Following Graham Moggipaldi’s look at James Hunt’s 1976 title triumph Octane Photo’s Craig Boon takes a look at his arch rival that year, Niki Lauda, and, in particular, the events of that year’s German GP.
With talk of safety doing the rounds in the paddock, and the threat of this being the last race held at the circuit, you would be forgiven in thinking not much has changed in 35 years at the Nürburgring.
Safety talk back then was of the totally inadequate standards of medical backup rather than the possibility of plexiglas fighter canopies, and the track was the 14-mile Nordshleiffe rather than its little cousin over the road, but just as today the F1 circus was in town and the drama was only just starting.
World Champion Niki Lauda was the campaigner in this case, rather than the Green Party, to have the race scrapped, but other drivers ignored him and, with 70’s machismo oozing, they went racing.
It would seem fate isn’t without a sense of irony, as early in the race Lauda’s car suffered what is now suspected to be a rear suspension failure and speared off the track into the Armco, bouncing back into the path of Harald Ertl. With nowhere to go the two cars came together at huge speed, causing Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2 to explode into ball of flames. Only with the intervention of Ertl (who had managed to get out of his wrecked car), Brett Lunger, Guy Edwards and Arturo Merzario, all of whom had stopped, was Niki pulled from the flaming wreckage.
The burning aluminum car and high octane fuel caused horrific scarring and lung damage to Lauda. Trapped conscious in the fire for what seemed like a lifetime, he eventually escaped and collapsed trackside, lapsing into a coma before he reached hospital. The situation was so grave that the last rites were read to the reigning world champion.
Niki fought back, and with surgery (only to get his eyelids working again), returned to the cockpit just six weeks later. Heavily bandaged and full of pain killers, Lauda was up for the fight to retain his championship.
That fight came down to the last round of the year in Japan, in torrential rain. Lauda again protested that the race should be cancelled on safety grounds but was yet again ignored. To Ferrari’s fury he withdrew after 2 laps, effectively handing the championship to Hunt (who was not without his own dramas that weekend).
Leaving Ferrari in late 1977 under the cloud that sprang from his withdrawal from that race (not without clinching the championship again though), Lauda joined the Brabham team of a certain Mr.Ecclestone and raced on for another couple of years, eventually retiring to concentrate on his airline, Lauda Air.
This may seem a good point to end the story, but no: Niki wasn’t finished. Needing funds for his business he returned to the cockpit, this time for Ron Dennis’ McLaren team, taking another World Championship in 1984. He beat team-mate Alain Prost by the closest margin ever: half a point. That did it for Niki on the track, and soon after he hung up his race overalls for good.
In 1999 he was ousted from his own airline by then-majority stake holder Austrian Airlines. Still showing that same spirit he has exhibited all his life, he has come back again with a new airline called “Niki”.
Has he forever turned his back on F1? Not likely! He was a sometime advisor to Ferrari during the early nineties, and was also manager of the ill-fated Jaguar F1 team, who eventually sold out to F1 new boys Red Bull. Whatever happened to them?
Lauda meanwhile can now be found strolling around the paddock commentating for German channel RTL, and still lambasting just about anybody that he disagrees with (which to fair is a lot of people).
Never Say Die and always come back fighting! A true Formula One hero if ever there was one!