Of all the races held outside Europe, the Japanese grand prix is writ large in what you might describe as McLaren folklore. Melding high drama, bubbling controversy and tense rivalry in pretty much equal measure, it gives the crowds in the grandstand plenty to watch and the media crew a surfeit of incidents to keep their lap tops chattering late into the night.
Of course, those with the longest memories, the author included, may have been present at the Mount Fuji circuit that rain-soaked day in 1976 when James Hunt skittered and skidded to a championship winning third place finish in his glorious McLaren M23.
That Sunday at Fuji truly seemed like the day that would never end. In modern day Formula 1™ at some of the more far-flung races the press corps are quite accustomed to being bussed-in from outlying hotels and guest houses. But back in 1976 it all seemed most unusual. Back then we were all dutifully standing outside our billets in the hosing rain waiting to be chauffeured to the track, some five hours before the scheduled time at which the race was set to start.
My memory serves me that I was sitting with my longtime friend and fellow hack Simon Taylor who was covering the fun for BBC radio. Of course, given that it was 18 years since Mike Hawthorn became the UK’s first world champion at the wheel of a Ferrari in 1958, there was a huge sense of expectancy surrounding Hunt’s challenge.
And there were other similarities, of course. Hawthorn’s title bid was framed against his close friendship with fellow Ferrari team driver Peter Collins, just as Hunt was battling with his close pal Niki Lauda. Except that Niki was driving for Ferrari and James for their big rivals McLaren. And James duly delivered on his promise when the time came, with Niki – still struggling with the after-effects of his burns – pulling out after a lap.
Then it was back in our buses, to the hotels, and on to the airports for our flights back to the UK. There were many wet Japanese grands prix to come but nothing quite like this!