Paul Fearnley's Off the line

Beyond the brave

I was too young (nine) and far too wrapped in my support of Mr Hunt to grasp the full enormity of it. That said, I still can't quite today. Come to think of it, I don't think anyone can truly know. Except Niki.

Just over five weeks after receiving the last rites Lauda returned to GP racing at Monza. His scars not yet stable, every time he peeled off his balaclava, slivers of him came with it. But he was here and he was quick — faster than Carlos Reutemann, the man brought in behind his back to replace him. I guess that these were the kind of incentives, targets, Niki needed to pull through. The day after the last rites he was sitting in a chair; by the end of that week he was walking — and discussing future F1 plans; the week after that he underwent the first of many painful skin-graft ops; then he began training, with a view to making his return in Canada. No-one thought he had had a chance. And then he came back a race earlier than rumoured.

From fifth on the grid he dropped to 12th at a shambolic start. In typically precise fashion he worked his way through the pack and was fifth by the time the race settled down on lap 14. Thereafter he picked off Vittorio Brambilla and initial leader Jody Scheckter, no-messin' hombres both, to finish fourth (setting the fourth-fastest lap in the process) and to extend his (net) series lead over Hunt to five points. Perhaps the most incredible drive ever.

Me? I was just annoyed that Tom Pryce had squeezed Hunt off the track early on. Perceptions, you see. Which is why it's hard to think past the image of post-shunt Niki. Did the fiery crash change him or did it change our view of him? We asked Alan Henry, the F1 journalist who knows him best, to return to Niki's earliest Ferrari years, a time when he was collecting pole positions like Nectar points...

He wasn't that quick, was he? Turn to page 40 to find out.

Finally, this is my last month in charge and I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed to the last 57 issues of this national institution. It has been an honour to accept the plaudits — and take the flak — from such a passionate and knowledgeable readership. My replacement Damien Smith has a lot on his plate, but I have no doubt that he's well equipped for the task ahead.

Damo, good luck — and enjoy it. Believe me when I say that there is nothing else quite like it.