Niki Lauda: Goodbye to a Legend of the Track
On Monday May 22nd, 2019, the world of motor racing lost a true legend. It’s not often that the word can be used and actually mean something but in the case of Niki Lauda, his legendary status was ensured many years ago.
The sport of F1 is about a combination of skill and bravery, particularly in the 1970s when safety standards weren’t up to modern day levels. In his day, Lauda combined those two qualities better than any other driver, before or since.
On retiring from competitive formula one racing, Austria’s finest ever driver had claimed a total of 25 Grand Prix wins and three World Titles but that doesn’t come close to telling his amazing story.
His battles with James Hunt in the 1970s culminated in his first World Drivers’ Championship in 1975 and that horrific crash at the Nurburgring a year later. Just a few weeks on from the incident that so nearly took his life, Lauda returned to the track at the Italian Grand Prix, swathed in bandages, and he finished the Grand Prix bleeding from his injuries.
It was a remarkable period in the sport and one that may never be matched but let’s go back now and look at how it all began for Niki Lauda.
Niki Lauda was born in Austria in 1949 and seems to have set his sights on a career in motor racing from a very young age. Over in England, the path to F1 seems to lie in go karting while in central Europe, it’s Formula Vee and that’s where the young Austrian got his true grounding.
After a successful period, Lauda literally bought his way into the March Formula Two team. With a £30,000 loan secured against a life insurance policy, he paid into the side and drove for March in 1971.
It soon became apparent to the team that they had a real talent on their hands and Lauda would quickly be promoted through the ranks. In the following, 1972 season, the Austrian had the unique distinction of driving for both the March Formula Two and Formula One teams but, having made his debut in F1, he was never going to look back.
It took a while for Niki Lauda to establish himself at the elite level of the sport but that was largely due to the poor performance of the March cars. The 1972 season was a disaster for the team and it was time for the Austrian to move on.
Once again, Lauda had to pay his own way into a team as another bank loan ensured his spot with British Racing Motors (BRM) but he’d signed on with another weak unit. BRM had enjoyed some success in F1 but they were a team in decline and were not a suitable place for such a talented driver.
Fortune came calling a year later, however, and it was due to his BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni leaving to join Ferrari.
When Regazzoni came on board with the classic Ferrari team, owner Enzo Ferrari asked the Swiss driver for his opinion on Lauda. Clearly he must have spoken in glowing terms as Lauda was immediately signed and put on board with the Italian giants for the 1974 season.
Niki Lauda’s real breakthrough came during his debut race for the team. A second place finish saw him on to the podium and proved that the Austrian just needed a car that could match his talent and ambition.
From that point, Lauda’s career would continue on an upward trajectory but he would have to be patient. Despite recording six consecutive pole positions in 1974, he would only win two Grand Prix - in Spain and Holland. The Austrian was off the mark as far as Chequered Flags were concerned but it was a relatively modest return.
Battle with James Hunt and Near-Tragedy
In 1975, Ferrari and McLaren were the main forces in F1 and two men emerged as great rivals. Niki Lauda and James Hunt would enter some titanic battles over the course of the next few seasons. For 1975, however, Hunt was still showing his prowess in the Cosworth while Lauda had a good run at the title.
Lauda started the season quite slowly, as he finished no higher than fifth in his first four races. The pace picked up however as, in the newly modelled Ferrari 312T, he won four of the next five. When the teams reached the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, a third place finish was enough to secure the first World Drivers’ title of Niki Lauda’s career.
Ferrari and Lauda were the favourites for the 1976 crown but by this time, James Hunt had moved to McLaren and there was a tangible, new rival for the title. Lauda dominated right from the start, winning four of the first six races and claiming second place in the other two. When he claimed victory in the British GP, the Austrian had twice as many points as his closest rivals - Hunt and Jody Schecker.
He was nailed on for back-to-back world titles before disaster struck at the Nurburgring. Ahead of the race, Lauda had urged his fellow drivers to boycott because of some serious safety concerns.
With most drivers voting against such actions, the German Grand Prix went ahead and Lauda’s infamous crash came on the second lap as he swerved off the track. His car hit the buffers and burst into flames and, with his modified helmet sliding clear, the driver’s face was completely exposed to the fire. Lauda suffered horrific injuries and lapsed quickly into a coma. At that stage, his life was on the line and, even though he was destined to survive, few expected him to return to the track in the immediate future.
As it transpired, Niki Lauda would only miss two races. In his absence, James Hunt had managed to close the gap at the top of the drivers’ championship and he would go on to win the title by the narrowest of margins.
Hunt claimed the trophy but Lauda earnt the respect of the whole world. As he came back to the sport he finished fourth in the race and had to have blood soaked bandages peeled away from his scalp. In the final GP of the season - in Japan - Lauda retired in wet conditions while Hunt finished third to win the championship by a single point.
In the following campaign, the comeback was complete. James Hunt provided less of a contest and Niki Lauda largely coasted to his second World Title. All was not well at Ferrari however and the 1978 campaign saw a switch of teams once again.
In 1978, Niki Lauda signed up for two years with Brabham but, aside from isolated success, this was to be a barren period for the Austrian. After those two, largely, futile seasons, he retired stating that he no longer wanted to ‘drive round in circles’.
Lauda set about other business plans including his own airline but that wasn’t the end of the story. In 1982, he made a surprise return to Formula One with old rivals McLaren and it was to prove to be a shrewd move.
He was competitive throughout the 1982 and 1983 seasons before, in 1984, he won his third and final world title by just half a point from Alain Prost. Perhaps he should have gone at the top because, 1985 was surprisingly poor with 11 retirements from 14 races. At the end of that campaign, Niki Lauda left the track again but this time it was for good.
He kept in touch with racing and was involved with the successful Mercedes team in later years. Lewis Hamilton credits Lauda with getting him into the team and it must be true that he inspired so many of today’s F1 generation.
He leaves that clear legacy and for those that can remember those glorious motorsport days of the 1970s and 1980s we’re now saying goodbye to one of the best, and certainly the most courageous drivers of all time.