We have looked at Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – time to profile the last Austrian to win a drivers title – Niki Lauda.
Lauda is a three time Formula 1 champion – 1975,1977 and 1984. Lauda wanted to race from an early age, but his family disapproved. Lauda basically self-financed his racing career, using a life insurance policy as collateral for a loan to support his racing team. Despite moving quickly into Formula 1, Lauda’s team, March, was just not good. With their failure, Lauda was distraught, but regrouped, took out another loan and bought his way onto the BRM team. BRM was in not much better shape than March, but Lauda had fortune smile upon him when BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni was signed by Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari asked Regazzoni about Lauda, with the endorsement, Ferrari signed Lauda, paying him enough money to be able to clear his debts.
Lauda had an up and down season with Ferrari in 1974 – he won six consecutive pole positions, but his inexperience and mechanical issues cost him a lot of races. 1975 started just as slowly, but Lauda went on a tear winning 4 of the middle 5 races. During this time Lauda accomplished one of the greatest feats in Formula 1 and all of racing – he became the first and only driver to lap the Nurburgring Nordschleife (the North Course) in under 7 minutes. The Nurburgring Nordschleife was a 23 km course that was used from 1927 to 1982.
Lauda would clinch his first championship in the final race of the 1975 season. The 1976 season started, and Lauda’s second title seemed to be predetermined, as he was so far in front of James Hunt and Jody Scheckter. A week before the race at Nurburgring, Lauda wanted out of the race. He was not satisfied with the safety arrangements at the race course. The race went ahead as planned. On lap 2 right before Bergwerk (the mine) corner, Lauda lost control of the Ferrari. Failure of the rear suspension is suspected to have caused the accident. Lauda hit the embankment and his car rolled back onto the track – into the path of the car driven by Brett Lunger. Lunger was able to get out of his car, but Lauda was trapped inside of the Ferrari, which now had burst into flames. Competitors Harald Ertl, Guy Edwards, Lunger, and Arturo Merzario arrived to help get Lauda out of the wreckage. Lauda had inhaled the toxic gases, which damaged his lungs, and his helmet had been dislodged during the crash and the flames burned Lauda’s face and head severely, most notably his eyelids, eyebrows, and right ear.
Lauda opted for little reconstructive surgery and he was back in the car within 6 weeks. He finished 4th in the Italian Grand Prix, despite ‘being absolutely petrified’. The final race of the year was to be a showdown with Lauda and James Hunt, but the torrential rains forced Lauda out of the race, because he felt it was not safe to continue, with Lauda out Hunt was able to secure the title, despite having to retire from the race due to a punctured tire.
Ferrari and Lauda were at odds most of the 1977 season, even thought Lauda would win the drivers championship. Lauda moved over to Brabham racing, but retired from that to found an airline in his native Austria.
Lauda would be lured out of retirement by McLaren and would win the 1984 title. Lauda would retire for good after the 1985 season.
Lauda now provides commentary for German TV and is a chairman for Mercedes AMG Formula 1 team.