In 1975, when Bill Gates and Paul Allen had just invented Microsoft, a man by the name of Andreas Nikolaus “Niki” Lauda had just won his first F1 Worlds Drivers’ Championship. With discipline, dedication and a few bank loans, Lauda was on his way to winning his 2nd F1 Championship when tragedy struck and he was involved in a horrific accident.
Most know him as Niki Lauda, a former F1 driver and a three-time F1 champion who still holds the record as the only driver to win for both Ferrari and McLaren, winning in 1975, 1978 and 1984. But most of those who weren't around at the time won’t know how he got to where he was.
Lauda started his racing career with a Mini, YES... a Mini Cooper, much like Mr beans car. Later he moved onto Formula Vee, also known as Formula Volkswagen – which is a funny looking open wheel, single seater, junior motor racing competition in central Europe – that is still ongoing today. Luckily, with his fast progress and edgy skills, he moved up to drive in private Porshe and Chevron sports cars.
Lauda became a racing driver despite his family’s disapproval, they had fought so much about it that he lost contact with them and this only pushed him harder. When his career stalled because of the lack of sponsorship and finances from his wealthy family, he was forced to take out a 30,000-pound bank loan to get his own car built by March Engineering. He became an F2 driver in 1971 and it wasn’t long until Lauda’s driving skills impressed the March Engineering principle, Robin Herd, and he was promoted to F1. Unfortunately, the 1972 F1 season was catastrophic.
Lauda left March Engineers and had to take out another loan to get into the British Racing Motors in 1973. While there, his team mate, Clay Regazzoni, left for the Ferrari team. A short time later Ferrari signed Lauda all because Regazzoni spoke so favourably of him. Thankfully, Niki was getting paid enough to clear all of his debts in 1974.
The Ferrari 312
His new team soon grew fond of Lauda when he raced his first Ferrari, the Ferrari 312 3.0 litre V12, in the Argentinian Grand Prix. He came 2nd overall in the driver's championship that year after achieving 6 consecutive pole positions, even though he only won one more race because of mechanical unreliability. Until he committed to improving the car himself, he basically told Ferrari that the 312 was a piece of sh*t.
The Ferrari 312T
The start of the 1975 F1 season was a slow one where Lauda finished no better than 5th place but then won the next 5 driving his new and improved 312T. The car was powered by a flat-12 engine which gave around 510 bhp, the T stood for 'transverse five-speed gearbox', which was mounted ahead of the rear-axle and improved the cars handling characteristics – which had been the downfall of the 312's unreliable chassis.
1975, and his first world championship was confirmed when he came 3rd in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Ferrari got their first championship win in 11 years too, and this would be a big celebration. Lauda was a humble winner who always congratulated his competition and gave away any trophies he won to his local garage in exchange for a wash and service.
In 1976, Lauda won the first four races of the F1 season, finishing second in the other two. He had more than doubled the points of his closest competition, James Hunt, and it seemed a second world championship was on the horizon.
One week before the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Lauda urged his fellow drivers to boycott the race, mainly because it was one of the most dangerous circuits but also because weather conditions were forecasted not to improve. Being the fastest driver on the circuit at that time, his fellow teammates took the rainy conditions as an opportunity to try and beat him.
On August 1st, 1976, during the second lap at the very fast left kink with a partly wet circuit, Lauda and his Ferrari swerved off the track, hit the embankment and burst into flames – on top of that, a Ford racer hit the Ferrari too. Lauda was trapped for nearly a minute in 427+ degree Celsius inferno before anyone was able to pull him out. His hands, eyelids and scalp were severely burned, his right ear charred off by the flames and the inhaled hot toxic gases damaged his lungs and poisoned his blood. Lauda was wearing a modified helmet that had compressed and slid off his face, leaving it exposed to the flames. This man still stood up and was conscious immediately after the accident! It was only later that he lapsed into a coma. “Another 10 seconds and I would have died,” says Lauda. (Take a look at footage of the crash below.)
Lauda wife at the time said that, when she arrived at the hospital to see him, she fainted in shock from the sight of her husband. Unbelievably, after only 6 weeks, he returned to racing – I would say THAT is dedication. An F1 journalist recalls seeing Lauda in the pits getting ready for his race, peeling blood soaked bandages off his scalp. He had to wear a specially adapted helmet so he wouldn’t be in too much pain but imagine trying to put a helmet on your head with severe burns, it must be as painful and uncomfortable as it gets.
His first race back was the Japanese GP but Lauda retired on the second lap, not only because the torrential rains made it unsafe but mainly because his eyes couldn’t stop watering excessively, his fire damaged tear ducts made it impossible to blink. His relationship at this point with Ferrari was severely affected after he pulled out of the Japanese GP but who can blame the guy?Ferrari went as far as signing a new teammate who made it apparent that he was there to make life difficult for Lauda, possibly a scheme to get him off the team. If anything I’m glad Lauda quit Ferrari at seasons end.
Lauda then raced with a Brabham Alfa Romeo BT46B, powered by a flat-12 Alpha Romeo engine. The “B” variant of the car was also known as the 'Fan Car' because it generated an immense amount of downforce by means of a fan. Lauda took the F1 World Championship in this car in 1978 but retired a year later as he reportedly had no more desire to “drive around in circles”. Instead, he founded a chartered airline called Lauda Air. Clearly, cars weren’t fast enough for him anymore.
When Lauda got tired of aeroplanes, he returned to racing for his 3rd world Title with McLaren in 1986. The racing season began at Kyalami Racetrack in SA and ended in Austria, where he was the first person to win a home Grand Prix.
His 3rd world title came in Portugal where he started 11th on the grid while his then biggest competition started on the front row. He came second with his McLaren MP4/1E which had a 1.5 Litre V6 TAG Porshe Turbo engine that produced 650bhp (485kW; 659 PS) during the race, although it was up to 800bhp in qualifying set up.
His McLaren team mate came first, giving Lauda enough points to secure his 3rd world championship. He retired for good at the age of 36 and only returned to F1 for managerial positions, first at Ferrari, then Jaguar and eventually Mercedes. Lauda took part in the negotiations of signing Lewis Hamilton, who essentially became the new champion of F1.
A movie called 'Rush", about Niki Lauda and James Hunt's competitive relationship both on and off the track, was released in 2013 (with Lauda’s directional input) for a visual representation of his life. It's definitely worth a watch as it reveals a ton about this man and his incredible journey.