Japanese Formula 1 fans are renowned for their knowledge and memory. Even today, in the midst of the Mercedes-Hamilton era, the souvenir stands around the Suzuki circuit are filled with memories, gadgets, and photographs that recall the biggest heroes from the past.
On the downhill pit straight, where the modern hybrid cars fly past the iconic ferris wheel, you’ll often find local fans wearing caps, T-shirts, or even overalls and helmets that commemorate Ayrton Senna: Japan’s biggest hero. No surprise really as Senna has written some of the most unforgettable chapters in Honda’s Formula 1 history. Through Japanese eyes, he is a true racing legend.
But what about Lauda? What’s Niki Lauda got to do with it? He’s only ever set foot in Suzuka as a manager after all. By 1987, when Honda’s former test track joined the Formula 1 calendar for the first time, Niki had already given up racing after his definitive retirement from motorsport, having won three titles with two different teams: Ferrari in the glory years of the 1970s and then McLaren in 1984. After that, he took on various roles in team management: with Ferrari from 1992 and then Jaguar at the turn of the millennium, before joining the ultra-successful Mercedes squad that has dominated grand prix racing from 2014 right to the present day.
And yet right up to the 2017 Japanese Grand Prix – the final one he visited before being taken ill last year, which led to his death four months ago on May 20 – Suzuka has worshipped Lauda. That’s partly down to an inimitable career, for sure, but also down to the legend that has grown up around his only appearance in a Formula 1 car on Japanese soil. The whole story lasted for less than four minutes, but it has become engraved in Formula 1 history and is still as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
The scene was Japan, but not Suzuka. Instead it was the Mount Fuji circuit further to the north-east and not far from Tokyo, in the brooding shadow of the famous mountain. Most of all, it was at the end of October, a lifetime ago. It was right there that the 1976 world championship was decided: without a doubt the most dramatic one in Formula 1 history. Niki Lauda came to the race with a three-point advantage over James Hunt. The season that had nearly killed Niki (following the fire at the Nürburgring, the last rites that were read to him twice in three days, and a miraculous return at Monza with his face still bleeding) would be decided over 73 laps on a circuit that nobody had seen before. It was Lauda versus Hunt, Ferrari versus McLaren, with Hunt qualifying on the front row alongside the pole-sitting Lotus of Mario Andretti. Niki was behind in third. And when race day dawned, on Sunday 24 October, a widely-predicted typhoon was in full force over Fuji, battering the Japanese track with some truly horrendous weather.
Because of the rain, the race start was postponed on numerous occasions. The drivers had initially decided not to race, but they were persuaded otherwise by Formula 1’s emerging ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone. Just take the start and do a couple of laps, so that the coveted TV money could be pocketed, he suggested. Lauda, who couldn’t even blink properly as his eyelids were badly scarred, knew that he was going to suffer in the poor visibility but agreed to start against his better instincts. Hunt was also not so keen to start. But Niki knew that the competitive instincts would eventually kick in, irrespective of safety concerns. Sure enough, after the start, Hunt was soon locked into a duel with the flying March of Vittorio Brambilla, while Niki slipped behind. The Austrian struggled for two laps, and then decided to retire.
As soon as he arrived at the Ferrari pit garage, sporting director Daniele Audetto and technical guru Mauro Forghieri rushed over to the side of the Ferrari. “I can’t see a thing out there,” said their driver. “I’m scared.” A moment of humanity that cancelled out all other considerations. “Do you want us to say that it was a technical problem?” they asked him. “No, no,” said Niki, undoing his belts. “Tell the truth.”
The rest of the story has been recounted many times. Lauda retired and Hunt finished third, after a chaotic finale where the weather made everything uncertain. Hunt himself didn’t even think that he had secured the third place necessary to seal the championship. Lauda, still in his overalls, underneath a red jacket, followed the race from behind the scenes and left before the end. A snapshot of the scene went all over the world: a downcast Niki in the back of a Rolls Royce taking him to the airport alongside his heavily pregnant wife Marlene, who was expecting their first child.
Formula 1 would return to Fuji the following year (then again in 2007 and 2008, on a different track with the same name). Hunt won there in 1977, his final F1 victory, climbing onto the podium in bare feet, as was his anarchistic way. The perceived lack of respect for the ceremony and host country cost him a hefty fine, in what would have been a perfect scene for the Rush movie that came out a few years ago. But Lauda wasn’t there. He had just been crowned world champion again and left Ferrari with two races of the 1977 season still to run: a clear sign of the extent to which his relationship with Enzo Ferrari had deteriorated. Yet no doubt he also felt relief that he never had to drive again on a circuit that had provoked some of the most bitter memories in his driving career.