My Life in Cars - May 2020

by BTM

Tue, 05 May 2020

Dick Potter pays homage to a racing great on the first anniversary of his death.


August 1, 1976. By all accounts, this was the date on which the creator deemed Niki Lauda was to die. 

Racing for Ferrari in the German Grand Prix held at Nürburgring on that day, Niki’s race got off to a bad start. Rain showers led him to select rain tyres, as opposed to slicks. Stopping to change them and a blocked pit lane not only left him needing to make up ground, his still cold tyres provided scant grip on the damp track. Niki subsequently lost control of the car and hit the bank at the side of the track at Bergwerk.

The rest of that horrific crash is well documented. The car caught fire as fuel leaked out and Niki was trapped in the burning cockpit with his helmet ripped off.  Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning vehicle. One of those drivers later claimed that “nobody realised the actual damage to Niki. The real danger he was in was not from the superficial injuries that we could see but from the deeper injury which was that to his lungs”.

Damage to his lungs, of course, was caused by inhalation of toxic fumes from the burning fibreglass. Indeed we didn’t appreciate the severity of the injury that he’d suffered. Niki recalled a decade later that he had been sitting in the car – in a temperature of about 800 degrees – for around 50 seconds. It emerged after two or three days of his hospitalisation, that it was undeniably the lung damage that was the injury putting his life in danger.

Miraculously, Niki not only evaded the creator’s plans for him, but recovered from the crash; he resumed racing 40 days later and only missed out on the title by a single point, to James Hunt.

Born on February 22, 1949, the scion of a wealthy Viennese industrial family that opposed his daredevil driving career, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps into the paper-manufacturing industry.

Niki, as he became known, had other ideas however. He wanted to become a racing driver.

Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his Formula 1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.

Lauda joined Ferrari in 1974, winning a Grand Prix for the first time that year in Spain and his first drivers’ title with five victories the following season. He remains the only driver in F1 history to have been champion for both Ferrari and McLaren, the sport’s two most successful constructors.

Despite his great sporting successes, sadly, the accident at Nurburgring would scar Niki for life – leaving him with third-degree burns to his head and neck. In order to hide the scars, Lauda took to wearing a, predominantly red, baseball cap in public, which became a personal trademark. Poignantly, last year on May 26 at Monaco, whilst not racing, the drivers wore red baseball caps as a gesture of respect.

I read that Niki called the baseball hat “my protection for stupid people looking at me stupidly”. I like that. I liked it, and more so, Niki, when I read that he once told a journalist: “I have an accident as an excuse to look ugly. Some people don’t have this excuse.”  Brilliant.

Niki was revered amongst his peers both past and current. Movingly, when Lewis Hamilton took the checkered flag at Monaco 2019, he said “this one’s for Niki”.

One of the reasons – believe me I have a long list – that I hugely admired Niki, was that for years after his accident, he championed safer racecar and track designs. He urged tighter controls over driving conditions and rules governing race organisers. “Racing on substandard tracks or in unsafe weather doesn’t test courage,” Lauda told The Boston Globe in 1977.  “At present, some of the Grand Prix circuits we drivers are asked to race on do not fulfill the most primitive safety requirements. Also, the decision to call off or stop a race can’t be left entirely to the organisers, who too often put prestige before the safety of the drivers. We need independent experts whose authority should be supreme.” Hear, hear Niki.

The horrific injuries he sustained in 1976 were eventually to catch up with him however. On May 20, 2019, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda passed away peacefully surrounded by his family. Superlatives seem trite. There are few I can write which would do justice to this sportsman – notwithstanding his business endeavours. It’s easy to say when a sportsman passes that we will not see his like again. But in Niki Lauda’s case that is the factual reality. He was unique, and so was his story.

Niki Lauda: 1949-2019