Out of the Fire: Niki Lauda

Niki Lauda, the battle-scarred racing driver and entrepreneur who died in May 2019, epitomised the ideal of a methodical, ruthless champion. But his legend was forged in flames, writes Nick Foulkes in Issue 65 of The Rake.

Out of the Fire: Niki Lauda
“I suppose the truth is that I am as well known for surviving that terrible fiery accident in the 1976 German Grand Prix as I am for winning three world championships. I do not generally dwell on the events at Nürburgring almost 20 years ago, but it certainly served as a graphic indication of the potential dangers of motorsport’s most senior category.” Writing in the foreword to a book about improvements in medical care in “motorsport’s most senior category”, Niki Lauda was not one to allow himself even the faintest, most evanescent wisp of an illusion. In assessing his legacy he was as unemotionally calculating as he was at the wheel of the cars with which he won the Formula 1 world drivers’ title in 1975, 1977 and 1984, driving first for Ferrari and then McLaren. The fact that almost a decade separates his first and final triumphs demonstrates an ability that speaks for itself. He began his Formula 1 career in the era of Graham Hill and Sir Jackie Stewart and finally retired to usher in the years when Alain Prost (his teammate) and Nelson Piquet duelled for half a decade, the title switching between the two men. For many, ‘just’ that achievement alone would have been sufficient. But Lauda excelled in business, too, founding a trio of eponymous airlines, and, as the holder of a commercial pilot’s licence, he captained some flights. He is also credited with playing a crucial role in securing the dominant position of the current F1 Mercedes team, after the marque’s 55-year absence from the sport. Actively involved in F1 until the end of his life, aged 70, a few days before this year’s Monaco Grand Prix in May, he left behind a remarkable life story and a fortune that has been estimated at close to half a billion pounds. Yet it is the smoke billowing into the summer sky above the Nürburgring more than 40 years ago that continues to obscure his manifold achievements. In motor racing, as in much else, the 1970s was a time of dash and swagger, a time very different from our own, a time that it is now easy to romanticise. Through the mediating power of nostalgia, the harder edges of memories are softened. It is easy to look back on those days of long hair, large sunglasses, flared trousers, disco music, shameless hydrocarbon profligacy and guiltless sex and forget that motor racing was a form of high-speed Russian roulette: a truly gladiatorial arena in which blood was spilt and lives were lost. Not since the Chariot races of antiquity had such high-speed thrills been offered as public entertainment. The Formula 1 championship began in 1950, and during its first quarter of a century 38 young men lost their lives to grand prix motor racing. The 1970s was becoming a particularly lethal decade: as the 1976 season got under way with the grand prix at Interlagos in Brazil, nine drivers had died on motor racing circuits.
Niki Lauda celebrating in London (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Ferrari driver Niki Lauda in action during the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix, Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport
Niki Lauda talks to rival James Hunt  (Photo by Grand Prix Photo/Getty Images)
The sense of a frenzied party over which the ghost of death hovered — heightening the flavour of life and quickening the pace at which it was lived — was reinforced by the 2013 film Rush, which took the season of ’76 as the canvas upon which it painted the story of the rivalry between Lauda and James Hunt. Hunt was the sort of man in whose honour The Rake was founded, a well-spoken, good-looking, devastatingly charming, insouciant daredevil prepared to risk his life in pursuit of glory. His team crystallised the spirt of the British gentleman amateur. Run by the flamboyant Lord Hesketh from the family’s Hawksmoor-designed country seat of Easton Neston, Hesketh Racing eschewed sponsorship — doubtless too vulgar. It was a throwback to the all-conquering Corinthian spirit of Britain at its Imperial zenith, and Hunt’s eventual edge-of-the-seat victory in the 1976 title battle did much to restore national pride at a time when Britain seemed in terminal decline, prostrate before the International Monetary Fund and beset by rocketing inflation and industrial unrest. Lauda, meanwhile, was thorough, disciplined and precise. He lacked Hunt’s easy charm and with a thin face and protruding teeth that earned him the unflattering sobriquet ‘the Rat’, he could not compete with the Englishman’s looks. But he was fast… scorchingly fast, something that had as much to do with meticulous preparation as it did with courage and a heavy right foot. By the 1976 season he was the fastest driver on the grid. But to see Lauda as a motor racing computer is to miss the determination with which he clung to his dream of entering the sport. Born into an Austrian industrial dynasty, his decision to become a motor racing driver appalled his family. Nevertheless, in the face of their disapproval, demands that he stop, and the absence of financial help, he stuck at it. Graduating from hill climbs to Formula 3, he then used £20,000, borrowed from Austrian banks on little more security than the family’s name, to buy himself a seat in the March team. March were not a showcase name for the young hollow-cheeked, rodent-toothed Austrian; its performance was at best undistinguished, and Lauda’s debts mounted with his disappointments. By the start of the 1973 season he was, according to one source, £160,000 in the red. He persuaded the bombastic, blazered F1 veteran Louis ‘Big Lou’ Stanley to take him on as a driver for BRM. During the 1960s Stanley had led BRM to victory in the drivers’ and constructors’ championships and he had proved himself a shrewd judge of talent, taking on a Scottish rookie driver called Jackie Stewart. Lauda began the season as a paying driver, but his fifth place at the Belgian Grand Prix so impressed Stanley that he was given a salary. That was in May; in July he astonished spectators with his performance off the grid at Silverstone, moving up from ninth to second place by the first corner. Stanley was not the only person who noticed this determined young driver. In his oversize aviator sunglasses, spinnaker-sized tie and flyaway lapels, Luca di Montezemolo could easily have been mistaken for a model. But modelling’s loss was motor racing’s gain: a protégé of L’Avvocato Agnelli and smoothly fluent in suavity whatever the language, the 26-year-old Di Montezemolo had been eyeing a career in diplomacy before Enzo Ferrari identified him as the man to save Scuderia Ferrari, the racing team that had not won a championship since 1964.
