day and 2:00 p.m. Concern about the durability of Goodyear’s softest tyre compound on Fuji’s abrasive track surface doesn’t prevent most people from starting off using it although things are to look distinctly marginal once they begin testing with full fuel loads on Saturday morning. Andretti starts off as he means to continue romping round this circuit, on which he scored his first Lotus victory, in 1'12"23, soon followed up by a determined James Hunt who gets down to 1'12"39. After a few laps in his new car, the deposed World Champion decides that he doesn’t like the amount of understeer it develops under power so he exercises his right as team leader by commandeering team-mate Mass’s M26/3 for the rest of the weekend.
Hunt later remarks that his fresh car is much better but that the steering is a bit on the heavy side. Despite having to stop every half-dozen laps or so to top up his Alfa flat-12 with more water, Watson looks very competitive with a 1'13"2 best which is marginally faster than Stuck can manage in his healthy car (1'13"33). Optimistic timing initially credits Jarier with a remarkable 1'13"23 lap, which might well leave him fourth fastest overall, was it correct. Unfortunately, for the French driver it is not and Jarier’s time is subsequently amended to 1'14"25. In the Ferrari camp there is nothing but gloom and despondency from Reutemann, despite the Argentinian managing 1'13"37, and a look of near bewilderment from young Villeneuve. Both drivers reckon that the cars are quite simply awful. Every time they touch the throttles, the rear end slips and sways about all over the circuit. They are so twitchy that they can barely take the long right-hander onto the start/finish straight without lifting off. It is a lesson to those who thought that Ferrari drivers had an easy time and simply drove round on rails. On the face of it, it looks very much as though the Italian team are missing Lauda’s analytical approach, but the Austrian driver has chosen not to come to Japan following his fourth place finish at Watkins Glen, which ensured him the World Championship title on points. Hoshino manages an extremely respectable 1'13"55 best on his soft qualifying Bridgestone tyres with the Kojima, which is quicker than Nilsson in the second Lotus (1'13"66) and Mass in the second McLaren (1'13"71). Clay Regazzoni is enjoying himself in the Ensign and manages a 1'13"72 before it runs out of petrol. Jones is hampered by the same understeer about which he complained in Canada, taking the faster of the two Shadow DN8s round in 1'13"9.
Teammate Patrese has a disappointing day, ending up with a best of 1'14"02 after a shock-absorber mounting bolt comes undone at the rear of the car and sends him on an unexpected trip up the escape road at the end of the start/finish straight. Experiments with harder compound tyres on Saturday morning convince Andretti, at least, that he will have to stick to the soft compound rubber for the race. During the untimed session, which does not count for grid positions, Andretti finds that the harder tyres totally ruin the car’s balance and endow it with so much understeer that he reckons the front tyres would wear out anyway before the end of the race even if he does use the harder rubber. The times established by Andretti and Hunt in the first session are quite adequate to ensure that they remain on the front row for Sunday’s race as nobody improves upon those times during the final hour of timed practice. Watson comes very close with a 1'12"49 while Stuck improves to 1'13"01 to ensure that both Brabham-Alfa Romeos start from the second row of the grid. Despite endless problems on the First day with fuel mixture adjustments, a problem that hampers both Ligier’s progress, Laffite qualifies fifth with 1'13"08 ahead of Jody Scheckter who has a very troubled time throughout practice. He starts off at the wheel of Wolf WR3 on Friday but by the time he has the cockpit adjustments sorted out to his liking and gets into the swing of things, the car’s gearbox packs up owing to a fault in its assembly back in England. This means that Scheckter is obliged to continue practising in Wolf WR1, but that promptly blows up its engine after less than a dozen laps, which means that he is back in the newer car on Saturday. He achieves a 1'13"15 best despite all these problems and the South African driver remains highly optimistic about his chances once the race gets under way.
Reutemann tries consistently hard with his ill-handling Ferrari, eventually gaining a position on the inside of The fourth row with a 1'13"32, a fraction faster than Mass’s best in the other McLaren M26. Villeneuve is doing his best in the second Ferrari but that really is not good enough and the French Canadian newcomer is eventually consigned to a grid position right down at the back of the grid with only one of the Japanese, Binder and Ribeiro behind him. Reflecting wistfully about his drive at the wheel of a McLaren M23 in this year’s British Grand Prix. Villeneuve does not face the Japanese Grand Prix with an air of excessive optimism. The fifth row is made up of that potentially explosive duo Brambilla 1'13"52) and Regazzoni (1'13"52), the combination of which was devastatingly underlined during the opening laps of the Spanish Grand Prix earlier in the year. Nudging in behind, right in amongst the established mid-field runners, is Hoshino’s Kojima 009 1'13"55) ahead of the Shadows of Jones 1'13"56) and Patrese (1'13"58), the two cars from Northampton facing the race from their now customary mid-field starting positions. Nilsson qualifies the second Lotus 78 on 1'13"66, while Depailler is the faster of the two Tyrrell drivers, the six wheel machines sandwiching Tambay’s Ensign and Jarier. Although Patrick is trying as hard as he can, one gets the impression that Peterson is happy that the season is almost over. As it is, there is to be yet another slice of unexpected excitement awaiting the Swedish driver once the race gets under way. Takahara pips Villeneuve, while Binder complains about an un-nerving degree of high speed understeer in his Surtees and Takahashi seems always to be Spinning his Tyrrell when one looks up. Right at the back comes little Alex Ribeiro in the lone factory March, almost three full seconds away from Andretti’s pole position time. Neither he, nor his entrants, look as though they care by this stage in the season. In stark contrast to last year’s diabolical weather, this year’s race is run in superbly bright conditions with a warm sun overhead and a cloudless sky in all directions.

