Formula 1,  History,  Racing drivers,  The Pantheon

Niki Lauda and the Formula 1 pantheon

Niki Lauda, the Austrian three-time World Champion who continues to leave an indelible mark on the sport of Grand Prix motor racing, would have been 71 years old this week. An opportune time, then, to introduce the +1 Lap Pantheon: an ongoing collection of portraits and stories of the people whose impact on Formula 1 cannot be weighed.

Niki Lauda (1949-2019)
Niki Lauda (1949-2019), Formula 1 World Champion 1975, 1977 & 1984.

Over the course of a four-decade long dalliance with Formula 1, Lauda wore many hats, not least of which was the famous red cap he used to disguise the ferocious scarring acquired at the Nürburgring in 1976. During his career, he would occupy the roles of pay driver, gifted number two, inspirational number 1, World Champion, team boss and driver guru.

Between the retirement of Jackie Stewart at the end of 1973 and the emergence of Alain Prost in the 1980s, there was also the small matter of him being the world’s best racing driver. More or less everything that happened in Formula 1 during his active time in the sport revolved around him in some way.

His ultimate retirement from competition at the end of 1985 did little to stop this pervasive influence, which would see him guide the fortunes of three teams and countless drivers, right up until his death in May 2019.

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda was born in Vienna on 22nd February 1949, the scion of a successful Austrian manufacturing dynasty. The racing ambitions of the young Niki proved to be very much the antithesis of the Lauda family’s plans for him and ultimately Lauda was obliged to forge his own path, taking out a bank loan secured against a life insurance policy to buy his way into the fledgling March team, to run dual campaigns in Formula 1 and Formula 2, for 1971.

Lauda’s junior career, starting off in a Mini and then taking in some sports cars and Formula Vee, had been less than stellar. Lauda won just 28 single seater car races in his career: it just happened that 25 of them were World Championship Grands Prix.

Two unsuccessful seasons at March sent Lauda back to the Austrian bank, a further loan buying him a number 2 berth alongside Clay Regazzoni at a BRM team that were in decline for the 1973 season. It would prove to be a season of slim pickings for both men, Lauda scoring points once and Regazzoni twice – although the Swiss did start the season’s opening race from an unexpected pole position.

Fortune, however, was to favour them both. Also mired in midfield anonymity throughout the 1973 Grand Prix season were Ferrari, a situation that Enzo found irksome in the extreme. For 1974 his team would be overhauled, with a revised car and two new drivers. The first was a returnee: Regazzoni having driven for the Prancing Horse between 1970 and 1972.

The second, of course, was Lauda; his Swiss teammate speaking with such passion about his technical ability that Old Man Ferrari signed the Austrian to a contract that saw Lauda able to write off all his debts.

In 1974, Regazzoni would challenge for the Championship title, in contention up until the season’s final race. But Lauda was just as big a story: at his first opportunity with top line equipment, he would win twice and finish 4th in the final standings. More impressive yet was his one-lap pace, with Lauda starting nine of the season’s 15 races from pole position, an achievement which even today leaves him joint-seventh in the all-time records.

Given a second bite of the cherry in 1975, Lauda reigned supreme. Once the new 312T car was introduced for the third race of the season, he proved the class of the field, nine more pole positions and five wins securing his first world title.

Central to this success was the prolific working triangle that had emerged with Lauda, Ferrari chief designer Mauro Forghieri and Lauda’s chief mechanic Ermanno Cuoghi. Lauda’s enormous concentration, determination and work ethic meshed seamlessly with the perfectionist Forghieri and the canny, loyal Cuoghi to form a near-unbeatable unit.

Lauda continued where he left off at the start of 1976, with four wins and two second-places from the first six events. By the time the circus arrived at the Nürburgring for the tenth of 16 rounds, Lauda led the standings from James Hunt by 23 points.

On the second lap of the wet-dry German Grand Prix, Lauda lost control at the fast left-hand kink before the Bergwerk corner. Nürburgring locals have since dubbed this sweep “Grillkurve” to commemorate what happened next: Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2 smashed into a sheer verge, burst into flames and spun back onto the circuit, where it was hit by Brett Lunger’s Surtees.

Lunger, together with Guy Edwards, Arturo Merzario – the tiny Italian driver whose seat at Ferrari Lauda had taken for 1974 – and Harald Ertl battled the flames to extract Lauda from the inferno. Lauda’s helmet had been thrown off due to the force of the collision and he had suffered severe burns to his face and head, where in places his scalp was charred down to the bone, but the major problem was the amount of smoke and fire extinguishing powder he had inhaled. Initially appearing to be disfigured but lucid and conscious, Lauda’s condition quickly deteriorated. By the evening he was being given the Last Rites in a German hospital.

Lauda would later describe deing aware of the pain and the struggle being so overwhelming that at one point he felt himself letting go, falling peacefully backwards into the beyond. It was at this point he made the conscious decision to concentrate on the nurses and doctors talking around him – even though he didn’t necessarily like what they had to say – to keep his brain active and his body alive.

Having suffered his accident on August 1st, by September 12th Lauda was – remarkably – back on the grid for the Italian Grand Prix. Hunt had won in Germany, and added a win and a second place in the two races that his rival had missed, the McLaren now right back into the title fight.

Lauda’s performance that weekend at Monza has justifiably entered legend. The ever-sensitive Ferrari team arrived at Monza having already signed Carlos Reutemann to drive Lauda’s car, so the passionate local fans had three cars to cheer. Lauda suffered a panic attack driving out of the pits on the first day of practice, his head still swathed in bandages bloodied from skin grafts that were still yet to fully take. By Sunday, he had finished fourth, first and fastest of the Ferraris, cheered to the echo by not just the fanatical Tifosi.

