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40 years on: How Niki Lauda survived one of F1’s most famous and frightening accidents
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Niki Lauda
Posted By: James Allen  |  01 Aug 2016   |  1:34 am GMT  |  61 comments

It is 40 years since Niki Lauda had his fiery accident at the Nurburgring, in the August 1 1976 German Grand Prix, a race that changed the course of his life and career and which was immortalised in the Hollywood movie Rush.

It also spelled the end of the fearsome 14 mile Norschliefe, dubbed the “Green Hell” as a Grand Prix venue and was a real driver for improved circuit safety.

Lauda was the reigning world champion, driving for Ferrari and looking set to win a second consecutive championship against the McLaren driver James Hunt.

His accident became one of the iconic moments of motorsport history, one of those events where anyone alive at the time could tell you what they were doing when they learned about it. Hie recovery and subsequent comeback were so incredibly brave even if he could not rescue the championship, which went to Hunt.

But Lauda won the title again in 1977, had a break from the sport and then won again in 1984 on a second comeback with McLaren.

“I don’t remember anything about the accident, I can only speak about the aftermath.,” said Lauda. “A driver’s brain works differently from normal people’s. As soon as I realised that I was alive and that I only had aesthetic damage I started straight away to think about getting back into racing again. And 42 days later I was on track at Fiorano, when no-one thought I could have done that. The test went well and together with Ferrari we decided that I could take part in the Italian Grand Prix.

“But on the Thursday before I was obliged to do a medical test that lasted all day. It was torture.

“So when I went out on track on Friday for practice, I was empty, I was scared. I thought about it hard; it was a result of the build up of too much tension.

“On Saturday I got in the car for qualifying with a different approach, more relaxed. And I rediscovered the pleasure of driving. I finished fourth in the race, a great result.

“In Japan in the rain I retired, but I lost the title in Nurburgring with that accident, not in Japan.”

Today Lauda is chairman and a shareholder of Mercedes F1 team, his influence on F1 and its culture as strong today as when he was driving.

[* Lauda was speaking to Gazzetta dello Sport’s Pino Allievi.]

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1

If Lauda would be granted one wish to make one day of his life undone, what would he choose? I bet not the 1 August 1976. I would put all my money on 26 May 1991.

2

Without doubt whatsoever.

That’s one thing he would think of everyday and wonder about the ‘ if only’s ‘..

3

I used to be a freelance photojournalist covering F1 with Road & Track, Grand Prix International and others in the ’70s and ’80s. Google my name to verify my credibility if you like.

My brother and I participated in the BMW Fahrerlehrgang schools at the Nurburgring in 1975 and 1977. During the 1977 school each group of participants stopped at the scene of Lauda’s crash and the instructors gave a detailed analysis of the cause of his crash (in their opinion of course). Their conclusion was that Niki clipped a curb and broke a wheel which led to him going off. There was a lot of anger at the Nurburgring that year against Niki, and they called him “The Chicken of the Nurburgring” for blaming the track and not his driving.

I respect Niki then and now, but there is no definitive explanation for the crash.

4
Racing driver 1

Lauda is great. He’s probably the strongest driver “mentally speaking at least” than any other driver ever. To over come that accident and his determination through his recovery is nothing but sheer inspiration.

5

having just read all the comments on this excellent story, I have to say….
what a great group of F1 fans live on this website…such insightful, informed comments as I see nowhere else. and RESPECT! it’s nice to see dialogue, not back-biting! thanks everyone…it’s a pleasure to participate. thank you James and crew for giving us such a great place to share ideas. cheers all!

6

Thanks for your kind comment

7

Those red cars used to always scare me right up into the Berger/Alesi years. Are these drivers really in control of such a beast or has it already decided their destiny for them. Berger too almost had a Niki moment, the panic in Murray’s voice that day still chills me to the bone.

It wasn’t until Schumacher joined Ferrari in 96 and with it came a lot of changes, notably the absence of the old V12, new key personnel, new livery etc, did my feelings of enormous trepidation for the nostalgic “prancing horse’ begin to subside.

8

Iron Man…props well-deserved.

9

A truely gifted and legendary F1 driver, Niki is one of motorsports greatest of all time!

10

Lauda was my man at the time. The only thing that bothered me about him was his respect for the tradition and history of the sport. He gave his trophies to the local garage man for his dog to drink out of, as I recall. I followed the races in the newspaper days later, and in Road & Track months later. That was my only access in the U.S.. Lauda is still my man.

11

Lauda is indeed a very brave man who survived a burning inferno,cars then were for all lethal and safety not a priority fortunately times have changed and my hope is a canopy or halo is introduced sooner rather than later,they may not prevent head injuries but the severity will be much less.

