Niki Lauda: Ferrari's F1 'Quick-fixer'

Ferrari was at rock-bottom by the end of the 1973 season. Its answer was to sign a driver who had just two F1 points to his name. The gamble paid off. After only five GPs with the Scuderia, Niki Lauda was winning races; after just two seasons, the world title was his. As would Michael Schumacher 20 years later, Lauda brought speed and steel to Enzo's team

Niki Lauda 1974 Ferrari

Lauda's influence on Ferrari was swift and significant

Getty Images

Watkins Glen paddock, Sunday October 5, 1975. Niki Lauda is next to me in a queue for a helicopter. A queue, mind. No special treatment here. An hour or so earlier he had hopped out of his Ferrari 312T at the end of the United States Grand Prix after nailing his fifth win (sixth if you include Silverstone’s non-championship International Trophy) of the season — a season in which he had secured Ferrari’s first F1 world title for 11 years. Putting them into the context of their time, Lauda’s achievements had saved Ferrari’s reputation in much the same way Michael Schumacher’s have done over the last decade.

Fast-forward almost 29 years to the 2004 Australian GP. Not much changes: I am shooting the breeze with Lauda in an F1 paddock. Except this time the interruption is human, not mechanised: Michael Schumacher, sleek and groomed in white T-shirt and designer jeans, moves in to chat. Lauda, the very antithesis of F1 ‘high fashion’ in his crumpled jeans, sloppy sweatshirt and scuffed Timberlands — a cross between an off-duty mechanic and a binman — smiles and listens, hands stuffed in pockets. Niki has always been thus. But this is a very different Schumacher: no trace of arrogance or confidence, just respectful good nature. They are equals in F1 status, but Michael happily defers to the older man. You can sense his admiration for this veteran who put Ferrari back on the F1 map, when Schuey was only six.

Even by the time Niki joined Ferrari in 1974 there was every sign that he was something special. BRM team manger Tim Parnell had no doubt: “You could see straight off that he had that little bit extra; up to that point I had never seen such dedication. Niki also came into F1 at a time when physical fitness had become an issue; he worked away at it and became what I can only describe as 150 per cent fit. He was terribly serious about his racing. It never surprised me that he made it to the top.”

Niki Lauda 1974 Ferrari SPanish GP

Lauda en route to first Ferrari win at Jarama – the first race of 1974

Grand Prix Photo

But Niki admits, with a sly grin, that switching from BRM to Ferrari at the end of 1973 involved something of a risk: “Louis Stanley, the boss of BRM, had already signed me for 1974 and ’75 when I ran out of sponsorship during the course of the year (’73). It was one hell of a gamble but I had no other choice. Then when I signed for Ferrari it was also a big risk because I knew I would have to fend off legal action from BRM as a result. But, really, it was obvious by then that BRM was going nowhere and that if I wanted to have a chance of making it as a professional driver I had to accept that Ferrari deal. If I’d turned it down I don’t think it would have been offered again.”

Enzo Ferrari had watched Lauda man-handle his BRM P160E round Silverstone in the opening stages of the 1973 British Grand Prix (he leapt briefly to second place from the fourth row at the restart), but he would later give credit to Clay Regazzoni, the Swiss driver who was returning to Ferrari in ’74 after a fruitless year with BRM, for the decision to sign Lauda.

Niki Lauda 1974 Ferrari Dutch GP x

Next Ferrari victory at Zandvoort ’74

Grand Prix Photo

“It was he (Regazzoni) who encouraged me in my choice of the racer I had been considering since the British Grand Prix to fill a gap in the team for 1974,” wrote Enzo. “Lauda is young and unknown, but he seems to be bright,” Regazzoni told me. ‘I think he could do a lot with Ferrari.’” And there was a lot to be done, for Lauda had joined the Scuderia at one of its lowest ebbs. Having missed two mid-season GPs altogether, it ended 1973 as a one-car team and joint sixth (with BRM) in the constructors’ standings with just 12 points to its name.

