North America has always been a happy hunting ground for McLaren as the record books duly show, with James Hunt’s victory in 1976 at Watkins Glen being the team’s first such F1™ success which was repeated by the Englishman the following year.
In 1982, by which time Niki Lauda had cut his deal to accept Ron Dennis’s imaginative invitation to come out of retirement, McLaren was able to record its next victory against the backdrop of the stars and stripes.
It might have been a decision which prompted Lauda's wife Marlene to comment spontaneously: “You must be raving mad!” but typically Niki had thought the proposition through very carefully before committing his reputation as a twice World Champion on the F1™ firing line.
Lauda’s comeback season at the wheel of the radical carbon-fibre McLaren MP1/4B followed on from two-and-a-half seasons in retirement during which time he concentrated on building up his emergent airline Lauda Air. It was a very busy period in the Austrian’s life and he freely confessed that, through much of that period, he could attend an F1™ race without feeling a pang of remorse.
“For two years I didn’t take any real interest in motor racing,” he freely admitted. “It was a chapter in my life I believed was over. My interest was now flying, and it absorbed me totally. I could watch a Grand Prix start and not feel even the slightest tremble of excitement or enthusiasm.”
It genuinely seemed as though the moment had passed as far as his rekindling an F1 career was concerned. Until he found himself one day thinking, “I wonder.”
After accepting an invitation to test a McLaren at Donington Park after the end of the 1981 season, Niki quickly took the pragmatic decision that he would accept Ron’s far-sighted invitation. Having been one of the relatively small number of drivers to maximise their physical fitness potential during his time with Ferrari and Brabham during the 1970s, working to regain the necessary levels of fitness held no worries for the pragmatic Austrian.
“Once I had made the decision to come back, the rest was easy,” he recalled. “Ok, so I had a few fleeting doubts when I did that Donington test for the first time, but it was my own fault in a way. I’d put myself in a new car, a car I’d never seen before, on radial tyres that I’d never tried before. But the worry soon passed. By the end of the day, I reckoned I could do it.”
The 1982 season kicked off with the South African GP at Johannesburg’s Kyalami circuit and Niki ran smoothly, seamlessly to fifth place at the chequered flag. He retired from the second round at Rio after bending his McLaren’s suspension in a brush with another car.
The footprint in the history books of North American Grand Prix racing was then confirmed with Niki pulling out all the stops to deliver a five-star performance through the streets of Long Beach, California. The challenging event through the coastal city had first joined the World Championship schedule in 1976 when Lauda finished second in the Ferrari, but victory had proved elusive for the Austrian. Until he returned there at the wheel of a McLaren.
Pole position at Long Beach fell to former McLaren man Andrea de Cesaris who had switched from the Woking squad to Alfa Romeo at the end of the previous year. Andrea stormed into an immediate lead, but gradually became increasingly ragged as he struggled to maintain his early advantage. Eventually Niki wore him down, nipped through to lead the race and eventually found himself in a position where he could ease back at the head of the field after Andrea brushed the wall and retired from the contest. Now all that remained for Niki to do was to pace himself ahead of Keke Rosberg’s Williams FW07C to take the win.
Niki would later win again in the British GP at Brands Hatch. Proof, if such were needed, that F1™ comebacks can be made successfully, if you prepare and plan them like Niki Lauda did.