Tuned to Perfection - Niki Lauda

In memory of Niki Lauda, one year after his passing.

2w ago

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Nikolaus "Niki" Lauda was born into a prominent Austrian business and banking dynasty in Vienna on February 22nd, 1949. Paper manufacturing was how Niki’s father made his fortune, though none of it would be available for a contrary son who would according to his father, surely bring the respected Lauda name into disrepute by playing at being a racing driver. To further educate himself in this field, Niki forsook university and enrolled himself in racing, paying for it with money he loaned himself from several banks. Starting in hillclimbing events driving a Mini in 1968, he then made it through Formula Vee and Formula Three. In 1971 he bought his way into the March Formula 2 team with another bank loan secured by his life insurance policy. Lauda's driving skills impressed March's Robin Herd, and by 1972 he promoted the Austrian to the Formula 1 team. Niki was quick, but the March team was in a bad moment and their cars were off the pace all season.

Unconventional start

Niki Lauda made his F1 debut with the March team at the beginning of the 1970s with the odd looking March 711

Niki Lauda made his F1 debut with the March team at the beginning of the 1970s with the odd looking March 711

The uncompetitive Marches meant Niki was unable to properly prove his skill as a driver. Left alone and facing bankruptcy, with no experience in any other line of work he had no choice but to continue racing. For 1973 he negotiated his way into a complicated deal with BRM. Partnering Clay Regazzoni, Niki was quick from the start, but was once again hit with back luck as he discovered that although the BRM car was relatively quick, it had very poor reliability and lacked the power to be competitive in faster tracks. His best moment that season came when he fought his way up to 3rd on the Monaco GP, a race from which he would ultimately retire, however not before calling the attention from Enzo Ferrari himself.

Niki purchased his way into a complicated deal to drive for BRM in 1973, he was to be struck with poor reliability and a big amount of retirements.

Niki purchased his way into a complicated deal to drive for BRM in 1973, he was to be struck with poor reliability and a big amount of retirements.

When Enzo Ferrari signed Regazzoni to drive his cars in 1974, he showed interest in asking the Swiss his opinion about his former teammate Lauda, Regazzoni spoke favorably of him and soon after, Lauda too was signed to drive for the Scuderia after Enzo Ferrari himself made the arrangements to get him out of his contract in BRM. For his first test in the 1974 car at Fiorano, Enzo had his own son, Piero serve as translator to have Lauda tell him what he thought of the car. Niki told Piero that the car was “a piece of sh*t”, the young Italian refused to say something like that to his father, and instead told him that the Austrian said the car was "no good". Enzo asked him to explain the reasoning for his critique, to which he explained that the configuration of the front suspension was causing the car to understeer. "Il Commedatore" was quite understanding of his reasoning, and called in his chief engineer, Mauro Forghieri, to start working on the car. Enzo asked Lauda how much faster he thought he could go once the car was fixed, to which the Austrian replied that he estimated he could be 5 tenths quicker. Ferrari then told him he would have the work done to the car, but if Niki wasn't 5 tenths faster, he would be immediately fired. Some days later, with the fixed car and some considerable amount of pressure, Lauda was 8 tenths faster around the Fiorano test track. Lauda would later declare that he believed that that was the day in which he earned Enzo Ferrari's repect. Now in the spotlight as a possible Ferrari savior, the media noted Lauda’s cool, calculating, and clinical approach which would earn him the nickname ‘The Computer.’

Defying Expectations

With help from his new employer, Niki paid his way out of BRM and was signed to drive for Ferrari in 1974.

With help from his new employer, Niki paid his way out of BRM and was signed to drive for Ferrari in 1974.

Niki agreed to drive for Ferrari in 1974, however, he wasn't charging any money as he was pleased enough with Enzo Ferrari helping him out of his own previous debts he gathered from loans aquired in the process of getting into the sport. He finished second on his debut for the team at the Argentinian GP, 2 races later he achieved his maiden victory at the Spanish GP, it was Ferrari's first win in almost 2 years. Lauda continued to make a full display of his speed by achieving several pole positions, however, despite his 2 years in the sport, he was still relatively inexperienced, and a series of mistakes and some mechanical problems allowed him to only win one more race that year. He would finish 4th in the drivers' championship. Over the winter he earned some extra respect at Ferrari as he showed great commitment in testing and further developing the car. Lauda displayed great improvement in 1975 when after a relatively slow start to the season, he won 3 consecutive races in Monaco, Belgium, and Sweden. He then won again in France and the United States. Some more points from podiums in Holland, Italy, and Germany secured him the world championship that year, becoming Ferrari's first champion since John Surtees in 1964.

In 1975, Lauda became Ferrari´s first champion in over a decade.

In 1975, Lauda became Ferrari´s first champion in over a decade.

