FUJI, Japan (Reuters) - The newest circuit in Formula One carries some old scars for former Ferrari team manager Daniele Audetto.
Thirty years after the last grand prix held at Fuji, the 64-year-old Italian can still hear the late Enzo Ferrari’s angry voice echoing down the telephone from the other side of the world.
“I have bad memories, unfortunately, of the old Fuji,” Audetto, now guiding battling backmarkers Super Aguri in a new Formula One adventure, told Reuters at the revamped Japanese Grand Prix venue.
“His voice is still resounding in my brain, because when Ferrari was upset he was really an upset man,” he recalled, imitating a telephone held at arms’ length.
Anyone who thinks McLaren boss Ron Dennis has had a hard time, in a season of spy scandals and record $100 million fines, should spare a thought for the maelstrom Audetto went through in 1976 and 1977.
Even if Sunday’s race turns out to be a no-holds-barred battle between the championship contenders, it will be nothing compared to what went on in 1976.
That year, Ferrari arrived at Fuji for the first grand prix to be held in Japan with Niki Lauda three points clear and on the verge of securing his second championship despite a near-fatal crash at the Nuerburgring.
The Austrian, badly burned and given the last rites, was racing again only six weeks after his accident but there were to be no celebrations for him in the championship-decider.
With the race starting in the wake of a typhoon with torrential rain and poor visibility, Lauda completed one lap and withdrew. McLaren’s James Hunt finished third and won the championship by a single point.
“I am not keen to commit suicide,” Lauda, now a television pundit but absent from this year’s race, said at the time. “I don’t care what the world will think of me.”
Some said that Lauda, with his eyelids burned in the accident and in need of an operation to enable him to blink, could not see through the spray. Others that the memory of the fiery crash was still too recent.
Audetto offered a banal, and more controversial, possibility: “The true story is that James was supposed to stop,” he said.
“It had nothing to do with the eyes, nothing to do with being scared.”
According to the Italian, Bernie Ecclestone — then the Brabham boss and now Formula One’s commercial supremo — had been desperate for the race to start so as not to forfeit promotional and television revenues.
So a deal was struck to get everyone off the hook. The reluctant drivers would start the race, do a handful of laps and then stop.
“Start and stop. That was the deal. Hunt should never have been champion,” said Audetto.
“We had an agreement thanks to Bernie to stop after the first lap. Emerson Fittipaldi stopped, Lauda stopped and Carlos Pace stopped. But Hunt listened to the McLaren boss (Teddy Mayer) who said, ‘Screw Ferrari, don’t stop’.”
Veteran Austrian television commentator Heinz Prueller, also present that day and a close confidant to Lauda, dismissed that version of events and as far as Lauda was concerned it was all academic anyway — the title was lost as much at the Nuerburgring as at Fuji.
A year later, the race was tinged with tragedy and Ferrari were again involved.
Lauda had already won the drivers’ title and, with a Brabham contract for 1978 in his pocket, stayed at home while Gilles Villeneuve took his place.
The Canadian was then involved in a collision that sent the Ferrari flying through the air before killing two people. Until this weekend, that was it for Fuji.