But there was reason for hope, remembers Niki: “When I thought about the facilities I’d experienced with my previous F1 teams, March and BRM, I just could not believe what was available at Ferrari. My first impression? ‘Why don’t they win all the races?’ But of course I was new to it all and didn’t understand the subtleties of working with the Italians.”

From the archive

To be fair, the Italians themselves were still wrestling with that ticklish problem. Fiat, who had been funding Ferrari since 1969, had decided to take a much more active role and to this end plonked a young Luca di Montezemolo, go-ahead scion of the Agnelli family, into the role of team manager. He was there to protect Fiat’s interest — but he did much more than this, handling the unpredictable Enzo with respect and honesty, greatly reducing the team’s Whitehall Farce antics and shielding Lauda from what politics remained. These two men swiftly became great allies: the prototype Schumacher and Jean Todt.

Enzo, though, was still capable of theatrical gestures.

Lauda: “I suppose, as a pragmatic Austrian, that the whole sense of drama was difficult for me to understand. But I like to think that I was pragmatic enough to play the game the way they wanted me to. For example, when I first drove the B3 at Fiorano I told Piero Lardi, who was translating for his father Mr Ferrari, that the car was shit. Piero nervously told me that I really should pull my punches. So I said that it had too much understeer, which it did. So Mr Ferrari told me that I had a week in which to lap one second faster round Fiorano, otherwise I was out. So we made the modifications and delivered the result. It was a piece of cake, actually.”

Niki Lauda 1974 Ferrari Dutch GP a

In the pits at Hockenheim

Grand Prix Photo

That ‘we’ was another reason for hope: Mauro Forghieri was back. After a disappointing 1972 Ferrari’s long-time race designer had found himself sidelined at Special Projects and replaced by Sandro Colombo. This ex-Innocenti designer took the unpopular step of having the new F1 car’s monocoque built in the UK by TC Prototypes of Northampton and then oversaw a season of spiralling apathy and pathetic results. Forghieri was recalled to the team by Fiat before August’s Austrian GP, and he revamped the B3 in just 20 days. It proved only a marginal improvement, but it was a start.

Forghieri was not averse to the occasional madcap tantrum himself — but he was brilliant, had a point to prove and was mulling over a big idea. A formidable talent capable of designing all aspects of a race car, he’d been worn down previously by his concurrent team manager role of Ferrari’s F1 and sport scar outfits. But this pressure had been eased by the arrival of di Montezemolo and the abandonment of the sports car programme after 1973. Forghieri was thus able to forget his ‘Ross Brawn’ role and concentrate on his ‘Rory Byrne’.

Lauda and Forghieri did much more than dial out that understeer. During an intensive winter of R&D at the new Fiorano track (another major plus) the B3 was extensively reworked: for 1974 it featured a much-revised weight distribution — its cockpit being positioned further forward to accommodate more of the 47-gallon fuel load in the centre of the car — and many aerodynamic improvements. Its 3-litre flat-12 now boasted 485bhp at 12,200rpm, a useful 20bhp more than the best of its Cosworth rivals. Lauda used it to great effect to put in the foundations of his reputation and begin the restoration of Ferrari’s. He took comprehensive wins at Spain and Holland, recorded nine poles and two fastest laps, and led in South Africa, Monaco, France, Belgium, Italy and Canada. He wasn’t flawless — he got tangled up on the first lap at the Nürburgring having started from pole — but he was also denied wins at Brands and Mosport by late dramas: a slow puncture and a crash caused by the unflagged detritus of somebody else’s off. He finished fourth in the overall standings, while the slower but more consistent Regazzoni fell just three points shy of the title. It had been a sensational turnaround… and Forghieri had yet to unleash his big idea.

Mauro Forghieri

Mauro Forghieri was able to develop 312 for Lauda into a winning machine

Grand Prix Photo

Towards the end of 1974 Mauro told Lauda that he was thinking of using a transverse-mounted five-speed gearbox fitted ahead of the rear axle line on his ’75 design.

