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Flying the flag - Participating in a local Grand Prix is a lot of pressure

Published by Leigh O'Gorman

For many in decades gone, it was not uncommon for drivers to contest their local Grand Prix.

The entrants would often be poorly prepared cars, with second-have everything that rarely reflected the pedigree of Formula 1. In fact the early years of the World Championship would even see a mixture of formulae at races, as Formula 2 cars often shared circuit time with its big brothers.

The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was no different in this respect. An epic showcase for Japan that just happened to be the nation’s first World Championship event – this followed several years of being a non-Championship race for sportscars and Formula 2 machinery.

When the Formula 1 teams showed up for the final race of the 1976 season and the conclusion of a titanic battle between Ferrari’s Niki Lauda and McLaren’s James Hunt, few noticed several Japanese drivers on the entry list for the main event. One of which happened to be Tokyo native Masahiro Hasemi.

The 30-year-old Hasemi was not unfamiliar with Fuji – he had won the Japanese Grand Prix at the track in 1975 in a March car, but that counted for little as he stepped into his Ford-powered Kojima Engineering machine for his fir Championship event.

Grand Prix cars were not his only love and Hasemi was greatly experienced, having started at the age of 15 in motorcross, before earning kudos with Nissan Motorsports in various Saloon Car efforts and GT races.

Yet should one look at Hasemi’s single Grand Prix entry, it may not seem that impressive. The Japanese driver finished in 11th place, some seven laps down on eventual victor Mario Andretti, yet the pace set by Hasemi throughout the weekend set several tongues wagging.

Indeed it was only an error that saw the Kojima-Ford only end up 10th on the grid – Hasemi had set the 4th quickest time in first qualifying and was actually on course for a stunning pole position at Fuji until and accident on his fast lap ruled him out of much of the session. With Hasemi unable to make any further runs, the Japanese driver dropped to the fifth row of the grid.

This was a momentary distraction from the battle being fought by Lauda and Hunt, but in the race Hasemi would not let up. After a very bad start in extremely difficult wet conditions, he set a quick pace, but as the circuit dried, is tyres fell away. With little to spare, Hasemi spent much of the race on the wrong tyres and as his Dunlop’s fell away very quickly, so did his competitiveness. The team were unwilling to give up and took the flag last of the eleven remaining runners.

Something that has created much confusion over the years is the status of the fastest lap of the race. According to the official record books of Formula 1, Hasemi actually set the fastest lap of the race on lap 25; however this has become something of an “official untruth.”

While Hasemi did indeed set a lap that was a good 1.7 seconds faster than the next fastest driver, the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF) proclaimed that the Tokyo driver had cut part of the Fuji circuit comprehensively, giving him approximately three seconds in hand.

With this information, Hasemi’s fastest lap was disallowed and awarded to the next fastest driver, Jacques Laffite; however this was never taken into account by Formula 1 management and thus on paper, Masahiro Hasemi is considered to be the only driver to record a fastest lap in his only race.

Sadly, after one further Grand Prix entry (the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix), Kojima Engineering never returned to Formula 1, as the company concentrated on Japanese racing efforts, especially in Formula 2. There were murmurs that Willi Kauhsen was interested in buying the Kojima KE007 and developing it, but that never came to fruition – of course, Kauhsen did eventually enter as a constructor in 1979, but only for two Grand Prix before shutting down.

Of course, Hasemi was not the first Japanese driver to enter a World Championship race. That honour goes to Hiroshi Fushida when he made attempts to get on the grid for the Dutch and British Grand Prix in 1975. However while Fushida simply did not qualify for the Silverstone event, he did get into the race in the Netherlands, only for his Ford engine to blow before the parade lap on Sunday afternoon. Also on the entry list in 1976 were Masami Kuwashima in Walter Wolf prepared Williams (he was replaced following the first practice session with the rather more capable Hans Binder) and Noritake Takahara, who drove to 9th for Team Surtees.

Hasemi took part in GT racing and touring cars for many years after his Formula 1 experience and took three Japanese Touring Car titles and one All Japan Sports-Prototype Championship – handy additions to his JAF Formula Pacific and Japanese Formula 2 titles from 1978 and 1980 respectively.

Outside of Japan, he won the famous touring car race at Macau in 1990, before leading an all-Japanese team victory with Nissan at the 1992 Daytona 24 Hour Race, alongside Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki.

Hasemi eventually retired from racing in 2000, but was later reunited with his Kojima Formula 1 machine in 2004, when he took part at the Festival of Speed.

Nowadays, the 65 year-old still resides in Japan.