Great Sporting Moments: James Hunt wins the World Championship, Japanese Grand Prix, Fuji, 1976

It was James Hunt's finest hour – and, some said, Niki Lauda's as well. David Tremayne remembers a rain-lashed day in Japan when Formula 1's finest stared death in the face, and rose to the occasion
Click to follow

James Hunt scowled at the angry clouds that hid Mount Fuji, then at the sodden racetrack on which the 1976 Japanese grand prix would decide a world championship that seemed to have come from a Hollywood B-movie plot.

"I would rather give Niki the title than race in these conditions," he declared.

He and Niki Lauda, the Austrian world champion, had duelled their way across the world that year, Lauda in his Ferrari, Hunt leading the McLaren team. In a season scarred by protests, disqualifications and controversy, the two close friends had shared most of the victories: Lauda in Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, Monaco and Britain (where Hunt was disqualified); Hunt in Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Canada and America.

Then, on 1 August, Lauda's Ferrari crashed violently in the German GP on the old Nurburgring. Dragged from the flaming wreckage by fellow drivers Guy Edwards, Arturo Merzario, Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl, Lauda lingered between life and death after inhaling smoke and poisonous gases. A priest administered the last rites. "He says nothing kind, never mentions the possibility that I might recover," Lauda revealed later. "I want to shout: 'Hey, stop! This is the worst fuck-up you make in your life. I am not going to die!'"

Drawing on all the force of will that would become part of his legend, Lauda not only survived but astonished doctors with the speed of his recovery. His miraculous deliverance was manna from heaven for sections of the media.

"Sensational newspapers went on for weeks with special Lauda accident reports," he recalled. "Headlines such as: 'Niki Lauda's fight with death! "My God, where is my face?' And in the text: 'Niki Lauda, the fastest racing driver in the world, hasn't got a face now – it is nothing but raw flesh, the eyes are popping out.' This was illustrated with two nice photographs of my face covered in bandages, naturally on the front page. Two days later, readers were given good news with the headline: 'Niki Lauda will pull through ... but how can a man live without a face?'

"I now have my thigh on my face," he told reporters who probed into the psyche of a man who had come back from the dead, and whose face would forever bear the evidence of that journey. One asked him cruelly: "Lauda, what will your wife do now that you are ugly?"

And he had snarled back: "I'm not a male model. I'm a racing driver. I'll go on living, even with my new face."

The ultimate pragmatist, Lauda refused to consider plastic surgery. And, in typically laconic style, he said that the loss of one ear made it easier to use the phone. He began to affect the red cap that he still wears today.

Sensationally, on 12 September, he fought his way to a fourth-place finish in the Italian grand prix behind Ronnie Peterson, Clay Regazzoni and Jacques Laffite, little more than a month since he had cursed that priest.

His head was still swathed with blood-soaked bandages and his mind was in turmoil. "At Monza, I hid the truth. I'd never been as scared as I was then. I was rigid with fear. Terrified. Diarrhoea. Heart pounding. Throwing up. The first time in the Ferrari, I was scared. I said to myself, you can't drive like that. Then I waited quite consciously for the car to slide and began with the precision work handling the slide. After that, the worst was behind me. Next day, I was fourth, which some people thought was quite good."

Jackie Stewart certainly did. "Niki had no right to be driving there, because he was nowhere near healed," the former champion said. "It was the most courageous thing I have ever witnessed in sport."

In Lauda's absence, Hunt won in Holland and took fourth in Austria, was controversially penalised in Italy, then won both north American races, where Lauda was eighth and third.

And so their fight distilled into a three-point gap in Lauda's favour and a 73-lap showdown in Japan. And now, just to ratchet the tension up another notch, it seemed that speedboats would be more appropriate than racing cars.

There were several incidents in the soaking morning warm-up, as cars aquaplaned and spun, and the drivers were divided. Hunt, Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and Carlos Pace, stars all, were against racing and wanted a postponement. Ronnie Peterson, Vittorio Brambilla, Clay Regazzoni, Patrick Depailler, Hans Stuck and Alan Jones were all for driving. And then there was the Welshman Tom Pryce, the greatest of them all in the wet, who simply said: "We are supposed to be the best drivers in the world, so we should be able to race in the rain ..."

There were delays as the organisers held endless meetings and prevaricated. The pressure upon them was enormous. They had invested more than $1m in their race, and 80,000 spectators had paid handsomely to attend. Now, hunched beneath their umbrellas, all they had to watch was cars hidden beneath tarpaulins and small figures scuttling around in the pit road.

And there was another crucial imperative in favour of racing. The intensity of Hunt's battle with Lauda had captured imaginations. Now the world was hungry to know what was going to happen as their amazing fight went down to the wire. The 1976 Japanese grand prix was a ground-breaking affair, the event that would put Formula 1 permanently on global television's map.

Hunt sat on the front row of the grid, alongside the American Mario Andretti in a Lotus who had beaten him to pole position by three hundredths of a second. Lauda was third, with the Austrian grand prix winner, John Watson, in a Penske, for company. Hunt was his usual tense self in the McLaren garage, retching with nerves as he so often did before a race. When the cars went on to the grid, he calmly unzipped his overalls and, in front of the soaked spectators in the grandstands, proceeded to relieve himself. They cheered the tall blond Englishman's extraordinary behaviour.

When he was strapped into his brightly coloured red and white McLaren, and the signal to start the race was finally given, he told his crew very quietly: "I'm not going to race. I can't. I'm just going to drive round."