Niki Lauda, Grand Prix of Italy, Monza, September 1985. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)
Niki Lauda, Grand Prix of Spain, Jarama, 28 April 1974. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)
That British Grand Prix was his first experience of motor racing. “I arrived in the middle of a farce,” he said of the chaotic Ferrari team and its underwhelming car. But Ferrari were afforded a glimpse of their future in the pallid-faced Lauda. Ferrari canvassed opinion from Lauda’s co-driver Clay Regazzoni, who was about to sign for Ferrari and who testified to his teammate’s ability, and Lauda and Di Montezemolo struck a deal during a clandestine meeting near Heathrow airport. The 1973 season was a Ferrari disaster. The famed Italian maker ended tying for sixth place with BRM. But as soon as the season finished, the perfectionist Lauda worked tirelessly with Ferrari’s engineers over the winter of 1973-1974 to retune the car, and in the first race of the new season in Buenos Aires, Lauda finished second and Regazzoni third. It was a miraculous performance; Ferrari was back, and it remained there, finishing the season second to McLaren, with Regazzoni second and Lauda fourth in the drivers’ championship. Lauda then won the following year’s drivers’ championship with a comfortable lead of 9.5 points and Ferrari topped the constructors’ league table by an even greater margin. During his time at Ferrari, Lauda developed a reputation for directness. Happily for him and Enzo Ferrari, neither spoke the other’s language, with the result that those who did would sometimes simply refuse to translate the rather more incendiary of Lauda’s unvarnished observations. As it was, the young Austrian and the revered Italian often ended up in shouting matches, much to their mutual amusement. “The two men took great enjoyment from their spats,” writes Enzo Ferrari’s biographer Richard Williams, “which gave Lauda the chance to exercise his natural directness and Ferrari the opportunity to scream at somebody who dared to answer him back.” By the time the cars lined up on the grid at the Nürburgring in 1976, another Ferrari/Lauda championship victory seemed certain — the races a formality. The German Grand Prix was the season’s 10th race, and Lauda already had 61 points, 45 more than Hunt. Twisting through the densely forested Eifel mountains, the 14¼-mile circuit had first been used in the 1920s, and many considered it unsafe for modern grand prix motor cars, having claimed five lives already. Lauda had raised his concerns and had called for a boycott at a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, citing insufficient fire engines and safety crews. He was outvoted. So on August 1 of the long, hot summer of 1976, Lauda started second on the grid. A light shower had convinced Lauda he should start the race in rain tyres, but realising the mistake he rushed into the pits after the first lap to change for slicks and tore off to make up some ground. With his new tyres insufficiently warm he lost control at Bergwerk, the most notorious of the circuit’s corners. The old footage of the near-fatal accident has an eerie quality to it. Entering the corner, you know that in a couple of seconds the sleek, low, arrow-like car will become a blazing death-trap. Passing the apex of the corner, Lauda no longer has control, and the car’s trajectory sends it slamming into the bank. As the race has just begun, the car is full of fuel, and with much of one side of the car sheared off, it becomes a firebrand spinning across the track, rapidly engulfed by the leaping flames. Four drivers stop; eventually, after 55 of the longest of seconds, the form of a man is dragged limp from the flames. His helmet ripped off during the impact, his eyelids have burned away, his ears are reduced to little, twisted fungus-like flaps of flesh, his scalp is seared, his features are a blackened, bloody and blistered grotesque parody of the human face, and his lungs are burned by the scalding toxic fumes. In hospital he is given the last rights. Thirty-three days later, Lauda was back, competing in the Italian Grand Prix, his wounds still weeping under the bandages that mummified his face. He finished fourth. Two races later, at Watkins Glen in the United States, he was on the podium. It all came down to the last race of the season in the shadow of Mount Fuji. The rain was diluvial, and with his injuries still plaguing him — damaged tear ducts made it hard for him to see — he retired, allowing Hunt to win the drivers’ championship by a point.
