Flying the Flag: Masahiro Hasemi
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-hand 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 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 the previous year in a March car, but that counted for little as he stepped into his Ford-powered Kojima Engineering machine for his first Championship event.
By this stage in his career, Hasemi was quite experienced, but Grand Prix cars were not his only love – having started racing at the age of 15 in motorcross, he soon moved to Nissan Motorsports to compete 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 the Fuji event 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 just 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.
Dunlop had little to spare, and thus Hasemi spent much of the race on the wrong tyres, causing his rubber to wear away very quickly. As this occurred, his competitiveness also dropped. Unwilling to concede defeat in front of their home crowd, Hasemi took the chequered flag – the 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 what was to be 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 further developing the machine, but that never came to fruition – Kauhsen did eventually enter as a constructor in 1979, but only for two Grand Prix before shutting down operations.
Of course, Hasemi was not the first Japanese driver to enter a World Championship race. That honour went 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; thereby denying Fushida a race start.
Also on the entry list at Fuji 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. Bridgestone also made their short-lived début at Fuji, thanks to Kazuyoshi Hoshino – the Shizouka man ran very well in the early conditions, but had to pull in to retire during a pitstop, as his team had run out of wheels!
Following his Formula 1 experience, Hasemi took part in GT racing and touring cars for many years, winning 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 Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki.
Hasemi eventually retired from racing in 200, 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.