ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 40 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   A Race to Remember

  by Marcel Schot, Netherlands

Every Grand Prix Venue has its most remembered race; that race where the mighty gods of Formula One diced and dodged to achieve eternal greatness and set the record books straight. But every Grand Prix venue also has remarkable races that were pushed aside in the history books, for no good reason. Atlas F1 writer Marcel Schot reviews, ahead of every Grand Prix this season, one race which should be memorised and valued; that one round in history which makes a Race to Remember

The 1977 Japanese GP

Over the years, Japan has delivered us some of the most dramatic races in the history of Formula One. Part of this is due to the simple fact that the Japanese Grand Prix is always run near the end of the season, when the championship battle reaches its climax. Who can forget the inseperable 1989 and 1990 races, when the sport's greatest rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost ended in two championship deciding clashes? Or the wettest Grand Prix of the last 25 years at Mount Fuji in 1976, when Niki Lauda, just returned from his horrific Nurburgring accident, withdrew after two laps, allowing James Hunt to win the title.

However, the Japanese race to remember is the other race on Mount Fuji. In 1977, the championship had long been decided, with Niki Lauda the dominant World Champion. However, the Austrian wasn't present in Japan. After clinching his second title, Lauda had announced he would drive for Brabham in 1978, which led to an argument with Enzo Ferrari, and saw Lauda packing his bags with two races still to go. Between Lauda's announcement and his departure, Ferrari had already signed his replacement. The top candidates had been numbers two and three in the championship, Jody Scheckter of Wolf and Lotus driver Mario Andretti. Neither ended up as Ferrari's replacement for the World Champion however. A young Canadian by the name of Gilles Villeneuve, known for his wild style and refusal to accept anything less than first place, became Enzo's new protege.

Before the race

There wasn't much at stake when Formula One made its final stop of the season, on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Mario Andretti had a theoretical chance of finishing second in the championship, but he would have to win, with Scheckter finishing outside the points. The Constructors' Championship had also been decided to Ferrari's advantage. The only thing to battle for was second, with Lotus having the best chance with 62 points, while Wolf (55) and McLaren (51) also had a chance.

With not a lot of pressure on anyone, the atmosphere in Japan was quite relaxed. Thus it happened that nobody complained when the start of first practice was put back because the medical staff wasn't fully present yet.

K. TakahashiDuring qualifying, Andretti clearly put the 'effect' in 'ground effect'. The Italian American put his Lotus on pole position, with a time of 1:12.23, McLaren's reigning champion James Hunt a tenth behind, with the first Brabham, driven by John Watson, in third, a further tenth behind. Somewhat surprisingly, Hans-Joachim Stuck had put his Brabham on row two. The son of 30s ace Hans Stuck had replaced Carlos Pace early in the season, when the Brazilian was killed in a plane crash. Although he had already driven a few brilliant races, most notably his third places in Germany and Austria, and his leading the race in America, his qualifying usually was less convincing.

The third row was filled by Ligier's Jacques Laffite and South African Wolf driver Jody Scheckter. The first Ferrari was Carlos Reutemann in seventh place, which was more than he could have hoped for. The Ferrari, while being very powerful, was an absolute dog to handle. The drivers had to literally fight the car to keep it on the track, even on the straights. Young Villeneuve ended up in 20th position in his second appearance for Ferrari. This meant than the famous Ferrari had qualified behind two of the three local add-ons, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Noritake Takahara, both driving a Kojima and both two times Japanese Formula 2000 champion. The only local hero behind the troubled Ferrari was Kunimitsu Takahashi in a private Tyrrell.

Despite Andretti being on pole in the ground effect Lotus, his teammate Gunnar Nilsson was a long way behind him in 14th. The two works Tyrrells also didn't quite have the qualifying they hoped for, Patrick Depailler ending up just behind Nilsson, while Ronnie Peterson qualified the six wheeler 18th.

  • View the full starting grid at FORIX
  • The race

    Unlike the previous year, the weather at Mount Fuji on raceday was fine and sunny. When the cars took off, Andretti unwillingly reversed his qualifying motto and now put the 'ground' in 'ground effect'. The Lotus driver nearly stalled his engine and saw driver after driver pass by, Hunt taking the lead ahead of Scheckter, who made a rocket start from sixth, helped by Andretti blocking the pole side of the circuit. When all were underway, it was time for Andretti to survey the damage. He found himself in eighth position, behind Jacques Laffite. As he was quickly losing ground to Hunt and more importantly Scheckter, Andretti tried several times to squeeze past Laffite.