Accident and Comeback

Come 1976 and with it one of the most well-known rivalries in the sports history. After a surprise departure from 1974 champion Emerson Fittipaldi from McLaren, British James Hunt was signed to drive for the Woking team. The Englishman immediately proved a challenger to Lauda as he took pole position on the first two events of the year, races which Niki would ultimately win. By the time that year's German GP was due to happen the Austrian had 5 wins while Hunt had 2. Even though Niki was arguably the best driver at the track, having secured the lap record the year before, and won the 24 hour race there in 1973, he urged the drivers to boycott the race as several safety discrepancies such as the lack of enough fire marshalls as well as equipment and vehicles made the 23km track too dangerous to race. Despite this, the majority of drivers voted to race. On the second lap, Lauda had an accident in which his car swerved off the track, smashed against the guardrails, and spun back to the track. Brett Lunger wasn't able to stop fast enough and crashed into Lauda's car, causing it to burst into flames. No marshalls were close enough at the time, and as the wreckage blocked the road, some drivers had to become the first responders. A total of 4 drivers struggled to get Niki out of the car. He was wearing a modified helmet with some special foam that had slid off after the crash, leaving his face in direct contact with the fire. Driver Arturo Merzario eventually managed to undo Niki's harness and pulled him out. Lauda was conscious immediately after the accident and was even able to stand by himself, however, he went into a coma on his way to the hospital. He would suffer from practically no considerable injuries from the crash itself, however, the subsequent fire left him with burns all over his body and especially his head, he also sustained damage to his lungs due to the toxic smoke. He was administered the last rites by a priest, but ultimately survived. In what would become possibly the greatest comeback in the sport's history, he returned to racing only 6 weeks later, and with blood-soaked bandages still covering his head, he drove to a stunning 4th place in Monza. Niki had almost completely lost his ear due to the fire, which in his own words "made it easier to use the telephone", however, his distorted appearance had him opt for using a cap ever after, selling the spot to sponsors.

Lauda had a near fatal accident at the German GP in 1976, in which his car burst into flames with him trapped inside.

Lauda had a near fatal accident at the German GP in 1976, in which his car burst into flames with him trapped inside.

Contrary to what some people think, Hunt and Lauda had a very good relationship off the track. Their rivalry had heated battles between the two, but once they let go of the wheel and had gotten out of their cars, there was no quarrel between them. Lauda held no grudge against Hunt for his charge to reduce the points difference between the two in his absence and even admitted to being surprised on his return to see how fast the McLaren had become. Niki wouldn't win any more races that year, with his best result being only a 3rd place in the US race. By the time the season finale at Japan was due to take place, Hunt, who had won the Dutch GP during Niki's absence and managed 2 extra victories since his return, now trailed Niki in the championship by only 3 points. The race started under heavy rain, Lauda retired after only 2 laps, believing it unsafe to race as well as difficult for him since his eyes had been watering almost continuously ever since the fire damaged his tear ducts in his accident in Germany and even made it uncomfortable to blink. Hunt would win the championship by a single point after fighting his way up to 3rd place after heavy blistering in his tires had forced him to pit.

Contrary to what some might have thought, Hunt and Lauda actually had a very good relationship out of the track. Niki would ultimately lose the championship to the Englishman in 1976 by a single point.

Contrary to what some might have thought, Hunt and Lauda actually had a very good relationship out of the track. Niki would ultimately lose the championship to the Englishman in 1976 by a single point.

Arrivederci

Niki returned in 1977 to what might have been his best season. He was completely dominant and won or finished on the podium on all but 5 races, out of which 3 were due to mechanical trouble. Despite his success with the Scuderia, his relationship with Enzo and the team in general, had been soured ever since he voluntarily retired from the season finale in Japan the year before. In Italy, some people had downright called him a coward. He was uncomfortable with his new teammate Carlos Reutemann, who had been brought in to replace him almost immediately after his crash in Germany the year before. It was almost common knowledge that Enzo was already planning to replace Lauda, so when the Italian revealed that he had plans to have a 3rd car driven by a then-unknown Gilles Villeneuve racing the last 2 races of the season, Lauda decided not to show up at all, having clinched the championship win the race before in the US. He informed Ferrari of his intention to go to Brabham for 1978. Rumor has it that Enzo was planning on ditching him anyways, but despite this, the Italian still called him a traitor for leaving.

Niki won the championship again in 1977, but with a deteriorating relation with Ferrari, he signed for Brabham in 1978

Niki won the championship again in 1977, but with a deteriorating relation with Ferrari, he signed for Brabham in 1978

Niki had a mixed season with Brabham. He finished in the podium in absolutely every race he completed, the problem being the fact that the Alfa Romeo powered car only finished 7 of the 16 races. Still, the results were enough to allow him to finish 4th in the championship. The season was mostly remembered for the one-off appearance of the Brabham BT46B "The Fan Car", which used an ingenious turbine system to suck the air underneath it and provide it with un-matchable levels of grip. The car was voluntarily withdrawn by the team after just one race thanks to some Ecclestone shenanigans, however, its results remained validated. The car, driven by Niki in the Swedish GP, finished first. With the car winning the only race it entered, it remains the only car in F1 with a 100% success rate. The following year, Lauda had a bad season filled with retirements, by the end of which he announced his retirement from F1, declaring he was tired of driving in circles and wanted to focus his attention on his airline, Lauda Air.

