There is no need for me to eulogize Niki Lauda. I do not have to list and describe all of his many accomplishments as a racing driver, entrepreneur and team principal throughout his entire career. There are many other media and personalities who can do that around the world and some have already done so. There are people closer to Lauda than me who can far articulate about who he was and what he represented to them.
I myself had met him in person only twice. The first time was at Nurburgring—of all places—during the 1996 Ferrari Racing Days when the then-latest 550 Maranello was officially launched and Niki was still working closely with Ferrari. The second was a year later in Bangkok by chance at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. At both times there were a quick recognition, a brief hello and a handshake. So on this sad day in which his passing at the age of seventy was announced, this is more about what I remembered of him growing up—and the impact that he had on me.
Initially, I wasn’t much of a Niki Lauda fan. The first image that I have ever seen of him was in a March 711 in one of the many early motor racing books my father and I had bought and collected over the years. With that “tea tray’ front wing, it looked too ungainly (and it WAS ungainly to drive as it turned out) to be taken seriously. Neither Niki nor my other hero Ronnie Peterson could get me that excited while they drove it. So not that impressed for a youngster such as I.
Growing up Stateside, live telecasts or even some highlights of Formula One back in the Seventies were too few and far between. Grand Prix racing was more of a “European Thing” (and probably still is) in a country where NASCAR and Indy cars ruled. But there was however the 1975 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen which happened to be broadcasted live that year.
It was to be the first full race that I would see live on TV and also that season’s final race in which Niki Lauda, who was now driving for Ferrari, was to be crowned World Champion for the first time (and a first for Ferrari in over a decade) ahead of Emerson Fittipaldi in the McLaren M23. He had already racked up four wins plus scoring enough points to do so. I recalled vividly that Lauda just dominated the race from pole—but not without a minor drama. Luca di Montezemolo, who was then still the fresh-faced team manager for the Scuderia, had to wrestle with the race officials who called in Lauda’s teammate Clay Regazzoni into the pit for baulking the hard-charging Fittipaldi who wanted to spoil the Ferrari finale!
The Ferrari 312T that Lauda drove that year was such a thing a beauty. I became so enamored with it that it has become one of my personal favourite of all Formula One cars. For the following year, the new revised 312T2 looked liked yet another car to beat when I saw the first pictures of its launch in Maranello (with Lauda standing next to it with Enzo Ferrari and Regazzoni beside him) published in Road & Track. As the new regulation for the 1976 season forbade high air scoops above the drivers’ heads, most of the teams who ran with Ford Cosworth DFV V-8 engines had resorted to odd and some with quirky solutions behind the car. The 312T2 meanwhile instead sported twin scoops in front of the drivers that would flow the air along the cockpit sides to cool its Flat-12. (That Mauro Forghieri, he is such a genius).
Despite how much I was rooting for James Hunt to do well, Lauda was just dominating Formula One with the new car—right up to when they got to Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix. News didn’t travel that fast back then as it is now and weren’t that entirely in detail. I never got to see the actual footage of the accident until many years later and it took a couple of months before the full detail of the race was published, including pictures of the crash scene. As a kid, I had assumed that Lauda was gone or will never race again and that was the end of that—or that was how I had understood it at the time anyway.
When news broke out that Lauda was going to come back and raced again several weeks later at Monza, my dad and I was very pleased with the announcement—and surprised at the same time. Even more surprisingly was the fact that he came in fourth in the race! I never saw how badly burned he was or what condition that he was in for the remaining races, but somehow I thought that was pretty amazing, nonetheless. With the final one taking place in Fuji rather than at Watkins Glen like before, I never got to witness how it actually unfolded in real time. All I got in terms of results on TV was a brief news that Hunt became the new World Champion by a single point as Lauda retired from race under torrential rain. There wasn’t even a photograph or a video clip shown (not exactly quite as climatic as in final racing scene in “Rush”!).
As Carlos Reutemann came on board in 1977, I thought that this was going to be it for Niki (and so did some within Ferrari, in fact). To be honest I was not paying that much attention on how he would fare (and personally I was cheering more for Mario Andretti over at Lotus!). Andretti came so close—but I’ll be damned that Lauda just came back stronger than ever and took his second title for Ferrari once more. Likewise when he moved to Brabham the following year (and despite winning the Swedish Grand Prix with their infamous “Fan Car”) and quit in the middle of 1979, my focus was toward watching Mario and his Lotus 79 finally taking the World Championship and later on Jody Scheckter with Ferrari.
The news of Niki coming out of retirement to drive for Ron Dennis at McLaren in 1982 was right when I moved to the United Kingdom. Even so the announcement didn’t seemed like that big a deal at the time and his claim that “it will take about three races to become competitive again” was met with plenty of skepticism in the press that I read then. But in typical Lauda fashion after being nearly four years away from Formula One, he won at Long Beach—his third race of the season! I did get to see Lauda raced only once, which was at the 1982 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. It was the first F1 race that I have attended—and it was that extra special that Niki won that race too right in front of my eyes.
When McLaren finally got the TAG-Porsche turbocharged engine, plenty of people had written-off Lauda when 1984 arrived as they thought that his newly-joined and faster teammate in the form of Alain Prost was going to lead the team. As it turned out, both of them nearly annihilated the opposition the entire season—except that Lauda was in fact the one who came out just ahead of Prost en route to his third world title.
Last April I was so happy watching Tiger Woods’ return from all his trials and tribulations to win the Masters and his fifteenth major championship again. Some say that what he had achieved can be regarded as “The Greatest Comeback in Sports History”. However with all due respect to Tiger and many of his fans (myself included), I kind of frown a little bit when I see those making such a claim. Niki Lauda wasn’t supposed to survive after that Nurburgring accident, but yet returned to become World Champion the following year, came out of retirement to win yet another one—and lived for another 43 years. Now to me, this should really be “THE Greatest Comeback in Sports History”.
Niki Lauda, you are indeed one tough and tenacious son-of-a-bitch. Thanks for all the memories and may you Rest In Peace.
Special Thanks to all period photographers for their images for this editorial feature