    His Lotus was clearly superior to Laffite's Ligier, but the Frenchman had no intentions of making things easy for his black and gold rival. Andretti tried and tried, finally trying a bit too hard. The Lotus ran into the back of the Ligier at full speed, wildly spinning off the track. With a massive impact, Andretti hit the barrier, thankfully leaving the wreckage unhurt. Laffite was able to continue the race with only minor damage.

    While most of the field escaped the crash undisturbed, Japanese driver Takahara got the scare of his life when one of Andretti's wheels bounced back onto the track just ahead of him. He tried to avoid the black projectile, but in his haste to do so, failed to notice German Surtees driver Hans Binder next to him. The two tangled, ending both drivers' races, reducing the field to twenty cars.

    While Jacques Laffite resumed his way after his collision with Andretti, his teammate Jean-Pierre Jarrier was less fortunate. After only five laps his Matra engine failed, reducing Ligier to a one car team, like it had been all season. Meanwhile, James Hunt steadily increased his lead.

    After five laps, all attention turned to the back of the pack again. Gilles Villeneuve was trying hard to pass his idol Ronnie Peterson, having already made his way past several other drivers. Villeneuve was right under Peterson's rear wing, waiting to get out of the Tyrrell's slipstream at the end of the start-finish straight to outbrake Peterson, gaining one more position on his way through the field. As they approached the appropriately named Devil's Curve, part one of his mission was completed successfully. The second part, however, went extremely wrong. As soon as Villeneuve hit the brakes, they locked, sending his now out of control Ferrari straight on into the Tyrrell.

    Gunnar NilssonVilleneuve flew high across the front of Peterson's Tyrrell, which spun away madly. Without losing any speed, Villeneuve dropped into the gravel trap like a bomber diving on its target. The Ferrari hit the gravel nose first, the momentum causing the car to somersault across the fence. Villeneuve was the second lucky driver that day, escaping of the remnants of the Ferrari without injury. Sadly, not everybody was as lucky as the Canadian. Although the area behind the fence was a prohibited area, several people were watching the race from there. Two people were hit by what was left of Villeneuve's car and were killed on the spot. One of these two was a track marshall, who was trying to move the people from the prohibited area. Ten people were wounded, most being cut by flying debris. Despite this horrible accident, the race continued.

    At the front of the field, things were largely unchanged. Hunt was still leading comfortably, with teammate Jochen Mass as a safety cushion in second, and Brabham driver John Watson third. Laffite was making his way back to the points. Much to his own surprise, Hunt saw his lead increase quite a bit in two laps. First, number two Jochen Mass blew his engine on lap 29, promoting Watson to second. However, the Ulsterman didn't last much longer. On the next lap, he too had to park his car by the side of the track. Watson's gearbox had failed, making it his 12th retirement in 17 races. This put Jody Scheckter in second, a long way behind Hunt. But Scheckter was only the next number two to drop back. Former Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni performed something of a miracle, and moved his Ensign ahead of the Wolf.

    Alas, this wasn't the day of the number twos. After 43 laps, Regazzoni's engine wasn't able to cope with the pace anymore. As Scheckter had dropped back behind Carlos Reutemann, the Argentinean now taking second, with Scheckter, Shadow driver Alan Jones and the hard fighting Laffite following closely. Laffite then saw his terrific racing rewarded, when he slipped by the three of them to become the next driver to fill second place. But, as said earlier, this wasn't the day of those driving in second.

    On the final lap, Laffite suffered for his hard driving throughout the race. The Frenchman was left stranded without fuel, relegating him to fifth place. Reutemann grabbed second place, over a minute behind Hunt, keeping him just ahead of the winner in the championship standings. Patrick Depailler was third fot Tyrrell, while the Shadow team had reason to celebrate with Alan Jones in fourth, and Riccardo Patrese in sixth. Jones wasn't very happy with fourth though. The Australian had missed out on his third podium finish by just three tenths of a second.

    While Jones had just missed the podium, Reutemann and Hunt found it more important to catch the first flight out of Japan. This angered the organizers, who were left with only third place finisher Patrick Depailler and a representative of Magnetti Marelli for the podium ceremony.

  • View the final classification at FORIX
  • Conclusion

    This was James Hunt's final win and probably one of his easiest. With the curse on the number two position, Hunt sped away from the start and never ever had the need to look back. The story of the number two had been a somewhat forgotten item, but it was one of the most dramatic happenings of the season. The thing that pushed everything else back in the shadows was the Gilles Villeneuve's accident, which saw the death of two people. This all combined to a race which is worth remembering, if not in a partly surreal way. It was a bit of a negative ending to the 1977 season, yet it was more action packed than many races in the history of the Japanese Grand Prix, without anything at stake and possibly the strangest podium ceremony in the history of Formula One.

    Marcel Schot© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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