As Michael Schumacher enters the second season of his Formula One comeback we’re looking at a man who made a real success of his return to the sport. Love him or loathe him, he’s among the finest in the history of grand prix racing…

The podium at the 1984 Portuguese Grand Prix was one of those real ‘snapshot in history’ moments.  Each of the three drivers were, or were to be, at least triple World Champions, each encapsulating three different, overlapping eras.  In third place, at the start of his career was Ayrton Senna, racing for Tolman.  In first, just about to begin his dominance of Formula One and the first of his four championships, was Alain Prost, but in second place was a driver who, with those 6 points, had managed to capture his third and final World Drivers’ Championship by just half a point.  It was the ultimate comeback kid.  It was Niki Lauda.

Murray Walker talks about Lauda’s initial departure from the sport in 1979.

The ’84 season hadn’t started well for Lauda, with retirements in six out of the first nine races, and it looked as though it was going to be a repeat of his previous two post-comeback seasons, where he had finished fifth and then tenth for Marlboro McLaren.  It looked as though he would never recapture the glory days of his seasons with Ferrari, where he had taken two world championships.  However, it was the three races he had finished so far that year which gave a better indication of how the season was going to pan out.  He had finished first at both the South African and the French Grands Prix and second place in Montreal and from then on, starting with the tenth race at Brands Hatch, he notched up three more first places and two more seconds, with the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring the only race where he finished off the podium, coming in fourth.  This remarkable turnaround left him needing only to finish second at Estoril to clinch the title, which he duly did.  This made Niki Lauda the only driver in F1 history to retire, make a comeback and win the World Championship again (before anyone mentions Alain Prost, his one season break in 1992 was a sabbatical, rather than a retirement).  At least, the only one so far…

These two successful comebacks in 1984, from a poor start to the season and from retirement, are not the most impressive comeback in Lauda’s career.  For that we must return to his days with the Scuderia and his first two world championships.  Lauda won the drivers’ world championship for Ferrari in 1975 and 1977, bracketing James Hunt’s 1976 win for McLaren, but he could easily have won three in a row, if it hadn’t been for the horrendous accident at the Nürburgring on 1st August 1976.

This was the last Grand Prix at the old Nürburgring and Lauda had been one of those who had raised concerns at the safety arrangements at the circuit.  There had even been an attempt to organise a boycott of the race, but most of the other drivers voted against this and the race went on.  On the second lap Lauda lost control of his car, possibly as a result of a failure in the rear suspension.  He left the track, hit the embankment and rolled back onto the circuit where he was hit by the Surtees of Brett Lunger.  Lauda’s Ferrari burst into flames and he was trapped in the wreckage.  By the time he had been dragged out by other drivers he had suffered severe burns to his head and had inhaled toxic fumes which caused damage to his lungs and although he was conscious and even able to stand up immediately after the accident he lapsed into a coma in hospital where his condition was described as critical.

Amazingly Lauda was racing again just six weeks later at Monza having missed just two races.  His absence had given James Hunt the chance to close the gap and two more wins for the British driver meant that when they reached the final Grand Prix at Fuji in Japan Lauda was just three points ahead of his rival.  The weather that day was extremely wet and there was some debate as to whether the race should take place.  It did, but Lauda withdrew from the race on the second lap, later saying, ‘My life is worth more than a title.’  Hunt finished the race in third place, taking the championship by one point.

After his second retirement from the sport, Niki Lauda has largely concentrated on the world of commercial aviation, running first Lauda Air, which was sold to Austrian Airlines in 1999 , and more recently Niki, which he founded in 2003.  In between he took charge of the Jaguar F1 team, which in its recent incarnation as Red Bull Racing has seen some success.

Lauda remains an inspiration, not so much for his achievements on the track, which would be enough on their own, but rather for his work to make F1 safer for the drivers and for the courage he showed in his return to racing after the accident, the scars of which he still bears today.  So as we look forward to the 2011 season and the possibility of Schumacher’s comeback bearing some fruit, let us raise a glass and salute Niki Lauda – the ultimate comeback kid.

Photo: Red Bull Media