SportF11976 Japan GP: when Lauda valued his life and...

1976 Japan GP: when Lauda valued his life and Hunt starred in Rush

The Formula 1 world was shocked when Niki Lauda ‘s Ferrari 312T2 was seen engulfed in flames at the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring circuit, where the Austrian driver made it out alive after a true miracle. The then current world champion suffered an accident before the Bergwerk curve , which caused a fire that put his physical integrity at risk, but he managed to recover from his serious burns and just a month and a half later he was already on board his car at the Italian Grand Prix.

That made his options to defend the world title go down, and it is that one of the strongest rivals he had at the time, James Hunt , managed to cut 12 points to place himself in his wake. With three appointments still pending after Monza, from where the Briton left 17 units, everything seemed to indicate that the Austrian would win his second crown, but what ended up happening was worthy of a movie, and proof of this is the spectacular ‘ Rush ‘ from director Ron Howard.

After the races in Canada and Watkins Glen , where the Englishman climbed to the top of the podium, everything would be decided on a rainy weekend in Japan, the last Grand Prix of the year. Thus, on October 24, 1976 , the first test in history was held in the country of the Rising Sun, with Niki Lauda leading James Hunt’s McLaren by three points.

The Austrian’s injuries placed him in a difficult position, since he was unable to maintain the regularity that he displayed, but his experience, already being world champion, should have been enough to secure him a position that would give him another title .

On the other hand, the one from the Woking team only needed to win , no matter what the rest did, in addition to the fact that his greatest number of victories, six against five, would make him proclaim world champion in a hypothetical case of a tie.

The fact that Formula 1 visited this nation for the first time and that the Asian continent was released caused many participants to refuse to travel, such as Norev and Henri Pescarolo, even the Austrian federation did not want to register Otto Stuppacher. However, that gave many locals the opportunity to try their luck, as was the case with Kojima with Hasemi Masahiro, who surprised everyone with a tenth position in the standings, even placing second during the race, but a problem in his single-seater shattered all his illusion.

In the Saturday session that would decide the grid positions, Mario Andretti beat James Hunt by a few hundredths, and had to settle for second place, while Niki Lauda was third, ahead of others like John Watson , Jody Scheckter and Jose Carlos Pace . A day later, a torrential downpour fell on the banks of Mount Fuji , causing the track to fill with water, and as it did not stop, the drivers met to make a decision on whether to start or not.

Most, led by Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda, refused to compete, with only Clay Regazzoni and Vittorio Brambilla wanting to race, while the others were quiet. The organizers feared the cancellation of the grand prix, the first in Japan, and Bernie Ecclestone was at a crossroads, since, as a promoter, he wanted it to take place to receive television income, but on the other hand, he had to listen to the opinions of the drivers and the teams as head of the F1CA [team organization].

Given the division of thoughts, the Englishman decided that each member of the grid would choose to go out on the track or not, and after an hour and a half of discussions, with pressure from the Prince of Metternich and Pierre Ugeux , it was confirmed that the pilots should prepare for the race, with many of them getting into their cars in a huff.

Thus, everyone was placed on the grid with wet tires, and although the weather became a little more favorable before the start, the water that the cars raised in their path was enormous, reducing visibility, which was almost nil . Lauda, with the memory of his accident still in his mind, only did one first lap to retire and leave the world title in the hands of Hunt, for which he needed at least a fourth place.

The McLaren driver was on the right track, first all the time, but his luck changed when he suffered a puncture in one of his tires , which caused him to drop positions to sixth place. Not knowing if he would be champion, the Briton headed for a fierce comeback to finish third and claim his first and only championship.

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