When this frail-looking, buck-toothed Austrian arrived on the F1 scene with nothing more than a sponsors’ cheque and a head full of big ideas to bankroll his big ideas it seems amazing that he would grow into one of the deepest thinking, calm and focused of his era. Niki Lauda quickly demonstrated that the technical ability to hone one’s car to mechanical perfection was every bit as important as being able to drive it quickly.
Born into a prosperous Austrian business banking dynasty, Niki outraged his family by borrowing $30,000 to buy a place in the March F1 team for 1972 alongside Ronnie Peterson. But the overxcomplex March 721X almost finished both their careers and Niki finished the miserable season clean out of his sponsorship and out seemingly left high and dry and with no obvious prospects of continuing any sort of F1 campaign in 1973.
Facing huge bills that he had no prospects of settling, he reasoned that he had no alternative but to continue banging on the F1 door. Some fast talking saw Niki charm his way into the works BRM team for a programme of winter testing, and once he had his knees beneath the board room table at BRM he persuaded team boss Lewis Stanley that he deserved a place in the race squad. A few months later, running third at Monaco in the BRM, he caught Enzo Ferrari’s eye. An approach from Luca di Montezemolo followed and, within months, Maranello’s lawyers had got rid of any continuing obligation to BRM and Niki was ready to fly into 1974 with a Ferrari 312B3 Lauda motivated Maranello and got the best out of their resources. He won two races in ’74 and followed that up by bagging five wins and the ’75 title crown in the technical innovative 312T, which showcased Ferrari’s transverse gearbox concept with dramatically enhanced the car’s handling and stability.
In 1976 it looked as though Niki would pick up where he left off, but instead he crashed horrifyingly in the German GP, his Ferrari 312T2 burst into flames and he was hit by three other cars driven by Harald Ertl, Arturo Merzario and Guy Edwards.
Niki hung between life and death for a few agonising days. His face and scalp had been badly scorched, just as his lungs been scorched by the toxic fumes from the Ferrari’s blazing bodywork. Yet Niki would force the pace of his physical recovery with the single-minded focus which would subsequently earn, quite rightly, earn him the status of a hero.
He duly made his F1 return to the wheel of a Ferrari in time for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Despite the scars on his head leaking blood into his bandages, he stormed to fourth place in this race, setting second quickest race lap in the process. It pleased the car-crazy tifosi[italics] but within the halls of power at Maranello, there were still who believed that the Austrian was washed-up, finished. He defended his world championship right through to the final race of the year, the inaugural Japanese GP at Fuji.
In 1977 Lauda stayed on with Ferrari, but his relationship with the management and their new driver Carlos Reutemann became fractious, and although Niki bagged his second world championship it was time for him to move on. Making himself incredibly unpopular with his legion of Italian fans he switched to the Bernie Ecclestone-owned Brabham squad. Their chief designer Gordon Murray came up with an audacious design with the BT46 fan car which used fans to suck it down onto the circuit, but after Niki won the ’78 Swedish GP Bernie withdrew it from racing as he did not wish to cause a major rift amongst the teams.
By the start of 1979 Niki was tiring of racing. Abruptly, mid-way through the first free practice session for the Canadian GP he pulled into the pit lane and told Bernie he was quitting. For the next two years Niki made only occasional appearances at Grands Prix, but for 1982 he was tempted out of retirement to drive for McLaren. Ever the prudent and far-sighted operator, Ron insisted that McLaren could walk away from the deal if Niki didn’t prove competitive. As things turned out he won his third comeback race at Long Beach.
By 1984, armed with the superb new TAG Turbo V6, and battling against his gifted new team-mate Alain Prost, Niki won his third world championship by the minuscule margin of half a point. But his final grand prix outing did not come until Zandvoort the following year. Then this heroic man hung up his helmet at the end of ’85. This time it was for good and there would be no more comebacks.