When Hunt's McLaren crew signaled that Lauda was out, he knew fourth place would be enough to clinch the title. He would earn three points, tie Lauda on points—and because of his six victories to Lauda's five, he would come out on top. Hunt, who had started beside pole-sitter Andretti on the front row, led comfortably for 61 of the 73 laps. By then the rain had stopped and even snow-peaked Mount Fuji became visible for a moment. The drying track turned a test of nerve into a game of strategy. It was inevitable that the volcanic surface of the track eventually would begin chunking the deeply grooved rain tires; the question was when.
Andretti knew the answer: it depends. Drive hard, and the answer is anytime; drive carefully, and the answer is maybe not at all. "I've had a bit of experience at this, so I just counted the laps by watching the tower scoreboard," Andretti said. "I saw where I was and I stayed back to save my tires. I've lost too many races the other way, going flat-out like Hunt."
Hunt wanted to change tires, but his crew signaled him to keep charging.
"I knew the tires were absolutely knackered," said Hunt. "I was coaxing them, just trying to finish fourth."
With 12 laps remaining, Hunt's left rear tire sprung a leak; Andretti and Patrick Depailler in the six-wheeled Tyrrell both passed Hunt's McLaren. "The crew still wanted me to carry on," said Hunt, "so now I was just trying to limp home."
Then with six laps left and Hunt hanging on to his piece of the world championship by almost-visible threads, the left front tire burst. "It could have created quite a moment on the track," he said, "but it didn't. I was ready for it."
Now with two flat tires, his car reeling like a lame dog, Hunt had to pit. His crew changed to dry-weather slicks in 28 seconds, but their scorer lost track of Hunt's position in the excitement of the pit stop. The crew signaled Hunt he was sixth, but shrugged as they held up the position board. It was only a guess.
McLaren's chief mechanic, Alistair Caldwell, ran to the Lotus pits and asked Colin Chapman for the position of his No. 2 driver, Gunnar Nilsson, who, the McLaren crew reckoned, was fifth. "Sorry, mate," said Chapman, "no way."
"I had no idea whatsoever where I was," said Hunt. "All I could do was shut my eyes, drive as fast as I could and pass as many cars as I could. I was driving for all I was worth."
Foot on the floor, Hunt passed Nilsson and found himself behind Clay Regazzoni, Lauda's Ferrari teammate. If Regazzoni could hold off Hunt, then the championship would still be Lauda's. The Briton did not give Regazzoni the chance. "He didn't even see me coming," said Hunt. "He and Alan Jones were busy racing each other, and I just drove around them both on the outside."