Nigel Roebuck's Legends

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Money talks but Niki Lauda still said goodbye to Brabham and Formula One – despite a massive incentive to stay

Andretti, Villeneuve, Reutemann, Scheckter, Jones, Piquet, Pironi, Patrese, Laffite, Arnoux, de Angelis; there was a good spread of mature and youthful talent, you would have to say, in Montreal for the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix. Such as Rosberg and Mass failed to qualify. And so, too, did Niki Lauda — but this was by design.

Niki was going through a strange period in his life. Three years earlier he had survived a life-threatening accident at the Nürburgring, had come back to racing only six weeks later, and very nearly retained his world championship. In 1977, he’d won it back — then promptly renounced Ferrari and accepted Bernie Ecclestone’s offer to go to Brabham. All very Niki.

Since making the move, though, there had not been much in the way of success and, for a man accustomed to several victories a year, that had been hard to take. He had won twice in 1978, but in ’79 there had been nothing. The Brabham-Alfas were usually quick but unreliable, and Lauda’s motivation was on the wane. Not so his team-mate Piquet, of course: in a top team for the first time, Nelson was up for anything.

Some wondered if Lauda had been detuned by the birth of his first child earlier that year. Niki scoffed at that: the arrival of Lukas had made absolutely no difference to the way he felt about his work.

No, it was his attitude to the job itself which had changed. It had become stale. Lauda wondered how to get some zest back into it, and hit on the idea of demanding a retainer quite ludicrous by the standards of the day: two million dollars.

Ecclestone is not renowned for parting with a quid when 90p will do — five years later he would let Piquet leave for Williams rather than pay him more than $1m — but on this occasion he knew the value of Lauda to Brabham’s major sponsor, Parmalat. Over a period of months there was many a discussion about money, but Niki was immoveable, and ultimately he got his way. It was a battle he enjoyed more than any on the racetrack that summer. Problem was, once won, it was over — and Lauda realised it had made no difference to his jaded feelings.

Still, in September he went off to Canada, where a new car awaited. The flat-12 Alfa motors had produced good power, but too many times they had blown apart, and for 1980 it had been decided to revert to Cosworth DFVs. This being so, Gordon Murray was able to design a new car much smaller and neater than its predecessor, and it was ready for the last two grands prix of 1979, Montreal and Watkins Glen.

When Lauda saw the svelte BT49 he knew it was the answer, but still it failed to stir him, and when he drove it in the first practice session his feelings didn’t change. On the one hand, he could appreciate it was nimble and light after the BT48; on the other, the V8 felt coarse and uninspiring after the flat-12. After a quarter of an hour, Niki came in, clambered from the car, and went at once to speak to Ecclestone. He wanted to stop — and right then.

In an F1 paddock there are two types of people: racers and non-racers. Over time Bernie has been called many things, but not too many would dispute that fundamentally he belongs in the first group. That being so, he made no attempt to change his driver’s mind, knowing it would be not only useless but also wrong to try.

Very quickly word spread that something was going on over at Brabham, but Ecclestone had promised Lauda to keep his decision under wraps until he was out of range of the press. Something of a giveaway was a request, from the loudspeakers, for Ricardo Zunino to present himself at the Brabham pits. Zunino was a young Argentinian with F1 aspirations, and a budget to help him realise them. Only as the afternoon session approached did we have confirmation that Lauda had left the track, and that he would not be coming back.

When he changed into civvies that day, he left behind his helmet, overalls, gloves, the lot: he wouldn’t be needing them again.

In point of fact, it was good he did, for Zunino had turned up to spectate, and had none of his gear with him. That being so, he put on what Lauda had discarded and got himself strapped in. Had you been unaware of the unfolding drama, you would have assumed it was Niki out on the circuit again.

Or maybe not. Zunino, coming to terms with F1 horsepower and a circuit he didn’t know, was 3sec away from Piquet.

Lauda, meantime, had driven back to his hotel in the city, checked out, then headed for Mirabel, where he boarded a flight for LA. The only thing on his mind now was building up his fledgling airline. For nearly two years, motor racing would not so much as cross his mind.

If we had our ‘story of the weekend’ that Friday in Montreal, there was plenty more to entertain us, notably one of the tensest two-handers in F1 history. Throughout the first half of 1979 the Williams FW07 had lacked only reliability; now it was finishing races, too, and thus became the class of the field. Clay Regazzoni had scored the team’s first victory, at Silverstone, after which team leader Alan Jones cleaned up at Hockenheim, the Osterreichring and Zandvoort. It was too late to think about the title, but at every race Jones had become the front-runner.

He had but the one rival. Jody Scheckter may have clinched the title at Monza, but it was his team-mate Gilles Villeneuve who truly threatened Williams. On horsepower, the 312T4’s flat-12 had the edge; on grip, the FW07 — unlike the Ferrari a true ‘ground-effect’ car — was way ahead. If you added in the fact that Villeneuve was quicker than anyone else, it was a pretty even fight.

As expected, they started from the front row, Alan and Gilles, and the Ferrari took an immediate lead. In an inherently superior car or not, Jones knew that getting past would not be the work of a moment, but he didn’t expect to follow for 50 laps.

Finally, with 20 laps to the flag, Jones dived by as they went into the hairpin, momentarily nudging Villeneuve as he did so. Briefly the Williams went as much as 3sec in front — but then Gilles was right back on its tail. “Couldn’t believe it,” grinned Alan. “Suddenly that bloody red shitbox was right there again! Never enjoyed racing with anyone like Gilles…” Jeels’, as he always said it.

Although he had lost at home, Villeneuve glowed with exhilaration afterwards. “Jesus,” he murmured, “how can Niki give this up?”

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