Whenever the Japanese Grand Prix comes around each year it is inevitable that the nostalgic among us remember that famous race in 1976 when James Hunt clinched his one and only Formula 1 World Championship, while his final victory was also in the country.
The title was decided on a rain soaked and high-drama packed afternoon at Fuji Raceway...
At the time, James had been part of the Formula 1 landscape since 1973, first with Hesketh until 1975 and then as a last minute signing for McLaren for 1976.
It turned out the be the year in which the driver once known as 'Hunt-The-Shunt' became the king of motorsport, claiming the title at the final race, on a treacherous circuit, after one of the most tumultuous seasons in the history of the sport where he faced off against his nemesis and, ultimately, friend Niki Lauda.
Hunt-versus-Lauda was the story of the 1976 season and is immortalised in the well told, award-winning film entitled: Rush.
Volumes can and have been written about the season in which Niki nearly lost his life in that fiery accident at the Nurburgring; what followed was a remarkable comeback from receiving his last-rites to six weeks later racing at Monza. Images of the great Austrian in a blood-soaked balaclava are etched in every F1 fan’s mind.
Niki arrived at the season finale, the Japanese Grand Prix, leading James by three points but, to cut an epic story short, race day was marred by torrential rain.
In a nutshell, and doing no justice to the episode, by the time the dust had settled – or the rain had stopped – James had done enough to claim the title, nabbing it from Niki that afternoon when the Ferrari driver decided to pull iunto the pits because of the conditions while the McLaren driver stayed out to finish third. Britain had a new World Champion.
What might have been Lauda’s year instead became The Year of James Hunt, a fact that the defeated driver never lamented or resented, in fact he celebrated it long after the fact. In the end, Niki’s biggest victory was living after that horrid afternoon at Nurburgring.
Thus James joined the greats of the sport but, perhaps far more than most of his peers, the dashing Englishman and his rivalry with the Austrian perfectionist captured the imagination of an audience way beyond what the sport ever enjoyed.
The high-drama Hunt-versus-Lauda story thrust F1 on to a global stage, a mass market at a time of the boom in live sport ontelevision. They became the first superstars, theirs the first popular legend.
That contest triggered the rapid rise of F1 as one of the most-watched sports in the world, whose drivers have become among the most famous sportsmen on the planet. James among them.
The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was the first ever held in the country, with Fuji Speedway the venue also in 1977 in which James won the race, which also happened to be his last of ten Grand Prix victories.
Although James lost out on pole-position to Lotus driver Mario Andretti, but in the race the McLaren driver made a good start to take the lead, where he remained unchallenged to the end. He crossed the line over a minute ahead of his closest rival. It was an emphatic win, but fate had it that it was also to be his last.
Thereafter Japan slipped off the calendar for a decade before returning in 1987 with Suzuka hosting the race since then, but each year remembering the legacy James had in the country is inevitable.