As for Lauda’s comments about todays drivers and his crticism he is entitled to them whether we agree or not,he drove in an era when cars had to be driven with only flags to give them any clue with what to do next.

12

We did have pit boards too, mine was a piece of blackboard with chalk writing.

13

Thanks Gary i was completely in a “flag” mindset from earlier topics,of course pitboards were also used.

14

Driver, pilot, manager, gentleman; a man who doffs his cap with respect. “Live long and prosper”…

15

What a legend.
I remember watching when I was 6 yrs old and thinking what it must feel like to be on fire and asking my dad,he simply turned and said “oh don’t worry about him son,racing drivers are made of different stuff to you and me”
Utterly amazed I was hooked there and then that a man could do that.
Of course modern F1 cannot compete with that level of Legend making,nor should it try.
Instead I watch in amazement at crashes like Alonsos and think in utter amazement how is it possible to build a car so good to keep a man alive after that.
In some way Nicki helped save Alonsos and many others life and it is this that he should be most proud.

16

I’m not quite old enough to remember the 76, but the story of that season is what sparked a lifelong interest in the sport for me. When I was about 5 years old and already obsessed with road cars, a family friend was kind enough to play his cine film of that season for me. It was a kind of season recap, with no sound of course, so the only commentary came from the owner explaining to me what had happened. I remember being enthralled and horrified at the same time, and although I was rooting for James, I realised how fortunate he had been in winning a championship that Niki had dominated prior to his accident.

17

Yup, remembered so well being a Sydney sider in the land of Oz watched the race live on Ch,9 in the early hours of the morning, seeing it happen & inferno of the car he was in, I will simply say Nicki Lauda you own your life to Alan Jones, it was Alan Jones who stopped & pull him out of the burning wreck ,what ever one may think of Nicki Lauda they don’t come any braver undoubtedly a true grit of a racing driver .Perhaps the accident had something to do in refusing to race at Mt Fuji thus giving the championship to James Hunt.

18

As far as I know (and having just checked), the drivers who got Lauda out of his burning car were Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, and Harald Ertl.

20

@ grabsplatter, friend I remember so vividly it was held at the Nurburgring that included the mighty Nordschleife listening to Murray Walker description of the race I can only say verify my statements with Mr Walker himself E-mail him he’s gentleman to boot & he will answer you .

21

@gogomobil

No need to bother Murray. There are countless reports of the incident all over the web. None that I have read have ever mentioned Jones as being one of the drivers to get Niki out of the car.

22

Sorry, but your memory fails you here.

23

Young Niki Lauda looks like Nico Hülkenberg (around the mouth). We are blessed to have Niki around. A straight talker, an unbiased observer.
A Must-watch film for every F1 fan. A fascinating documentary on Niki.
„33 Days – Born to be wild“ / LAUDA: THE UNTOLD STORY

http://www.lauda-untold.com

24

Great article James.

Niki’s story about facing his demons when he returned to the car, especially the bit where he was really slow until he told the team to stop telling him his times, it’s simply amazing.

Also LOVE the story about Enzo trying to replace him and Niki sneaking in some laps during testing and blowing the fastest current time out of the water.

An absolutely inspirational story of incredible triumph over a level of adversity that would see most men fold.

Cheers James.

25

I thought this was gearing up to be a fascinating article about the incident, the aftermath, the changes it brought….and then it just stopped.

26

Probably a good time to mention fellow drivers Brett Lunger, Arturo Merzario, Guy Edwards, and Harald Ertl, who worked to free Lauda from his burning car.

Without their help, Lauda would surely not be with us today.

Heroes, all.

27

Whilst Niki makes me puzzled at times with his views on this Hamilton – Rosberg battle, there’s no doubting what a truly remarkable and courageous man he was in his youth.
He succeeded at at time when being burnt to death or having limbs torn off your torso was a very real and immediate danger,irrespective of which track you were at.

People get confused when they reference the good ole days as quite often they weren’t. What was good about them was the fact the person is referring to a time and place when they were younger and memories tend to be sweeter the younger you were ( this will become apparent in time to the young pups on here).

The ” good ole days” are appropriate though for F1 in the 70s, a large part of which Niki was a part of.

The car’s where an engineer’s free for all, the racing was wild, raw and hostile.

Certainly not a place many, if any, of the current crop could’ve handled without [Mod]

28

How can you judge the current crop.?

They race with the rules they are given….thank god….if you transported them back in time I’m sure most of them would have raced just the same.
Only difference is not all of them would have survived.

29

Either that, or they would demand a thong around the cockpit.

