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.]