Needless to say, the very pinnacle of motorsport is a roll call of one hero after another – all of them displaying not just immense talent, but also equal amounts of determination and drive (pardon the pun). But even among the best of the best, there are a few who manage to still stand out as something truly extraordinary. There can be no debate that Niki Lauda was one such driver!
Aged 70, Niki Lauda died during his sleep last week on the 20th May while at the University Hospital in Zurich. On that day, motorsport lost one of the most prominent figures it has ever seen. With three F1 Driver’s Championships to his name; a formidable racing driver of course, but also an excellent manager off the track during his later years. Lauda was not just fast; he was also intelligent, strong-willed and showed a desire to not just win – but to live – which far exceeded most others.
Niki – or Andreas Nikolaus Lauda to use his full name – was born into a very wealthy Austrian family, who strongly opposed his interest in motorsport. Despite this, Niki continued to pursue his passion with his first race behind the wheel of a Mini, soon on moving to more powerful cars such as a Porsche 911. From here, like many other racing drivers trying to move themselves up the ranks of motorsport, he progressed into Formula Vee, while he also found significant success racing touring cars like the BMW 2002 and not least the CSL and even sportscars like the Porsche 908 and Chevron B19.
On the back of his good family name – and despite continued disapproval from his family – Niki managed to take out a significant loan so as to pay his way into Formula 2 with the March team. This quickly led to his first Formula 1 debut with the March team for the 1972 season where he drove alongside teammate Ronnie Peterson. However, the March 721 was a failure and Niki left at the end of the season to try his luck with BRM for the 1973 season with new teammate Clay Regazzoni. However, the BRM team was in decline and while Niki showed both speed and talent, the big results failed to materialise. At the end of the season, Regazzoni left BRM and moved back to Ferrari, and this turned out to be Niki’s big break. There was no doubt that Niki was quick, but he was still new to F1 and a bit of an unknown quantity. But the great Enzo Ferrari enquired with Regazzoni about his Austrian teammate, and as Regazzoni had nothing but accolades for Niki, Enzo promptly signed him to the team for the 1974 season.
Niki quickly rewarded Ferrari for giving him the chance to prove himself. In his debut race for the team he finished a strong second, and only three races later, at the Spanish GP, he collected his first F1 victory – and Ferrari’s first since 1972 having had a terrible 1973 season. Niki continued to prove himself fast out on track and finished fourth in the F1 Driver’s Championship for 1974.
Still with Ferrari, the following season started a little slow for Niki, but from the season’s fifth race he upped his game and became the pace-setting driver for the remainder of the season, winning five races with several other strong podium finishes. With the new Ferrari 312T, Niki won the Driver’s Championship for 1975 by a significant margin, while the combined efforts of Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni handed Ferrari their first Constructor’s Championship in 11 years.
In a bizarre twist of fate, it is perhaps the 1976 season which Niki is best remembered for – the season where he lost the Driver’s Championship by a single point. The season was off to an excellent start for Niki who won five of the first nine races with podium finishes in all but one race. He seemed virtually unstoppable in his quest to secure his second World Championship. But then came that fateful German GP at the old Nürburgring. Led largely by Niki, the drivers showed concern about the safety of the 23 km long Nordschleife. Ultimately though, the race proceeded. But tragedy struck already on lap two where Niki – presumably due to suspension failure – lost control of his Ferrari and impacted the wall at the high-speed left kink just before Bergwerk. His car was immediately engulfed in flames and then further struck by Brett Lunger in the Surtees. While Lunger got out of his damaged car, Niki was trapped within his burning wreck. Other drivers stopped to assist and the brave Arturo Merzario pulled Niki from the inferno while Brett Lunger, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl assisted as well.