The race starts exactly on time, another contrast with last year’s rain-soaked event. Anxious to show everybody his true capabilities, James Hunt makes an absolutely tremendous start and leads down into the first right hand corner while Andretti lets the revs drop away and his lotus is swallowed up by a great horde of rival F1 machinery. Scheckter and Regazzoni start off superbly as well, the Wolf slotting into second place with Mass just displacing the Swiss driver’s Ensign for third when he slides the number two McLaren, brakes locked up, through on the inside of the first corner. At the end of the first lap, Hunt is away on his own already. Second is Scheckter, then Mass, Regazzoni, Watson, Lane, Stuck, Andretti, Reutemann, Brambilla, Hoshino, Patrese, Nilsson, Jones, Depailler, Peterson, Villeneuve, Takahashi, Tambay, Jarier, Takahara, Binder and Ribeiro. Andretti is annoyed about his tardy start and rockets past Stuck at the end of the start/finish straight. Unfortunately, the rugged little American driver rather overdoes things half way round his second lap as he tries to run round the outside of Laffite’s Ligier as they round the long right-hand corner that leads into the left-hand hairpin behind the pits. With the French driver moving over to the outside of the circuit on the exit of the corner, his legitimate racing line, Andretti’s right front wheel comes into sharp contact with the Ligier’s left rear and in an instant the Lotus is sailing across the grass run-off area into the guard rail. The 78 sheds its left rear wheel as it hits the guard rail, bouncing this back into the path of Takahara’s Kojima which makes quite firm contact and eliminates the Japanese car from the race. Binder’s Surtees also spins in this debacle, catching debris from the accident and sliding onto the grass into retirement as well. All this fuss allows Hunt to get well clear and within seven laps Mass moves past Scheckter’s Wolf to leave us the imposing sight of the two McLaren M26s running in 1-2 formation.


Watson quickly follows Mass through into third place as Scheckter drops away, his Wolf understeering too acutely for the South African driver to maintain his place with the leading bunch. Close behind, pressing him hard, is Regazzoni while Stuck is busy holding up a huge bunch consisting of Reutemann, Brambilla, Lane, Nilsson and the two Shadows. Jarier’s hopes for a good result in the Ligier come to an end after three laps when something goes badly wrong inside the Matra V12 and he is forced to retire. As Hunt sets a cracking pace up at the front, things are going badly wrong down at the back of the field. Going into his sixth lap, Villeneuve inadvertently leaves his braking too late at the end of the start/finish straight and runs his Ferrari into the back of Peterson’s Tyrrell. The Italian car climbs up over the six wheeler, knocking off its rear wing in the process, before launching Villeneuve into a heart-stopping series of end-over-end somersaults. The Ferrari is totally destroyed during its crazy flight which unfortunately ends over the top of a track side guard rail and in amongst some onlookers, in a prohibited area. Villeneuve is a little chap and, by virtue of tucking himself deep down into the cockpit, luckily escapes without injury. Unfortunately a local marshal and a photographer die. Peterson, also, is out of the race as a result of the collision. Hunt is running superbly and there is quite obviously nobody to catch him while Mass is doing an excellent back up job in second place just in front of Watson. Then comes Scheckter and Regazzoni while Reutemann works his way to the head of the sixth place bunch by the end of lap 20, Stuck dropping away as his tyres start to go off and eventually dropping into the pits to change the whole set on the Brabham four laps later. Then, within two laps, Regazzoni suddenly finds himself promoted unexpectedly to third place. At the end of the 28th lap Mass’s McLaren crosses the start/finish line when its engine blows up spectacularly in a cloud of smoke and steam.


