Niki Lauda had always been his own man, and once the notion struck that he was bored with driving around in circles, then nothing was going to keep him in F1.
When he walked away from F1 in Montreal, 1979, nobody imagined that he would ever return. And yet he was back in the cockpit at the start of 1982 and, within three races, back on top of the podium.
The first step in Nild’s comeback came at Donington Park in September 1981 when, with Marlboro’s help, Ron Dennis persuaded him to test the McLaren MP4.
“We took a car to Donington and ‘Waffle’ went out and set some sort of lap time,” recalls former designer, John Barnard. ‘John knew what it was all for, so he wasn’t hanging around. Then Niki had a go and, as always, he had a sharp and confident aura.
“He did about three laps, and was sweating like mad. He was knackered! He said something like, ‘I know what I need to do. That’s all I need to know.’ He made his decision there and then, I guess. He was always very concise, and he always gave you an opinion quickly. He never liked to dither.”
‘Then he was off doing his training bit with Willi Dungl, building his strength and stamina.
“I suppose it was a risk, but compared to our year with Andrea de Cesaris in ’81, it wasn’t considered to be a big risk. What comes to mind is that he did seem very expensive at the time! But he was a world champion, he knew how to win and that was the end of it” There were still doubts the team had the option to dump him a third of the way into the season.
Lauda finished fourth in South Africa and collided with former teammate, Carlos Reutemann, in Brazil. But in only his third outing, at Long Beach, he showed all the old skill, qualifying second and keeping out of trouble early on. And when Bruno Giacomelli, Rene Amoux and Andrea de Cesaris self-destructed, he slipped into the lead.
Years later Niki would reveal just what that first win meant: “I’d been in similar situations before, and had always been afraid the car would coast to a stop a few yards before the flag. Not this time, though. I was shouting and whistling for joy. Then I thought, ‘Watch yourself, you idiot, just watch yourself, otherwise you’ll drive into the wall out of sheer stupidity’. I have never felt like that It was beautiful.”