Video: The forgotten crash – Villeneuve and Peterson, 1977
The Japanese Grand Prix has been the backdrop for some of Formula One’s most epic moments, with the duels between Hunt and Lauda and Senna and Prosts springing to mind quickly.
The 1977 Japanese Grand Prix, no less important a part of the sport’s history, is not remembered with the vivid excitement of the tremendous battles that we’ve seen around Suzuka and Fuji. It is one of the sport’s dark days, from its most deadly period.
The ’77 season had begun on a dark note when race marshals ran out to the stricken Shadow of Renzo Zorzi during the South African Grand Prix. Tom Pryce, driving another Shadow, was unable to avoid the second of the marshals, Fredrik Jansen van Vuuren, and both were killed instantly in one of the most horrific accidents in the sport’s history.
Niki Lauda had secured the World Drivers’ Championship by the time Formula One arrived in Japan, and had declined to run in the final two events of the season. The excitement in the tail-end of the season was coming from the spirited battles between James Hunt in his McLaren and Mario Andretti driving for Lotus.
Andretti had pole, but went nowhere at the start and ended up well back while Hunt took the lead. Hunt stayed there for the entirety of the race and took his final Grand Prix victory, while Andretti was caught up in a collision on the second lap which left him out of the Grand Prix.
Just a handful of laps after Andretti’s stack, Gilles Villeneuve caught the back of Ronnie Peterson and became a passenger on board a missile, debris from which hit and killed a marshal and photographer.
Neither Hunt nor second place man Carlos Reutemann attended the podium ceremony and it would be another three decades before Formula One returned to Fuji Speedway in 2007.
It’s terrible to watch, but so important to remember, and to realise that, while we may bemoan some of the changes the sport has seen over the years, many have been absolutely necessary and instrumental in protecting it, and the people involved in it.