The 1976 Formula 1 season is one of the most remembered in history because of the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
The rivalry, which was turned into a movie called ‘Rush’, helped create new fans thanks to the exploits of the two motor racing legends.
This weekend the Japanese Grand Prix will be run, making it the perfect time to look back at the importance of this race in the sports’ history.
To contextualize, we must first go back to the 1976 German GP, where reigning champion Niki Lauda suffered a horrific accident at the Nurburgring circuit.
Nevertheless, a month and a half later, the Austrian driver was back in action for the Italian GP with the after-effects on his face that would mark him for life.
With three races remaining, Hunt won the Canadian and Watkins Glen GPs, making a rainy 1976 Japanese GP decisive for the championship.
What took place was one of the most famous F1 races, which helped make the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt become legendary.
The 1976 championship was decided in the last race in Japan. Lauda arrived with a 68-65 lead over the British driver, with rain and fog forcing cars to crawl around the track.
“I think the race should be postponed, but just know that if the start is given, I’ll be there,” Hunt told Lauda, but the race was contested with 75,000 spectators in the stands. The idea was to run two laps so as not to anger the fans, but in the end it was run in full.
Hunt took the lead from the start, while after three laps, Lauda returned to the pits and declared: “My life is more important than a world title, you can’t race like that”.
With Lauda out, Hunt needed to finish fourth to win the championship. A mistake in strategy almost cost him dearly, because when the rain stopped he decided not to change tires and five laps from the end he suffered a puncture.
Fortunately, it was at the pit entrance, so after the 30 seconds it took to change the tires, he went out in hopes of claiming the crown.
Hunt did not believe in the 1976 championship
As there was no electronic timing at the time, the McLaren driver didn’t know what position he was in.
Hunt thought he was running fifth but was actually in fourth, and in the end he finished third. However, he believed he hadn’t done enough and wanted to right his boss, Ted Mayer, until he was informed that he was the new Formula 1 champion.
“I didn’t even believe it on the podium, I needed to see it on paper, it took hours. The title came slowly to me”, Hunt said when talking about how the 1976 Japanese GP played out and made him champion.