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Japan flashback - Fuji 1976 26 Sep 2007

(L to R): Niki Lauda (AUT) Ferrari, who bravely chose to withdraw from the wet race on the third lap; James Hunt (GBR) McLaren who took third place in the race to clinch the World Championship, and Barry Sheene (GBR) World 500cc Motorcycle Champion talk together on the pit wall before the race. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd 16, Mount Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World © Phipps/Sutton (L to R): Pole sitter and race winner Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus 77 leads third placed finisher and World Champion James Hunt (GBR) McLaren away at the start of the race help in very wet and dangerous conditions. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd 16, Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World © Phipps/Sutton James Hunt(GBR) Mclaren M23, 3rd place which clinched the World Championship Japanese Grand Prix, Fuji, 24th October 1976. World © PHIPPS/SUTTON Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus celebrates alone in the dark on a makeshift podium after winning the final race of the season. It was his second GP win five years after his first and the first win for Lotus in over two seasons. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd 16, Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World © Phipps/Sutton Teddy Mayer (USA), McLaren Team Manager, centre, holds three fingers up to James Hunt (GBR), climbing out of his McLaren immediately after the race, to signal that he had finished the race in third place and that he was now the 1976 Formula One World Champion. Japanese Grand Prix, Rd16, Fuji, Japan, 24 October 1976. World ©  Phipps/Sutton

Japan’s Fuji Speedway returns to the Formula One calendar this week for the first time in 30 years. For most, it will be their first experience of the circuit, but for a few wizened faces in the paddock the trip back to Mount Fuji will stir memories of one of Formula One racing’s legendary races - the inaugural Japanese Grand Prix in 1976.

Just like this weekend, the story dominating the headlines back then was a championship battle between McLaren and Ferrari. Instead of Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Raikkonen, however, the names on everyone’s lips were those of close friends and title rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

Lauda, still recovering from his near-fatal accident at the Nurburgring, was leading the championship for Ferrari, but Hunt was just three points adrift for McLaren after capitalising on Lauda’s two-race absence and winning two of the three races since the Austrian’s return. With the Fuji race serving as the final round of the season, just one of the two drivers could leave the track with the crown.

In spite of the high stakes, neither secured pole position during qualifying. That went to Mario Andretti after a blistering lap in his Lotus. Although Hunt was reasonably content with his second-place grid slot, Lauda, in third, knew he would have his work cut out to get past the Briton on race day.

As Sunday dawned, however, the field woke to the pitter-patter of rain and for several hours, as the weather worsened, it looked as though the race might not even go ahead. But after a lengthy delay the organisers decided to press on and with the track awash, and fog hanging heavily in the air, the cars finally headed to the grid.

Some, including Brabham driver Larry Perkins, felt it was too dangerous to race. Nevertheless, the full field took the start, with Hunt getting the best getaway to lead from Andretti, as Lauda immediately dropped back into the midfield pack. The reigning champion, still not 100 percent fit, was clearly struggling in the near zero-visibility conditions and after completing just two precarious laps of the dangerously-sodden track decided to follow Perkins’ example and withdraw. Emerson Fittipaldi and fellow Brazilian Carlos Pace did the same just a few laps later.

Lauda’s decision left his title hopes hanging on the outcome of Hunt’s race. And as the Austrian climbed out of his Ferrari in the pits, he was far from hopeful - Hunt was looking dominant. But then everything changed. The rain finally cleared, and on a rapidly drying circuit, Hunt’s tyres were soon suffering.

As his rubber broke up, his pace slackened. Andretti and Tyrrell’s Patrick Depailler both passed him, but Hunt, safe in the knowledge that fourth place was enough for the title, settled back. His rollercoaster of a race, however, was far from over. With his tyres worsening, he looked to the pit wall for direction - was it too late to risk coming in?

With no answer forthcoming Hunt focused on the race but when his front left started to deflate, pitting became a matter of urgency. As the watching Ferrari team celebrated, Hunt was seething, convinced that after such a late, unscheduled stop, he was too far down the order and that his title chances were over. To save face he pushed on and, with his fresh rubber, made short work of both Surtees driver Alan Jones and Ferrari’s Clay Regazzoni - amid the chaos, though Hunt didn’t realise it, he was back up to third and back in contention.

Up front and a lap ahead of second-placed Depailler, Andretti crossed the line to take his first victory in five years (and the first for Lotus in two). When Hunt arrived back at the pits, however, the celebratory mood soured. The British driver, angry about what he believed to be his loss of the championship, looked decidedly glum. But when McLaren team manager Teddy Mayer approached holding up three fingers to signify his third place the legendary Hunt smile returned - the crown was his.

As Hunt celebrated, there was also cause for cheer for the Japanese fans. Tokyo-born Masahiro Hasemi, whose appearance at the race was his sole Formula One outing, headed into the record books after he recorded the quickest lap of the race in his Ford-powered Kojima.