30

Age for one. Half of these guys parents wouldnt have let them near an F1 at their age let alone in one.
The 70s was the realm of men not boys.
Also lineage wasn’t a guarantee of a seat in F1 as has been the case in more recent times.
And I’ll finish with safety.
What was the ratio of races per death during that period 7-1 or so.
Not only were driver’s having to fear their own mortality they were also racing whilst grieving at the same time.
It was one of the most deadly professions on Earth and I very much doubt many of these guys would’ve even thought about it let alone succeeded.
At the end of the day its all speculation, from both of us.

31

Not sure I’d have gotten back in the car after an accident like that. Maybe that’s why I’m sat in a cafe in the north of England rather than living in Monaco.

32

Off-topic, but…

Bernie’s mum-in-law has been rescued unharmed, and two arrests made in Brazil after a major police operation.

Thank the Force. Phew.

33

Thank the force…Yeah right!. I reckon bernie slipped 1million cash to the police to put some extra effort in. Much cheaper than the original asking price for his mother in law and it keeps relations good when they come to visit at the end of the year for the Brazilian GP :). 1 Million is lunch money for Bernie.

34

ferrari kicked lauda in the guts and and brought reutemann into the team before they knew whether lauda could drive again. ferrari basically wrote lauda off. ferrari thought lauda might be willing to manage the team rather than drive. after lauda won the title in ’77 he just walked out. ferrari wouldn’t meet lauda’s financial demands. [Mod]

35

I was only 11 and remember watching on tele- I think we only got a colour tv in that year.
It was one of/ if not earliest recollection of F1 and the shock and horror of the accident triggered my curiosity to see what had become of Niki after the accident. As my family were not into motor racing and I had to be in bed by 9.30 I guess thats why I didnt get to watch it regularly till the early 80’s & of course the Senna era. So I guess Laudas accident would have been the most powerful first memory of F1.

It is an incredible story of courage and determination and the fact he was so successful even beyond F1 is a tribute to the great man. Stay strong Niki.

36

I can remember watching the GP on TV in 1976
It was long hot Summer School holidays and as an 8 year old remember watching the GP.
I was a young whipper snapper with the attention span of a dragon fly. I remember it was horrific and shocking to see as a child.
My Dad saying there is no way, if he survives from him injuries that he’d be back in a Grand Prix car. He proved, my Dad and the TV commentators and newspaper journalists, that they were wrong to assume that.
Lauda came back still bandaged up from his burns, he used to scream getting his helmet on and off but still went on to race. He had a moment in the car where he parked it at one stage. But he overcame that and went on to race again.
I remember James Hunt saying when he won the Championship ” That there should have been two winners for the Championship Himself and Lauda.”
A true sporting icon like James Hunt (though he still needs to curb his enthusiastic comments when the two Mercedes drivers clash before the Mercedes media statement comes out 😉😁)
Glad Lauda is still Alive and Kicking and being himself in the paddock. “Ali” came out for the 15th round while his opponent gave up in the Ring.
Lauda is one driver that had a similar desire and came out to race after most drivers would’ve given up. F1 Legend 👏👏👏👏👏👏

37

Seconded.

38

Its alright, some people think they know better or state the obvious! I think most of us sussed what you meant. As for niki s comments, i think he just makes an opinion on the spot in real time as a driver not with multiple camera angles and frame by frame investigation . Like most incidents are split second and dragged out later. I read lower down that Thanks to your pal alan jones niki is still here 😉

39

Grabs platter
Yes J H is no longer with us.
[Mod] ! Was stating that about Lauda !!

40

In that case, I misunderstood. Sorry I offended you so.

41

” A true sporting icon like James Hunt (though he still needs to curb his enthusiastic comments when the two Mercedes drivers clash before the Mercedes media statement comes out 😉😁)”

You do know Hunt has been dead for many years?

42

I was only young, but I can still remember when Hunt won the title and the feeling I had; that he had been lucky – as opposed to winning it on merit. There was no way he would have won it without Lauda getting injured and even then he only won by a whisker.

43

@C63
Ahhhh C63, we”re the same age me thinks. I remember it to. I was a fan of them both, but Lauda just edged it for me.

44

Lauda all the way for me – Hunt wasn’t even a close second in my book. I don’t know why, he just didn’t appeal to my younger self for some reason !

45

@C63
Fully understand😉
Lauda was by far the more dedicated, complete driver. I think as a kid I liked hunt because he was British, a racing driver and a playboy. He was very good with his fans aswell, very accessible. I met him and got his autograph. I think his image suited that era of danger.
But yes, Lauda was the man.
I raced karts in the early 80″s and had Lauda”s design on my crash helmet, not really knowing it was the Austrian flag😄
Cheers C63🍻
Looking forward to the other half of this season and seeing Lewis crowned WDC for a 4th time🏁

46

Luck (and survival) is as much a valid element of racing as skill. Lauda’s accident was bad luck for him, good luck for Hunt. Hunt still beat the 40-odd other drivers who took part in the 1976 season, is that to be dismissed as merely ‘lucky’ too? It could be argued Lauda’s crash had nothing to do with luck, Ferrari simply didn’t do a good enough job preparing it, F1 is a team sport after all.

