“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.