Niki Lauda needs no introduction for people of a certain age – which is probably around 45 or over. For those under that age, his skills and talents may be underestimated. Quite simply, Lauda was one of the greatest drivers the world of Formula One has ever seen. A Winning Personality (AWP) did a piece on him last month discussing Lauda’s last minute decision to withdraw from the World Drivers’ Championship and what went through his mind at that moment.
The Austrian won the Drivers’ Championship three times in 1975, 1977 and again in 1984. He then went on to found and run two successful airlines (Lauda Air and Niki) and still found time to be the manager of the Jaguar Racing Formula One team for a couple of years.
Yet despite all these achievements, he’s still best-remembered in the English-speaking world anyway, as the man Britain’s James Hunt beat in the contest for the 1976 Formula One driver’s championship. And this is compounded by the recent film ‘Rush’, the 2013 biographical drama film directed by Ron Howard which details about the 1976 Formula One season and the great rivalry between James Hunt and Lauda.
The movie tells the story of the season – though some may argue it unfairly flatters Hunt at Lauda’s expense. For most motor racing aficionados, Lauda was the slightly better driver. He certainly had a more illustrious career – but was seen rather as the typically stilted, boring middle-European driver versus the far more flamboyant, debonair and, generally exciting Hunt. This is all true – but it does tend to underplay Lauda’s abilities behind the wheel.
In the run up to the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in 1976, Lauda encouraged drivers to boycott the race due to inadequate safety arrangements (but he was still the fastest qualifying driver on the circuit). However, the majority of drivers voted against the proposed boycott so the race went on.
On the second lap, Niki Lauda’s Ferrari swerved off the Nürburgring track because of a suspension failure, collided with an embankment, rolled back onto the track and right into the path of Brett Lunger’s Surtees-Ford. Lauda’s car was engulfed in flames, with the Austrian trapped inside.
Before his fellow drivers managed to pull him from the wreckage, Lauda had suffered burns to his head and he’d inhaled toxic gases damaging both his lungs and blood. He remained conscious and was able to stand after the crash, but later lapsed into coma.
His burns were awful, disfiguring him for life, and he was out for six weeks – making an heroic return for the Monza Grand Prix, in which he amazed the world by finishing fourth. But in Lauda’s absence, James Hunt had closed the gap in the World Championship standings and was just three points behind Lauda by the time of the last race of the season in Japan.
During the Japanese Grand Prix in heavy rain, Lauda pulled out after two laps as he believed it wasn’t safe to continue and his eyes were watering a great deal due to his tear ducts being damage by the fire and his inability to blink.
Hunt eventually finished third thereby winning the driver’s title by just one point and the 1976 season entered the annals of F1 folklore.