47

@JNH
Ferrari just didn’t do a good enough job preparing it

What has that got to do with Lauda”s crash?

48

There’s luck and there’s luck. I would agree that maybe pitting just as the safety car comes out or perhaps as it starts to rain is fair enough. But if your opponent misses a handful of races due to injury, and that’s the only reason you can bridge the gap which otherwise would have been completely beyond you – then in my opinion that makes Hunts WDC a bit hollow or lucky . You may disagree, that’s fine by me, it’s only an opinion.

49

The thing is, you don’t know what would have played out had he not crashed. It could have been that Lauda crashed into Watson at the Austrian grand prix, and would have given Hunt more points than he did get. Perhaps the crash brought back a Lauda that was more determined. Or not. The thing is, both a crash and a non-crash did not occur. In reality, only one event happened; the crash. We can’t know what would have occurred if the crash had not occurred. To say Hunt only won because of luck is bloody ridiculous.

50

@Franklin
As I mentioned in my post to JNH, it’s only my opinion.
Lauda effectively failed to compete in a quarter of the races that season due to his crash – yet, despite that huge advantage, Hunt still only beat him by one point. Personally, I don’t believe that Hunt would have gone on to take the championship had Lauda not missed all those races due to injury. Hence my conclusion he was lucky – agree or disagree , it makes no difference to me.

51

100% agree. I cannot believe the courage of Niki to go back racing so soon let alone race the way he did. Inspiration personified !

52

True & living legend, when the meaning of the word ‘legend’ had significance.

The bravery of drivers in that era is awe inspiring!

Now we want to put Halos on cars & every track is sanitized.

Bring back the old Hockenheim BTW!!

53

@step
Understand your feelings about the Halo, and I feel the same way. But do we really want drivers killed for our entertainment.
Of course, cars were a lot more dangerous back then and not as safe as they are today. Tracks were also more risky back then which added to the excitement.
It’s a very fine line between danger and excitement for our viewing which is why people think F1 is just to sanitized now, and I agree to a point. It’s a bit of a sore point imo🤔
I want to be entertained, but I don’t want drivers killed😊

54

I believe it’s fundamentally wrong to actually describe it like that: “But do we really want drivers killed for our entertainment” Because it’s a leading question and the only accepted answer is no. I recognize myself as a racing fan watching F1 from every other aspect than seeing people get killed. F1 is a very bad platform to use if one wants to see people die because it´s happens so rare. 3 (4) deaths in 22 years.
So Is Halo really a help?
Well we don´t know? Halo is said to lower risk of death with 18 %. These numbers doesn´t mean anything without explanation.
What can we say then? We take a look at 5 accidents in relation to F1, 4 deadly.
There is no way Halo would have saved Ratzenberger or Senna 1994. Ratzenberger was killed by brutal force. Senna by a strut penetrating his brain.
2009, Philipe Massas helmet was hit with massive force by a lost spring. With Halo in place and a touch changing the direction, the spring could easily have killed Massa or saved him totally, but only by chance.
In María de Villota crash (testing 2013), she might have been helped by the Halo, but how could you possible calculate this. And is it always a help really?
For the Bianchi accident one cannot really know but it´s unlikely Halo had made no difference, because of the forces was too high anyway.
And the answer to the the Bianchi accident boils down to the tractor itself in combination with Bianchis speed under waving flags. Halo isn´t the answer here.
For Massa and Villota accidents, it just circumstances that makes these accidents lethal or not. With Halo in place, it may have killed one and may have saved one. Safety measures must never create another possible safety issue.
And there is only one answer to avoid bad circumstances, that is, stop driving.
For other physical safety measures taken in F1 like the survival cell or the HANS, there is a big difference, they contribute only positively to safety, with Halo, you don´t know, it could go either way.
I think this is another hasty decision from the FIA, backed up on a mathematical calculation that can provide a positive number (as numbers always can if you want them to) rather than using a reality based logic. The solution is far from completely developed.

55

@James K

Pretty much agree with all that you say – there needs to be an element of jeopardy but I certainly don’t want to see people die for my entertainment.

56

Very easy to see we have found that balance from late 1990’s to today.
Bottom line motor racing carries danger & F1 is safer than all junior open wheel categories or even karting.

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