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The legendary Niki Lauda prepares to race his Ferrari in 1975 (Feature Image Credit:

The Legend of Niki Lauda: Part 1

Three time World Champion would have been 74 today, after sadly passing away in May 2019

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The legendary Niki Lauda was always taken with cars. Known for his time with Ferrari, Lauda is one of F1’s true greats. 

He attempted a career as a mechanic but ultimately had to return to education. The Austrian could not stay away from a race track and finished an impressive second in his first-ever race. Driving a Mini at Carinthia, Lauda was confronted by his father, who stated his son’s future lay in the family business.

Against his father’s wishes, Lauda raced Minis, before moving to Formula Vee. According to Lauda, Formula Vee was “a key Formula at the time.”  His career then stalled; however, he managed to get a bank loan of £30,000.  Niki got into March’s Formula 2 seat in 1971, making his Formula 1 debut for the factory team in his home Grand Prix . He retired on lap 20 in his debut race.

Lauda lands in F1
Lauda's first season with the March team was disappointing, but set the legend up for future success (Image Credit:
Lauda’s first season with the March team was disappointing, but set the legend up for future success (Image Credit:

In 1972, Lauda was set to drive for March, provided he paid $180,000, had a sponsor, and crucially, a bank that gave him financial backing. Niki signed the contract with March, however, there was a problem. Niki’s grandfather and his friend blocked him from gaining the support he needed. The two never spoke again.

Due to not having enough time to get another sponsor, Lauda went to another bank to ask for a loan of $180,000.  The bank however asked, “What happens if you get killed?”. Lauda said insurance, and so they gave him the loan to continue with his Formula 1 dream. But Lauda didn’t score any points despite competing in the entire season. But to be fair, the March he was driving was an extremely poor car.

Because Lauda brought money to the table, BRM signed him for the 1973 season to drive alongside Grand Prix winner Clay Regazzoni. That year, he had a much better season. On the Podcast In Depth with Graham Besinger  Lauda claimed: “The BRM was a good car, it had good handling, was good in and out the corners, however, the engine was no good” . The engine issues were matched by overall unreliability.

Monaco was where Lauda showed his talent. Qualifying sixth in a slow BRM, several places clear of more experienced teammate Regazzoni. Lauda eventually worked his way into the podium places, ahead of Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari – A legendary and fantastic performance. With Regazzoni moving back to Ferrari, Lauda had just earned a potential future seat with the Scuderia.

Ferrari come calling – literally
Lauda racing to his first title in 1975 at Watkins Glen. His status as an F1 legend was now secure (Image Credit:
Lauda racing to his first title in 1975 at Watkins Glen. His status as an F1 legend was now secure (Image Credit:

Lauda had a running joke with his secretary, which was “when Ferrari calls, call me right away”. One day he got a call from his secretary to say, “Ferrari called. Here’s the number.”

Niki thought very highly of  the legendary Enzo Ferrari. He said: “He was the most charismatic man I ever knew, because he was a very tough cookie, a hard, demanding man for his team, for his car and for himself, but he was an Italian with a big heart and so there was a combination with him, if he respected you then you knew he liked you.”

Enzo Ferrari met with Lauda in Maranello, Italy. Ferrari said to him “Good job, you drove in front of my car in Monaco, I would like to sign you up.” Lauda had a problem however.

He said to Enzo: “Mr Commendatore (Ferrari’s nickname) I have a problem, I agreed just yesterday with Louis Stanley (the BRM boss) that I would race for BRM in 1974”. Ferrari thought nothing of this, saying to Lauda “We’ll sort it out”.

Lauda tested with Ferrari at the end of the season and had a quarrel with Mr Ferrari. Testing the 1973 car, Lauda told Enzo’s son Piero (As Lauda did not speak Italian) that the car was “S***” and mentioned how “the BRM was a good car, it had good handling, was good in and out the corners, however, the engine was no good”.

A tense start to life with the Scuderia

Enzo asked him what was bad, and Niki told Mauro Forghieri, Ferrari’s designer, what the problems were. He told Enzo “I can go three, maybe five, tenths faster”. Enzo replied with, “If you don’t go five tenths faster, you’re fired”. Five days later, Lauda tested the car around Fiorano (Ferrari’s test circuit) and was eight tenths faster.

