I woke up on a bright Tuesday morning feeling in good spirits. I usually check the news on my phone before I get up to brush my teeth and go to work. A dark cloud emerged as I saw the news that Niki Lauda had died. I was thinking to myself ‘what?!’ It really shocked me and by the reactions I saw on social media, millions around the world felt the same way.
The story of how he came back from his horrific accident in 1976 is simply unequalled. He is and always will be one of the greatest drivers of all time. Even saying that, however, is an understatement of how great the man was. He was more or less the heart and soul of Formula One and unquestionably the driver of the 1970s.
World Titles: 3 (1975, 1977 and 1984)
Fastest Laps: 24
The Early Years
Lauda’s family wanted him to pursue a career as a businessman after struggling to do well at school. He had other ideas, however, and became a racing driver. His family disapproved of his decision, but his determination and will allowed him to get passed that criticism and keep on going. He began by racing Minis and then moved up to Formula Vee (one of the lower single seater categories of that time). He also entered into private Porsche and Chevron sports cars racing. Things were certainly looking on the up already, but Lauda ran into financial difficulties as time went on. He persevered though and kept going as he took out a £30,000 bank loan and bought a single seater racer from the March team to race in the Formula Two championship. This put drove Lauda closer to the Formula One seat he had always dreamed of.
1972 and 1973 – Lauda’s first two seasons in Formula One were unsuccessful to say the least as he raced for the uncompetitive March and BRM teams. He did enough, however, to impress Enzo Ferrari and he made his way to the gates of Maranello in a heartbeat. The huge leap up in the quality of his machinery along with all of the pressure being put on him from the partisan Italian crowd didn’t faze Lauda one bit as he finished in the top four of the standings in 1974.
It was seen as a good warm-up for the next season where he was actually in a championship-winning position. With nine pole positions and five victories to his name, Lauda won the championship in dominant fashion. His closest rival, Emerson Fittipaldi, was 19.5 points behind. He finally achieved his ultimate goal of winning the Formula One world championship. The sacrifices he made to get to this position were gruelling, but it clearly demonstrated the self-belief he had.
Lauda was seen as the first driver in the sport to really work hard with the engineers and mechanics to find the best car setup for different tracks. This was seen as quite innovative and he changed the way how teams work together to achieve success. Drivers since Lauda’s era have continued to put this approach into practice.
The infamous 1976 season and the aftermath
The 1976 season is remembered as one of the most iconic seasons that the Formula One world has ever witnessed. Even sports fans in general would talk about the events of that season over a few pints in the pub. Lauda won half of the races and looked set to take the crown for the second time in a row after nine races. All of that was about to change though.
Lauda opted to change to slick tyres in mixed conditions as the track continued to dry out. His strategy backfired as his Ferrari slid into the barriers and became engulfed in flames. The Austrian was sitting in the car half conscious with first degree burns and lungs full of toxic fumes from the fuel they used back then. Four marshals and a fellow driver helped to pull Lauda out of the wreckage.
I often notice that people remember Niki Lauda as “the guy who had that crash”, which makes me feel sad as I’m sure no one wants to be remembered that way. I feel that if anyone wants to remember him for anything related to the crash, they should talk what happened next.
Forty days after the crash, Lauda went against the doctors advice and returned to the cockpit for Ferrari’s home race at Monza. He finished in a heroic fourth position in a race that he shouldn’t have even competed in. This still gave him the chance to clinch the title at the last race of the season in Japan. He led his main rival, James Hunt, by four points. The mental scars that have been left within the flames of the devious prancing horse, made Lauda decide to bow out of the rain-sodden race on lap two. This gave Hunt the title by a single point.
Even though Lauda finished as the runner-up, I’m still left speechless to this day by how he dealt with the repercussions of his accident. He demonstrated to us all that you should never give up no matter what the circumstances of your situation are. That courage, tenacity and integrity can combine as one to help you keep going.
He then won the title with Ferrari for a second time in 1977 by 17 points. The Austrian left the Italian team at the end of the season, however, as his relationship with the team and his team-mate, Carlos Reutemann, rapidly deteriorated. The management at Ferrari disapproved of the Austrian’s decision to withdraw from the title decider of the previous season.
This was absolutely mind-blowing as you couldn’t have imagined the mental and physical pain that Lauda was going through whilst driving the car at top speed.
Lauda moved to the Brabham team in 1978, which began the next chapter of his career. He was offered a $1 million salary, which was staggering at the time. He had two unsuccessful seasons with the team though, only scoring two victories in Sweden and Italy. He made the decision to retire in the season that followed in order to concentrate on setting up his own Airline business.
The McLaren days
Lauda made a return to Formula One in 1982 with McLaren. He won in only his third race back. In a race full of overtaking, Lauda moved his way through the field from the back of the grid to earn a hard fought victory. He claimed another win at Brands Hatch by putting in some more cracking overtaking manoeuvres. His race craft was definitely still there after three years away.
He endured a tough 1983 season, however, where he didn’t win a race and finished tenth in the drivers championship. I couldn’t help but feel that the Austrian’s consistency was waning a tad.
1984 though was a prime example of how quickly things can turn around. Lauda didn’t score a single pole position, but he won five races and beat his team-mate, Alain Prost, who was the upcoming star at the time. He piped the Frenchman by half a point. The fact that Lauda singled Prost out as his toughest rival only adds to this tremendous achievement. You could sadly see though that his Formula One career was now in the twilight stages.
The next season confirmed this as Lauda was consistently outperformed by Prost who was still his team-mate. He wasn’t ready to pass the baton on just yet though as both McLarens engaged in a titanic scrap at the Dutch Grand Prix, which Lauda won. It was the last shining moment we saw in Lauda’s driving career and it was certainly a fitting end to one of the most decorated careers ever.
Life after Formula One
Eight years later, the horse within the Ferrari logo was no longer prancing and needed new energy to start galloping again. The team principal at the time, Jean Todt, appointed Lauda as a consultant for the team. The partnership didn’t live up to its expectations, however, and the horse still hadn’t moved an inch.
Two ill-fated seasons as team-principal at Jaguar in 2001 and 2002, didn’t help Lauda’s reputation too much. He still made regular appearances within the paddock and entertained drivers, team personnel and journalists with his dry and comical personality.
He developed a close friendship with one driver in particular. Lewis Hamilton.
In September 2012, Lauda was appointed as the non-executive chairman of Mercedes. He tempted Hamilton into signing for the Silver Arrows with ease and in the six seasons they spent as colleagues, Hamilton reflected on how much of a mentor Lauda had been to him. The Austrian made a big contribution to the four world titles that Hamilton won with the German giants. His inspirational spirit gave the five-time world champion the boost he needed to become the world’s number one.
From the times of working hard to establish his own racing career to helping Mercedes dominate the sport, Niki Lauda has been the one of the most influential figures in Formula One. The sacrifices he made to chase his dream have all of the similarities to the sacrifices that Ayrton Senna made. His no-nonsense approach to the roles he had after his racing career made him a much loved personality in the paddock. He was the breath of fresh air that everyone in the Formula One industry needed to have a break from the political correctness that dominates the media today. His story will continue to inspire millions around the world for many years to come. With the heart of a lion and the soul of a free spirit, Niki Lauda is the heart and soul of Formula One.