Niki Lauda: A Titan of Formula One

Niki Lauda in 1975. (E. Di Baia/Associated Press)

by Ben Selby

Niki Lauda needs no introduction when it comes to the Formula One faithful. His gritty courage, determination and will to survive against all the odds, has not only earnt him three Formula One Drivers Championships, but has made the Austrian racing driver and business entrepreneur, one of the most successful in Europe.

Upon learning of his passing, aged 70, on the 20th of May 2019, due to complications induced from a double lung transplant, I thought it best to delve into the life of a true titan of motor racing and find out why Niki Lauda was one of the greatest drivers the world has ever seen.

Niki Lauda was born ‘Nikolaus Andreas Lauda’ on February 22nd 1949 in Vienna. Son of a wealthy family of Austrian industrialists, Lauda at first did not share his parent’s enthusiasm to follow their example in business. Instead he developed an early obsession of motor racing, and decided then and there, that was how we was going to make a living.

Needless to say, his family were not exactly enthusiastic of this decision, dismissing his racing ambitions as mere childish amusement, and that there was no future in racing cars for a career. Niki’s response was, “fine then,” and he went on his way, driven more than ever to make it in motorsport.

Lauda went straight to the bank and started his spin. He must have been convincing because they invested in him straight away, allowing him to make a start in single seat Formula Vee and Formula 3. Racing around Europe, he started to leave a lasting impression on his fellow drivers.

Lauda was a new breed of driver, determined to outwit his counterparts by being in top physical shape and obstaining from drinking too much or smoking.  One British driver in particular was polar opposite to him on and off the track, but more of James Hunt in a bit.

Moving up through Formula 3 and Formula 2, Niki in his early days was essentially a “pay driver.” This meant he was guaranteed a race simply by ensuring the team, he had enough dough behind him. He got his Formula One break when he joined Robin Herd and Max Mosley’s March team for the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix. He started to impress so much that when iconic British team BRM was short of cash for the 1973 season, Niki was there like a shot.

Team manager Louis Stanley placed the young Austrian with ex Ferrari driver Clay Regazzoni and Frenchman Jean Pierre Beltoise. Niki had the uncanny ability to have a feeling for how the car was behaving at any given point in the race, so much so that when he started to make subtle changes to his BRM P160E, his team mates were flabbergasted to say the least at his performance.

After scoring his first points with a fifth-place finish at the 1973 Belgian Grand Prix, he managed to get the attention of the Godfather of motorsport, Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari had been in a slump that season and needed some fresh thinking and talent to bring them back into the fold. The Old Man made Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda, an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Despite being in Formula One for only a few years, Niki Lauda was proving his parents wrong by earning a full-time wage driving for the most prestigious and iconic racing team in the world. However, when pre-season testing for Ferrari at their Fiorano Test Track in 1973, he jumped out of the car and said up-front to Enzo Ferrari, that the car was s*#t. This was a monumental no-no for Ferrari drivers of the past, because as far as Il Commendatore was concerned, the car was flawless and if Ferrari lost on race day, the driver was entirely to blame. However, to his employees amazement, Enzo responded with, “ok, we can change it. However, if you can go four tenths of second quicker, you can stay with Ferrari. If not, you will leave.” Needless to say, Niki stayed on.

In 1974, he impressed at the wheel of the 312B3, but for 1975, things at Ferrari were about to shift up a gear. That season saw the introduction of the radical new Ferrari 312 T. Designed by the great Mauro Forghieri, the T stood for the transversely rear mounted gearbox mated to the bullet proof 510hp flat 12. This greatly improved the cars handling and enabled Lauda to win four races by the mid-season break. At Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, Lauda came third. This was enough for him to gain enough points to become World Champion of 1975.

By seasons end, everyone in the motorsport world knew of Niki Lauda. His fanatical attention to detail and ruthless efficiency meant he was not always understood by the rest of paddock. He didn’t care, as long as he was getting business done.

The 1976 Formula One season has gone down in history as one of the most exciting ever and Niki Lauda was the hot favourite to repeat his championship success of the previous year. The only thing which could pose a threat to this dominance came in the form of Lauda’s friend and arch-rival, James Hunt.

