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The second part of Niki Lauda’s story saw the Austrian leave Ferrari. Soon after, he retired only to come back with McLaren. The return was legendary.
Following his accident, Lauda had surgery. The legendary driver did not want to have facial reconstructive surgery as he wanted to look the way he did, to set an example to others.
Instead, Lauda always wore a cap after the crash to hide his scars and to give him more confidence. He became famous for this “Red Cap”, which had his sponsor’s name on it.
Lauda finished 1976 with an eighth and a third in Canada and America. In the final round in Japan, Lauda led Hunt by three points. There were more twists in the tale though, as rain delayed the race. Eventually, they started the race, but after just two laps Lauda withdrew due to safety concerns. Hunt had led until a puncture knocked him down the order.
He mounted a huge comeback, making place after place until he caught up to Alan Jones’ Surtees in third. Surtees was on course for their first podium in three years. But with just a few laps left, Hunt took third and got the points needed to become world champion. Lauda did not keep his title. Niki said to James that “out of all the drivers that could have won it, I would rather you than all the others.”
1977 -1978: Another title
1977 started with disappointment for Lauda. After the Japanese Grand Prix, Lauda and Enzo talked about the race and Enzo agreed that it was extremely dangerous and un-raceable conditions.
However, Enzo did a 180 and said a few weeks later that “Reutemann is the number one driver, and you are the number two driver, you will not recover quick enough and so Reutemann is now in charge of the whole of the car development”.
Lauda argued and eventually, they agreed to the terms of: Reutemann in charge of car development but Niki and Carlos have equal status. Niki then proved Enzo wrong. He won three races and scored a further seven podiums. He beat Reutemann by 30 points (nowadays 62 points). By doing so winning his second championship from Wolf’s Jody Scheckter and Lotus’ Mario Andretti.
After the US East Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, New York, where Lauda finished fourth, he left Ferrari and told Enzo Ferrari: “I’m leaving for Brabham, [Bernie] Ecclestone offered me millions to drive for him”.
This meeting was in front of Mauro Forghieri, Franco Gozzi & of course Enzo himself. When Niki left, he said he “felt all the pressure lifted from his shoulders and was released to drive how he wanted.”
1978 to 1979: Retirement
1978 came around and Lauda started with Brabham well. He finished second and third in his first two races and was a few points off the championship lead, but reliability plagued him. Nine DNFs in 16 races showed the poor reliability of the BT46.
Despite this, Lauda finished fourth in the standings. Podiums in every race he finished helped him alongside a strange concept: the legendary fan car. This gave him a win in Sweden. The fan car was the biggest headline in Sweden, thanks to the huge downforce it produced. Lauda and teammate John Watson qualified P2 and P3. This was a deception tactic from Brabham as they qualified on full tanks of fuel. Lauda said they were “doing our best to avoid pole”.
The Austrian won in Monza, but his win was not the headline. It was the death of Lotus driver & former teammate Ronnie Peterson, who passed away following a collision on the opening lap with Hunt and Ricciardo Patrese.
In 1979, Lauda started to lose passion for racing, and by the penultimate round of the season, he hung up his helmet and retired after a hugely disappointing season, with 11 DNFs in 13 races. He scored points in the only races he finished.
1983: The comeback
At the end of 1981, Ron Dennis, head of McLaren, offered Lauda a huge contract. After two seasons out of the sport, Lauda returned.
1982 started decently for Lauda, with one DNF, a win and a fourth in the opening three races. A string of DSQs and DNFs dropped him well down the order of the championship. Teammate Watson was leading the standings at this point. However, Lauda had a fantastic second half of the season, scoring two podiums in an extremely competitive season.
Lauda ended his comeback season fifth in the standings with 30 points compared with Watson’s 39 points. Nowadays, Lauda would have scored 104 points compared with Watson’s 134 points.
Lauda had a nightmarish 1983. A poor season which started well: two podiums in three races. He had eight DNFs, and only four more points finishes – he finished tenth in the standings with just twelve points. This made Lauda’s comeback look like it would hurt his legacy, with him not repeating his previous success at this stage.
1984: Preparing for a final assault
1984 was different, however. He did not take a single pole position in 1984 and had six DNF’s, one less than new teammate Alain Prost. He won only five races compared with Prost’s seven but won the title by just 0.5 points. His third title had the closest margin in history. It was half a point due to the 1984 Monaco GP finishing less than 75% through the race – so half points were awarded.
1983 to 1985: Final title and second retirement
Lauda had a nightmare 1983 season. However, the following season saw him on an upward trajectory.
Lauda’s consistency won him the title in 1984 with Martin Brundle saying that Lauda chose to focus on race setup rather than qualifying, which is evidenced by Lauda having an average starting position of seventh compared to Prost’s third.
The following year, in 1985, Lauda had another poor season. The car was unreliable with 11 retirements in 16 races. The Austrian took his final win in the Netherlands that year. He retired from F1 at the end of the season.
Come back this weekend to read part three of the legendary Niki Lauda’s life.
Feature Image Credit: formula1.com