The 1969 Japan Grand Prix represented both the road to a new beginning, and a path to a premature end for what was the biggest automobile race in the country. It was a race for first chapters to be written, but also represented the final chapter for some great stories. It was the pinnacle of speed in the 1960s, yet in one year’s time, it left many to wonder how much higher this race could have soared in its stature.
Like the automobile industry in Japan, the country’s racing landscape was changing rapidly, year after year. And that rapid change was reflected in the 1969 Japan Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway.
One great indicator of this change was the date of the race itself. Ever since the first running of the Japan Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit in 1963, racing was always held during the Golden Week holiday. Specifically, when the race changed to the single feature race format in 1966, the big race was always held on 3 May – Constitution Memorial Day. The Japan Grand Prix was a holiday tradition just as the Indianapolis 500 was synonymous with American Memorial Day.
But with interest in Formula racing growing year after year, the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) announced in August of 1968 that a new event would be held on Constitution Memorial Day in 1969: The inaugural JAF Grand Prix, a Formula Libre race which starred Japan’s Formula 1 aspirant Tetsu Ikuzawa, and eventual winner Leo Geoghegan from Australia, driving a Lotus 39-Repco.
With the JAF Grand Prix now occupying the traditional date during the Golden Week period, the Japan Grand Prix sports car race was moved to a new date in the autumn, on 10 October. With the FIA World Sportscar Championship concluded in August, several international drivers would now be able to take part if they chose to do so.
The other great change was a second change in the distance of the event in as many years. Endurance racing hadn’t yet become mainstream in Japan, but the JAF wanted the Japan Grand Prix to emulate the major endurance races from overseas. So for 1969, the Japan Grand Prix was lengthened from 480 kilometers or 80 laps, to 720 kilometers – or 120 laps. And because the race was now projected to be in excess of three hours, teams were now permitted to run two drivers per car.
And once again, Japan’s top manufacturers would begin building their own challengers just as they did in 1968 – only this time, they had more time to perfect their designs.