Nigel Roebuck's legends

It is 30 years since Niki Lauda's fiery crash left him hovering between life and death; 40 days later he raced again, and finished fourth in a grand prix. It was an extraordinary feat of determination and personal bravery

Monza. The 2006 Italian Grand Prix is a few days away as I write, and 30 years have passed since the most remarkable happening I have ever encountered in motor racing. In the '76 Italian Grand Prix reigning World Champion Niki Lauda finished fourth in a Ferrari. It doesn't sound much at all as a bald statistic. Already that season, after all, he had won at Interlagos, Kyalami, Zolder and Brands, finished second at Long Beach and Jarama, third at Anderstorp. Going to Monza, he was well ahead on points, his nearest challengers James Hunt and Jody Scheckter. That's what the record book will tell you.

Look more closely, though; Lauda had not so much as taken part in the two most recent grands prix, at the Osterreichring and Zandvoort. And neither did he score in the one before that, at the Nürburgring. Indeed, by the time the German GP started, they were fighting to keep Niki alive.

In point of fact this was a restart, with the race to be run over the full 14 laps. In effect, a whole new grand prix, with original grid positions. "The first race," said someone years later, "never happened," and Lauda responded vigorously. "If it never happened," he said, in that deep growl, "then what happened to my f***' car?"

If you weren't around in their era, the black humour in which Lauda and his contemporaries still indulge might take you aback. In these 'plain vanilla, health and safety, days', as Martin Brundle calls them, we are not used to joking of that kind, but time was when black humour necessarily abounded in motor racing. A pressure valve, if you like, an escape route.

At around lunchtime on August 1, 1976, rain began to come down over the 14-mile Nürburgring. By two o'clock it was declared a 'wet race' and 25 of the 26 cars were put on to wet tyres. Only the McLaren of Jochen Mass, who figured it was worth gambling on improving conditions, remained on slicks. He was right. He completed a first, tricky, lap in third place, behind Ronnie Peterson and Hunt, but on the second lap the track, drying swiftly, really came to him, and he went by the pits leading Peterson by 30sec! Jochen was going to walk his home race.

As it was, though, only 12 more cars followed him. The remaining 13 were stopped on the circuit, near Bergwerk, where Lauda had unaccountably — disastrously — crashed. It was a scene from Hades. One of the Ferrari's fuel tanks had ripped open, and a piece of catch-fencing had plucked Niki's helmet off, leaving his head protected only by a fireproof balaclava. Following drivers tried to miss the wreck, but Brett Lunger and Harald Ertl were unable to. They, along with Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards, leaped from their cars and ran to Lauda's aid. There was no medical help immediately available, no time for worrying about possible neck injuries. Niki simply had to be got out of that fire.

Lauda has always acknowledged a particular debt of gratitude to Merzario, for he it was who put his hands into the fire to release the seat belt buckle. "It wasn't easy," Arturo remembers, "because Niki was obviously in agony, and straining hard against the belts, trying to get away from the flames. Thank God he eventually lost consciousness — it was only when he relaxed that I could free the buckle..."

Finally an ambulance arrived, and away went Lauda to the University Clinic in Mannheim. They ran the race without further serious incident, and James Hunt won, the last man ever to do so at the Nordschleife.

His team-mate Mass, meantime, had to be content with third place. "Yes, I'd have won if the race hadn't been stopped," Jochen smiles now, "but it wasn't really the time to moan, was it?"

That evening at the Nürburgring was edgy as hell, for the news of Lauda's condition was dire. Apart from the burns, he had inhaled toxic fumes, both from the burning bodywork and from fire extinguishers.

I remember having a beer with Denis Jenkinson. "A great pity," said Jenks. "He was the best of this generation..." Then I set off for the ferry, listening constantly to radio reports, expecting to hear Niki had died.

But Lauda, to our relief, made it through the night. He had felt himself going to sleep, letting go, he later said. It was vital, he somehow knew, not to give way and he forced himself to stay awake.

By the Tuesday Lauda was in serious breathing difficulties, and his blood oxygen level was perilously low. That day he was given the Last Rites but Niki railed at that; thereafter his condition began to improve, and dramatically. A week later he was having skin grafts, and word began to emerge that not only did he intend to race again, but maybe this year.

That seemed fanciful, to say the least, but who would ever bet against Niki Lauda? He missed the Austrian and Dutch races, but on September 10, just 40 days after the accident, he was back in the Ferrari at Monza, and ready for the opening day of practice.

In fact, as Niki later allowed, he wasn't ready at all, physically or mentally. He was by no means healed, or even close to it, and when he took to the track he frightened himself severely, to the point of throwing up. Back in his hotel he thought things through, and the next day he was fine. Better than fine. Remarkably, he qualified fifth, faster than fellow Ferrari drivers Clay Regazzoni and Carlos Reutemann, the latter hired by Enzo on the assumption that Lauda wasn't coming back, maybe ever.

And the next day Niki finished fourth, behind Peterson, Regazzoni and Laffite. No one could quite take it in. I was in the Ferrari pit afterwards, watching silently as he gingerly peeled his balaclava from the fresh wounds.

"Niki had no right to be driving there," said Jackie Stewart, "because he was nowhere near healed. It was the most courageous thing I have ever witnessed in sport."

Lauda, of course, puts forward a more pragmatic explanation of that weekend, but none exists. Everything I have seen of the man since has been coloured by those few seconds in the pits at Monza.

Black humour again. In May of this year Lauda and Merzario, together with Bernie Ecclestone and Niki's son, Mattias, went back to the Nordschleife, to the place where the accident happened. Photographs, and the odd schnapps, were taken. "For years some journalists tried to get me to go back to Bergwerk," says Lauda, "maybe in the hope that I'd let my emotions run riot and burst into tears. Unfortunately for them, I was always more likely to say, ‘Ah, yes, the Grill Room...’"