On the morning August 1st, 1976, a fan approached Niki Lauda in the Nurburgring paddock and asked him for an autograph.
Niki, the reigning Champion, had won four Grands Prix already that season, was leading the World Championship and in the process of having James Hunt’s victory in the British Grand Prix overturned. Their rivalry was intense. Furthermore, Hunt was on pole position for that afternoon’s German Grand Prix, Niki beside him in 2nd place.
Niki duly gave the fan his autograph, but was then asked to date it.
‘Why?’ asked Niki.
“In case it’s your last day,” was the unexpected reply.
Unexpected but perhaps not unrealistic, because in those days the prospect of a driver starting a Formula 1 race never to return was a very real possibility. Especially at the Nurburgring – ‘The Green Hell’ as three-times World Champion Jackie Stewart called it.
An undulating ribbon of concrete and tarmac, fourteen point two miles in length, Nurburgring’s Nordschleife circuit was a breaker of cars and people. If the track didn’t catch you out then the wind, rain, fog and mist which often enveloped the forests of the Eifel mountains were ready to take their toll.
It very nearly was Niki’s last day.
The 2nd lap accident was horrific by any standards. Yet in his remarkable recovery and comeback, 40 days later, to finish 4th in the Italian Grand Prix despite gruesome injuries and unimaginable pain, the legend of Niki Lauda was born. A sporting icon whose reputation was almost literally forged in the fires of Formula 1’s Mount Doom.
That he ultimately lost the World title to Hunt by one point, yet returned the following year to secure his second World Championship for Ferrari, was a measure of the man and the driver.
Convalescing in Willy Dungl’s famous sport’s clinic, Niki took the same analytical approach to helping his body recover as he did to fine-tuning every aspect of his Formula 1 cars. Nicknamed The Rat because of prominent teeth, he was more accurately referred to as The Computer because of his attention to detail, obsessive focus on the minutiae.
When he quit Formula One mid-1979 to run his airline, Niki took that same high performance risk-management approach into the world of aviation. He would subsequently put his name to three airlines – Lauda Air, Fly Niki and Laudamotion, and remained an accomplished commercially-qualified pilot throughout his career.
If the comeback after the Nurburgring accident did not tell you enough about Niki’s character, his response to the Lauda Air tragedy in May 1991 certainly did.
Visiting the scene of the accident in Thailand, which had claimed the lives of 223 passengers and crew, Niki was unhappy at Boeing’s suggestion that a mid-flight malfunction of the reverse thrust system on one of the engines was recoverable by the pilots.
Determined to prove that the accident was neither the fault of his airline nor crew, Niki undertook 15 attempts to recover from the same issue in Boeing’s 767 simulator, failing each time. When Boeing continued to insist it was a recoverable issue, Niki offered to fly one of their aircraft accompanied by two test pilots, and deploy the reverse thruster. Boeing then accepted that the issue was not survivable, leading to modifications to the systems and exonerating both Lauda Air and engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
Meanwhile Niki’s time in Formula 1 had never ended, for he returned to the cockpit in 1982 and would win his third World Championship with McLaren in 1984. He defeated team mate Alain Prost by just half a point.
When he finally retired from racing at the end of 1985 Niki embarked on a second career in motor racing, initially working with the media, consulting for Ferrari and briefly joining the management of Jaguar’s ill-fated Formula 1 team. More happily, since 2012, he has been both a shareholder and Chairman of the Mercedes Benz Formula 1 team.
Niki played a key role in luring Lewis Hamilton away from McLaren, setting up a dominant run which has seen Mercedes win the World Championship every year since 2014. In forging a management partnership with Mercedes’ CEO Toto Wolff, a fellow Austrian, Niki’s beaming smile and laughter were often heard in recent times. He loved Formula 1, and he enjoyed being part of a winning team, whether in business or sport.
I first met him at Brands Hatch in 1984, for the European Grand Prix, when he autographed a copy of his book ‘For The Record – My years with Ferrari’, but it was his autobiography ‘To Hell and Back’ which made the most compelling read.
Aways direct, sometimes brusque, Niki liked to talk shop, always wanted to know what was going on, and had several very short, rather choice, words for most situations. He had a great sense of humour.
His passing, marked today by a funeral in Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral attended by former team mates and arch rivals alike, has hit Formula 1 hard. To several generations Niki has been ever-present, and his fame never dimmed, underlined by the success of Ron Howard’s film Rush which tells the story of that fateful 1976 season.
Niki’s friend Bernie Ecclestone, former CEO of F1 and one-time boss of the Brabham team, has described him as an ‘extraordinary person at all levels’. As is often the case, Niki’s biggest achievement in life was not in the technicalities of his career, but in building friendships and helping others through his inspiration, mentorship and guidance.
Thankfully, through his own character and resilience, his last day was postponed for 43 years.