Niki had severe burns to his face and had also inhaled hot toxic gases which had damaged both his lunges and blood. Even so, he was conscious just after the crash and even able to stand on his own feet, though he later lapsed into a coma. While clinging to his life, Niki was even given his last rites at the hospital. But Niki was a fighter if ever there was one. Not only did he cheat death, but a mere six weeks later he returned to racing; face badly scarred from the burns and still wearing bandages across his head. He had missed two races and James Hunt was in hot pursuit for the Driver’s Championship. But Niki fought hard and despite the excruciating pain he would have been in, he managed an unbelievable fourth place in his return race at Monza. Niki always did perform best when he was under immense pressure. The challenge for the championship continued right up to the last race of the season in Japan. Torrential rain again had the drivers concerned about safety. Niki was ahead of Hunt by three points before the race, but at the end of lap two, Niki elected to enter the pits and withdrew from the race as he found the conditions too dangerous. Other drivers followed suit, but Hunt charged on eventually finishing third in the race which was just enough to put him ahead of Niki by one point in the chase for the Driver’s Championship.
The following season, Niki’s good relationship with Ferrari suffered from his decision withdraw from the race in Japan. Even so, Niki proved unbeatable; not so much due to outright speed, but more through consistency. He only managed three wins, but was on the podium ten times out of the 17 races in the 1977 season. This was sufficient for him to win his second F1 Driver’s Championship ahead of Jody Scheckter, and with the other Ferrari driver, Carlos Reutemann finishing the season fourth, Ferrari even walked away with yet another Constructor’s Championship for their collection.
After leaving Ferrari, Niki had two hugely disappointing seasons with the Parmalat-sponsored Brabham-Alfa Romeo team. Needless to say, Niki was still fast as ever, but for the 1978 season he was forced to retire from nine out of the 16 races. Despite putting himself on the podium in every race that the Brabham car actually managed to finish that year, it was still only enough for a fourth in the Driver’s Championship. Sadly, the 1979 season only got worse! There were 15 races in the season, and out of the first 13, Niki only managed to finish two races. With another two races still left in the season, Niki not only left Brabham, but actually retired from motorsport all together. Instead, Niki turned his attention to running Lauda Air, a charter airline, which he had founded earlier in 1979.
However, for the 1982 season, Niki returned to Formula 1 for an unprecedented $ 3 million contract with McLaren. After organising a driver’s strike leading up to the very first race after his comeback, he went on to finish a respectable fourth. The rest of the season was fairly average though with only two wins, a fair few retirements and only a fifth place in the Driver’s Championship. The following season got even worse as it was quite the transitional season for the McLaren team as they moved from Cosworth engines to the TAG-badged Porsche turbo engines. Niki didn’t win a single race all season.
For the 1984 season, McLaren were back on track and quite frankly blew their opponents away. Niki was teamed up with Alain Prost this season, and between the two of them, they brought home the victory for McLaren in 12 of the seasons 16 races, resulting in the constructor’s title not surprisingly going to McLaren-TAG with more than double the amount of points held by second place Ferrari. It was McLarens first title since 1974. But more significantly for Niki, finishing first in five races compared to Prost’s seven times, Niki still managed to secure his third F1 Driver’s Championship by half a point – the smallest margin in all of Formula 1 history.
The following 1985 season turned out to be an unlucky one for Niki. Still racing with Prost in the McLaren team, Niki would generally match his team mate on pace. But Niki was forced to retire from 11 of the seasons 16 races and only managed a single victory, thus leaving his younger teammate to take his first of four F1 Driver’s Championships and marginally handing McLaren-TAG another constructor’s title. After 171 starts in Formula 1, 25 wins, 54 podiums, three Driver’s Championships and probably the most awe-inspiring comeback from a major accident, Niki eventually announced his final retirement from Formula 1 at the end of the 1985 season.
After this, Lauda concentrated on running his airline. Yet his love for motorsport was strong and he couldn’t quite leave it behind him. He always stayed close to car manufacturers and when Luca di Montezemolo offered him a manager position at the Ferrari team in 1993, Niki returned to Formula 1 – albeit off the track. Later he assumed the role of principle manager of the Jaguar Formula 1 team for the latter half of the 2001 season and the following 2002 season. Then for the final seven years of his life, he was an influential part of the Mercedes-Benz AMG Petronas Formula 1 team where he was appointed as a non-executive chairman and of which he owned 10% himself.
Niki Lauda was perhaps not the very fastest driver to race in Formula 1, but he most certainly brought something to the table which no other driver had or has. He was smart, strong-willed, made quick and calculated decisions and never looked back. Arguably, his personality and skills changed Formula 1 forever. Niki, you will be sorely missed by all…