Known as “Hunt the Shunt” for his reputation for crashing cars in his early days, Hunt lived life at a million miles an hour, partying, boozing and becoming familiar with multiple women at one time. Hunt was the lead driver for McLaren, after the last-minute defection of Emerson Fittipaldi to Copersucar. So, the stage was set. Lauda helming the latest evolution of the 312, the T2, and Hunt in McLaren’s well sorted M23.

The season kicked off with Niki gaining and early lead in the championship with wins in Brazil, South Africa and Monaco, while James won the British and French Grand Prix. However, Niki was still miles ahead in the point standings when the Formula One circus reached the notorious Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix on August 1st.

With 187 corners, the 14.2 mile Nordschliefe circuit rose and cascaded through the Eifel mountains and had barely changed since inception pre WW2. The Nurburgring might have been moderate in terms of safety back in the fifties, but by 1976, the cars had more than double the power and were two or three times as fast. It’s small wonder three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart referred to the track as “The Green Hell.”

Lauda, who held the Nurburgring lap record, knew the risks were greater here than anywhere else, and on race day, with rain clouds gathering and moderate precipitation, he took matters into his own hands. He organised a drivers meeting with the FIA, the sports governing body, to have the race cancelled due to the conditions.

After stating that it would be suicidal to race a 500hp race car in the wet at an outdated circuit, Niki discovered that only a fraction of his fellow drivers felt the same way. When the FIA put it to a vote as to whether to race or not, the Austrian found himself outvoted. The 1976 German Grand Prix was going ahead.

On the starting grid, most of the drivers, including Lauda and Hunt, chose to have rain tyres fitted as opposed to racing slicks, to give them as much traction as possible in the wet. However, when the lights went green and the field blasted off on the first lap, the track was starting to dry out. Drivers like McLaren’s Jochen Mass, who had stuck with racing slicks had a huge advantage and left the rest of the field behind.

After this, every driver made haste to pit row after the first lap, leading to a mad frenzy as teams rushed to change their drivers to slick tyres. Hunt was in and out with ease but Lauda got bogged down and once released, charged after Hunt like a man possessed. With that Ferrari flat-12 screaming, Lauda overtook car after car in his relentless pursuit, even getting the Ferrari airborne over the hilly sections of the circuit. He knew that if he kept this pace, he was within a chance of reeling in that McLaren. Then it happened.

Approaching a fast corner of the circuit known as Bergwerk, the Ferrari’s rear suspension failed, the car broke traction before slamming at full chat into the barrier. It then bounced back and spun around before being hit again by another car. Niki was flung around violently and lost his helmet in the process, the impact also punctured the Ferrari’s fuel tank and within seconds, the whole car was alight, leaving Lauda trapped in the burning cockpit.

Some of Lauda’s fellow drivers, including Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards and Brett Lunger raced to help him, bravely fighting the flames in an attempt to undo his racing harness. Lauda was trapped in that searing 800-degree inferno for a full minute before old rival Arturo Merzario managed to free him from the wreckage.

Lauda was in a really bad way, not because of the burns to his face and body, but because of the poisonous fumes he inhaled. He was rushed to Mannheim hospital where he was joined later by his then-wife Marlene. The race continued on with James Hunt coming home the winner. At the time everyone believed that Lauda was doing fine with just a few superficial burns.

However, after the race, reports came in that Lauda was now in serious trouble and was fighting for his life in Mannheim hospital. The priest came in and gave him the last rites while Marlene tried to hold back tears. Everyone thought that it was game over. Everyone thought there was no coming back. Everyone that is, except Lauda.

Through his iron will, grit and just plain stubbornness, he said in his mind, “I am not going to die” and lo and behold, his condition started to stabilize. After the awful procedure of vacuuming his lungs, Niki Lauda was out of danger. However, this was not enough for Niki, he wanted to return to track and defend his title.

