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Story of Hunt, Lauda and 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Mario Andretti. Picture: Getty

Mario Andretti. Picture: Getty

  • by TOM ENGLISH
 

OCTOBER 24, 1976. Seventy-three laps, or 197.2 miles, of the Fuji Speedway at the foot of Mount Fuji to determine who will be Formula 1 world champion.

It is Niki Lauda versus James Hunt, a rivalry so dramatic and a race so storied that they’ve made a movie of it, the Ron Howard directed Rush coming to a cinema near you this month. Niki Lauda has recovered from a near-death experience at the Nurburgring in Germany on August 1 and still leads Hunt by three points in the drivers’ championship heading to Japan for race 16 of 16. Scotland on Sunday speaks to four men who raced with with them on that immortal day.

John Watson: I’m not sure if I’m in the film, but if you want to keep an eye out for me, I’m in car 28.

Jody Scheckter: I was in the Tyrrell. Third row of the grid.

Larry Perkins: Started in 17th and didn’t last long. I was the new kid on the block.

Mario Andretti: I was on pole in the Lotus. Had James beside me and Niki behind me. It was a miracle Niki was there at all, of course.

JW: I thought what he did in coming back to race after his experience in Germany only a few months before was one of the most courageous things I have ever seen anybody ever do. It wasn’t the physical injuries that almost killed him, it was the poisonous fumes he breathed in as his car was on fire.

MA: Everyone was amazed when Niki returned so quickly. He was that close to dying. It was inspirational in many ways. You have to have great respect for a man like that.

JW: Considering the injuries he suffered, to get himself physically fit enough to drive was not only remarkable but courageous beyond anything I have ever seen. It’s a bit like a World War II fighter pilot injured in action and getting back into a plane and going out to fight the Germans again. His biggest injury was not the burns, it was the inhalation of toxic fumes from the burning bodywork. It was the lung damage that was the danger. That’s when he was given the last rites. Then he’s back in the car and winning points a few weeks later!

MA: Niki and James were 180 degree opposites.

JW: James pissed people off because he enjoyed doing it. There were definitely two sides to him and sometimes I felt he was completely inappropriate. Rude and disrespectful. Niki was never like that. James would turn up at functions where there needed to be a certain amount of etiquette and appear practically undressed with what might be called Bullingdon Club behaviour.

JS: I liked them both. Very different animals.

JW: They were similar in one way. They both liked to f*ck a lot, but Niki would have been much more selective. Niki wouldn’t have been into volume, he’d have been into style. They both had a penchant for it. As a driver, Niki was the consummate professional. He was a much more Teutonic character. James was just an extremely fast racing driver but not a hugely technically-minded racing driver. Niki was deeply involved in the development of the car. He went in for the intellectual side of it. With James, you just gave him a fast car and a set of keys.

MA: You heard all sorts of things about James. Particularly that week in Japan.

JW: There are stories of him sleeping with 33 British Airways air hostesses in his hotel in Tokyo earlier in the week. I’m not sure why the story has it that it was only British Airways girls, because I don’t he was very selective about British Airways air hostesses over any other airline. Lufthansa. Aeroflot. I don’t think he would have minded. I think a certain licence has been taken in the retelling of that story, to be honest. Even for James, if you’re shagging yourself to death you ain’t going to be able to drive a racing car. I believe a lot of things about him, but I think the 33 air hostesses was exaggerated.

MA: I’m pretty sure that nothing was exaggerated.

JS: On the day of the race, the rain came down like you would not believe.

MA: Lotus was not the best car in the field, but I was on pole. I put the car on pole in 
the dry, not the wet and here we were on race day and it was a deluge. It was just incredible. At the drivers meeting we asked the organisers to delay the start for 30 minutes and they wouldn’t hear of it. Niki was pleading with them. Niki and James didn’t want to race.

LP: I was not remotely involved in any of that. I was a new kid and you sit quietly in your corner and say nothing.

MA: The organisers were not going to be persuaded. They were in total control and the drivers were not that organised. We didn’t say we’re not going to drive, we just said: “Consider the force majeure here. Something very unusual is happening out there, but it will pass.” The worst conditions I ever experienced at the start of a race. Never, ever, ever had I experienced anything like it.