In 1974, Lauda had an amazing year on the track, but off it, he suffered a loss. At the age of 77, his grandfather died. Niki said that his grandfather would have respected him if he was alive to see his success. Niki credits his rough and legendary racing style to his grandfather due to their feud.

1974 went well to say the least; he finished fourth in the standings in his maiden season with the Scuderia. He was 14 points (nowadays 57 points) behind Regazzoni. However, it is worth noting that Regazzoni had three retirements compared to Lauda’s eight. Lauda had the second most DNF’s of the top 10 drivers (Jacky Ickx finished joint 10th and had one more DNF). Ferrari, with the modern points system, would have won the title. Instead it finished second with the then-points system with 65 points.

1975: First title

1975 rolled around the corner and Lauda needed a new deal. Enzo Ferrari and Niki negotiated to get a new deal, with Niki wanting 3,000,000 shillings (£150,000 pounds) per year in his contract. Enzo was outraged by the demands of Lauda. Lauda told Ferrari that Ronnie Peterson from Lotus earned that and he wanted to be paid the same. Enzo accepted.

1975 was Lauda’s masterpiece. He won his first world championship at 26 years old, taking 5 wins, finishing 19.5 points (nowadays 40 points) ahead of reigning champion Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren.

Lauda’s secret was having a car that was far superior in both speed and reliability, with Lauda having one retirement to Fittipaldi’s three. It also helped that Fittipaldi missed a race due to poor track safety in Spain. The legendary Lauda was on top of the world.

1976: The horror crash
Niki Lauda's near-fatal crash in 1976 is now legendary, as the Austrian made a remarkable recovery (Image Credit:
Niki Lauda’s near-fatal crash in 1976 is now legendary, as the Austrian made a remarkable recovery (Image Credit: Mirror Online)

Lauda led the championship the following season until round 10 at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany. Lauda wanted the race to be cancelled as did several others due to the poor track safety and heavy rain.  However, at a driver’s meeting, Lauda’s proposition lost by a single vote.

On race day, the Austrian started behind legendary championship rival and good friend James Hunt. When the race started, the rain started to stop. Everyone, barring Hunt’s McLaren teammate Jochen Mass, started on wet tyres, as he predicted the rain would pass. Due to this, everyone except Mass pitted for dry tyres. From there, chaos ensued.

Lauda fell down the field. At a fast left-hand kink,  Lauda lost control, his car snapping to the right. Spinning through the fencing into an earth bank,  the car erupted into flames. Lauda was knocked unconscious by this impact.  Harald Ertl’s Hesketh and Brett Lunger’s Surtees collided with Lauda and knocked him back into consciousness. Ertl, Lunger and two nearby drivers (Guy Edwards and Arturo Merzario) tried to get Lauda out of the car and managed to pull him out of the wreckage.

Fight for survival

Lauda suffered severe burns including extensive scarring from the burns to his head, losing most of his right ear as well as the hair on the right side of his head, his eyebrows, and his eyelids. Rushed by helicopter to the Bundeswehr hospital in Koblenz;  he was flown to the Trauma Clinic in Ludwigshafen, Germany’s most advanced burn ward at the time. Lauda was read the last rites twice. One of the priests did not say anything else to him whilst giving him the last rites.

This made the legendary Lauda furious and made him want to survive even more. He had a nurse who allowed him to see his face in the hospital and according to Lauda, his face was huge due to heat and water. Wanting to know when it would go back to normal, the nurse could not say. Sadly, Lauda was then told that he wasn’t allowed to touch his face as they were going to work on it. He figured out a way to get back racing soon and more importantly, survive, vacuuming debris out of his lungs.

The miracle recovery

Vacuuming debris out of his lungs was painful short term but amazing long term; it was one of two reasons he survived. The other being that he remained conscious after the crash because he was able to talk to the doctor and stay out of a “sleep mode” that many go into when feeling pressure like Lauda’s. After 3 days, Lauda realised he would survive and just a few weeks later, his trainer came to visit him and Niki asked if he was fit enough to drive, and his trainer said he was.

So, just 40 days after his life-threatening crash, Niki Lauda returned to the Ferrari seat for Ferrari’s home race, at Monza. It was a legendary recovery. Lauda had a press conference in Salzburg ahead of his return and left the conference after a rude question asked by a journalist about his wife.

Come back tomorrow for part two of the legend that was Niki Lauda.

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