Because my Formula 1 career began in 1970 and ended in 1980, I never drove an F1 car on the two circuits that present the greatest high-speed challenge to today’s F1 aces: Spa and Suzuka.
Granted, I raced at plenty of majestically daunting racetracks in my F1 career, none of which are still part of the F1 calendar in their original form - Mosport, Kyalami, Clermont-Ferrand, Zandvoort, Osterreichring, Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, the old Interlagos and of course the old Nurburgring - but I missed out on Spa and Suzuka and that will always be a disappointment to me.
Suzuka is a wonderful figure-of-eight switchback, and I’d love to have been able to have raced my old rivals there - guys like Jackie Stewart, Francois Cevert, Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni, Denny Hulme, Peter Revson, Mike Hailwood, Chris Amon, Ronnie Peterson, Carlos Reutemann, Jody Scheckter, Niki Lauda, James Hunt et al - but sadly I never could.
So, as the F1 circus makes the convoluted journey from Mokpo (Korea) to Suzuka (Japan), I’m reminded instead of the first ever Japanese Grand Prix, which took place in 1976, not at Suzuka but at Fuji. Those of you who’ve seen Rush, the new movie that celebrates the extraordinary battle for the 1976 world championship between my old pals Niki and James, will know all about what made Fuji ’76 so special. But, nonetheless, I want to give you my perspective too.
Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that I think Rush is a fantastic movie. I attended the Brazilian premiere in Sao Paulo, watching it alongside my fellow Brazilian ex-F1 drivers Rubens Barrichello and Luciano Burti, and I think it’s a wonderful development that a mainstream Hollywood movie should have been made about F1. Moreover, Ron Howard’s direction is excellent - fast-paced and full of action and suspense - while the two principal performances, Daniel Bruhl as Niki and Chris Hemsworth as James, are both stunningly good.
I knew James well, and liked him a lot - in his Hesketh days he always used to ask me if he could use the lavatory in my McLaren motorhome, because Hesketh didn’t have a proper motorhome, and I always used to say yes - and Chris has captured his maverick personality really well. But Daniel’s evocation of Niki - whom I’ve known for almost 40 years and who’s still a very good friend of mine - is perhaps better still. And Alexandra Maria Lara, who plays Niki’s first wife Marlene, is also brilliant, but her performance has been less widely praised in the media than Chris’s and Daniel’s because the mannerisms and accent of the person she plays are much less well known. But, take it from me, hers is also a superb portrayal.
Anyway, first of all I want to take you back to 1975, not 1976, because it was in 1975 that Philip Morris, the parent company of my team McLaren’s title sponsor Marlboro, asked me to travel to Fuji to front a press conference intended to drum up interest in Japan ahead of the following year’s inaugural Japanese Grand Prix. I was the only F1 driver present, and I took the opportunity to have a good look at the circuit while I was there. Straight away I realised that it was a seriously fast racetrack, consisting of just six corners over 2.7 miles (4.4km). It was clear to me that F1 cars would average more than 130mph in qualifying (in fact Mario Andretti’s 1976 pole lap averaged 134.01mph [215.66km/h]), which was extremely rare in those days. As an example, Jacques Laffite took the pole at Monza in 1976 with a 127.98mph (205.96km/h) lap, and that was in the days before the first and second chicanes had been incorporated at Monza, which additions made it not quite as fast as it had been before.
Even so, the Fuji track was wide and smooth, and I was excited that F1 would be travelling to Japan for the first time - not only the first ever grand prix in Japan but also the first ever grand prix in Asia. I made some recommendations in the interests of greater safety, and those recommendations were acted upon by the Japanese authorities.
So when we all arrived in Fuji 12 months later, in October 1976, for the 16th and final round of the 1976 world championship, with Niki just three points ahead of James, the excitement was immense. So was the pressure - for James and Niki, and for McLaren and Ferrari, at least.
For me, there were mixed feelings. At the end of 1975, after having visited Fuji on behalf of Marlboro as McLaren’s number-one driver, I’d made the decision to leave McLaren to join my elder brother Wilson’s all-Brazilian F1 team. Our team was called Copersucar-Fittipaldi, in deference to our main sponsor, the Brazilian ethanol producer, and we’d had a pretty unremarkable season. I’d scored points just three times - three sixth places at Long Beach, Monaco and Brands Hatch - whereas the McLaren M23 that I’d carefully developed into a fast and reliable race-winner had scored six wins with James at the wheel.