“I have to admit,” says Lauda, “that I was very sceptical of the advantages it would offer. Forghieri was talking about reducing the car’s polar moment of inertia by concentrating all the mass as close to the centre as possible. I’d been through all that with Robin Herd and the March 721X way back in 1972, so I thought, ‘No thanks’. But Mauro persuaded me this would be different. And it was.

From the archive

“I didn’t fully appreciate the advantages it would offer because it seemed such a big change from a chassis about which we knew everything. But the 312T (Trasversale) really did possess totally neutral handling and a wide torque curve. It was a true gem, a lasting monument to Forghieri’s abilities.”

Despite the new car’s apparent technical potential its race debut was held back until the third round of the 1975 world championship, the South African GP at Kyalami. So Niki started the season on a gentle note at the wheel of the old B3, finishing sixth at Buenos Aires and fifth at Interlagos. Then he crashed the 312T in testing in South Africa and could only finish fifth there. It was a huge disappointment. But the car’s performance shortcoming was explicable.

“When the team got it back to Maranello they examined my engine very closely,” says Niki. “They found that the belt driving the fuel metering unit was slipping so badly that the engine was around 80bhp down. There had been criticism in the Italian media of our poor showing in South Africa and this had sapped morale in the race shop. So I suggested that we take a B3 and a 312T over to Fiorano for a back-to-back demonstration. I set a time in the B3 and then broke the track record in the 312T. And everybody was happy again.”

Niki Lauda 1975 Ferrari Spanish GP 3

Lauda won fife races in 1975, his first title year

Grand Prix Photo

Prior to the start of the European grand prix season, Lauda ran in the International Trophy. On the wide open spaces of the Northants aerodrome circuit he just fended off the McLaren M23 of reigning world champion Emerson Fittipaldi to give the Trasversale its first win. Satisfying yes, but just that bit too close for comfort.

“Emerson was certainly the man to beat in 1974, but James Hunt’s Hesketh had led the opening stages at Silverstone,” remembers Lauda. “I switched off the rev-limiter and gave it a quick burst to 12,800rpm, but it didn’t make any difference.” Niki made the mistake of mentioning this to the press and was rewarded when an Italian paper suggested he had been fortunate to win after abusing the engine.

The first European round of the championship was at Barcelona’s superb Montjuich Park, but the race took place amid a furore over track safety. The guard rails were poorly installed and the drivers threatened a boycott, only to reverse this stance and compete after the governing body had intimidated them. Niki was on pole, but Mario Andretti’s Parnelli tipped Regazzoni’s 312T into its sister car on the run to the first corner, eliminating it from a race that would unfold into bitter tragedy when Rolf Stommelen’s Hill vaulted a barrier and killed four onlookers standing in a prohibited area. Lauda’s girlfriend of five years, Mariella Reininghaus, a usually serene member of Salzburg’s brewing dynasty, accused Niki and his colleagues of being hypocrites: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

At Monaco Niki was again on pole — “I’d pulled so much out of the bag to beat Tom Pryce’s Shadow to pole that I was trembling when I got out of the car” — and ran away with the race. Victories followed in the Belgian and Swedish GPs, the latter being a particularly satisfying success given that the Anderstorp track didn’t seem to suit the 312T’s handling characteristics. Then came a memorable Dutch GP at Zandvoort — and a defeat at the hands of Hunt’s Hesketh 308.

“James was my kind of guy,” says Niki. “We would become cast as rivals but we’d been close friends ever since we’d been in F2 together in 1972 and I’d come over to live in London for the first time.”