Six weeks later at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, he shocked everyone by turning up in racing overalls, declaring he was ready to drive. Though his face’s right side was considerably burnt and he had lost part of his right ear, he assured everyone he could still get the job done. As he said to an impudent reporter, “I don’t need face to drive, just my right foot!”

After the accident, Ferrari immediately signed up Argentinian young gun, Carlos Reutemann as Niki’s replacement as, like everyone, were not expecting Niki to survive. This snub, left Lauda feeling embittered and began to sour his relationship with the Old Man.

The Italian Grand Prix went ahead with James Hunt, who had clawed his way back up the points table, spinning off on the first corner. The race was won by Ronnie Peterson but Lauda, to everyone’s amazement, came home fourth, allowing him to gain valuable points. Just incredible.

The season continued with rounds in Canada and the United States. Before long the circus arrived at the Mount Fuji Circuit for the Japanese Grand Prix, the last race of the 1976 season, and it was bucketing down.

Niki sat on the third row behind James Hunt and Mario Andretti. Only three points separated the Austrian and the Brit. The race got underway with Lauda and Hunt going hard from the beginning. Then after lap 2, the news came in over the loudspeaker, Niki Lauda was in the pits getting out of the car!

Lauda, seeing the conditions were completely ridiculous to race in, decided to pull in and abandon the race. Ferrari team manager Daniel Audetto said to Lauda “Shall we say to the press there was a problem with the car?” Lauda’s response, “No, just be honest, tell them I’m not driving.”

With Lauda out of the running, Hunt just had to finish in third place of higher to become World Champion, which he did, beating Lauda by a single point. Their great battle was over but for Lauda, the journey was just beginning.

For 1977, Lauda returned with Ferrari. That year they had the best car and Niki managed to win his second World Championship. However, the relationship with Niki and Enzo Ferrari was now in dire straits. The Old Man never forgave Lauda for abandoning the race at Mount Fuji the previous year. They agreed to disagree and Niki joined Brabham for 1978.

Managed by future F1 Boss Bernie Ecclestone, they experienced moderate success, but Lauda was mostly chasing the tail of Mario Andretti’s ground effect Lotus 79. However, Lauda managed a lucky win at the Swedish Grand Prix at Anderstop helming the controversial Gordon Murray designed ground effect BT46B “Fan Car.”

Part way through the 1979 season, Lauda announced he was going to retire from Formula One and decided to focus on something new, air travel. He set up Lauda Air and committed himself wholeheartedly into this venture.

However, a few years down the track, he noticed a familiar longing to get back behind the wheel of a Formula One car again. After multiple calls from McLaren team boss Ron Dennis, Lauda decided it was time for a comeback, in a McLaren. His comeback season was 1982 and within three races he was victorious at Long Beach in California.

Lauda stayed with McLaren through 1983, but for 1984, there was a new face in the team. Natural French talent Alain Prost had proven his worth driving for Renault, and when Dennis signed him up to partner Lauda, it was clear a new title fight was emerging.

Throughout 1984, both Lauda and Prost went toe to toe, however, it was Lauda who clinched the title that year by the slimmest of margins. Half a point. Lauda regarded this as his greatest Championship victory and after a final year with McLaren in 1985. He retired from driving for good, and focused on building his airline empire.

However, it did not take him long to return to the track, except this time, it would be behind pit wall. Advisory positions at Ferrari and managing the short-lived Jaguar F1 team were more feathers in the Austrian’s cap, but from 2010, Lauda reached the top of the sport once again, becoming the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team.

Working closely with team boss Toto Wolff, he made Mercedes into the dominant force it is today and one could argue was responsible for a considerable chunk of Lewis Hamilton’s multiple World Championships.

Niki Lauda was unlike anyone we had ever seen in Formula One. He was a straight up, no bull kind of guy who never tolerated fools and valued quality of people over quantity. His uncanny determination to succeed and be the best at what he did was phenomenal and knew that to be successful in life, you had to fail first. Only then, will you grow and push yourself to achieve greatness. I think we can all learn a lot from Niki Lauda. RIP.

NIKI LAUDA: 1949-2019

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