On 1 August 1976, at the infamous Nurburgring track in Germany, Austrian driver, Niki Lauda, driving his Ferrari, swerved off the track and hit an embankment, before drifting into the middle of the track and being hit by Brett Lunger. The shunt alone was enough to cause panic, but, while Lauda was trapped in the wreckage, the car burst into flames. As Lauda was pulled from the car–by fellow drivers, Arturo Merzario, Lunger, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl, not marshalls–he had already suffered horrendous burns to his head and had inhaled toxic gases. Even though he was able to stand immediately after the crash, Lauda fell into a coma. At one point, Doctors had given up attempts to save him, and a priest gave Lauda the last rites. Incredibly, Lauda hung on to life, showing as much will to survive as he did to win.
When fans think of Niki Lauda, that crash is what they think about. Niki ‘the rat’ Lauda, was far more than a crash victim and a YouTube video, though.
His path to Formula One was hard and expensive. Accruing a bank loan, Niki bought himself a March ride for 1972. Unfortunately, that car was a dog, but Niki’s ability didn’t go unnoticed. For 1973, he joined BRM as third driver to Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Clay Regazzoni. Both men were former race winners, so the paddock took notice when Lauda outpaced them both. Better yet, BRM paid the young Austrian so he could keep up the payments on his bank loan.
1974 saw the Scuderia come calling and Lauda duly joined them. Niki won at Jarama and Zandvoort and was subsequently lead the Championship. However, a trio of poor performances, with a mixture of bad luck and driver error, saw critics questioning his temperament and he ended ’74 fourth in the Championship.
1975 saw Niki answer questions about his temperament. He dominated the season, taking five wins and beating his nearest challenger, Emmerson Fittipaldi, by 19.5 points. Lauda’s will to win and his desire to prove people wrong had propelled him, and Ferrari to new heights. No one ever questioned the straight-talking Austrian’s ability again.
1976 saw ecstasy and agony. After six races, It looked to all the world that Lauda would win back-to-back titles–something that had not been done since Jack Brabham accomplished the feat in 1959/60. Then came that fateful day at the Nurburgring. Ironically, Niki had called for a boycott of the race on safety grounds but lost out on the vote by one, and was therefore forced to race.
Quite unbelievably, Niki returned to F1 a mere six weeks after the accident. He had only missed two races and was still in contention for the title. Unfortunately, a strong charge from James Hunt–who won in Germany and then won three of the next five races– meant the title came down to the final race in Japan. The conditions in Japan were appalling. The rain was relentless, and the race was postponed for two hours. The torrential rain did not relent, and, ignoring the protestations of many drivers, including Hunt and Lauda, the race was started. At the end of the second lap, Lauda came into the pits to retire, his burned eyelids unable to blink in the spray. That left Hunt to take the title.
By 1977, Ferrari politics was starting to anger Lauda. Their decision to hire Carlos Reutemann as lead driver was of particular annoyance. He used this motivation to win three and come second in six of the 17 races. As a result, he won the Championship and beat Reutemann by 30 points. However, at the end of the season, Niki left Ferrari for Brabham.
Niki’s choice of team turned out to be a poor one, and he did not see much success at the Brabham team. He won in Sweden in 1978 with the revolutionary–and subsequently banned–BT46B, otherwise known as the “fan car”, but that was it. By the end of 1979, Lauda quit the sport.
Unable to resist the urge to race, Lauda returned to the sport in 1982 with the McLaren team. Marlboro, McLarens sponsors at the time, had to be convinced that Lauda could still win. That was all the motivation ‘The Rat’ needed. The team was uncompetitive in general in ’82 and ’83, but Lauda managed to take wins at Long Beach and Brands Hatch in ’82. By 1984, the team got hold of a TAG-Porsche turbo engine which improved the competitiveness. Using his, Guile, skill, never-say-die attitude and Marlboro’s barbs, Lauda was able to beat his younger and arguably faster teammate, Alain Prost, to win the 1984 title by half a point–the closest finish in F1 history.
1985 was Niki’s last season and he was unable to stop Prost romping to the title. He won his final race at Zandvoort.
Lauda continued in the sport after retirement. He helped manage Ferrari in 1993 for a number of seasons before taking the team principal role for Jaguar from mid-2001 to 2003. In 2012 he was appointed non-executive chairman of Mercedes F1 and helped the negotiations to sign Lewis Hamilton. To this day, he is a fixture in the paddock, never afraid to speak his mind and lend his insight into the current state of F1.
Niki Lauda was not the most flamboyant driver, but his steely determination and will to fight not only kept death away but also powered him on to three World Championships and 25 wins. He truly was the fighter of Formula One and is a much-loved character even today.