The German driver coasts to a standstill at the end of the pit lane and walks back to the pits, bitterly disappointed that his very last drive for the McLaren team ends on such a disappointing note. John Watson has less than a lap to enjoy second place for the gearbox of his Brabham suddenly begins playing up and eventually refuses to select any gears. At the end of the 29th lap he pulls into the pits to retire, so Regazzoni now looks secure in third place behind Scheckter. With Scheckter obviously in dire handling trouble, prospects look bright for Regazzoni and Team Ensign. Little by little he closes in on the Wolf and is right up in the blue car’s slipstream as he comes up to complete the 43rd lap. As he crosses the start/finish line Regazzoni nips out to the right of the Wolf and sits it out with Scheckter all the way down into the first right hander after the pits. The plucky South African driver doesn’t want to give way, but Regazzoni has the inside line and there is no way in which he is going to be prevented from taking second place. At the end of the lap on which he is passed by the Ensign, Scheckter brings the Wolf into the pits for a fresh set of tyres and an adjustment to the rear wing in an attempt to cure the car’s now near-terminal understeer. He charges back into the race, well back, but starts to lap much more quickly, obviously much happier with the car’s handling. Regazzoni, sadly, is not destined to take the second place that he has worked so hard to gain. For ten laps the Ensign circulates in second place, well ahead of Reutemann’s Ferrari which is now consolidating third place in the face of an attack by Laffite. The Ensign has been leaking oil on right handers for some distance and the lubricant is used up by lap 43, the oil pressure vanishes and Regazzoni drops out for good with 43 laps completed. Five laps later and possession of second place changes yet again as the hard-charging Laffite forces his Ligier past Reutemann’s Ferrari. Nilsson is now a fighting fourth, fending off a strong challenge front Jones’s Shadow, while Depailler is sixth in front of Patrese. It now looks as though the final race pattern has been finally resolved with just under 30 laps to go.


Unfortunately, there is to be one more disappointment, this time for the determined Nilsson who seems desperate to finish his season with Lotus on a decent note. On lap 58 he gives best to Jones, struggling with his gearbox as he is, and then relinquishes fifth place to Depailler on lap 67. On the next lap the disappointed Swede pulls into the pits to retire. His Lotus’s gearbox is becoming increasingly reluctant to select any gear and, for the last few laps Nilsson has been ramming them in with such brute force that the actual gear linkage in the cockpit is distorted. Sadly, it was a vain effort and eventually the Swede cannot select any gears worth having. There is one last twist to the Japanese Grand Prix. Jacques Laffite’s Ligier runs out of petrol on the very last lap, promoting Reutemann back into a very lucky second place and Depailler, who has forced a way past Jones on lap 66, into third. Laffite is eventually classified fifth ahead of young Patrese who has driven his best race to date in the Shadow DN8. Seventh is Stuck, after his pit stop, ahead of Brambilla’s Surtees (delayed after two pit stops for a change of plugs), Takahashi, Scheckter, Hoshino and Ribeiro. In the closing stages of the race Scheckter sets the race’s fastest lap, beating Laffite’s record from last year, a record incorrectly awarded to Hasenn’s Kojiuia at the time. But none of them can touch the superb Hunt. The McLaren team leader has been in a class of his own from the word go, proving that he is a fighter and never gives up trying. Unfortunately, he makes himself rather unpopular with the local dignitaries by failing to appear on the winner’s rostrum and leaving the circuit immediately after the race is over in order to catch a plane back to Britain that same evening. Reutemann fails to appear either, although he is still at the circuit. Hunt receives a great deal of criticism for his apparently thoughtless act but, disregarding this lapse, he certainly dominated the race in as impressive a fashion as anybody has managed in any Grand Prix this season. And, in the end, the name of the game is still winning we think.


Ludovica Dell'Aquila

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