Niki spent 2 years in Brabham, one of the moments that stands out the most is his victory at the wheel of the BT46B "The Fan Car

Niki spent 2 years in Brabham, one of the moments that stands out the most is his victory at the wheel of the BT46B "The Fan Car

Lauda Air, with its owner as one of the pilots, had grown to the point where further development would require more capital, in pursuit of which Niki returned to F1 racing driving for McLaren. In talks with the team, he arranged for a 5 million dollar salary, stating that he was only charging one dollar for his services as a driver, and with all the rest being for his personality. He finished 4th on his return race, two races later he would win his first race for the team. He would win one more race for the team that year, and combined with a couple of podiums he managed to finish 5th in the championship.

In his return, Niki won two races and finished 5th in the championship despite having spent 3 years away from the sport

In his return, Niki won two races and finished 5th in the championship despite having spent 3 years away from the sport

Still got it

McLaren had a problematic season in 1983 with plenty of reliability issues that only allowed Lauda to finish 10th in the championship. However, 1984 saw the arrival of the TAG power units for the McLaren cars. The engines, developed in great part by Porsche, were very powerful, and although they still faced considerable reliability issues along the season, 5 wins and several podiums allowed Niki to clinch his 3rd championship win. His teammate, Alain Prost finished second by only half a point, the smallest winning margin ever recorded in an F1 championship until this day. In 1985, the McLaren cars continued to show reliability issues, and although they still had great pace, an impressive return to shape by teams such as Williams, Ferrari, and Brabham, as well as the relatively new Renault team prevented the McLaren drivers from getting the results they wanted. Niki won one final race that year, in the Netherlands. By the end of the season, he retired from the sport for good.

Lauda won one final championship in 1984 before retiring for good in 1985.

Lauda won one final championship in 1984 before retiring for good in 1985.

Lauda retired as a driver, however, he never really left the F1 paddock. He was a TV commentator for German and Austrian coverage of races. In 1993, he was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame. That same year, he was offered a consulting role at Ferrari. In 2001, he became the team principal for the Jaguar F1 team. In 2012, he became the non-executive chairman for the newly formed Mercedes Formula 1 Team, board member of Mercedes AMG Powertrains, and special adviser to the Board of Daimler AG. He took part in the negotiations that resulted in Lewis Hamilton signing for the team.

Niki remained an active member of the paddock, having spent his last years as a non-executive chairman at Mercedes

Niki remained an active member of the paddock, having spent his last years as a non-executive chairman at Mercedes

Niki Lauda passed away on the 20th of May 2019. His health had been put into question the year before after he underwent surgery, however, he seemed to have recovered. He died peacefully in hospital aged 70. His funeral in Vienna was attended by several F1 personalities from the past and present. His death came just before the 2019 Monaco GP, and teams and drivers made use of such an iconic venue to honor the legacy of one of the greatest the sport has ever had. Ferrari added special decorations to their cars, and drivers Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc sported homage designs in their helmets. HAAS team boss Gunther Steiner, who worked with Lauda during their time in Jaguar also had special vinyls on their cars. Mercedes painted its halo device red and also added a red star to their livery, which they would keep for the remainder of the season, Lewis Hamilton also had a special helmet design. Pretty much every team added a sticker reading "Danke Niki" somewhere in their cars. The drivers also paid a minute of silence and sported special red caps that read "NIKI".

One year after his death, he remains a much missed member of the sport he was skilled enough to survive, and brilliant enough to conquer.

Race In Peace Niki Lauda

Race In Peace Niki Lauda

That was the story of Niki Lauda. Thank you very much for reading and I hope you have enjoyed it. Niki is one of the best the sport has ever had, the news of his passing came as a surprise to most of us, but we can be sure that his legacy will never be forgotten.

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Comments (6)

  • Don’t get me wrong Tony, nice write up. But it looks like a copy and paste from the playbook of Rush and Wikipedia. Do yourself a favour and read the book „To Hell and Back“ or google people like Willi Dungl or Marlene Lauda. You will find many more interesting stories besides the ones everyone knows about or writes about anyway.

      12 days ago
    • I understand your critique. I got my information from a couple interviews he gave, mainly the one with Graham Bensinger as well as a small piece he made with James Hunt's son. I know there are more stories to be told, but my desire was to write a...

      Read more
        12 days ago
    • All good Tony. For me I was reading the same story over and over. Glad you try to bring the old heroes to a younger audience!

      Carry on Hombre!

      BTW. His name is Andreas Nikolaus Lauda, not Nicholas.

        12 days ago
  • Awesome writing man!

      14 days ago
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