Niki Lauda was one of Formula 1’s greatest world champions. The dominant driver of the mid 1970s, he was so badly injured in a fiery accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix that a priest read him the last rites. Remarkably, he was racing again within six weeks – his was a story of defiance, courage and more than a little talent.
Early career struggles
That Lauda would eventually win three world championships had seemed extremely unlikely as he struggled in the junior formulae. He began his career in hillclimbs during the mid 1960s but showed little promise once he had graduated to Formula 3.
With a bank loan and some sponsorship from Bosch, Lauda joined the new March team for the 1971 European Formula 2 Championship. He qualified and finished second behind his team-mate Ronnie Peterson in a heat at Rouen-les-Essarts before coming fourth in the final. That was an isolated highlight in a largely unremarkable season.
Formula 1 in the midfield
Lauda did make his F1 debut in the Austrian GP that year driving a third works March 711-Ford but he retired without making an impression. However, he was determined and unshakable in his inner belief so Lauda remortgaged the family house to continue with the team in 1972, racing in both F1 and F2.
The new F1 March 721X was a disaster but Lauda was more competitive in F2. Second in the opening European round at Mallory Park and fifth in the championship, he won the 1972 John Player British F2 Championship after victory at Oulton Park.
Without a drive for the 1973 F1 season, Lauda arrived uninvited at a Marlboro BRM test at Paul Ricard and persuaded the team to allow him to show what he could do. Quick that day, he drove a BRM P160 that year and a previously unimpressive pay-driver suddenly began to show promise. He finished fifth in the Belgian GP at Zolder, ran third at Monaco and qualified fifth at the Nürburgring. He fractured his wrist during the German GP but his form was enough to attract Ferrari’s attention.
Ferrari’s new star delivers the title
Keen to rebuild its once great team, the Italians signed Lauda for 1974. He was a revelation with his Ferrari 312B3 on pole position nine times and the winner in Spain and Holland. However, inexperience and an accident while leading in Canada saw Lauda’s championship hopes fade and he was fourth in the final points.
The Austrian was now the class of the field and 1975 would be Lauda’s year. Ferrari introduced the 312T (with transverse gearbox) at round three and Lauda dominated. A mid-season run of four victories and a second place followed and Lauda fittingly clinched the World Championship by finishing third at Monza. A fifth victory at Watkins Glen only emphasised his form.
The Nürburgring accident and second world title for Ferrari
The 1976 F1 season is the stuff of legend and was immortalised in Ron Howard’s film Rush. Lauda’s title defence began in winning fashion despite spirited opposition from McLaren’s new recruit James Hunt. The rivals became firm friends but it was a season tinged with controversy. When Hunt was excluded from the British GP, Lauda had won his fifth race of the year to establish an apparently unassailable 31 point lead in the championship.
However, his suspension failed at Bergwerk on the second lap of the next round at the Nürburgring. Lauda suffered a violent accident and was severely burnt in the ensuing fire. Saved by his fellow drivers, doctors initially feared for his life but Lauda returned for the Italian GP having missed just two races with his terrible scars far from healed. Hunt had cut Lauda’s points lead in half by that time. The Englishman clinched the title by a single point when Lauda withdrew from the Japanese finale, judging with some justification that the monsoon conditions were too unsafe to race.
Much criticised in Italy, Lauda responded in style and an emotional German GP win (now at Hockenheim) 12 months after his accident was one of three victories during 1977. He finished fourth in the United States GP to secure another World Championship but his relationship with Ferrari had been harmed by that Fuji withdrawal and became increasingly difficult.
The Brabham years and first retirement
Nothing if not an independent and decisive man, Lauda skipped the last two races after clinching the 1977 title as he had already signed with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham-Alfa Romeo team for 1978. Despite a Lotus-dominated year, Lauda won twice, on a one-off with the controversial ‘fan-car’ in Sweden and again amid the gloom of Monza – a race that claimed the life of Ronnie Peterson.
His only victory of a difficult 1979 season was the non-championship Enzo e Dino Ferrari GP at Imola. Lauda then stunned the sport and Brabham in Canada by suddenly quitting after practice. He no longer “wanted to drive a racing car around in circles” so he walked away from F1 with immediate effect to devote his energies to establishing his new airline Lauda Air. He started the business with two Fokker F27s but Lauda met with concerted opposition from the Austrian aviation authorities. However, the sport still proved irresistible for the man nicknamed “The Rat”.
Formula 1 return with McLaren delivers a third title
McLaren tempted him out of retirement in 1982 and Lauda showed he was still a top F1 driver by winning at Long Beach and Brands Hatch with the carbon fibre McLaren MP4/1-Ford. Lauda helped develop the new TAG-financed Porsche turbo engine in 1983 and would reap the rewards a year later.
Previous team-mate John Watson was replaced by outstanding young Frenchman Alain Prost for 1984 and their McLaren MP4/2-TAGs enjoyed a dominant season. Prost may have been quicker over a single lap but Lauda drove with an eye on a third world title. They traded victories all year and Lauda did enough to steal the title by just half a point at the Estoril finale – the closest finish in championship history. Lauda raced for one more season and scored a 25th and final victory in the 1985 Dutch GP before hanging up his helmet again – this time forever.
Life after Formula 1
Lauda Air had 550 employees and a turnover of £40 million by 1991 but one of its Boeing 767s crashed shortly after take-off from Bangkok that year. The airline was acquired by Austrian Airlines in 2000 after which Lauda continued to work in F1 – consultant to Ferrari before becoming Team Principal with the ill-fated Jaguar Racing concern for 2001 and 2002. He was appointed as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes GP team in 2012 and helped attract Lewis Hamilton to the team. A very public face during its recent championship-winning years, Lauda had a lung transplant in 2018 and passed away in May 2019.
Always outspoken, naturally fast and with a precise racing mind unrivalled among his peers, Niki Lauda’s place as one of the best is without question. And his scars remained a permanent reminder of one man’s courage and single bloody-mindedness.