(Photo by Leopold Nekula/Sygma via Getty Images)
Austrian car racing driver Niki Lauda holding a bottle of water before taking part in the Italian Grand Prix. Monza, 8th September 1974  (Photo by Sergio del GrandeMondadori via Getty Images)
British racing driver James Hunt (1947 - 1993) and Austrian Niki Lauda abandoning the race after they have crashed into each other. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Ferrari won the constructors’ competition, yet the old patriarch Ferrari appeared to feel that Lauda had let him down; he tried to edge Lauda out of the cockpit and into the role of team manager. Their relationship never recovered. Although Lauda won the 1977 championship by a convincing margin, he quit the team just before the Canadian Grand Prix, having signed a half-a-million-pound deal to drive for Bernie Ecclestone. His valedictory words to Ferrari were withering: “Cia, Enzo,” he said, making Lauda, as Williams puts it, ‘the only man ever to address the boss with such disdainful informality”. It was while practising for the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979 that Lauda pulled in, got out of the car, and announced his retirement from the sport. But he could not stay away, and with the lure of a $3m deal he was back on the grid to start for McLaren in 1982. The F1 cars of the early eighties were monsters — rockets with wheels rather than racing cars; the sport had entered a new era with 1200 and 1300bhp engines. And by Lauda’s home grand prix at the Österreichring in 1984, all the cars starting the race were turbocharged. He won the race and the championship, beating his teammate, Alain Prost, by the narrowest of margins — half a point. It was his last season in Formula 1… as a driver. His career in the aviation business in some ways mirrored his racing life. At first he experienced difficulties in competition with the Austrian national carrier, a struggle that drained him financially and no doubt contributed to his decision to return to motor racing. Then, in 1991, one of his aircraft crashed when the reverse thrust deployed in error, killing everyone on board. “People always think that the worst time of my life must have been after the German Grand Prix crash,” he said on the 40th anniversary of the Nürburgring accident. “But it wasn’t. In 1991, one of the planes from Lauda Air, the airline I had set up, crashed in Bangkok, killing 223 people. The effect of the disaster was enormous.” Demonstrating the thoroughness that had characterised his motor racing career, he took a leading role in the investigation and was unafraid to face down Boeing. In a simulator he replicated on numerous occasions the conditions in which his plane was lost, and failed to recover it — convincing him that the plane, rather than the pilot, was at fault.  Boeing’s legal team procrastinated, so he called their bluff. “I said, ‘Take a 767, load it up like it was, with two pilots, deploy the reverse-thrust in the air and, if it keeps on flying, I want to be on board. If you guys are so sure that people can continue to fly these aeroplanes without being at risk, then let’s do it.’ Immediately they came to my hotel and told me they could not do it. I said, ‘O.K., then issue a statement!’ And they did. This was the first time in eight months that it had been made clear that the manufacturer was at fault and not the operator of the aeroplane.” He sold his first airline, Lauda Air, in the late 1990s, and started the budget airline Niki, which merged with Air Berlin in 2011. A third airline, Laudamotion, is now a subsidiary of Ryanair. Throughout these times he maintained his links with motor sport. He worked as a commentator, and in 2001 and 2002 he was the race director and then team principal of Jaguar’s short-lived excursion into Formula 1. He joined the Mercedes team as non-executive chairman in 2012 and has been credited with much of the German car giant’s grand prix success, not least luring the young Lewis Hamilton from McLaren. Of his move to Mercedes, and what could well be the most successful partnership in F1, Hamilton has been quoted as saying that Lauda “was the one who brought it to me and got it across the line”. Hamilton plainly respected, even revered, the  uncompromisingly blunt and disfigured Lauda; indeed, Lauda’s scars seemed only to emphasise his authority over a generation of a drivers that was not even born when Lauda won his last drivers’ championship. Winning this year’s Monaco Grand Prix in a helmet painted to resemble the one Lauda had worn during his final victorious season, Hamilton seemed as keen as ever for the approval of Formula 1’s ‘computer’. “That was definitely the hardest race I’ve had, but nonetheless I was fighting with the spirit of Niki,” Hamilton said. “He’s been such an influence in our team, and I know he will be looking down and taking his hat off. I was trying to stay focused and make him proud.” “This was a day for Niki,” added the defending champion of a victory that he promptly celebrated by throwing himself fully dressed into a swimming pool. Originally published in Issue 65 of The Rake. Subscribe and buy single issues here.