JW: The whole world was waiting. Television was waiting for an outcome to this battle between Lauda and Hunt and, inevitably, the race was going to go ahead. At one point the track was flooded but it was going to happen regardless. You had to accept it and make the best of it.

LP: I’d gone out in the warm-up lap and I aquaplaned off. Sideways into a telegraph pole. Something that was immovable anyway. I was driving for Brabham and I said: “This is not a good start to a career with Bernie Ecclestone”. He owned the team. I severely wrecked the car. I got out and there were cars spinning everywhere. Just as I was walking away my team-mate Carlos Pace came off exactly where I had. It was pissing down.

MA: When you get in the car, you like to be dry. But your shoes were wet and slippery on the pedals. We were soaked. It was pretty much a blind start. The visibility was 10 per cent tops. The worst part of it was on the first lap coming down that very long straightaway, which was undulating, there was a lot of standing water there and the aquaplaning was like something I have never experienced anywhere in racing. There were rivers across the track. Hans Stuck and people like that were flying off all over the place.

JW: You might be doing nothing wrong and somebody ahead of you makes a mistake and you can’t see them until you drive into them totally blind. You could be killed.

LP: I couldn’t believe that the chief steward allowed it to go ahead. Once cars aquaplane violently on a straightaway, it’s too wet to race. But the race went on and I lasted one lap and then retired. I said to Bernie: “I’m happy to go on but I will crash your car and I will write it off and I don’t see any point in doing that.” It wasn’t fear of going on. I was young and I didn’t care about personal safety. I stopped because I didn’t want to crash another one of Bernie Ecclestone’s race cars. And then, in the next lap, Lauda retired. That was pretty dramatic, I can tell you.

JS: Niki stopped and said: “I don’t want to finish this race.” That takes bigger balls than finishing a race. The rain was crazy. It was too much. They should have stopped it, but they didn’t do that back then. Niki felt that it was unnecessarily dangerous and he was right. Drivers were dying in those days. In Japan, the mist and the spray just came up and you couldn’t see anything. You couldn’t see anything in front. You were just listening to hear an engine stopping in front of you so you could try to avoid it. You couldn’t see where you were going at 160mph. If a car stops in front of you you’ve got no chance at all. But, once you’re in a race, you just get on with it. You fight for safety when you’re off the track and, when you’re on it, you fight as hard as you can to win. And you don’t think about anything else.

MA: It was a job staying on the track, it really was. Every lap you had a moment here and there. I would never, ever, ever give up. You don’t give up on the team. Once you’re on the dancefloor, you dance whether you like the music or not. It never crossed my mind to stop. Looking at Niki’s situation, you had to sympathise after his horrible accident in Germany. That was a very special case, the way I see it. Niki was always a very pragmatic man. He said: “If I can’t see, I can’t drive.” After Germany, everybody understood.

JW: There were a variety of reasons why he pulled out. Japan was taking the balance of what was acceptable into what was unacceptable. Niki pulled in because he considered it dangerous, unacceptably dangerous, but also one of the issues he had was that he had difficulty controlling a tear duct in one of his eyes as a consequence of the fire. Also, he sort of rolled the dice. James had to finish first, second or third to win the world championship and, in those conditions, there was no guarantee that he was going to do it. Niki’s decision would have been based on an element of fear and memory of Germany, but there was pragmatism as well. Nobody could predict what might happen to James during the rest of the race. Could he get third? Or would he have an accident or break down? In those days, the reliability of cars was considerably poorer than it is today. There was no guarantee of a finish. So Niki rolled the dice. He bet on Ferrari red but black McLaren won.

MA: It was a survival race for about a third of it, but then the rain eased and stopped and we coped. I won. And, of course, there was euphoria, but there was also relief.

JS: I had to retire in lap 50-something. When I did, I said: “Thank God that’s over.”

JW: James finished third and took the world championship. There was a party afterwards. It went on a bit. You can imagine...

MA: If it hadn’t rained that day? All Niki had to do to win the title was just ride to the finish. Just ride to the finish.

JW: Had conditions been dry, almost inevitably, we would have had a different outcome to the world championship.

MA: But that’s why they made a movie, right?

 

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