James drove beautifully that day, but the wet/dry conditions saw the odds stacked slightly in his favour because I was grappling with a wet-weather set-up on a drying track, and also I didn’t want to risk my championship challenge. Scoring more points was the most important thing.” And second was perfectly adequate. Niki now had 38 points, 13 more than Carlos Reutemann, who was driving Bernie Ecclestone’s Martini Brabham BT44B, and 17 ahead of Fittipaldi. And he would need that cushion as the next few races yielded a mixed bag. He ran away with the French GP at Paul Ricard, leading from start to finish from pole, but then his bid began to unravel. In the chaotic, rain-spoiled British GP at Silverstone he lost a wheel in the pitlane after a fumbled tyre stop and was trailing out of the points when a huge thunderstorm brought proceedings to a halt, with Fittipaldi the winner. A puncture dropped him back to third place at the Nürburgring after he’d led the first nine laps. And then he splashed home sixth before his home crowd at a sodden Osterreichring, his race compromised by a dry set-up.

Niki Lauda 1975 Ferrari Dutch GP 2

First title was “almost anti-climatic” after dramatic build-up

Grand Prix Photo

“Austria was a disappointment,” Niki recalls ruefully, “because the flat-12’s wide powerband gave us a potential advantage in the wet, which, on this occasion, the wrong set-up eliminated.

“I still thought that we had the edge overall, but although we were consistently scoring points, these minor problems were getting in the way of things. We certainly should have won more races in 1975.”

Even so, the championship was there for the taking a race early, and in front of the tifosi at Monza, too. Despite a minor problem with a rear damper, Niki paced himself to third place behind Regazzoni and Fittipaldi. It was enough to clinch the first of his three world titles.

“It was strange. Almost an anticlimax,” says Lauda. “There was a mixture of satisfaction and sense of achievement. But so much had happened during the previous four years that it seemed much longer since I’d originally started in F1.

From the archive

“Ferrari was an amazing place and Forghieri was a genius. We had the best car, but I like to think that I made good use of it.”

But how good was Lauda?

It can be difficult to assess. Most fans remember him post-accident: canny and astute, but not the fastest. People forget that he scored 18 GP poles in 1974-75. And in ’76, before the Nürburgring fire, he had exhibited Schumacher-style dominance: first, first, second, second, first, first, third, retired, first.

There’s no doubt that Lauda and Schumacher understand where each is coming from. They both pulled an ailing team — Formula 1’s most famous at that — around and behind them, minimising its negatives, maximising its positives. Lauda was denied the long period of pay dirt success that Schumacher’s initial Ferrari spadework brought him, but his turnaround years at the Scuderia certainly bear comparison with Michael’s.

That’s how good Niki Lauda was. Schumacher knows it and is happy to show it. And so should we be.


Niki in Formula One: The last ten years

Lauda would continue with Ferrari for another two seasons, justifiably gaining heroic status for the manner in which he bounced back from near fatal burns sustained at the Nürburgring in 1976 to win another title in ’77, after which he left Maranello to join Brabham.

He retired from F1 — for the first time — midway through a practice session for the 1979 Canadian GP. He was deeply into his airline business at the time and his interest in racing was fading, particularly as his young team-mate Nelson Piquet was putting him under a lot of pressure.

Two-and-a-half years later, though, he returned to F1 with McLaren, won the third race of the 1982 season and went on to bag his third title in ’84 by the wafer-thin margin of a mere half-point ahead of team-mate Alain Prost. In ’85 he scored his 25th and final GP victory, at Zandvoort, narrowly beating Prost in a bare-knuckle fight.

But Niki was by now visibly tiring. He was 36 and anxious that he should stay alive until the end of what would be his final season. But out of the car he was just the same: gently nodding head, buck-toothed grin, well-versed grasp of zany British humour — and winding up Ron Dennis on every occasion he could. He briefly led his final race, the Australian GP at Adelaide, but spun into the wall after problems with a grabbing brake. There was to be no dream finale for the man affectionately known as ‘The Rat’.

Let Prost have the last word: “I was happy that Niki stayed on for 1985. Okay, he won the ’84 championship, but I could live with that. What was important was the trust between us. I didn’t know Niki when I came to McLaren, but I believed him to be completely honest: by the end of the ’84 season I was certain of it.”

That’s what a good bloke Lauda was.

Nothing’s changed.