I am not qualified to offer an opinion as to who is the best Formula One driver I have ever seen although I am often asked. But I can say who is the one I admire the most, and that is Niki Lauda.
And it would seem I am not alone judging by the tributes after his recent passing. After all he had been out of the cockpit for thirty-five years and essentially died of old age albeit exacerbated by ill-health. He did not die an heroic public death on the race-track like Gilles Villeneuve or Ayrton Senna, nor unexpectedly as a young man like James Hunt or randomly in an aircraft accident as did Graham Hill and Carlos Pace. He saw out his three score years and ten.
His legendary status may in part be due to the dramatised account of the 1976 season in the movie ‘Rush’ introducing him to a generation that never actually saw him race, but my admiration of the man was set well before that episode of his life.
I first became aware of Niki Lauda at the 1974 ‘Race of Champions’ at Brands Hatch, curious as to why Ferrari had chosen a driver yet to score a World Championship point over and above one of the established stars of the day. He finished second beating his team leader, Clay Regazzoni, who was also heading the Championship at the time.
The next time I saw him was at the British Grand Prix four months later by which time he had won his first two Grands Prix and was now heading the Championship himself. He looked set to win at Brands Hatch as well, leading by a country mile until a puncture relegated him to fifth. I was keen to find out more about this young Austrian who was showing the way to the likes of Fittipaldi, Regazzoni, Ickx, Peterson and Hulme.
Through back copies of magazines and F1 Year Books (no quick internet search in those days) I learned that Ferrari had struggled in the 1973 season, according to one publication, at their lowest ebb ever. They entered only one car for some events and skipped others altogether with drivers Ickx and Merzario only managing to score 12 points between them. They signed Niki Lauda together with Regazzoni from BRM for the 1974 season as much for his testing ability as his racing. Over the winter he took to the task dedicating himself according to reports to methodically, clinically and robotically pounding around test tracks until he had the car sorted for the new season.
In short, Niki Lauda oversaw the development of a poor car of 1973 into a winning car in 1974 and a World Championship winner in 1975.
His abrupt manner made him seem arrogant to some British race fans used to the eloquence and charm of James Hunt and before that Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart. In an era of long hair and flamboyant fashion Niki Lauda was conservative in style, a ‘square’ in the parlance of the time. But to me he was a fascinating character.
If Sunday 1st August 1976 was one of motor racing’s more desperate days then Sunday 12th September was one of its most uplifting. I was marshalling at Brands Hatch when the news of Niki Lauda’s condition following his Nürburgring accident was made clear. However, six weeks later I was at Monza to witness his comeback, not a particularly pleasant place to be that weekend being very wet and with the spectator areas under the control of the tifosi. But it was one of those occasions to look back on and say ‘I was there’. Wild they may have been, but the tifosi knew how to celebrate a returning hero.
When in 1982, after two years retirement, he made his comeback to Formula One I was a little sceptical of the motives believing them to be more about the money, especially in signing for McLaren – the arch enemy. But, I was wrong. He was on it immediately and I was there to see him win more races on his way to a third World Championship including his final victory at Zandvoort 1985.
Niki Lauda raced in Formula One for thirteen seasons and drove for five different teams. Only four of those seasons, 1974 to 1977 were with Ferrari. But those happened to be my first four years of attending Grands Prix and that is how I remember him. To me he will always be a Ferrari driver.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.