Don’t misunderstand me: I was pleased for James, but I guess it’s only natural that my pleasure on his behalf was also tinged with a bit of envy, since he was driving the car that I’d won the world championship with in 1974, that I’d come second in the world championship with in 1975, and that I’d recently developed into an even faster and even better car for 1976.
Anyway, qualifying at Fuji went pretty much as we’d all expected - James qualified on the front row, in P2, while Niki qualified just behind him in P3. The surprise was that Mario took the pole. Mario had been carefully developing that year’s Lotus, the Type 77, all season, but it was his first pole of the year and he’d qualified only ninth for the previous grand prix, at Watkins Glen.
On race day, though, everything we’d learned over the past few days became irrelevant as the heavens opened. Never before or since, in my entire racing career, have I known rain quite as fierce. The circuit was totally flooded, its flat wide asphalt covered in lakes of sitting water. It was patently unsafe. In those days we used to do a morning warm-up on race day - and the accidents that marred the Fuji warm-up made it very clear that the rain had made the circuit quite undriveable.
The huge puddles made it impossible for the cars not not to aquaplane, whatever the drivers did to try to prevent it, and the spray was so bad that the visibility was truly dreadful. As a result, in the warm-up, my and my brother Wilson’s old friend Carlos Pace shunted his Brabham, soon to be followed by Jean-Pierre Jarier (Shadow), Hans-Joachim Stuck (March) and Larry Perkins (Brabham), all of whom also lost control of their cars in the impossible conditions.
We drivers met to discuss the situation, and I was of the view that we should delay the start (originally slated for 1.30pm) until the rain had abated. A majority of the other drivers agreed with me. A delay was duly announced - but still the rain continued to fall.
Finally, at 3.00pm, although the conditions were by then no better than they’d been at 1.30pm, we were told that the race would start in five minutes’ time. I was amazed - and angry too. The rain was still extremely heavy, the lakes of standing water were as wide and as deep as ever, and the visibility was now perhaps even worse than it had been at 1.30pm, a heavy mist on the main straight reducing visibility to less than 200 metres.
I told my team that I’d start the race, do a few exploratory laps, but drive into the pits and retire if I considered the conditions too unsafe. And that’s exactly what I did, after just nine laps. Larry and Carlos, the two Brabham drivers who had already shunted in the warm-up, did likewise after just one lap and seven laps respectively. But our three retirements went largely unnoticed, because after two laps Niki did the same thing, voluntarily offering the world championship to James if he could finish in the top four. At the time Niki drove in to the pits to retire, James was leading.
It was the right decision, and I’ll always respect Niki for making it, especially as the pressure on him to continue, not least from Ferrari and the Ferrari-mad Italian press, must have been intense.
I watched the rest of the race from the Copersucar-Fittipaldi pitwall, and what I saw was mayhem. I felt sorry for some of the drivers - some of whom had been told by their bosses that they’d be sacked if they refused to race - but there were others whose decision to race I regarded as plainly irresponsible.
Let me clarify. I loved F1. I loved racing. I did then and I do now. It was - and is - my life. I believe I was put on earth to race cars. I was always quick in the wet, and I always enjoyed the special challenge that rainfall presented. I relished racing on superfast circuits that really tested a driver’s courage and ability - places like the old Nurburgring, the old Interlagos, Brands Hatch, Watkins Glen, Osterreichring et al - and I understood that my chosen profession was a dangerous one. I accepted that risk.
But on two occasions in my F1 career I encountered conditions that presented an unacceptable level of danger, and on both those occasions I decided to drive in to the pits and retire. The first was at Montjuic (Spain) in 1975, because the organisers hadn’t secured the catch-fencing despite we drivers’ entreaties that they should do so, and the second was at Fuji in 1976.