The moment it started, however, the racer in Hunt took charge. He made his best getaway of the season, and became the only man with clear visibility as he headed Watson and Andretti. At the end of that tense opening lap, he skated into the first corner, aquaplaned across a huge puddle as he braked from 140 mph, and barely retained control. Far from just driving round, he was going for it with all he had.

A lap later, his task became easier. To the astonishment of onlookers, Lauda trickled his Ferrari slowly into the pits. And stepped out.

He had had enough. For the man whose bravery was beyond question, it was the logical thing to do.

"I drive slowly, keep away from other cars so that nobody runs into me. I think how stupid this race is. You can't see. In this water on the track, you are as helpless as a paper boat. Even going slowly, you could be washed away. After the second lap, I go into the pits. I am not going to drive, because it is madness. For me it was the limit. There are more important things in life than the world championship, like staying alive."

Some called him a coward – this man who only weeks before had drawn praise for his incredible bravery. But not Hunt. "Poor Niki!" he said later. "In a perfect world, we would have shared the championship. He's been through a terrible accident and his comeback has been amazing. But I think he made the right decision to stop, and I feel awfully sorry for him. For me, Niki's decision was the bravest of all. None of the rest of us had the courage to stop racing in such ridiculous circumstances. Let's hope that no fool blames him for packing it in."

Years later, Lauda offered another view. "What actually happened was that we agreed with Bernie [Ecclestone] that we would do two laps and then all pull into the pits. That way we would have started the race and fulfilled obligations. I stopped, and so did Emerson and Carlos Pace and Larry Perkins in Bernie's Brabhams, but once they started racing everyone else either forgot or ignored the agreement ..."

Initially, Hunt swept away, hydroplaning on his own tide of adrenalin. Watson, second initially, slid down the escape road in the first corner; Brambilla, moving up fast, destroyed his front left tyre within five laps and made a pit stop. Andretti moved up to chase the McLaren, but was supplanted again by the flying Brambilla on the 16th lap. Now McLaren were afraid: the "Monza gorilla" was an unpredictable fellow. As if the conditions were not tricky enough, Hunt now had to cope with somebody who could be fast and furious.

On the 21st lap, Brambilla caught Hunt but spun across his bows just as he took the lead. The March missed the McLaren by inches.

Now Hunt had his team-mate, Jochen Mass, on his tail. But then the German lost concentration after easing off in his shotgun-riding role, and slid into a barrier. Hunt's cushion had gone. Worse still, the track was drying. The clouds had blown away, streaks of blue were visible in the sky. If he'd had time, Hunt could even have caught glimpses of Mount Fuji. But his wet weather tyres were in a parlous state. The drying track was literally tearing them apart, and there was still half the race to run.

Now Depailler began to reel him in, but the Frenchman was overtaken by Pryce until the engine in the flying Welshman's Shadow overheated on rubber chunks thrown into the radiator ducts, and blew up.

In his cockpit, Hunt began to curse. Lap after lap, he sought direction from his crew. Should he pit for fresh tyres? But all he got was the signal that the decision was up to him. "I couldn't get a communication going with them," he said. "I didn't want to make the decision!"

On lap 62, Depailler and Andretti overtook him. Third place was still sufficient to clinch the title by a point from Lauda, but Hunt could feel his tyres were finished. There was momentary respite when Depailler's Tyrrell blew a tyre. But his own worst fears were realised three laps later when the same thing happened to his left front tyre. Now the decision to pit was made for him, and he dropped to fifth place behind Andretti, Regazzoni, Jones and Depailler. The championship was lost.

He drove his last three laps in a red mist. On his fresh wet weather tyres, he overtook both Regazzoni and Jones on the 71st lap, but had no idea himself where he was even as he finished third, a lap behind the victorious Andretti, who had nursed his tyres perfectly.

Even as delirious team members climbed on to the McLaren's sidepods as he drove in, Hunt would not be dissuaded from his belief that his team had just cost him the title. Back in the pits, he erupted. Photos appear to show a driver celebrating his moment of triumph, but instead Hunt was venting at team manager, Teddy Mayer, ignoring the three fingers that the latter kept waving in his face.

Finally, it began to percolate what people were saying: "You're third, James! You've done it! You're world champion!" But still he took a lot of convincing. He had discovered more than once that year that the winner was not always the man who crossed the finish line first.

"I was absolutely determined not to think I was world champion and then get disappointed," he admitted. "After all the protests, disqualifications and bullshit that had gone on during the season, anything might still happen."

He expected to be dragged off the podium, to be told, after all, that he had not beaten Lauda.

"It was all a bit confusing, and at the end he was furious," Mayer, who died in January 2009, told Hunt's biographer, Gerald Donaldson. "It was quite apparent from all the fist-shaking that he had wanted us to make the decision about coming in to change tyres, but we wanted him to decide because we didn't know as much as we thought he knew about their state of wear.

"When it was over, we knew that he'd just squeaked by to win the championship and we were all delighted for him. But he came in jumping up and down in a rage and berating me. Eventually, he took it all in and started to look sheepish, and it all became fairly hilarious."

Later Hunt visited the press room, and gradually let his success sink in. But by then it was almost anti-climactic. "When I came out, it was pitch dark and everyone had gone," he remembered. "The place was deserted. I reckoned that even if anyone had wanted to do anything about talking the title from me, they couldn't be bothered. Nobody was interested. They'd had enough. I decided to accept it. I must be world champion."

Somehow, it was a fitting climax to a crazy year.