It was a notably untidy season in Grand Prix racing, but last Sunday's finale in Japan, although no masterpiece, at least produced a world champion. The new king is James Hunt of Great Britain, the victor by one point over last year's champion, Niki Lauda. By finishing third in Japan, Hunt just did overtake the Austrian, whose return to racing after a gruesome accident had been an act of extraordinary courage. By refusing to risk his neck further after two racing laps on the rain-lashed Fuji course, Lauda removed any possiblity of the kind of wheel-to-wheel showdown that might have been. Who would cavil at that decision? Having inhaled flame, having heard his own last rites and having survived to race again, Lauda had already proved enough.
The particular surprise in Japan was the victory of America's Mario Andretti, a fine driver whose hard luck since his 1969 Indy 500 win has become legendary. Andretti outsmarted the field on a circuit that was fast, wide, short (2.615 miles) and in normal conditions unchallenging. But this race was run in a downpour most men wouldn't want to be out in driving a cozy Cadillac with three-speed wipers and a windshield treated with Rain-X, let alone behind the wheel of a 180-mph race car with an open cockpit, driving through rivulets running across the course while trying to stare through a thick wake thrown up by the bulging tires of a pack of like machines.
And on a circuit few of the drivers knew. It was bad enough being in a country whose road signs they couldn't read, where the language barrier was insurmountable and menus featured raw fish. That's all part of the hazards of the drivers' intercontinental trade. And although it is dreaded, so is rain. But this was a deluge.
For eight solid hours preceding the race it had poured. Then came fog. First you could see, then you couldn't. The drivers conferred, the organizers dithered, the administrators strutted, and the 55,000 Japanese spectators learned the slow handclap from mechanics, as the race was delayed in the faint hope the sun would appear over the top of Mount Fuji, like a Japanese flag come to life.
One hour and 39 minutes late, the race was started in the same rainstorm that had created the delay. "Let me tell you it was dangerous out there," said Ireland's John Watson, who spun on the first turn of the first lap, then rejoined the race for 39 more spirited, and dangerous, laps until the engine of his Penske blew. "For the first three laps we were aquaplaning all over the place," Watson added. "The visibility was terrible; I couldn't even see down the straight."
Hunt got a tremendous start—something he is not famous for—and that may have saved the race. He came out of the ruck of the accelerating pack sandwiched between Watson and Andretti and slewed out of the corner in first. That extra bit of foot on the floor gave Hunt clear vision of the track (for all of the 200 yards anyone could see in the downpour) and gave his competition a lot of spray on their visors.
Before the race, Lauda was asked what his tactics would be; he simply flattened his hand into a footlike silhouette and let it drop. Niki's message was very clear.
But, unlike Hunt, he never initiated those tactics. He started third on the grid, behind Andretti, and in two laps 18 cars had passed him. He pulled his Ferrari into the pits, shut off his ignition, stepped out of the car, and said, "It's too dangerous out there. It's suicide. There are more important and valuable things in life than winning the world driving championship."
Then he got into a private automobile and left the circuit and his championship behind him.
"It was a very emotional moment for him," said his Ferrari mechanic. "He just couldn't continue."