The first Formula One Japanese Grand Prix was the final round of the 1976 season, staged at the Fuji circuit.
This was the season where Ferrari’s Niki Lauda had his near fatal crash at the Nurburgring whilst looking set to retain the driver’s championship he won in 1975. McLaren’s James Hunt closed the gap to within 2 points Lauda’s absence, but then Lauda amazingly returning to the grid for the Italian Grand Prix, and by the time they arrived in Japan Lauda led by 3 points. A Hunt win would see the Englishman crowned champion as Hunt had already scored 6 wins to Lauda’s five. In qualifying Mario Andretti took pole position for Lotus, with Hunt’s McLaren second and Niki Lauda back in third for Ferrari.
But on race day the heavens opened, with rain lashing down and mist hanging in the air – treacherous conditions for driving. As the race started Hunt burst through to take the lead, with John Watson skating his Penske into second position behind him. Lauda slipped back at the start, and decided to come into the pits and withdraw at the end of the second lap due to the treacherous conditions– a brave driver with the conviction to say that that bravery was one thing – but that risking his life in these conditions was simply not worth it. Still, the race went on, and now the calculus was changed – Hunt would be champion if he could simply finish fourth.
Hunt was comfortable as a driver could be in the dreadful conditions, building a command lead early on from Andretti. But as the laps wore on Hunt started to come under pressure from Vittorio Bambrilla, the March driver who famously spun his way across the finish line when winning the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, held under similar wet conditions. Hunt needed to simply stay clear of trouble, but nearly came to grief as Bambrilla challenged him, the March getting its nose ahead briefly after diving down the inside at the hairpin, but running too deep and allowing Hunt back past Bambrilla then spun as he tried to stick back onto Hunt’s gearbox. So the threat from Bambrilla was gone, Hunt again seemed safe to coast to the finish.
As the track dried, looking after tyres would prove to be key to the race, and Hunt, needing only that fourth position, backed off, with Mario Andretti surging into the lead with only 9 laps remaining. The McLaren team were leaving the decision on stopping for fresh tyres to Hunt, but he stayed out, slipped down to third but regained the spot when Patrick Depailler had to pit for tyres. Hunt stayed out but eventually the decision was made for him as he suffered a blown tyre and a puncture – Hunt dropping to fifth as he rejoined after a slow stop with the mechanics struggling to jack up the car. So fresh tyres and five laps remaining, with Hunt needing to make a place to be world champion – he set off in determined mood, his day not going to be ruined as he passed first Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari and then Alan Jones Surtees to make sure of the job. Hunt finishing in third place behind Mario Andretti and Patrick Depailler and in so doing became the World Champion of 1976.