Behind the pit lane after the race, British journalist Nigel Roebuck saw Lauda gingerly peeling his blood-flecked fireproof balaclava off of his red raw head. To quote James Hunt’s first reaction having secured the 1976 World Championship in the rains of the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji, “Niki Lauda is the bravest man I have ever met”. Amen to that.

Lose the title, though, he had: Hunt’s momentum in the excellent McLaren proved too much for Lauda and Ferrari, with Lauda parking his car in the pits on the second lap at Fuji having decided the conditions were simply too dangerous to tolerate. Hunt, with something still to prove, raced on to third place, securing the title by a single point.

The Niki Lauda who returned for the 1977 season remained the sport’s leading driver, but he was clearly also a changed man. Having secured 21 pole positions between 1974 and 1976, for the remainder of his career Lauda would take just three, no longer seeing the value in risking everything to secure the best grid spot. From now on, Lauda would distinguish himself by his meticulous preparation of his cars throughout the practice, in order he would be able to give himself the best chance on race day.

Come the race, Lauda now adhered to the “better six points sure than nine points never” policy, an approach of absolute rational expediency. Gone were the days that Lauda would try and compensate for a shortcoming in his car’s performance. In the 1977 season, the Austrian would take just two pole positions and three race wins. However, with ten additional points finishes – including six second-places – he would secure his second world title with enough time spare to walk out of Ferrari with two races of the season yet to run.

He would sign for Brabham for 1978, still driving as well as ever. Hampered with reliability problems – as well as the outstanding performance of the new Lotus 79 car – Lauda could only finish 4th overall, with a pole position and two wins to his account. His best race, however, came at Monaco. Having dropped down the order courtesy of a mid-race puncture, he charged back through the field, smashing the lap record again and again to fight his way back through to second.

Lauda continued at Brabham for 1979, but diminishing success and the increasing physical demands of the new Ground Effect-era Grand Prix cars had finally bored him out of the game. Mid-way through the Canadian Grand Prix meeting, he quit for good. Lauda, a qualified commercial pilot, would spend the next three years establishing his own successful airline, Lauda Air.

Tempted back by Ron Dennis and McLaren for 1982, the Austrian initially re-signed on a four-race contract, to make sure both parties had a get-out if the high profile return wasn’t working out for either or both parties. As things turned out, Lauda won his third race back at Long Beach, one of two wins he’d secure that year.

Lauda and McLaren spent 1983 in transition, as the team worked to accommodate their brand new Porsche turbo engine into the car. Lauda would fail to win a single race, but was instrumental behind the scenes in getting the new power unit installed in the car for the last four races of the season, keen to iron out any teething problems ahead of the 1984 season.

1984 turned into a dream for McLaren but almost a nightmare for Lauda, his largely subservient teammate John Watson having been suddenly replaced by the brilliant Alain Prost, unexpectedly sacked by Renault at the end of 1983.

With the new McLaren-TAG Porsche proving to be the class of the field, Lauda summoned every ounce of his nous and experience to beat his up-and-coming number two, 5 wins ultimately securing his third world title by the slimmest margin in the sport’s history: half a point.

Prost dominated much of the season from the front, so Lauda’s title stands as a remarkable achievement, testimony to his outstanding technical ability and tactical skill. He established a record that will now almost certainly never be beaten, the only driver to win the Formula 1 World Championship in a season where they never once started a race from the front row of the grid.

Lauda spent 1985 in a diminished role, helping Prost secure his first of four titles and winning just a single race, a balls-to-the-wall race with his teammate at Zandvoort to win the Dutch Grand Prix by 0.2 seconds. He retired for good after the season’s finale in Australia.

From 1986, he once again switched his focus to the success of his airlines. On 26th May 1991, Lauda Air flight 004 from Bangkok to Vienna crashed, killing all 223 people on board. At the time it was the deadliest accident ever involving a Boeing 767 plane and a deeply effected Lauda threw himself into the investigation.

When it was eventually established that the crash had been caused by a fault in the aircraft’s reverse thruster, he went toe-to-toe with Boeing until they accepted their culpability, ultimately offering to take the company’s executives up in a 767 and to replicate the circumstances that air crash investigators had established were the cause of the accident.

It was the kind of hard-headed, uncompromising determination that anyone who had followed Niki Lauda’s other career would have come to expect. And ultimately, as ever, he was right.

From the mid-1990s, Lauda’s involvement in Formula 1 began to again steadily increase. He was an important figure behind the scenes at Ferrari, as the team rebuilt inself from its competitive collapse into the Michael Schumacher-inspired domination of the early noughties. By then, Lauda had moved on to be the team principal of the ill-fated Jaguar team, which was ultimately sold to Red Bull.

Latterly, he became a vital cog in the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team. It was Lauda who personally intervened to secure the signing of Lewis Hamilton from McLaren in late 2012, a decision from which the team has scarcely looked back. His relationship with Hamilton was unusually close, the current World Champion crediting Lauda with large parts of his huge recent success.

Some characters in Formula 1 make their mark on the track, some make their mark off it. Lauda occupies a rare third group, of people who did both and continued to do so in their absence. He remained a presence in the sport during his sabbatical as a driver, during his spells spent away working in aviation and, since 20th May 2019, even in death.

Quite the wisest, funniest and bravest driver ever seen in Formula 1, Niki Lauda was also one of the best there has ever been. An irrepressable, irreplaceable, unforgettable character whose spirit will permeate the sport as long as people race cars.

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