At Montjuic in 1975 my decision was clearly vindicated by the tragedy that ensued, Rolf Stommelen’s accident killing five spectators in a totally shameful and entirely preventable way as his Hill-Ford careered into the crowd (although, to be clear, Rolf himself was entirely blameless). At Fuji in 1976 we were lucky - but, make no mistake, we could have seen a tragedy of equal or greater proportions had God not been smiling on us that day.
It was ridiculously dangerous. Standing water made aquaplaning inevitable, and only 11 of the 25 cars that started the race actually finished it. Aquaplaning cars are impossible for drivers to control. There was therefore a grave danger that the cars could spin even on the straights, so deep was the standing water, and that they’d then be marooned broadside as other cars barrelled into them, the drivers of the following cars unable to see the marooned cars in all the mist and spray. No way would a grand prix be started in similar conditions today, not even behind the Safety Car, and of course we didn’t even have Safety Cars in those days.
But, as I say, we were lucky that day. James finished third after a puncture, was declared world champion, and as I say I was happy for him and for my old McLaren team-mates. But, as the F1 circus left Fuji at the end of 1976, I was looking forward, not backward. My and my brother Wilson's Copersucar-Fittipaldi team had struggled a little that year, but Wilson and I were following our dream of creating a successful all-Brazilian F1 team and I was focused entirely on making that dream a reality.
History now tells us that we didn’t succeed. That was a great pity. But, in our defence, F1 teams take a long time to develop. Look at Frank Williams, who founded Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966 but didn’t win a grand prix until 1979. The team he founded has now won a mammoth 114 grands prix, but his first 13 years were difficult and unpromising. In the same way, Copersucar-Fittipaldi was always going to be a challenging project. But, having said that, after our debut year in 1976, during which we scored only three world championship points, our trajectory over the next two years was pretty good. In 1977 we scored 11 points, courtesy of my three fourth places and a fifth place, and in 1978 we scored 17 world championship points, the highlight being a fantastic second place, when I was beaten only by Carlos Reutemann’s Ferrari, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
In 1979 we slipped back, failing to get to grips with the rapid advances that other teams (such as Ligier, Williams and Renault) were making with the new ground-effect aero technology - but, to be fair, other teams had suffered similarly, not least mighty Lotus, despite the fact that it was they who had invented ground-effect aero technology in the first place.
In 1980, though, it all began to come good for us. We were now renamed Skol-Fittipaldi, in deference to our new sponsor, the famous beer brand. My team-mate was a young Finn named Keke Rosberg, who was already superquick and who would go on to become world champion for Williams just two years later. Our chief engineer was Harvey Postlethwaite, who’d designed race-winning cars for March, Hesketh and Wolf, and who would go on to work with distinction for Tyrrell, Sauber and even Ferrari. And, last but far from least, Harvey had hired us a young aerodynamicist from Imperial College London by the name of Adrian Newey. He’s turned out to be pretty good since then, too, hasn’t he?
Harvey’s first Skol-Fittipaldi car was the F8, which made its debut at the 1980 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. Despite the fact that we hadn’t tested the car properly - I’d done a quick shakedown at Snetterton but that was all - Keke qualified it in P8 and I qualified it in P12. Neither of us finished the race - Keke retired with a broken wheel bearing and my race was ended by brake failure - but it was clear that real promise was there.
But although the specialist Brazilian media understood the enormity of the task we’d embarked upon, and duly cut us some slack as a result, the mainstream Brazilian press was brutal. They called us “Brazilian failures” and the like. In the end Skol bowed to the pressure and pulled out.
Although I was still only 33, I retired as an F1 driver in order to concentrate on trying to manage the team. Keke continued as our star driver, joined by Chico Serra, a young Brazilian ace. But in the end our task became impossible. Skol left, as I say; Williams tempted Keke away; and Harvey was lured to Ferrari. I understood their decisions to leave, of course, sad though I was.
But everything happens for a reason, I believe, and although the end of my and my brother Wilson’s dream was very hard for us to bear at the time, life has been kind to us since.
For that I thank God - just as I thank God, even now, for looking down with kindness on the rain-drenched tarmac of Fuji, in October 1976, when, instead of causing the injuries and perhaps even deaths that it might have caused, a grand prix became a racing legend and 37 years later spawned a brilliant movie that I urge you all to go and see.