There was a revolution in 1976 when Formula 1 came not only to Japan and the Far East for the first time but also to the entire Asian continent for the first time. However, most people remember just one thing about that grand prix: the title going to McLaren driver James Hunt. It was a dramatic end to a season that was initially dominated by Ferrari and marked by Niki Lauda’s fiery accident at the Nurburgring, followed by his prodigious recovery and emotional return to racing at Monza against all medical advice and expectations. The Japanese finale to that season was as action-packed as any film: no other denouement to any F1 year has come close.
With the rain that was pouring down, the circuit seemed destined not host any races that weekend, let alone the championship decider. In the shadow of Mount Fuji, the circuit and surrounding countryside was utterly waterlogged. Predicting more heavy rain (but not that much rain) for race day, the organisers advised photographers and journalists to get to the track in plenty of time, in order not to make the situation worse by causing traffic jams.
One well-known photographer, now a veteran of the sport, followed instructions faithfully and left at 6am to be there on time as had been suggested. Laden down with cameras he struggled towards the stairwell, only to find a man staggering towards him, seemingly bouncing off the walls before struggling to find his key and let himself into his room. Only on closer examination did he recognise the offender as a certain James Hunt… So, this was the man who just hours later would be fighting for the title against Niki Lauda and Ferrari, coming back in after a night out that clearly wasn’t spent just sightseeing. Outside the weather was still biblical. The drivers would also be fighting the elements as well as the grand prix itself.
Putting the icing on the cake of the most dramatic season in Formula 1 history was the events of the final morning. The drivers did not want to drive. Lauda put forward some convincing arguments about safety, even though everyone knew that if the race were cancelled he would win the title again by conserving the minimal points advantage he had maintained heading into the race. But not all the drivers agreed. Mario Andretti for example knew that he could get a good result and wanted to race even in those monsoon-like conditions. In the end the majority of drivers resolved to start the race and then stop after a couple of laps. Bernie Ecclestone (not quite as powerful as he is today but well on the way) convinced them to at least drive a few laps, otherwise the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by TV channels worldwide to broadcast the championship showdown live would be lost. The rest is chronicled in history. Lauda stopped quite soon. His burnt eyelids, which had been operated on following the fire in Germany, meant that he could not see well and felt the fear. A few more drivers stopped as well. But not Andretti, who went on to win. And not Hunt, who reached the finish line in a position to score enough points to secure the title. Another drama occurred 11 years later, once more in Japan, but this time not in Fuji. In 1987, the Japanese Grand Prix returned to the schedule and made its debut in the current venue of Suzuka. The circuit belonged to Honda, which knew it centimetre by centimetre, and wanted to be crowned constructors’ champions with Williams at all costs. This was the penultimate round of a season that had been characterised by an intense feud between the team’s two drivers, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. The Englishman was behind and gave it absolutely everything but during practice on Friday he had an accident that broke one of his lumbar vertebrae, ending his championship hopes on the spot.
So, Piquet won his third title but not before Honda suffered the ignominy of the Brazilian’s engine blowing up in the pits. It happened live on television, on Honda’s home territory. The result was that several key figures in the engine department were removed from their positions. Piquet was also let go by Williams, which blamed him for being rarely available for testing and exacerbating the increasingly poisonous relationship with their Japanese engine suppliers, which would then in turn leave Williams to join McLaren and embark on the Senna era.
These days, memories of those revolutions sit comfortably with the sense of tradition inherently present in Japan. Because 30 years after that debut, Suzuka is one of those romantic tracks that flies in the face of Formula 1 trends that are increasingly reliant on technical simulation, removing all elements of human risk. At Suzuka (the only top level circuit that incorporates a figure of eight) risk and heroism is still a hallmark. There are some very high-speed corners such as Degner and extremely limited run-off areas. All this makes the Japanese circuit a gladiatorial arena for real drivers: the ones who have fond memories of the glory days.
And at this time of year in Japan anything can happen weather-wise, from summer heat to winter rain. Yet another massive challenge within a challenge…